Meet the woman who pushed Photojojo to the top with quirky gadgets and plastic dinosaurs

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As Photojojo’s employee No. 1, Jen Giese wears a number of hats. Her title is officially store manager, but she oversees operations and a stable of writers and photographers, negotiates with vendors, and also happens to be the one curating the fun goodies that fill up the online store.

Photojojo is a beloved online photo superstore that specializes in the most eccentric and nifty of camera gadgets. The site is the brainchild of Net entrepreneur Amit Gupta. After burning out from the dot-com bust at the end of the 1990s, he wound up in New York City and rekindled his interest in photography. Gupta started an e-mail newsletter called Photojojo highlighting quirky DIY photography hacks, publishing twice a week. After a year the newsletter grew in scope, and carried its first item, Magnetic Photo Rope, because it wasn’t available in the U.S. at the time. Fast-forward five years later to today, Photojojo has grown its catalog to about 200 items, all under Giese’s guidance.

The Magnetic Photo Rope, the first item Photojojo sold.
The Magnetic Photo Rope, the first item Photojojo sold.

As Photojojo’s buyer, Giese is often trotting the globe in search of the next big hit, from the New York International Gift Fair to the Tokyo International Gift Fair – the latter of which is her favorite, as far as trade shows go anyway. It’s Giese’s hope that she might stumble onto another gangbuster gadget, as she did when she discovered an iPhone mount for SLR lenses.

“We were on a sourcing trip in Hong Kong,” Giese said. “We were in an anime mall, a manga mall. From some of our research, we heard some stores there sold camera stuff.”

These closet-sized stores were lined wall-to-wall with boxes. “You really have to dig through, and I find something that looks like it has a lens mount on it. … It was this huge moment when I figured out what it was and ran across the mall, ran to get Amit [Gupta, Photojojo’s founder] because I knew it was the coolest thing ever. We wouldn’t have come across that if we didn’t go to this strange anime mall in Hong Kong.”

At $249, the item was a bit up there for the clientele. Photojojo exists to excite inner photo geeks by making photography fun and accessible. “The things that do really well usually are about $50 because it’s more of an impulse buy,” she explains, highlighting in particular the popularity of smartphone accessories. “You don’t have to save up to buy it. There’s a lot of expensive camera stuff out there and we don’t want to add to that.”

That the mount would sell out within two days was unthinkable. “It got crazy,” she recalls. “We didn’t have enough supply. We probably lost a lot of unit sales because of that, and we couldn’t get more for months because it was this sleeper success.”

Media coverage hastened the frenzy, and those links continue to bring visitors to its website today.

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The iPhone SLR Mount, which Photojojo discovered in an anime mall in Hong Kong, was an instant hit.

 

Fans of the store – if we’re going by newsletter subscribers, that puts the number at half a million – are fond of the little things that make Photojojo Photojojo. Its sunny personality evokes a sense of wonderment among its visitors, further conveyed by the little friend each package is shipped with: a toy dinosaur. 

Users like to take to social media about their dinosaurs. First-time buyers are sometimes surprised by the gesture. These toys are often the subject of fans’ images. The newsletter, which came before the store (which founder Gupta admits is kind of “old timey and weird”), even featured a how-to on making photo stands out of them.

A camera-shy Jen Giese, Photojojo's first employee.
A camera-shy Jen Giese, Photojojo’s first employee.

You can thank Giese for the injection of fun. “I wish I had a genius reason for doing it, but I think it came down to me just having a thing for plastic dinosaurs. I’ve always collected them,” she says. One time, the store ran out – “world dinosaur shortage or something” – and disappointed customers wrote in about the matter. “We ended up sending tiny dinos in business envelopes to them.”

This past holiday season, Photojojo did the unconventional, bringing its online presence to the offline world. The company cleared out its studio, used for taking product shots, in its office in San Francisco’s Mission district, lining shelves with photo toys for its holiday pop-up, purposely kept low-key. The Secret Store, as it was called, was Giese’s brainchild and gave local users an opportunity to play with these goodies before buying them.

“[It] wasn’t done because we wanted to make a bunch of sales or draw a bunch of foot traffic,” she says. (High foot traffic would’ve been difficult since visitors had to be buzzed in to get to the second floor.) “We did it because it was a fun idea and it was something different from what we normally do.”

And there you have it. Jen Giese, who has arguably one of the most fun jobs in the world, just described her favorite thing about working at Photojojo. Not the loan policy (employees are encouraged to check out equipment), quirky decor (including an installed dental chair), or world travel. “We just want to have fun. That’s the ultimate perk really.”

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