The Blow Up Lab is not McDonald’s. After more than 30 years in business, owner Frank McGrath decided early on that he would not offer a pre-packaged commodity for the masses. Instead, he would provide a custom service that would meet the detailed needs of a demanding client base, one that varies from photographers and artists to corporate accounts.
While the foundation of The Blow Up Lab’s success is individual customer service, McGrath has also made smart moves with technology and finances. He was one of the first traditional photo labs in San Francisco to make the move to inkjet while taking a conservative, pay-as-you-go approach to it.
“We’re solid, we take care of business, we take care of our customers and we’re really good with our suppliers. We never ask for terms and pay our credit cards on time. It proves that you can be fairly small, compete with larger companies and have a profitable niche market,” explains McGrath. “We’re not cheap. Everyone is so price-conscious these days, and to be able to offer a quality product with really good service and turnaround times at a decent price, you have to do old-fashioned things, like stay late if the customer needs you to do that. It’s so corporate now that it’s hard to manufacture that concept into your company mission statement. You can have as many mission statements as you want, but if you have new employees every two months or so, for instance, it doesn’t matter.”
These principles were instrumental in helping The Blow Up Lab come out of the recent recession with a small profit during a time when flat was the new up. “People are always looking for the cash cow; the client they can milk that won’t give them a lot of trouble. We have found that if you can listen to the picky clients, work with them every inch of the way, let them know they’re a valuable client and come through for them, you may not deal with them again, but six months later you get a reference, you’re networked and a whole new avenue opens up,” says McGrath.
Ultimately, McGrath found a service gap and exploited it. “There were a lot of photographers and artists who needed TLC and quality. We were able to create that niche, and now we’re in the black, all the bills are paid and we’re growing,” he says. “Our solution was to become more or less boutique oriented. We’re really good at working with super high quality and understand the concept, but also about speed and making deadlines. We went where most of our competitors couldn’t believe where we were going, which was working with artists and picky professionals.”
Chemical to Inkjet
The third leg of The Blow Up Lab’s stool – technology – began to come to fruition in the early ‘90s with the advent of viable inkjet printers for photo reproductions and graphics. McGrath worked closely with the two forerunners of the time – Encad and HP – and brought inkjet in-house. The switch was relatively sudden since McGrath was certain inkjet was the future. McGrath says the total transition took about ten years. Then around 2000 everything went inkjet at The Blowup Lab.
“Inkjet technology was in its infant stages in the ‘90s, but look how far it has come. The prints I’m doing now will last substantially longer than the traditional chemical based photo printing we were doing. In the old days, if your processor went down you were in a lot of trouble,” says McGrath. “Early on I decided to follow the money; manufacturers were pouring a lot of capital into the technology so I knew that if we stuck with inkjet it would be a winner. In hindsight it seems totally bloody obvious, but at the time it seemed like a radical departure and people were surprised we did it. We were able to lower our labor costs and the productivity per employee went up substantially. Now we were just putting something on a scanner, scanning it and putting it in Photoshop. We rode that wave in.”
McGrath has been working with Photoshop since its inception and has mastered the fine art of color management to serve those artists and picky professionals that make up the bulk of his clients. The key is in the interface between software and hardware; The Blow Up Lab creates custom profiles for almost every project, ensuring a color workflow that is both consistent and designed for the client.
The Blow Up Lab’s printer stable now includes a 64-inch wide Epson Stylus Pro 11880, a 72-inch Roland low-solvent, two Canon iPF8100s and an Epson 4900. McGrath estimates that the split between fine art and fine photo and commercial work is about 50/50.
“We do a lot of canvas and vinyl printing and our work often blends classic fine art reproduction with projects that are more institutional, such as some huge murals we printed for Pixar and museum projects” McGrath says.