Personalizing Memories

Posted on May 1, 2011 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of MaryBeth Matzek

When Facebook started, its founder had the needs and wants of college students in mind. The team behind Greenville’s LIVEyearbook has adopted a similar approach, instead focusing on high school students – assisting them in creating customizable yearbooks.

“The old model [for yearbooks] is one-size-fits-all,” says Don Noskowiak, president of LIVEyearbook. “We combine the tradition of print [with] technology. There’s a lot of flexibility and choice.”

The company, launched last year, won the grand prize in the 2010 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, snaring $50,000 to roll out and refine their revolutionary ideas in yearbook production. It was also recently named one of three New North “companies to watch” by the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network (see story on page 15).

Revamping the standard

Dan Nickchen and Todd DeNoyer both had career ties in the school industry when they founded the company in 2010. So they had seen the status quo of school yearbook production – and saw a better way, one sure to appeal to today’s tech-savvy teens.

“Under the current model, [yearbook] sales are declining,” says Nickchen. Under the LIVEyearbook model, “personalization is key. No one wants a cookie-cutter book.”

The Neenah company’s software product is provided free to schools, which still work with a yearbook staff to create a traditional yearbook.

And while the bulk of the yearbook is the same for everyone, students have the opportunity – using school-approved stored media images – to customize the book, for example, by adding more photos of themselves and their friends.

“We become the conduit” for students to find more media and images to download, says Noskowiak.

Even the once-popular activity of signing yearbooks has come of age: students can gather digital signatures, by invitation only.

“We’re the first to combine the customization,” says Noskowiak.

Online versions of the yearbook are viewable, and schools or organizations can also create “activity books,” such as one detailing, for example, the basketball team or drama club. Noskowiak sees these niche books as a huge potential for growth.

And because pages can be proofed digitally, mistakes can be corrected and changes made before a book goes to print. In addition, since the books are printed digitally, not via traditional offset printing, there are no minimum orders, a shorter lead time and, consequently, less risk and cost to schools.

“Schools don’t have to buy more than they sell,” says Noskowiak, adding that there are several methods of revenue sharing with schools, making the program a win-win-win for students, schools and LIVEyearbook.

But while the company is currently working with about 20 schools nationwide, LIVEyearbook still faces the challenge of introducing technology to a product, and some educators, still deeply entrenched in a print tradition.

Nickchen isn’t knocking print yearbooks, however; they’re still the cornerstone of the project. “I don’t think we’d be able to penetrate this market without them,” he says.

And while some schools have been resistant to change, LIVEyearbook has been able to quell most concerns – and tout the benefits.

Paul Jones of the Council for Innovation, an attorney who helped Nickchen and DeNoyer write their business plan, agrees.

“You can do what you can do [through the yearbook] with a social network, but you allow the school to control the brand,” he says. “It does so without losing the quality control that the school wants. It’s a great fit for the market.”

Building the business

Both Nickchen and Noskowiak previously worked for School Specialty in Greenville, so they brought with them knowledge of the industry.

“We understand it is relationship driven,” says Nickchen.

Building relationships with yearbook advisers as well as freelance photographers is necessary, he adds. They also are tuned in to how today’s youth interact with technology and social media.

DeNoyer brought with him years of experience in video yearbooks. Together, he and Nickchen wrote a business plan and sought equity capital, eventually raising $500,000 from angel investors.
Now heading into its second year, LIVEyearbook is hoping to expand to 225 schools nationwide and branch out to churches, dance studios and other venues that might logically create such memory books.

“At some point, we’re going to add audio, video…” says Nickchen.

When it entered the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, LIVEyearbook soon became one of 12 finalists among more than 200 entries.

“They performed well for several reasons,” says Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which runs the contest.
“The business model gives schools a chance to make money versus being concerned about possibly losing money in tough times,” Still says. “Their core business idea seemed to resonate with people who understand how a very traditional product, the school yearbook, can be updated for our digital age.”
And that forethought is combined with a mission to reach today’s social network generation.
“This is just the start,” Noskowiak admits, “It’s so unique and different; it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
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