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Houston-based startup shoots for affordability and convenience with new photo biz

Studio Pod — founded by Joseph West and Chris Bailey — is helping professionals and small businesses easily and affordably capture headshots. Photo courtesy Melissa Fitzgerald/Studio Pod

Houston-based photographers Chris Bailey and Joseph West have brought automated technology and innovative efficiencies to the often cumbersome task of taking professional headshots.

Bailey and West first met as wedding and corporate photographers and bonded over the pain points of their jobs. Over the years they zeroed in on the particular challenges of scheduling photo sessions and achieving a consistent look for a corporate gigs, which can span months or years (depending on when new hires are brought on) and where settings can change based on the time of day, lighting in the room, and a variety of other factors. Still, there was a demand for their professional-grade work.

"In today's age and in the COVID era, people need LinkedIn photos, now a Zoom photo, a Facebook photo. You need all these different types of photos. And so we said, 'How can we solve that?'," Bailey says.

In 2020 the duo launched Studio Pod in an attempt to streamline and improve the process for photographers, businesses, and the individuals themselves. Through the use of their roomy, modern booth, users can snap high-quality, professionally lit headshots with the help of an automated platform. Too, users can see their photos in real time and make adjustments to their appearance, the lighting, and more throughout their reserved 15- to 30-minute window from the privacy of the pod.

"Most people now today know when they are when they look their best — we have selfies and you're sending photos — you can conclude for yourself what photo you like," says Bailey. "We're able to give them that instant gratification and instant response."

"The largest and most positive things we've heard is that it just allows people to feel a lot more comfortable while taking their head shots," he adds.

The current iteration of the pod was constructed by local metal worker Spencer Elliott and a prototype was tested by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University and Intrepid Financial Partners in December 2019. Millipixels, based in India, was tapped for the development of the automation.

Bailey and West had originally planned to deploy the pod to places of work for weeks at a time to allow workers to efficiently snap their head shots when it worked best for their schedules. However, when the pandemic forced many Houstonians to work from home, the team pivoted to add a direct to consumer option based out of their studio in Rice Military.

Over the last few months they've seen everyone from students to attorneys turn out to make use of their tool. In 2021, they hope to partner with property management companies and other large organizations, like hospitals, universities, or co-working spaces, as well.

The team is also slated to begin production on a second iteration of the pod that will offer options for full enclosure and changes to tech with the help of TRX Labs in the first quarter of next year. They also released a series of presets or filters that help boost consistency for employers and allow more options for individual users. Sessions currently start at $40.

"Our feelings are everyone should have a headshot, and everyone should have a studio-quality headshot," West says. "Our goal is to make it so easy and also affordable."

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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