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January 27, 2023

Startup survival: How a pandemic pivot helped this photo booth company see a bigger picture

Examples of virtual photo booth images created using Snapshot, a web application created by Snapbar. (Snapbar Image)

Nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live events and put Sam Eitzen’s physical photo booth business in serious jeopardy, the co-founder and CEO of Snapbar now has a developing picture of what survival and success looks like.

Even though many people and companies have returned to in-person gatherings, Snapbar isn’t going back. The startup is a tech company now, embracing software and two core products that bring its photo capabilities to people anywhere in the world.

Snapbar CEO Sam Eitzen. (Snapbar Photo)

The transition started with Snapbar’s first pivot, in March 2020, when Eitzen and company launched Keep your City Smiling, a gift box venture aimed at keeping his employees working while helping small businesses survive. It worked for a while, as Snapbar stayed afloat and avoided laying people off.

But the company’s single software engineer, originally hired to rebuild Snapbar’s website, was already working on the future — a virtual photo booth. By June of that year, the web application called Snapshot launched and in the first month it was clear there was interest from organizations and companies conducting gatherings of all kinds online.

Revenue kept doubling, Eitzen said, and soon the virtual photo booth accounted for nearly all of the business generated by the traditional photo booth.

“We doubled our revenue, and doubled it again, and doubled again,” Eitzen said.

Snapbar immediately went from a West Coast photo booth company, operating in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and other cities, to a web app used around the world.

“For me as a non-tech entrepreneur, I’ve always heard about the scale of software, but this was our first visceral experience,” Eitzen said. “Google was using us in Pakistan. The tourism board of France was a customer.”

Amazon employee engagement around Prime Day, using Snapbar’s photo booth tool. (Snapbar Image)

Snapshot works via a web link or QR code, and users can snap photos with their own webcam or mobile device. Snapbar customizes backgrounds, frames, stickers, etc. and generates galleries and sharing capability on social. It’s essentially the same concept as an event photo booth, except everyone’s at home and not three drinks in at a work party, wearing feather boas and huge sunglasses.

And no one else was doing it. Eitzen scoured the web looking for online photo booths that year. He was first.

“The closest thing I found and what we actually replicated was on the Barbie website,” Eitzen said. “Except that it didn’t take a photo of anyone. It just allowed you to choose a background, drag a little Barbie doll into it and customize her or him with props. We literally used the Barbie website as an inspiration.”

Creating a web page and calling it “virtual photo booth” didn’t hurt. Within two weeks, the product was the No. 1 such search result on Google.

“When virtual everything caught on, we just saw this wave of demand,” Eitzen said. “We couldn’t have engineered that. I’m a marketer, but I’m not that good.”

The software engineer, Patrick Ellis, is now Snapbar’s CTO. And the next product to take off is Studio, a separate platform designed to help people and companies capture and coordinate headshots for virtual teams.

When tech layoffs picked up six months ago, the company noticed more requests from individuals wanting to use the product, so they’re currently offering free professional headshots online to help out and create awareness.

Snapbar’s Studio product allows companies and users to shoot and manipulate a professional headshot. (Snapbar Image)

Shooting a headshot with your phone and having it tweaked by Snapbar’s tech can be cheaper and more efficient than hiring a traditional photographer, and it can all be done remotely.

Use cases include photos for LinkedIn profiles or email signatures.

“It is our fastest growing product with our biggest contracts with the biggest companies,” Eitzen said.

‘It is scary being a tech founder. I went from being in the pilot seat knowing exactly how to solve every problem that came up to completely having to trust people.’

Snapbar secured a number of partners in the “event engagement” space early on, integrating with the likes of Hopin, Bizzabo, Notified, XYVID and 6Connex. Eitzen credits a six-month head start on the virtual photo booth competition, which now includes such companies as Simple Booth and Snappic.

The company has more than 1,000 customers, including Nordstrom, Netflix, Microsoft, Amazon and many more.

Eitzen said it has not all been “rainbows and unicorns” for the bootstrapped startup, whose revenue grew like crazy when the virtual events landscape was booming.

“The whiplash though, that was real,” Eitzen said. A return to in-person events saw partner revenue from virtual event platforms plummet during the summer of 2022. “We anticipated a drop, but not by a magnitude of 60-70% in terms of demand.”

Snapbar had to cut staff a few months back from 18 people down to 12, and today employs 11 in a hybrid work model that allows employs to visit a Gig Harbor, Wash., office once a week.

Asked if he wished he’d kept the the physical photo booth operation as part of the business, Eitzen said from a personal standpoint he doesn’t miss the logistics of it all.

“It is scary being a tech founder, not understanding code and how to write software,” Eitzen said. “I went from being in the pilot seat knowing exactly how to solve every problem that came up to completely having to trust people.”

But with three years of pandemic and pivot experience under his belt, Eitzen has gotten good at trusting his instincts.

“My outlook for 2023 is … just be ready to move quickly based on what we’re seeing,” he said.

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January 26, 2023

In effort to ban caste discrimination, Seattle councilmember cites system’s link to tech industry

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and supporters during a news conference this week announcing her call for legislation to ban caste discrimination in Seattle. (Twitter Photo via @cmkshama)

When Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced legislation this week to ban caste discrimination in Seattle, her supporters included tech workers who say the system of bias and oppression has followed them from South Asia to the U.S. and Seattle.

Sawant’s proposed legislation would be a first-in-the-nation attempt to address a social practice that is rooted in thousands of years of history in India and other countries. The socialist councilmember representing Seattle’s District 3 said workers, including in the tech sector, face discrimination in their workplaces in Seattle and other cities around the country.

Caste is a system of social hierarchy and class discrimination with barriers that create social segregation, economic deprivation and even physical or psychological violence, according to Sawant.

“With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed,” Sawant said this week.

In her 10 years on the City Council, Sawant has championed a number of workers’ rights issues and has taken on big tech, including in the battle to get an Amazon “head tax” passed in the city. She announced last week that she won’t seek re-election when her term is up at the end of 2023.

Sawant linked this latest fight to a larger working-class battle against ongoing layoffs in the tech sector.

“The billionaire and multimillionaire shareholders and executives of corporations like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have made billions of dollars in profit since the pandemic began, and now they are once again shoving the burden of the capitalist recession on working people, by laying off tens of thousands of tech workers,” she said.

During a news conference about the caste legislation at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday (video below), Sawant was flanked by supporters who included members of the tech community, which has a large concentration of South Asian immigrants.

Samir Khobragade, a former Amazon engineer and current senior director of software engineering for cloud platforms at NetApp, has worked in tech for 26 years. He said he grew up in a small, socially segregated mining town in the middle of India, and he detailed the separation and discriminatory practices he encountered throughout his youth.

Without going into specifics related to his time in the U.S. or at any of his workplaces, Khobragade said the discrimination followed him when he emigrated.

“South Asians are a critical part of the city of Seattle, because of the tech industry, because of the universities here,” Khobragade said. “When we Indians come to the U.S., we bring our biases with us, and we get away with the discriminatory behavior because people in the U.S. do not know how to spot this discriminatory behavior.”

Madrona Venture Group managing director S. “Soma” Somasegar has been around the tech industry for 34 years, including nearly three decades at Microsoft, where he was head of the tech giant’s Developer Division.

S. “Soma” Somasegar. (Madrona Venture Group Photo)

“Any kind of discrimination is bad, whether it’s gender or religion or ethnicity or caste or color,” Somasegar told GeekWire on Thursday, while acknowledging that caste-based discrimination is still quite prevalent in different parts of the world.

Somasegar said he hasn’t personally seen caste bias in the technology community in Seattle or in the U.S.

“The question though, if I have 100 priorities in front of me, where does this fall on the priority list?” Somasegar said. “My experience has been more positive than what this piece of legislation might suggest.”

But Raghav Kaushik, a software engineer at Microsoft for 19 years, said during the Sawant’s news conference, “I can tell you from my personal experience that caste discrimination happens here in the tech sector.”

Kaushik said that in 2006, when the Indian government announced an affirmative action program to help oppressed caste people, the topic was discussed in an email thread at Microsoft.

“There were various employees who expressed very bigoted and hideous comments mocking caste oppressed people and Dalits, questioning their intelligence and work ethics,” Kaushik said. “Caste discrimination exits right here in our midst.”

One alleged case of caste discrimination in the tech industry has turned into a notable lawsuit in California, where a former worker at Cisco Systems claims he was a victim of discrimination because of his low caste standing.

Bloomberg Law reported that the unnamed worker claimed supervisors at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters excluded him from meetings and passed him up for promotions due to his status as part of the Dalit caste, considered the lowest rung of the hierarchical South Asian system.

The lawsuit is testing California’s anti-discrimination statute that includes protection for discrimination based on ancestry.

On the strength of that Cisco case, workers at Google parent Alphabet, under the Alphabet Workers Union label, previously called on the tech giant to apply its Indian caste-based anti-discrimination policy in the U.S, writing, “Alphabet can lead the industry and become the first technology company to add caste as a protected category globally.”

The Equity Lab, a nonprofit that takes on issues of inequity, found in a 2016 survey of South Asian Americans that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (67%) faced workplace discrimination.

The organization said in a tweet that Sawant’s proposed legislation “is a groundbreaking opportunity for Seattle to lead the nation in caste equity and honor its history of being a safe space for all.”

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January 25, 2023

Go inside the $2 billion Seattle Convention Center expansion, viewed as a big boost to downtown

Inside the Seattle Convention Center’s new Summit addition on Pine Street in downtown Seattle, looking over the the Hillclimb staircase, across I-5 at the city. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The sparkling new addition to the Seattle Convention Center is a $2 billion statement piece in the downtown Seattle landscape. Now state and local leaders hope the massive new building can help attract more activity to a city core disrupted by the pandemic.

“We’re on the rebound. We’re coming back from COVID,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday. “All we need is people.”

Getting people to Seattle and back downtown is a major goal of the new Summit building, which took years of planning and five more years — and the weathering of a major health and economic crisis — to construct.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell met recently with the leaders of other cities in an effort to exchange ideas on re-envisioning downtown business districts that have been impacted by hybrid work policies and safety concerns amid the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Harrell called himself “bullish on downtown.” In offering praise for the views of city from all angles of the new facility, he added, “That is what it’s going to take to get this city back, looking at it from a new angle.”

The Summit building takes up a massive city block not far from the original Convention Center building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Summit has grown 14 stories out of a pit below Pine Street that was previously home to the Convention Place bus station. Billed as North America’s first high-rise convention center, the addition overlooking Interstate 5 nearly doubles the capacity of the Seattle Convention Center and the original Arch building, a block and half away.

The numbers are enough to set any smartwatch step counter into high gear:

But beyond the expansive rooms and meeting spaces, Summit strikes an eye-catching steel, wood and glass pose on the huge block between between Pine Street, Olive Way, Boren and Ninth avenues. The modern building stands in stark contrast to the historic Paramount Theater across Pine. At the top of a wooden staircase called Hillclimb that seems to climb the length and height of the building, there are views of Capitol Hill, First Hill, South Lake Union and all the way down to Pike Place Market and Elliott Bay.

Thousands of wood planks hang from the ceiling in a ballroom at the top of Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
An extensive wooden chandelier in the main lobby of Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

There is reclaimed wood everywhere, thanks to the folks at Seattle’s LMN Architects. An extensive plywood chandelier in the main lobby features 45 panels with CNC cutouts of the microscopic cell structures of 12 different species of trees in the region. Way upstairs in the football-field-sized main ballroom, the 65-foot-high ceiling features 3,900 suspended “wormwood” boards cut from decommissioned log booms.

Uniquely Seattle and Pacific Northwest touches include large numeric indicators for the floor levels which pay homage to the region’s various industries and culture. The number 2 on the second floor is full of ropes for the maritime industry; there are rivets in another number for the aerospace industry; and on the fourth floor, cassette tapes from the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Sir Mix-a-Lot fill a large number 4.

The Convention Center boasts an array of sustainability features and environmentally friendly design elements. These include plant-based acoustic ceiling tiles; bio-based fabric panels; low-flow plumbing; electric vehicle charging stations; rooftop solar panels; a rainwater harvesting system; radiant flooring; water bottle filling stations; and a variety of kitchen and food-related green efforts.

The southeast corner of the Summit building on Pine Street. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes called the opening of the building a huge win for downtown.

“Seattle just won the lottery,” Scholes said. “But this wasn’t luck, this is the result of tremendous work by local companies and workers who’ve created a building that will bring hundreds of thousands of additional people to the city each year. This will mean millions in new spending and tax revenue, adding fuel to downtown’s continued recovery.

According to DSA’s latest recovery statistics, nearly 2.2 million visitors came downtown in December, an increase of more than 8% compared to December 2021, but below the 2.7 million visitors in December 2019 before the pandemic.

“A lot of other cities site their convention centers on the edge of town,” Scholes said. “In Seattle, we take those big projects to the heart of our city which creates more vibrancy for downtown.”

A large floor level indicator is filled with cassette tapes from Northwest artists. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Some in-person large-scale events went all virtual during the pandemic, but many are returning to in person. The goal now is to attract conventions and visitors. The Convention Center says there are currently 58 events booked at Summit with an additional eight using both the Arch and the Summit.

Seattle real estate company Redfin already had about 1,000 people in attendance at an annual company meeting called Redferno on Jan. 13. The company used Summit as a conference/meeting space with main keynote sessions for all attendees in one larger room and a series of breakout meetings and discussions in smaller rooms.

Emerald City Comic Con is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a return to the Convention Center March 2-5 and is excited to be switching to Summit. Kristina Rogers, vice president of show producer ReedPop, calls Seattle her hometown and during a walkthrough last August she was impressed by built-in sensory/quiet rooms and all-gender bathrooms.

“We strive for inclusivity in all areas at ECCC and those little touches are what makes this new building feel like it was truly built with us in mind,” she said in an emailed statement. “Our entire team is excited and proud to welcome our fans home in this new space.”

The Sakura-Con Northwest Anime Convention is also using Summit, April 7-9.

Microsoft held its annual Ignite conference for developers at the Convention Center’s Arch facility in October. The company would not say whether it planned to move Ignite or any other gathering in 2023 to Summit.

The historic Paramount Theater, left, as seen from the Summit building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Aaron Bludworth is president and CEO of Fern, a company that produces a wide range of trade shows and conventions all over the U.S. In staging around 1,400 shows a year, Bludworth said he’s been in every major convention center dozens of times and some of them probably hundreds of times.

Standing outside Summit on Wednesday, he was struck by the unique, multi-level design, the materials and the views.

“The beauty of the facility is pretty unrivaled,” said Bludworth, who is based in Cincinnati. He thinks that while every big city has had its challenges, buildings like the Seattle Convention Center help with revitalization and getting past those challenges.

“We will partner with destinations everywhere,” Bludworth said. “But there is no doubt when people see this building, they’re gonna want to come.”

Seattle Convention Center is hosting a public open house at Summit on Friday from 1 to 6 p.m.

Keep scrolling for more GeekWire images:

Summit features an exceptionally tall and light-filled atrium. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The Garden Terrace outdoor gathering space at Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Looking west from the Summit building with views of Elliott Bay. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Carpet for days: A large expo hall in the Summit building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee addresses attendees at an opening ceremony at Summit on Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The Hillclimb wooden staircase inside Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The west side of the Summit building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

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ChatGPT goes to college: Here’s how the UW says professors should deal with AI in the classroom

A student in the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library in Seattle. (UW Photo)

The sudden rise of ChatGPT — the AI-powered chatbot released by OpenAI last fall — has educators across the country rethinking how they teach and assess student work. The University of Washington is among them, providing guidance to its faculty on how to navigate technology’s latest impact on education.

The UW’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which supports the advancement of the school’s teaching community, has issued strategies for instructors to help them communicate with students, set expectations, and develop assignments in the age of ChatGPT and other AI-based tools.

The strategies are broken into several areas, including:

The center says instructors who prohibit the use of AI-based tools such as ChatGPT, and suspect that a student has engaged in academic misconduct, can make a report to Community Standards and Student Conduct.

The guidelines attempt to balance the benefits and drawbacks of artificial intelligence, addressing the logistical and ethical challenges of AI while recognizing that technology be “a vital part of advancing knowledge.”

AI-based tools like ChatGPT “have the potential to either advance learning or shortchange students,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta told GeekWire. “Our instructors are exploring how AI-based tools can be used to facilitate learning and help students think critically about digital literacy and the accuracy of information.”

At the same time, he said, “students who use AI-based tools as shortcuts to complete assignments shortchange themselves.”

While the constant evolution of ChatGPT can make usage of the tool difficult to detect, the UW says faculty are paying careful attention and believe some students are using the tool to complete their work.

ChatGPT has generated an equal share of intrigue and concern with its ability to quickly answer complicated questions and instantly produce content — including such things as software code and student essays.

The bot builds on existing natural language technology developed by OpenAI, the San Francisco-based company backed by Microsoft, whose cloud computing platform powers the back-end for OpenAI products.

Across the country, AI is causing a “huge shift” in teaching and learning, causing educators at all levels to react, the New York Times reported this month.

In some cases, educators are redesigning courses to stay ahead of the technology. For example, at some universities, professors are phasing out take-home, open-book assignments, which seem vulnerable to chatbots, opting instead for in-class assignments, handwritten papers, group work, and oral exams.

Seattle Public Schools joined a growing number of school districts banning ChatGPT on all school devices, saying that the district “does not allow cheating and requires original thought and work from students.”

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman recently addressed concerns about new wave of plagiarism in schools, saying that AI will require everyone to adapt.

“We adapted to calculators and changed what we tested for in math class, I imagine,” Altman told StrictlyVC’s Connie Loizos. “This is a more extreme version of that, no doubt, but also the benefits of it are more extreme, as well.”

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