Founder Friday with Madison Stefanis: making film photography fun and sustainable

It’s always an interesting story when entrepreneurs find their successful business idea in areas they never expected. For 22-year-old Madison Stefanis, that was in photography.

Particularly of a ‘clunky old SLR’ that she didn’t know how to use.

“I have no background in photography,” she admitted. “I used to make film for fun – it’s trendy and (again) very popular, so I always had a disposable camera with me on weekends. One day I decided to put the old movie camera at home for sale on Facebook.”

Madison, a masters in marketing and entrepreneurship at RMIT University, knew she’d stumbled upon something good when the camera ended up selling five times as much as she’d listed it for.

“I always tell people that I come from a business background rather than from photography. I came across the right niche and decided to give it a go,” she added. “Vintage film cameras have little supply and high demand, which brings a high price.”

However, it wasn’t long before 35mmCo, her vintage camera company, ran into problems with supplies as they were constantly running out.

The dilemma inspired The Reloader camera: small and compact like a disposable camera, but completely reusable.

“Customers were looking for a beginner-friendly camera at a lower price, so I invested all my savings ($50,000) in my first stock shipment of The Reloader at age 20. It took us 12 months to launch. I spent a lot of time focusing on the packaging design and how to market movie shooting as something easy and fun,” explains Madison.

For the current iPhone generation, the product was an instant hit.

“We’re more forgiving of movie stills because there’s usually only one image from a given moment, rather than scrolling through hundreds of images on an iPhone looking for the perfect shot,” she explains. “In addition, the development process is exciting: you often forget which photos were taken with the camera, so it’s super fun to receive your film and relive those memories.”

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Source: delivered

Building a sustainable business

Coming from a generation that is “very aware of the climate emergency we face in the world,” Madison knew early on that The Reloader was tackling the important problem of single-use plastic waste.

Not only was it reusable, it simplified the shooting and development process by requiring only one AAA battery. After finishing the film roll (24 photos), customers could drop off or send the roll to a film development lab.

“You can choose whether you prefer to receive the images as digital scans, physical prints, or both,” she explains. “Processing usually takes one to three business days, depending on the independent lab. Digital copies of the images will be emailed or texted to your phone and physical prints can be picked up in store or mailed to your address.”

Customer feedback so far, she says, has been fantastic.

“People love that the product is reusable so they don’t have to worry about purchasing single-use cameras once they finish their roll of film. It’s a great product for beginners who want to learn about film photography.”

In the coming year she wants to lean more on sustainability at 35mmCo. Currently, the fulfillment center is working with Ecolog to plant trees across Australia for every order shipped from the warehouse.

They are also a business partner of the National Breast Cancer Foundation in October, donating $10 from every camera sold to fund breast cancer research.

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Madison noted, “Consumers expect companies to adopt sustainable practices. Sustainability is no longer seen as a goodwill practice – it is an expectation of all organizations.”

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Photo by Ruby Ryan. Source: delivered

Finding success as a young entrepreneur

When she developed her own product at age 20, while her friends were “young adults and experiencing the freedom it brings,” Madison was the first to admit that entrepreneurship has its isolating moments.

“The first six months in business were really lonely. I think all entrepreneurs experience this feeling at some point, especially at my age,” she admitted. “No one in my family has a business background and I didn’t have anyone in my inner circle who could tell.”

She also launched 35mmCo during the Melbourne lockdown, working on the business all hours of the day and finding it difficult to adapt when restrictions were lifted.

“I was so used to devoting all my time to the company! It’s hard to turn off if you’re always thinking about work,” she added.

Still, she finally found her way. In its first six months, 35mmCo had $1 million in sales and stayed on track to hit $2 million by the end of the first year.

Madison credits role models like her supportive mom, along with podcasts and inspirational founder stories, for continuing to nurture her passion for business.

“Australia has such an abundance of smart and successful entrepreneurs. There is so much knowledge and value in learning from other people’s experiences and lessons,” she smiled.

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Photo by Ruby Ryan. Source: delivered

Celebrating milestones

She got to observe first hand the incredible community 35mmCo has established this week at their first anniversary event in Sydney, marking a year in business.

“It was surreal to see a room filled with so many people who love and support the brand. The community we’ve built is incredible,” she described. “I’m lucky enough to be the same age as our customers – it allows us to really bond with them and understand their needs and wants.”

The main focus for the coming years will be on a range of new camera colors, fun accessories to go with the camera and moving the company to overseas markets.

“There are a number of major retailers where I would like to see The Reloader in stock. We are focused on expanding our product range and transitioning into the lifestyle space. Filming encourages living in the moment and reliving your memories later – we’d love to hold more events and activations to connect with our community.”

Advice for other young entrepreneurs who would like to start their own business?

“Be resilient and confident,” Madison confirmed. “Follow your ideas to execution and don’t be discouraged by rejection. No dream is ever too big – if you believe in it, you can achieve it.”

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