[BTS/Interview] Behind The Scenes With Photography’s Most Interesting Company: LensRentals.com
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you’re probably familiar with LensRentals.com, which is one of the most popular camera gear rental shops in the world, if not the most popular. We recently had the chance to sit down with the LensRentals team and learn everything about what just might be photography’s most fascinating company.
In 2007, Roger Cicala was, like most of us, into photography in a big way. A practicing doctor, he would often take pictures of family, friends, landscapes, and whatever crossed his path. And yet again, like many of us, his small hobby transformed into purchasing multi-thousand dollar camera bodies and 500mm telephoto lenses in pursuit of the perfect image.
And nobody in their wildest dreams could have predicted what would happen next.
His Son, Drew, who also works for the company, was kind enough to tolerate my questions for the better part of two hours on a Tuesday morning. Here’s what transpired.
Mike Kelley With Fstoppers.com: Hi, Drew. So let’s start with the obvious: how does one get into the business of renting lenses?
LR: I’m not sure if you are aware, but Roger is actually a medical doctor. Most people assume he was some sort of professional photographer before this actually got started, but he wasn’t. He has always picked up hobbies very intensely, and in 2004 or 2005, the photography bug bit him. Hard. A few years later, he bought a Canon 500mm supertele for a trip to Alaska, came back home with it, and watched it accumulate dust in the closet. It was then that he realized there was a ton of potential in the market for amateur photographers like himself that need a special lens for a special trip, but didn’t necessarily want to deal with the hassle of purchasing it outright.
FS: Can you tell me a little bit about the early days of the company?
After a couple of years, Roger had accrued a pretty good selection of lenses, so he took what he already owned, emptied his savings account, and started the company. At first, it was just him, but after a few months he realized he need a couple more helping hands. By early 2007, the company consisted of myself and two of our other first employees (who are both still with the company), working about 2 hours a day, answering emails, and processing the orders.
Later in the day, Roger would come home from working at the hospital accompanied by a couple of his nurses who he had enlisted to help. They’d help pack the boxes in our garage in the brutal Memphis heat and humidity. We’ve come quite a long way since then!
FS: Was the growth of the company steady at first, or was it up and down? Were there any points where you were worried about the well-being of the company?
The first two years, the growth was actually incredible. At first we were renting anywhere from zero to five lenses a day, then after awhile, 20 lenses a day, and now we average about 500 shipments per day. In the busier summer months, I’d expect the most we’ll do is somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1000 individual shipments per day.
But the past couple of years have shown pretty consistent growth, despite the huge number of lenses that we’re renting. After the first couple of months, the only limit to the growth of our company was how fast we could buy lenses. There were times when we had trouble finding lenses to buy in order to fulfill orders.
FS:What about the staff? I’d imagine you have had to expand dramatically to keep up with orders.
When I left for law school in late 2007, we had four very part-time employees. At this point Roger was trying to decide if we should move the operation out of the house. When I came back from school in mid-2010, there were twelve full-time employees. And today, we have 30 full-time employees.
FS: That’s incredible.
And we should probably have more employees. The problem is that the business tends to be seasonal, and we hate the idea of having to hire temporary employees so we try get by on the least amount of staff possible. This means we work extra hard in the summer, but winters tend to be a bit more relaxed.
FS: And what about Roger’s medical career? Is he still practicing now that he has a full time staff, or is LensRentals his only gig?
Roger gave up medicine about a year and a half ago. He was really killing himself with the work there for awhile, often working a full day shift at the hospital and then coming home and filling orders until bedtime. As his son, I’ve always thought my dad overworked himself, so it has been really nice to see him slow down a bit during the past year or so. Around the same time, I came back from law school and my brother-in-law quit a successful job as a financial analyst to help run the company, so he had a lot lifted off his shoulders when that happened.
FS: I’m completely in awe of all of this, you should know.
We get that a lot! I think, with internet companies, people either make the assumption that it is either a one-man show, or it is a giant monolith, so people always seem surprised when they find out we are somewhere in-between.
FS: Can we talk a little bit about Roger’s blog posts? They’re definitely my favorite part of the site. I know I’ve found myself up at 2am reading his blog and reviews and getting quite a chuckle out of it all. His Hammer-Forum.com post is a great example of this.
His posts are one of the defining features of our site, to be sure. Roger would be the first person to tell you he doesn’t like dealing with the business side of things. He just wants to be a lab rat, basically, tearing apart gear. So he has been able to put aside a lot of the other things and focus on that in the past year. People tend to especially like the ‘Roger’s Takes’ on individual items as well as the products. I think it is refreshing for a lot of people to see someone willing to give their opinion on something, even when it isn’t necessarily a wise business decision to do so, especially when it’s peppered with his humor.
FS: Because of that, it feels like a really personal experience when you rent, at least to me. I feel like I’m actually learning something and getting a human opinion before I rent, which is great. About six months ago I borrowed a 100-400 from you and like the buffoon I can be, I forgot to send back the case when I returned the lens. Someone gave me a call to let me know I forgot it and they were totally nice about it – no extra charge, no rush, just told me to get it back whenever I had a chance. I can’t imagine a bigger company being so generous or not wanting to extort more money out of me for something like that.
I think that is at the essence of what we do here. There are a lot of places you can rent from. We want to be the place that feels personal. Word of mouth is so vital for a business like this that isn’t familiar to a lot of people. We’ve found that it is much better to spend $20 going above and beyond for a customer than it is to put $20 in advertising. For every ten people that see an ad for LensRentals and have never heard of us before, I’m sure a substantial percentage don’t understand the concept, or are confused by it, since the idea of renting expensive pieces of equipment over the internet is still very foreign. The best way to make people want to rent from us is to have their friends tell them how awesome we are.
FS: I’m living proof of that, I live five minutes from the biggest rental house in Los Angeles and I still rent from you instead of them. Let’s touch on the blog posts quickly again. Is that something he did for fun? Where does he get the inspiration for all these posts? Some of them are hilarious, but he’s also got seriously extensive technical knowledge. Is that just a result of handling all the lenses, or has he always been the type to take something apart and find out all the details of how it works?
He has always been a writer, and enjoyed writing. In his former life as a physician, he actually wrote books that explained diseases in a way that regular people could understand. So I think he has always had a passion for translating what he knows as a camera professional into a language that everyone can grasp.
FS: Strangely enough it seems that his PhD and studies in medicine set him up perfectly to run a lens rental company!
I think the things he writes about follow where his current interests lie. For instance, he wrote quite a few posts about the history of lenses and cameras during one period, because he was reading lots of books on the subject. Now that he is very interested in the testing and repair of lenses, you see the topic shift towards that, but still written at a level everyone can understand.
FS: So my next question is probably going to have a long answer, but what is the standard procedure for ordering a lens? Let’s say I want to rent a 24mm Canon Tilt-Shift. I press ‘place order’ and then what happens?
The first thing that happens is that it goes to our verification department. For new customers, this is where we verify the information you’ve provided and make sure you aren’t going to steal from us. If we need more information from a new customer to approve the order, this is the point at which we ask for it. Fraud is a pretty big concern with rental companies, because a scammer doesn’t have to steal a credit card with a $2,500 limit to steal a $2,500 lens from us, he only needs to steal one with a limit high enough to cover the rental fees. And there are also, sadly, people who just rent equipment with no intention of returning it, so there are some red flags we look for on new customers.
FS: Sort of like a CYA for you guys. Makes sense. Seems like a good fail-safe, but I’m sure there are still some people who take advantage, or at least try.
There are, unfortunately, but over the years, we’ve really improved our loss rate and our recovery methods, and it is a very rare occurrence these days.
After an order gets verified, it gets billed and sent to our warehouse area automatically if it is shipping the same day. About half of our orders are reserved in advance, so every morning, when the staff first arrives, the reserved orders have already been billed and ready to go, and the other half trickles in throughout the day as new orders come in. When the order gets sent to the warehouse, a “pulling sheet” gets printed, which lets the pulling department know what items they need. They get those items off the shelf, and then use barcode scanners to assign the items to the order. We have proprietary barcodes hidden on each lens so we can track them through each step of the process. The barcodes really help us prevent mistakes. For instance, if we pull a Sigma 70-200 for Nikon off the shelf, when you really ordered a Sigma 70-200 for Canon, our system won’t let you assign it to the order, so the order can’t progress any further. This is a problem we were faced with when we first started the business and ran the entire operation off of an Excel spreadsheet. Pretty incredible to think of trying to do everything we do today with only Excel!
Once the order is pulled, a receipt is printed and the order goes to our outgoing inspection department, where it is inspected and cleaned, and we make sure all the correct items and pieces are there. From there, it goes to the packing department, where they again make sure all the items are there, that the serial numbers match, and then they pack it up and send it out.
Simultaneous to all of this, all of our returning boxes come in during the morning, and the packing department opens all the boxes and removes all the packing materials. They then move on to our Incoming Inspection department, where we receive it all back into the system, in a reverse of the pulling process, so we are easily able to see if a battery didn’t come back, etc. etc.
Every single lens that comes back, we put on a camera and test on multiple charts at this stage, as well as clean them, before they are returned to the shelf.
FS: How do you test that many lenses? It seems crazy to me that you’re able to send out hundreds of lenses and get them tested and ready to go again so quickly.
It can be a struggle some days. In a lot of ways, it is more efficient than it used to be, because we have so many of the same items come back. For instance, if we give 50 of the same lens to someone to check, he can check them very quickly, because he’ll need to use the same charts for all of them, standing the same distance away, and will know the common problems for that specific lens so he can make sure to check for them all. We put each lens on a computerized setup, and have it tell us if the lens is soft before it gets to the point that it is soft enough to see in images. We’ve saved many a future customer from a bad experience by doing this.
FS: Do you have lenses or cameras that you always groan about? For example, they always seem a little off in testing?
Hmmm…off the top of my head, if there is one piece of equipment that just frustrates me to pieces right now, it is the D3s and D3x. The D3 series has been notorious for dust/oil on the sensor, so while those cameras are only 2% of our camera stock, they comprise 95% of our dirty sensor complaints. That is something that we have just never been able to find a solution to and is very frustrating.
FS: Now here’s the question I know everyone is dying to know the answer to: Do you have any horror stories about lenses coming back in two pieces, bodies soaking wet, that type of thing?
Oh, we could probably go on for days about that. I think one of my favorites is the time UPS actually backed over one of our boxes with an 18-wheeler, and then thought it was a good idea to just go ahead and deliver it to the customer. We ended up having to buy new 7Ds. The box was completely pulverized, and the contents were more or less reduced to a fine dust.
In another instance, a customer thought it would be a good idea to bring a Canon 500mm f4 to a photoshoot with a helicopter in the desert. He made no effort to weatherize it, and used the unprotected lens in a sand pile with a helicopter hovering nearby…What can I say, it wasn’t pretty. It sounded like a record player in reverse when it tried to focus.
I think stories like that are the ones that get our technicians the most riled up. 99.99% of our customers treat our equipment even better than their own, but every now and then you get one of those people who think that because it is rental equipment, they don’t have to take care of it.
FS: How often are you replacing lenses that are, for all intents and purposes, fully functional?
We sell everything after two years of service, so it is quite frequent. Shipping lenses takes a pretty big toll on them, and we’ve found that to be a good stopping point for them. The type of shock and vibration they experience in shipping is where most of the issues with our lenses happen. For the average user, a 2 year old lens from us is no more likely to fail than most 2 year old lenses, as lenses are very durable. And we don’t ever sell anything if it isn’t operating like it should. If it isn’t operating correctly, and we can’t fix it, we’ll break it down for parts.
FS: I’m so fascinated by everything you’ve told me so far. Can you give me a quick rundown of the expansion of your facilities? From the living room, to the garage, to the warehouse that you’re in now.
Sure. When I left for law school, my sister, another financial analyst like my brother-in-law, made a big risk and left a good job to come run the company like a business instead of a hobby. Our first office was just a suite of a couple of offices in an office building. At the time, we were shipping probably 15 orders a day, so we didn’t need a warehouse. As we grew, we took over more and more of that building until 2010 when we took over the entire bottom floor. By the end, it was very problematic, in that there were only so many walls that could be knocked out. For instance, we had to put our equipment in about 6 different offices, so we had a “Canon Room” and a “Nikon Room” which was very inefficient. In July 2011, we moved into our current space, which has more of a warehouse feel, with loading docks to easily load and unload boxes. The biggest improvement is that we have one extremely large open space that stores all the equipment and all of the job functions relating to getting an order out the door. Every year thus far we have either relocated or expanded in our existing space. This will be the first year we won’t do it, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about it.
FS: Did Roger ever anticipate anything like this happening?
Not in his, or our, wildest dreams. Honestly, I think he was just looking for a way to write off all the money he had been spending on lenses by making them part of a business.
FS: Unbelievable. What about plans for the future?
At this point, it’s hard to say. In the last year or so we’ve really expanded into video, and we expect that will continue to steadily grow as the DSLR video craze continues. You can still get the 100-400 for your vacation, just like when we started. But at the same time, you can rent a full Canon C300 rig and everything you need to make a feature film. We don’t want to lose our personal and approachable feel, though. If someone that hasn’t rented from us since 2008, when they could call Roger’s cell phone and get a lens recommendation called up here tomorrow asking to talk to him, they’d be able to. We never want to change that.
FS: Over the years, I’ve rented from LensRentals.com a number of times, and I’ve never been let down. I can’t recommend them enough. If you haven’t visited their site, I highly recommend a visit; I promise you’ll learn something from the amazingly well-written blog posts or just by perusing around and reading Roger’s takes on the various pieces of equipment. I want to give a big thank you for the crew at LensRentals for tolerating my questions and giving us a wonderful look into their company. If you’re interested in learning more about LensRentals or asking them any questions, you can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.