The Xinyi shopping district in Taipei not only boasts a throng of department stores, restaurants and hotels, but also Taiwan’s first Instagram printer, FotoNota. Sitting in a quiet corner on first floor of the Eslite bookstore Xinyi branch, the slim machine is usually crowded by young people waiting in line to get their Instagram photos printed out at NT$50 (US$1.60) for two.

“I thought I had found a vending machine that would make life easier,” laughs Mike Sung (宋曜宇), the 26-year-old who introduced FotoNota to Taiwan. “I had no idea it would get me into all this chaos.”

FotoNota is a vending machine that prints Instagram photos in a Polaroid format (3"x4"). It was created in Barcelona, Spain, and can be seen in the U.S. and Europe, but Taiwan and Singapore are currently the only countries in Asia where FotoNota is available. Sung’s Taiwan company is called FotoVita, “the photo life.”

Mike Sung next to the FotoNota located in Eslite Xinyi branch. Photo Credit: Olivia Yang/The News Lens

How it all started

It was by chance Sung stumbled across the machine. Or rather, his cousins did while shopping at a mall in Barcelona last year.

“They called me and asked if I wanted to print out some photos because it was something special,” says Sung. “There was nothing like it in Taiwan back then, so of course I wanted to do it.”

Sung was purchasing shoes from Europe to sell in Taiwan via a Facebook page at the time, and when he posted photos of his FotoNota prints on the page, many people asked where they could get their own.

The then 25-year-old tracked down FotoNota’s WhatsApp account, and after an exchange of messages and emails, Sung was in their Barcelona office two weeks later.

“I was the only one who believed in it. The only one in my entire family,” says Sung. “I had faith in it because the Taiwanese were crazy about Polaroids. Everyone had a Polaroid wall at home, so I was very confident in our machine.”

So at the cost of NT$400,000 (US$13,000), Taiwan’s first FotoNota arrived last April. But getting the 130-kilogram machine into the country was just the beginning.

The unexpected babysitting job

Sung originally planned to have the machine installed at Vie Show Cinemas Xinyi branch, but he couldn’t afford the high rent. He then turned to Eslite, a place Song hung around a lot in college.

“Luckily, Eslite really liked FotoNota and was willing to give us a chance,” he says.

After securing the machine’s first home in Eslite’s Xinyi branch, Sung also found himself standing right next to it 12 hours a day.

He says FotoNota acted up a lot in the beginning. It kept getting jammed because he hadn’t realized the climate is different in Taiwan and Barcelona. The local climate is more humid, so the photographic paper tends to curl up and jam the paper-cutter.

“I had to modify the machine myself,” Sung says. “I lost five or six kilograms back then, and my feeling towards FotoNota was, ‘I love you a lot, but I really don’t want to see you every day.’”

On his worst days, the entire FotoNota system would crash and Sung would have to wait six hours for the tech team in Barcelona to wake up and fix it.

Expansion and collaboration

But once the printing vending machine grew more stable, Sung was free from babysitting it every day, and there are currently 18 FotoNotas scattered across six cities in Taiwan. Four close family members and friends are working with him to maintain the machines, and their cell phones are the numbers customers dial whenever there is a problem. Sung says he gets at least five calls per day and up to 20 a day at the most.

As if on cue, Sung apologizes and pauses to take a call from a customer.

Instagram currently has 600 million monthly active users; 39 percent of internet users in the Asia-Pacific region and 50 percent in Taiwan use the app. Sung says users of FotoNotas in Taiwan range from 12- to 35-years-old with women accounting for 70 percent of his customers. The vending machines saw a peak of around 40,000 customers during Christmas, and the team is taking FotoNota to Hong Kong in April while also looking to expand to Bangkok.

“I choose the locations based on my instincts. I don’t reference any data, reports, interviews, nothing,” says Sung.

In addition to introducing FotoNota to other countries, Sung has also been approached by various cosmetic, sports, and designer brands that rent the machine for special events.

“I think what’s interesting about being in this line of business is that though it looks like just a photo, there’s a lot that can be done through where FotoNota is placed,” says Sung.

The team recently collaborated with World Vision International and asked the children at a remote elementary school in Hsinchu to design photo frames that will be available for printing starting Feb. 17. The organization will receive a NT$10 donation for each set of frames printed, and Sung says they are looking to do more charity work.

Future plans

Though things seem to be going smoothly for Sung and his team, he says the work is not as easy as it seems. The team needs to be on-call 12 hours a day, seven days a week as most FotoNotas are located in department stores, which rarely get days off.

“It looks like we’re having fun while working at the same time, but there is a certain pressure. A customer could call at any moment and something might need fixing. It’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a lot of mental stress,” says Sung.

The team has also calculated the product lifecycle of FotoNota in Taiwan, and while always coming up with new ideas to keep the machines fresh, they have also been thinking about their next step.

“I care a lot about whether or not the people I work with believe in me and what I do. I think I need to work more on making them believe that there is a future working with me,” says Sung.

“If there’s something you enjoy doing, just believe in it. But don’t dream too big, or else you might not know how to take the first step.”

Editor: Edward White