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This New Service Will Print Your Digital Photos for Free -- With a Catch

Kickstarter project Flag will print and send you physical copies of your digital photos at no cost, but there's a small catch.
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Waxing nostalgic for the days of the disposable camera may seem trite: after all, we take more pictures now than ever before, snapping and sharing them with the swipe of our fingers.

A new Kickstarter project, however, is betting that if we had an easy way to print the photos we take on Instagram, we’d do it. Enter Flag, a phone and tablet app that prints your digital photos and mails them to you or your friends and family, for free.

The catch? The way the service makes money and covers its shipping costs is through ads, which would be printed on the back of each photo.

According to its Kickstarter page, the app uses printers and laser cutters to “make your real prints as versatile and varied as virtual ones.” Photos arrive in packs of 20 and are printed on high quality paper, with all filters, treatments or effects preserved.

Flag launched its 14-day Kickstarter campaign on Jan. 28 and, with four days left, has already exceeded its goal of $100,000 by $25,000 at the time of this writing.

It’s been a long road to Kickstarter success for Flag’s founder, Samuel Agboola. Like many innovative ideas, Flag was founded on the annoying realization that while there should be an easy solution for a problem, there wasn’t one yet.

Related: Take a Step Back. Set a Realistic Goal for Your Crowdfunding Campaign.

It all started back in 2010. Agboola was getting married. Because he’s from England, and his wife is American, he thought it would be fun to get their friends and family to know each other by giving each wedding guest baseball cards that featured photos of all the guests and their relationship to the couple. There were a hundred guests; that meant each guest would receive a hundred cards. Up late the night before his nuptials, diligently cutting sheets of printed-paper into 10,000 baseball card sized rectangles, Agboola grew frustrated: “Even though I was surrounded by tons of technology, doing something as simple as producing prints that weren’t the size of a stock piece of paper was incredibly expensive and difficult to do.”

Why, he thought, has our ability to take photos become increasingly cheap and sophisticated, tripped out with filters and mobile friendly Photoshop tools, while our ability to print said photos remains expensive and primitive? The question gnawed at him long after the ceremony. (Although the baseball cards were a hit).

Agboola came up with the idea for Flag soon after; to his knowledge, there’s nothing else like it, although many services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish claim to print photos for free. “The shipping and handling is the total cost!” he says, exasperated. “Frankly, it should be illegal. Say Mercedes said they were giving away free cars, you just had to pay $30,000 in service fees. That’s not how it works.”

Originally, Agboola says he approached investors with the idea for Flag, to discouraging results. “I kept hearing that ideas are cheap, execution is everything,” he says. He took a few meetings, including a sit-down with Anderson Consulting; the firm advised him to sell Flag’s concept to would-be competitor Shutterfly. Agboola passed. “The weren’t offering a life-changing amount of money,” he says “and I don’t have ideas like this twice a week.”

Related: 9 Great Photo and Video Apps

He decided to run with it himself, assembling a team a year ago. “We weren’t approaching this a sort of way, where step one is to be born into the right family, step two is to go to the right college, and step three is to borrow a ton of money and blow through it,” he says. Kickstarter offered a nice shortcut: $100,000 is enough to launch the app, as well as develop a customer-base sizeable enough to attract advertisers.

While all user data is private and will not be sold to advertisers, the ads themselves can be targeted. An advertiser, for example, may pick a user demographic (women over 40 who live in Boston), but they won’t receive individual names or addresses.

Kickstarter pledges of $10 or more come with early, beta-access to the Flag app. So far, there are over 4,800 backers, and the campaign currently tops Kickstarter’s popularity chart.

“Look,” Agboola says, “we’re certainly not in denial about the way that the world has changed: You can share photographers in a way that you couldn’t before.” But the overwhelming response the project has received on Kickstarter confirms what he has long suspected: If a free, easy solution existed for printing pictures, people would use it. “Hitting a button on an app and waiting for something to be delivered is less immediate than sharing a photo over Instagram,” he says, but the lack of hassle is a game changer. “It’s the difference between the effort involved in taking your car to the garage and getting your oil changed, compared with leaving your car in the driveway, and having someone come and do it for you.”

Related: 5 Signs Your Product Is Perfect for Kickstarter