Bryan Thayer, Co-Founder of Pixingo, is interviewed by J.Michael Palka, a 33-year MLM veteran and PR specialist.
Bryan Thayer almost didn’t need be told that a photo-based business had the potential to be a blockbuster success. Today so much of our life is captured in images. How could a business that thrives on that trend not succeed?
So when his former business associate Michael Yanke pitched the idea to start a web business that helped people turn their photos into mementos and keepsakes, he was ready to buy in from the start. “I got really intrigued because I’ve always been in the storytelling business,” said Thayer, the former owner of a successful corporate branding company. “And any time you can add words to a visual, you’ve got magic.”
One of the first steps in developing a plan for this business was determining who its customer or audience was. From the beginning, both saw this as a site geared toward women.
“Why? Because she’s around 30 years old, she’s just getting her family started and she doesn’t want to lose or forget those precious memories as her family is growing,” Thayer said. “And as she gets older, she’ll certainly want to pass on those memories to her kids.”
In a very real sense, this customer was Thayer’s mom. At times she was the major breadwinner in the family when he was growing up, operating a daycare out of their home. She spent a lot of time with the kids in her charge, often reading and telling stories to them.
Thayer’s thoughts strayed to her more than once when he imagined the sort of customers his business would attract and ultimately turn into a sales force.
“When Michael and I formulated this company, all I could think about was my mom,” Thayer explained. “She’s a great storyteller. She’s very visual and very expressive. She could’ve done this.”
It all seemed so perfect—a business idea that capitalized on an established trend and tapped into a large potential pool of customers. It seemed like an assured success. Perhaps that’s why others were already trying to do it.
The partners knew that other sites similar to the one they were planning already existed and that more would likely crop up in the future. Therefore, they didn’t want to dive into this already competitive field without offering something different to the consumer—and that difference came from network marketing.
“One of the things we came up with right away is that those companies were not rewarding customers for bringing people to their site,” Thayer said. “So, we’ll come up with a better plan.” This plan focused on using existing customers to bring in new ones, thus deputizing those who used the site as a sales force. Happy customers would spread word about the site and generate interest among friends and acquaintances to generate sales. The compensation plan would be designed specifically to encourage these customers to talk about their experiences. “The comp plan we designed is very straight forward—you do this, you get this,” Thayer said. “There are no games. No games at all.”
Those who recommend the site make up to 30 percent from the sales of those who end up using it. They earn another five to ten percent on the additional people that the recommenders bring in.
“We’ve got a strong plan.” Thayer said. “And we have a long road map of continuous products that feed into that message of helping people tell the story of their lives through photos.”
Once a reward plan was in place, he and Yanke could focus on the details of the business plan. First they needed to come up with a catchy one-word name that summed up their service offerings. They coined the name Pixingo: People would be putting their photos into the site and then they would go forth and create.
“We wanted it to be snappy, very to the point,” Thayer said, “but when you looked at it, it would make you go, ‘Huh, what, what does that mean?’ When we came upon Pixingo, we knew right away that it was perfect.”
The next order of business was coming up with a logo to aid in the branding of the site and to set it apart from any current and future competitors. Thayer tapped into the graphic design talent pool he’d created with his former business—designers he’d worked with before and admired for their talent and creativity—and asked them to pitch him ideas. When one showed him an expressionless penguin, he knew he’d found the ubiquitous business emblem he’d been looking for.
“One of the things I love about penguins is that you never know what they’re thinking,” Thayer said. “And I thought that would be very endearing because we want to help you share what’s on your mind and in your camera.”
After those basics were settled, the logistics followed. Thayer and Yanke were determined to offer high-quality papers and other first-rate services that would earn Pixingo those raves and recommendations from customers.
Because their business is web-based, Pixingo can use printers from all over the world to fill orders. With that freedom, they were able to look for the best quality paper and inks available. “Our job is to create the experience and the environment and then make sure our products are printed at the highest level of our specifications,” Thayer said. To ensure the best quality, Yanke devised a system in which all orders are visually inspected before being shipped. Today, they call this the PixSoClear promise.
“There are no games, no gimmicks, no catches, no gotchas—just make some fun products with your photos, tell your friends, and if they use it, we’ll reward you and that’s it,” Thayer said.
To accomplish all these things, Pixingo needed startup funding. While there are many avenues entrepreneurs can explore to find cash for starting a business, Thayer chose to ask friends to invest. “I had never raised money in my life,” Thayer said. “I didn’t know what to do. So we took our brand and some of our samples to my friends—a doctor, a dentist, a CPA. I went to people that I knew and that trusted me. Fifty thousand dollars at a time, they bought into Pixingo. When you start a company like this and you’ve got a big vision, you need cash and a lot of sweat.”
The investors’ money went into two main areas—the development of the site and the designs for our products. Both were crucial in getting Pixingo from the idea stage to the reality stage.
That reality almost didn’t happen. One of the business’s first hurdles came at the time it was supposed to launch. The date 11/11/11 was chosen, an event had been set up, and yet when the time came, Pixingo was not ready. The site had too many bugs to go live, so Thayer and Yanke couldn’t launch on the day they had chosen. “We could’ve turned it on and met the deadline, but it wasn’t right,” Thayer said.
The party went on, showing people what Pixingo would offer when it was ready. But the actual launch of the site didn’t happen until 18 days later.
“I think we only sent out around 30,000 cards that first month, but it was still a great experience,” Thayer said. “It was fun to see things coming off the line. Soon after that, we brought on posters, then business cards, and then canvas wraps, and now a full line of photo books.
“So a little bit of a rough start, but we still knew we were going to do it right and that our vision was clear.”
What saved Pixingo from launching prematurely was a mirror site, a private website that’s an exact copy of the live version. It helped Pixingo detect those early flaws in private, before going public. The company still uses the mirror site today when it’s planning a launch of new products, testing new features to ensure things work perfectly when they “go live.”
It was a hard lesson, but one of many that Thayer says will help in the future. It’s one of a few key tips that have become part of his business toolbox.
That toolbox is composed of all the lessons Thayer has learned in the last 25 years, from starting and being part of several different companies. In that time, he’s learned that one of the most important components to starting a successful company is having a passion for it. “If it burns in your gut and you cannot stop thinking about the next move, the next enhancement, or the way to make it easier for your consultants to tell a story; if it continues to burn in you, you’re on the right path,” he said. “If it isn’t, then this isn’t it. Go find something else.”
Thayer and Yanke also find it valuable to surround themselves with equally passionate people.
“We have this unique base of all different types of personalities giving their input and sharing their vision and their passion and that is very healthy,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers and we accept that. That’s what’s great. We’re going to find the answers together with our team, and that’s a fun process. It’s fun being a pioneer. Oh my gosh, it’s also very hard. It is not meant for the faint of heart, because there will be days when you doubt and wonder, ‘Should I really have bet the farm on this?’ We both put all our finances and time and talents on the line for this company. Usually that’s what it takes. If you’re not willing to do that, get out.”
Another important business tip that Thayer picked up over the years is that consultants and experts may or may not be able to offer you helpful advice; the people who are always right are the customer and the other people who in the trenches.
“You pay attention to the people that are giving you money,” he said. For Thayer, this is not only a good business practice, but the ideal way to see your company grow sustainably.
“Every week we make adjustments on the fly when the field emails or calls or Facebooks us and says, ‘Hey can you do this, can you change this, can you add this, this would help me out.’ In the past week alone, we probably made three or four critical adjustments to our site. This organic approach is not easy for big companies. It’s very easy for a company like us, where there’s so much flexibility and we don’t have red tape. We are an open door.”
These philosophies and practices seem to have paid off for the company. At two years old, Pixingo is already having a significant growth spurt.
“We’ll probably grow 300 percent (this year) and another 300 percent annually for the next several years,” Thayer said. “We project to have over 100,000 pros [distributors] and a revenue over 50 million in the next five years based on our growth pattern.”
Seeing the business grow is gratifying, but for Thayer that’s not enough to keep him there and engaged—the business also has to continue to be a passion.
“If it’s one of the first things you think about when you wake up and the last thing you think about when you’re going to bed every day, you’re on the right track,” he said.