Bootstrappers EP#01 with Ian Tay, Pixaroll: Are your users willing to pay?

Listen up, e27 readers! We’re bringing you a whole new different format. This time, it’s audio

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Mic test 1… 2… We’re now on air.

You read us on your laptop, tablet and smartphone. You see us in action at events such as Founders Drinks, Echelon and Echelon Ignite. Now, you get to hear us with our new broadcast team. We’re trying to deliver better content to you through more channels, and podcasting is definitely one of them. In the coming month, you will read and hear more on bootstrapping — a series we are today launching with Singapore-based multimedia brand Launchbyte.

This week, we are loving our chat with Ian Tay, Co-founder, Pixaroll, a photo delivery service based in Singapore. Having bootstrapped, the startup Founder talks about challenges along the way, talking to his wife about sorting the family’s finances, and why he chose not to go for government grants.

Here is the full transcript, edited for grammar.

Elaine: Hi, I’m Elaine Huang and you’re listening to Bootstrappers, a podcast all about entrepreneurs who chose the path of self-funding. In the studio today is Singaporean entrepreneur Ian Tay, who is the Co-founder of Pixaroll. Hi Ian!
Ian: Hi Elaine

Elaine: So, Ian, in a nutshell, what’s Pixaroll all about?
Ian: Pixaroll is a photo service that allows you to take photos from your phone and create photo-personalised gifts that we will send to your house.

Elaine: So you can use the app to send photos, and they will get delivered to my doorstep?
Ian: That’s right. It’s actually a mobile app that’s on Android and iOS at the moment.

Elaine: How did you come up with the idea of Pixaroll?
Ian: I was working with HP and Xerox, so I had printing industry background. With that, I noticed that my customers were having problems trying to print photos from their phones. I thought that there is an easier way — and a way for them to do that at their own convenience.

Elaine: So you mean people nowadays are still going to the Kodak store to print their photos?
Ian: Maybe Kodak is not around anymore. But maybe people still do want to print their stuff. After doing this business, and we did a lot of interviews about why people still want to print, we realised that either they are paranoid about what is on the phone, like if they wipe out their phone, which occasionally happens, or on a cloud system, sometimes stuff doesn’t sync up on their cloud system and they cannot get important things saved. Sometimes, they just want to have something physical that they can touch, so they prefer to get these kind of memories printed.

Elaine: How large a team did you start the company with?
Ian: It was four of us — all were Co-founders. We had two of them do the development of the app and the back-end infrastructure, and the other two, which was me and another partner, who did more of the front-end and business aspect.

Elaine: What were your reasons for bootstrapping? I know there are quite a few options available like government grants and angel investors in Singapore.
Ian: First reason — a very valid reason was that one of my Co-founders had taken a grant before for his own startup, so we were not eligible for an early-stage grant at that moment. When we approached these government bodies, they were saying that there were other grants that we could take. But with the experience that we had, we realised that maybe taking a grant and funding might be a much longer process, which we would have used to get ourselves in the market and get more customers to validate the product, as it is very important. We didn’t want to get funding and at the end of the day, not even have a proper product. I and the team agree that if we get funding, it will be for scaling the business.

Elaine: So you would say that the most important thing is to get your product out, as soon as possible?
Ian: That’s right. Get the product out, get it tested with the customers so you know that you have a product that people really want. And not something that’s in your head and say, “Okay, I think this is worth a million dollars, so I’m going to get funding for it.”

Elaine: I understand that you managed to generate revenue at the very start, right?
Ian: Yep, at the very start. It was an interesting journey. At the very start, in the very first month, we generated S$75 (US$60). The thing about bootstrapping is that sometimes, when you look at these numbers, you might think, “What did I leave my job for? (It provided me with) comfort and security.” And when you look at the numbers coming in, and you wonder if it is enough to sustain the four of us, and things like that?

The pressure was on us to build a sustainable business. Looking back, a lot of decisions were made and I think during the first few months, a lot of actions were seen to make this product something that people would pay money for and get more word-of-mouth marketing.

One interesting thing during the first month was that we met one of our first die-hard users.

Elaine: Wow!
Ian: She is the reason why we carry on doing this after one and a half years. In a sense, we met her and kind of misplaced her prints, so we went and did a service recovery and found out why she uses our service. From there, we got a lot of information and we revamped and redid our service at the app side. With that, she realised that we took her views very seriously. From there, she became a die-hard fan, and recently, she used our service for her company’s events too. We are very thankful for such fans who push us to continue working on our business.

Elaine: One of the most important things a startup has to think about is their burn rate — the amount of money a startup spends each month. What was your burn rate in the first few months?
Ian: The thing is, we try to keep things lean. I don’t really like to use the word lean because it has a lot of connotations these days. I think I would say lean is to keep our burn rate as low as possible — no wastage even on advertising and things like that. We focused on the app feel and UX first, before we did more of marketing. We eventually did it later on — so it was actually very very low. I would say that it was more of our efforts that was the actual burn rate.

Elaine: What were the considerations that factored into your decision to bootstrap? Let’s say, rent, family expenditure… Do you think about such things?
Ian: It’s not only to bootstrap. The question is to go out and do a business. I sat down with my wife; we talked about our finances, our situation and the thing is at the end of the day, we need to have the confidence to move forward. She sees that this business has legs and you know, her friends are using it too. That gives her a bit of confidence to say that you’re not doing something that only you think is good — then only you yourself will pay for it. She sees that there is potential. She says, okay let’s make the sacrifices and move forward. So I’m very thankful for my wife for that. All my Co-founders are married, and I believe that their spouses gave them the go-ahead to work with us.

Elaine: Looking back, what were some challenges you faced while bootstrapping?
Ian: There’s this anguish that you know that you have a good product, and everyone tells you that it’s a good product, but your limitations and funds don’t allow you to do more traditional marketing, so you can’t grow as fast as possible. We’re slowly growing the base, so we know that we’re on secure ground in that sense. If one day, we don’t have any funding, we will still carry on with business as usual.

Elaine: So, it’s important to find out if you have a market before you start?
Ian: Absolutely, absolutely. I think these days a lot of entrepreneurs that I meet, they always have these brilliant ideas. Yes, very brilliant. Sometimes, they are pulling the cart before the horse. The ideas might not be feasible at this point of time until people say, “I really have this itch, I don’t mind paying for it,” — even if it’s a dollar or two dollars for WhatsApp. It’s amazing. Even if they come up with a dollar a year, people will go for it.

Elaine: You know, I’m curious. How did you convince the team that bootstrapping was a good idea?
Ian: Actually, it wasn’t much of convincing. It was a unanimous decision. First things first is the experiences that they had when they got funding before. That actually weighed a lot on the decisions. When we looked at the nature of our products, we knew that there is only cost when there is a sale. So it made sense for us to go bootstrapping.

Elaine: What are some lessons learnt from bootstrapping that you can share with our listeners?
Ian: Well, the thing is, I think that a lot of planning has to go into understanding your customers first and how much they are willing to pay. From there, you have to make sure that it’s higher than your burn rate. That’s very important if you don’t have funding. Every single acquisition you get in must be positive in the long run. If your idea or if your business doesn’t have such a positive acquisition cost, then I think bootstrapping might not be for you.

Back to Pixaroll, the reason why we decided on bootstrapping was because every single download, every single acquisition will be considered a sale, because people know why they are getting into this app; because they want to create, they want to print something, they want to buy something. For us, the acquisition cost is very low and it’s very positive. That gives us the confidence to say, “Okay, let’s go ahead and bootstrap”.

Elaine: That’s all the questions we have today. Thank you, Ian, for coming down today and sharing your experience bootstrapping. Ian, why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find you on the internet?
Ian: You can download the app at www.pixaroll.com, and you can find this app on App Store and Google Play with the same name Pixaroll.

Elaine: Okay, great! And you can find me Elaine Huang. I’m a correspondent with e27 — a platform for technology and innovation in Asia, but if you want to hit me up on Twitter or Facebook, my details are all in the description section below:

Twitter: @_osculate
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lainhuangsj

This Bootstrappers series is part of the Launchbyte podcast. You can check out the main show at launchbyte.com. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading/listening to this episode of Bootstrappers! Do let us know what you think and what you would like to hear!

Next week, we will be interviewing Burmese Kyaw Lin Oo, Founder, Eventnook about his bootstrapping journey. Watch this space.

Elaine Huang

Elaine is a fervent believer that if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, we will all be snapping away at them with our phones and posting them onto Instagram. A Mass Communication graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, she enjoys writing about technology and entrepreneurs. When not hashtagging her way through all sorts of trouble, Elaine is probably contemplating how to write in the third person.

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