He began his first startup four years ago, which according to him, was a traumatic experience. He then played with another idea, which didn’t see the light of day. And, then came his big break in September 2012 with Pixaroll. Meet Ian Tay, the 33-year-old Co-founder of the Singapore-based photo-printing and delivering company, who went on to launch The Testing Ground, a 20-day programme for aspiring entrepreneurs looking for product-market fit, in December 2013.

After 10 years of working in sales and marketing, Tay started his first venture TaskPorter in 2010. “I had an idea but I didn’t know how to execute. I didn’t even know who my customers were,” shares Tay. His idea was to build a marketplace which facilitated peer-to-peer activities — like paying someone a fee for cleaning an apartment or delivering a parcel.

If he hadn’t started TaskPorter at that point in his life, he would have never ventured in the startup game, he hints. So Tay took a leap of faith. Unfortunately, it failed miserably, no thanks to what he terms as “toxic relationships”. He explains, “When we launched two years later, there were a lot of issues that went on within my team. In the first place, I didn’t know the people. It was very toxic. The skill-sets of members were very similar, which was bad. We would spend hours debating on whose idea was the best, rather than relying on (domain expertise).”

At that point in 2012, the original TaskPorter team saw a glut of similar ideas rising up in the market. Tay says, “We thought there was a huge market since there was competition. We didn’t think that they (other players) came up without testing the market!”

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But was it really a case of not having a market in Singapore? He asks, “Would you get someone to do your chores for you? I think the idea is fine, but would you get a stranger to clean up your stuff?” His disbelief seems relatively ungrounded, given this author’s experience having seen boy scouts go door-to-door asking to clean houses for a small fee. He further explains, “If you’re at home and watching them, you’ll probably allow it; but isn’t that as same as having part-time maids? There’s already an established industry for it. But when I say there’s no demand, I mean there’s a mismatch in expectations.”

How so, we might ask.

“How much do you want to be paid for your time? People want S$15 or S$20 for an hour, rather than S$5. The thing about Singapore is that it does not have a big enough market of high-income earners, and the ones that are there, would already have domestic helpers,” says the entrepreneur.

An idea ahead of its time?

In the period between 2010 and 2012, Tay also started work on an idea revolving around scanning QR codes and mobile loyalty, though he did not elaborate much on what exactly the plan was. He says, “At that point of time, from a tech guy’s perspective, it was super cool. We thought it was the technology of the future.” But when they did some testing, they realised that no one understood what a QR code was and 3G connectivity was quite horrible. Also, all the QR codes were put in the wrong places like subways. “There’s no reception in a subway! It (the technology) wasn’t ready, so we decided not to go ahead with it,” shares Tay. Also, competition was intense, with startups such as Perx and around!

The birth of Pixaroll

Learning from his mistakes from running TaskPorter, Tay realised that finding the right co-founders and hiring the right talent was crucial. “But how do we get talented people to work together and understand each other first? To tackle this, we started a side project,” says Tay.

To avoid getting the wrong people on board, Tay decided to do a side project with his co-founders first. And as it turned out, the side project went on to become very successful. This side project is what has today become Pixaroll.

However, he maintains that they are still trying to work on the original main project (he cannot reveal what it is), but they hope to launch someday.

Talking about Pixaroll, he says, “It turned out that Pixaroll was generating a lot of cash.” In a few months, the company managed to break even. “Right now, for Pixaroll, we have more than 2,500 paying customers,” shares Tay. A majority of these customers come from within Singapore, understandably so, given the team’s presence in the city-state.

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So what is the content that Pixaroll prints? “It’s all about the milestones in their (customers’) lives. A milestone would be a graduation trip or honeymoon. During festive seasons, they might want to print photographs for their family. After we created Pixaroll, we realised that this is a very viable business,” he shares.

In addition to printing photographs and having them delivered to customers or their friends and family members, they (customers) also can print personalised fridge magnets via the mobile app’s shop feature. “We accept any photo on your phone that you might not want to make public,” says Tay, referring to services that only print photos available on social networks.

At the moment, the company is also looking to penetrate the market in the Philippines. “The direction is for Pixaroll to become Asia’s number one photo-gifting platform. We started with photographs and now we have fridge magnets. Soon, there will be other products coming in,” he states.

The team is made up of four co-founders and one full-time employee. “It’s a small team and we try to keep it lean. At the end of the day, we do see that there is potential to grow, but we don’t want to over-hire and get a lot of people in,” Tay says, adding, “This whole thing came out from Lean Startup Weekend.”

According to Tay, Pixaroll was bootstrapped since day one. While he is not averse to receiving funding, he would rather secure financing from like-minded investors. “I know I can survive,” he tells this author, adding that he will take money from investors to scale, rather than to prove that there is a market.

Getting them to fail

From the school of hard knocks, Tay learnt that it is important to teach budding entrepreneurs lessons he should have got from the start. Thus, together with Bryan Long, the two started The Testing Ground to help founders understand and apply techniques from the Lean Startup Methodology.

The 20-day programme encapsules lessons from experienced mentors, and getting out to talk to potential customers. Their first batch of seven students graduated last month, and the next will start in mid-February. Tay said, “After the first batch, we want to go through it in detail and understand what we did and what the best practices are. We want to replicate this all over Asia, and build a network.” Each participant is charged S$400 (US$315), which includes all lesson materials.

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Co-founder Long adds that their main goal is to prevent people from wasting time and money. He further explains this by saying that there are many disgruntled employees out there who are looking for change in life and think that entrepreneurship is the way to go. Many get into it only to find out later that the lifestyle is not for them. But if they try out this programme for 20 days, they’ll realise that they don’t fit without investing further.

Tay emphasises that the programme wasn’t started to rival incubators and accelerators. In fact, it is to weed out the entrepreneurs who might not have the tenacity or endurance the startup route requires. “You can come here, test your idea and if you think you really want to pursue it after the programme, go ahead and enroll yourself in that incubator. You can show them that you have done your customer development, you have refined your product, and refined the solution,” he says.

“If we try to make you fail, and you can’t fail, it means that you have a very solid product,” states Tay.

Shedding light on the emotional anguish that no one really talks about, he says that founders pay a psychological price — far more exorbitant than anything pegged to a price tag. But if you manage to get it right, the sweet rewards make it all worth it, concludes Tay.