“When we started, there wasn't even a term like [creator economy.]” — Phoebe Jiang is transforming how creators share their work
As a student, Jiang read TechCrunch “religiously.” Now, she’s leading a pioneering tech company in Pixieset.
Every Tuesday morning, the Vancouver tech community converges at The Birds & The Beets, a coffee shop and bakery in Gastown. After the lattés and muffins have been consumed and the tech news of the day has been talked, there is a great exodus outwards as attendees make their way to Evos or UBERs or away on foot. For me, the Skytrain would be my next destination. To delay an inevitable return to the suburbs, I choose instead to drift from WiFi hotspot to WiFi hotspot.
For whatever reason, I have had the most success with the internet connection in food courts. I also love the concerto of trays, woks and queues that provide elite white noise. Almost always, those on the other end of my Zoom calls comment on my locale, curious as to why I am under fluorescent lighting and exposed pipes. I always plug the Vancouver Tech Morning Coffee meet-up in response. When I recently chatted with Phoebe Jiang, the co-founder of Pixieset, she instead delighted me with an anecdote about my previous location, not my current one.
“We used to have our office right across the street from The Birds & The Beets. I used to conduct quite a few interviews for our team there. So, I know it quite well,” she revealed with a smile. I appreciated this glimpse down memory lane as I was eager to learn more about the origins of Jiang’s entrepreneurial spirit and her company, Pixieset, a Vancouver-based SaaS company aimed at photographers and creative professionals. For Jiang, it’s a family business—her co-founder is her husband, Simon Wong—that exists at the intersection of her early passions.
A Vancouverite, Jiang stayed in town for school. She was drawn to entrepreneurship while tech dominated her reading list as a student at SFU. “Even back in school I was quite interested in entrepreneurship. I think I was part of the first-ever entrepreneurship club or something like that. [Both Simon and I] are quite techie to begin with so that’s how we got into the tech industry. We used to read TechCrunch religiously and follow all the companies that they covered. I even used to attend the TechCrunch Disrupt conference,” she recalled.
In addition to tech and entrepreneurship, photography was another early passion for both her and Wong. These three areas came to a head when Jiang actually got into the photography industry. “I was second shooter for some of the local photographers in town. This was back in 2013 when all the photographers were still delivering their images by burning a DVD or, if you're a bit more advanced, putting all the images onto a USB drive. That's how you're delivering these images to your clients,” Jiang said.
Steeped in the world of innovation through her own experience at SFU and the countless TechCrunch articles, she immediately knew that photography software was ripe for change. “I’m familiar with tech. I think this was back in the days when there was Google Drive or Dropbox, more modern solutions for transferring files. But, there must be a better way to do this. So, we built the prototype. Back then, it was a free guide that allows travelers to upload and clients on the other side to download. We put it out there. People loved it, photographers loved it and they just started telling other people about it. We just kind of took off from there,” she reflected.
When thinking of a name, the pair settled on Pixieset. It was a study in prefixes and suffixes. The former is a nod to “pix” in lieu of “pictures;” the latter refers to a set of pictures. Early Pixieset users ensured the name would stick. “That's how the name came about, but we weren’t actually really in love with it until now. Obviously, we've built a brand around the name, built a community around the name. But, I remember in the early days, “pixie” can be associated with fairies and things like that. Our initial loyal users, their thoughts started referring to us. When we would release something great, they will say something like, ‘Oh, pixie dust!’ [The name] is one of those things that just really stuck with us since the early days. We grew to love it over time,” Jiang explained.
I’m always intrigued by husband and wife businesses. The ability to simultaneously navigate the two most important relationships for any entrepreneur—spouse and co-founder—has to be a testament to these innovators' relationship-building prowess overall. For Jiang and Wong, they’ve had an opportunity to iron out the kinks in their relationship as co-founders.
“It's actually not the first business we're running together. We've had two others that we've worked on together so this is not the first time, thankfully. We've had some time to figure that out. It's been great. We actually consider it our secret weapon. In the early days, we would talk business 24/7. Whenever one of us would have an idea, we can talk in person. That's actually where a lot of the great product ideas or feature ideas came from. Obviously there's challenges along the way but I think having no filter, you're able to have a very honest conversation about our feelings towards our product and feelings towards how we run a business. Overall, there are definitely more pros than cons to being a husband and wife team,” Jiang shared.
Like most married couples, the topic of real estate is paramount. That space in Gastown near The Birds & The Beets is not the only office Pixieset has inhabited, particularly recently. “I think we've moved four or five times in the last four years. We've moved a lot. When we started the business together, it actually was just the two of us. It wasn't until, I think, the third or fourth year that we brought on our first team. At that time, we were like, ‘Okay we need an office.’ [Simon and I] had a loft apartment that we rented. So, downstairs was sort of our office. Because of that, I think we went to a co-working space and got one of the private rooms in the co-working space,” she recalled.
It was then that Wong and Jiang moved Pixieset to Gastown, precipitating a high frequency of office moves before the great move home due to COVID. “Since then, we've moved, I think, three times. I guess a lesson for ourselves is to look ahead a bit more because moving is not fun. We’ve hired quite a bit during the pandemic so we’re looking at a new office right now to hopefully go back to sometime in the next year. We had a really strong office culture beforehand. Everyone loved talking to coworkers and that's how people make a lot of their friends. We have beer and ping pong tables and all that. Very cliché tech startup things. So, hopefully we'll get some of that back,” Jiang anticipated.
The movement coincides with tremendous company growth. On September 13, the company announced a growth investment from Susquehanna Growth Equity (SGE), an entrepreneur-centric growth equity firm exclusively focused on software and information services companies. The news immediately made me think of the creator economy and the astronomical increase in self-made content producers. “As a leader in the space, Pixieset is positioned to support this immense population of creators. The investment serves as a justification for the company’s mission and proves the power of the creator economy,” I wrote of the announcement.
Jiang, through Pixieset and her own photographic passions, has a unique vantage point to this burgeoning industry—one that has certainly grown during her time within it.
“It's been a really fun journey so far, creating these tools that now become such a staple in [creators’] everyday and how they run their business. But, you said, the creator economy. When we started, there wasn't even a term like that. There are more people who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs and running their own business. Becoming a photographer 10 years ago is so different than how you can become a photographer today. We're just so lucky to be in this position that we're able to play a small part in helping them achieve that. That's what they want to do, that's the career they want to have and we can help them run their business,” Jiang celebrated.
Upcoming is a one-stop-shop for Pixieset users. “We also have a CRM solution coming up so this will allow photographers to send contracts and invoices and get paid. So, all those workflow-driven tools are going to make a huge difference in how they run their business and we really believe that the solution now offers this all in one platform suite of tools for them,” Jiang told me.
On the heels of an investment to justify and an ever growing number of clients to support, product will be placed at the forefront for the company. But, this mission has been integral to Pixieset since day one. “We love building products. That's what got us into this in the first place. We saw a gap in the market and we just decided to create. Then, through the process, we really fell in love with the idea of creating something and building a really top-notch solution that people find useful and more. We're really pioneers of how people deliver photos nowadays. Now, you can’t imagine getting a DVD. I mean, my computer doesn't even have DVD ports anymore,” Jiang pointed out, inspiring me to do the same check as well. I, too, am sans DVD port.
Despite the lack of compact discs in 2021, Pixieset stands out in it’s position supporting the creator economy. Unlike Twitch streamers or YouTubers, creator economy consumers sometimes want, and can attain, a physical version of what photographers are creating. Jiang and Wong have this covered. “Our first product along with a website builder was an online print store, allowing [photographers] to sell these gorgeous, framed prints and products to their clients,” Jiang reflected.
This gave me the overwhelming sense that I was witnessing a potential full-circle moment. On my way to get a caffeine refill on Tuesday mornings, I have noticed local art on the walls of The Birds & The Beets. I can’t wait for the day I see some photography, buoyed by Pixieset, upon the same walls that heard Jiang interviewing her first few teammates.
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