Business Owner Story #75 – PicCollage

Business Owner Story #75 – PicCollage

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There have been more than 80 million downloads of the PicCollage mobile app since its 2011 launch by San Francisco-based Cardinal Blue Software. The app lets people use their Android or iOS phones and/or tablets to combine photos into collages, and share the results with friends or with the public. They can also buy stickers to decorate their collages, and post their creations on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or PicCollage itself. In addition, users can browse collages and respond with visual remixes.
The main PicCollage user demographic is 16- to 25-year-olds, who typically use the app both to share personal photos with friends and to show their appreciation for brands and celebrities, such as Starbucks and Taylor Swift. In addition, some bands such as Maroon 5 and Gwen Stefani have used PicCollage to promote their new albums. The PicCollage team has 15 members in San Francisco and Taipei. John Fan, co-founder and CEO of PicCollage, recently told us how they got to where it is now.

The Start

How did you start your business?
Previously, we had been developing apps for Facebook, and had built an app where millions of people created tributes and memorials. We saw people were uploading lots of pictures of their loved ones, and that gave us the idea for a mobile photo app for creating collages.

How did you fund your business in the beginning?
When we started, we used our own savings, and basically bootstrapped for a while. We had a low burn rate, with just our laptops and a very small team. We then joined the 500 Startups accelerator program, and by demo day, our PicCollage app had started to get traction, so we were able to raise money from other investors. In total we’ve raised $2.7 million, all from (San Francisco) Bay Area investors.

Learning to Run the Business

How did you learn to run your business?
I learned “on the job” with this company. I actually did take some entrepreneurship courses when I was at Stanford, but that’s not really the same as trying to actually run your business. What you learn in school is more structured, like writing a business plan. Also, I had previously worked for a large startup that was acquired by Qualcomm, but prior work experience sometimes makes you do things prematurely for your stage. You think, ”We have to do this because that’s how we did it at the previous company,” but that doesn’t apply when you have just a few people.

You need to force yourself to see things fresh and think, “What’s the right thing to do here?” You might think of something that works, but then in a month or two it starts to break because things have changed, so you’re constantly evolving how you do things.

Who was your first customer?
Our initial users turned out to be mostly young women and teenagers who were using it to create fun collages on the fly when they were out with their friends. So our first customers were the users who made In-App Purchases of virtual stickers to add to their collages.

What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Not taking more time to think about the bigger picture. But then again, during that first year we were consumed with just pushing out new releases to make the app better.

What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
In that first year we were fortunate to bring on some great team members, and also we were fortunate to find investors who were supportive and gave good advice. The first few hires and early investors at a startup have an enormous impact.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I think the most rewarding thing is when you see your team members stepping up and doing great work, coming together to create something you weren’t expecting.

What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
It’s not just a 3-ring circus — it’s a 20-ring circus. You’re dealing with engineering issues like the server crashing, with issues on the design side, the product side, the user side, and fundraising side — and then you have to think about team psychology on top of the execution and operational issues. Luckily I’ve been fortunate to have talented and supportive cofounders to share the burden with.

What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
One surprising thing when you have a consumer app is that your users do some pretty amazing things. The creativity of some of the collages has been incredible: For example, people have been creating collages entirely using text. Or creating really elaborate homages to some celebrity using 40 photos. Our users surprise us every day.

Actually I think that’s one of the things that keeps startups alive. It’s not just about making money. You have these users who already believe in your product, so you have to get up every day and make it better for them.

What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
I admire Naval Ravikant, a very sharp serial entrepreneur who has advised numerous startups, including ours. Given his helpful nature, it makes perfect sense that he ended up creating AngelList, a social network that has revolutionized angel investing and now helps hundreds of thousands of startups find investors and hire employees.

What I’ve Learned

What advice do you have for others who are starting their own businesses?
I think my advice would be: Be a good person. Be the kind of person that other people want to work with. Be the catalyst that brings people together to build great things as a team that they couldn’t do alone.

What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
When I started, I didn’t know how hard it is to build something that resonates with millions of people, and I didn’t realize how much patience it takes to build a company and how many tasks and steps are involved. But then again, maybe not knowing all those steps makes it easier to take the first step.

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About the Author — Robert Poe is a long-time technology journalist specializing in telecommunications in Asia and the U.S., and is owner and chief photographer at Photos by Poe.

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