Oct 18, 2010
“At the end of the day, more so than the idea itself, it’s the market. When you’re starting to research a market that’s big enough, you’ll find opportunities there,” says Inaki Berenguer who co-founded Pixable right after graduating from MIT Sloan in 2009. In Part I of this Student to Founder series we’ll learn about Pixable and how Inaki incubated the startup while at MIT. In Parts II and III, we’ll hear Inaki’s thoughts on managing Pixable’s international team and raising angel and venture capital investment.
MITER: Inaki, tell us about Pixable, how you got it started, and what have been your major milestones and successes since the founding?
IB: Pixable is the place to go to browse and manage all your photos online – photos on Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, and even photos on your computer. It’s a way to unify your photos that are based on different plaftorms, group and edit them, and do other cools things like creating video slideshows or photobooks that we would print and send to you.
My co-founders, Andres Blank and Alberto Sheinfeld, and I started Pixable when we were at MIT between our first and second years in the business school. We came up with the idea thanks to the trips that we were taking at MIT, particularly our trip to Japan. We went on the trip and at the end of it we wanted to create a photobook to remember the experience, so we went to all our classmates and asked if they’d give us their photos on a USB drive. And all we heard was, “No, they are on Picasa”, “they are on Facebook”, “they are on Flickr”, etc. It was frustrating because the photos were already online and we had access to them, but we still couldn’t group them. So that was painful, plus photos had additional information such as the people appearing in it, the title, and possibly comments that could be important for a photobook, but we couldn’t easily transfer that information back and forth. So we said, “Well, let’s try and solve this problem for ourselves.”
At the same time, when we were starting our second year, Facebook announced Facebook Connect. That gave users, and us, the opportunity to export your Facebook-based data. That was the case with Flickr and Picasa as well.
In the middle of the second year we decided to put some money down and hire a development team in India. We also have technical backgrounds. We actually went to India to work with them, wrote the product specs, and bought the domain. We also wanted to partner with a printing facility, so we flew to different printing facilities in the U.S. All of that happened during our second year of the MBA program in 2009.
In March of that year we decided to incorporate the company. We raised half a million dollars from friends and family before finishing business school and we started working full-time on the startup in New York City right after graduation. We launched the service the following October (2009). We also got very lucky. The New York Times published a story about us which brought us a lot of attention and opened doors to talent, advisors and investors. We recruited our first full-time employee in November, and now we have twenty five employees in New York. We still have our team in India and we recently built a team in Argentina – they are five now but will grow to seven in the coming months. Our team is mainly focused on the product at this point and a little bit of marketing and graphic design. In June, we closed our first round of financing of $2.5M from Highland Capital Partners, which brought to our board James Joaquin, who was the founder of oFoto and CEO of Kodak Gallery, and Bob Davis, the founder and CEO of Lycos and managing partner at Highland. We’re living the dream.
MITER: At what point did you say that this was a really good idea and you were going to go forward with it? Essentially, how did you validate the idea?
IB: At the end of the day, more so than the idea itself, it’s the market. When you’re starting to research a market that’s big enough, you’ll find opportunities there. So it’s a matter of being in that market and not just solving a problem, but solving a hard problem that isn’t solved yet. Even if you don’t solve the problem, along the way you’ll solve other adjacent problems and you’ll still be in the same big market. In our case, it also helped that we were solving a problem that we were experiencing ourselves as consumers.
MITER: Inaki, you spent the summer between your first and second year at Microsoft. At what point did you know that you weren’t going back to Microsoft and that you were going to start a company.
IB: Actually, I didn’t do recruiting in the first year of school. I knew I was going to start a company. So what happened was that in October of the first year I met a professor and a postdoc at MIT. We decided to try to commercialize a technology that he had – basically, a GPS enhancement. We had a prototype working, I wrote a business plan, and we took part in the MIT 100k competition. We went to the final, we won the Mobile Track of the competition and even had two VCs doing due diligence. That was in May, but already in March the professor told me that he didn’t want to start a company. He was starting a sabbatical and wanted to keep that as a research project for the next two or three years. I was willing to quit the MBA, I still am very excited about that idea, but it just didn’t work out. I ended up talking to Microsoft and they offered me the possibility of spending the summer there.
Even at Microsoft, I knew that I was going to start a company. But I also learned that I wanted to find partners who I could trust and were committed. With a business partner, the first thing you need to know is that he/she is committed. There are lots of smart, creative and likeable people with leadership skills, but if they are not committed or passionate, the company is never going to be a priority in their life. I was lucky to find Andres Blank at MIT.