“So for us to be able to find the right positioning, what we want to do, and having it resonate with our target customers, that made all the difference”. – Celso Pinto, Pixie.

Today I’m speaking with Celso Pinto Founder and CEO of Pixie. In this episode, we talk about . . .

  • Life as a serial entrepreneur who’s founded or co-founded multiple companies, including 7Syntax, SimpleTax, Pomar and Pixie.
  • Exiting a company you’ve built.
  • The journey to starting Practice Management solution Pixie.
  • Why is it important not to get stuck on perfect?
  • What firms do to adapt to new systems successfully?
  • The importance of believing in yourself and joining peer groups – like the GoProposal group.
  • What advice do you have for your younger self about using your time, relationships, and opportunities to prepare for the career you have?
  • Ideas on how governments and policymakers can support the digitalization of small businesses: influence don’t impose.
  • Discussed two inspirational business books and why Celso liked them:
    • The score takes care of itself: a management book about Bill Walsh, perhaps the most successful coach of American football
    • Managing the professional services firm by David Maister

CelsoPintoOne

What tips do you have for a successful summer holiday in Portugal?

Celso:              Wow. Timing is everything, I would say. First of all, Heather, thank you so much for inviting me to the podcast, I really appreciate it. So going back to the question, I would venture saying that the ideal time to visit Portugal is around the beginning of June when things are already on the way up, but it’s not super busy.

Celso:              So in terms of locations, I would advise starting with Lisbon. If you’re into beaches, try maybe giving a visit to Comporta, to the Comporta beach. It’s a huge beach, about 40km of sand. It goes from Troia all the way down to Sines. Definitely worthwhile to visit. And then the southwest coast of Portugal as well, all the way down to Algarve and obviously make the mandatory pit stop for the rest of the summer there and then enjoy the sun. And have you been to Portugal already?

Heather:         I’ve been to Spain. So I’ve been to Spain a number of times, I’ve been to some of the islands. Now I can’t remember which islands I’ve been to in Spain. And I’ve been to mainland Spain as well, but I’ve not got across to Portugal. So my lockdowns don’t… My border closures went until probably a year away. So, maybe then. Yeah, our international borders are closed till June 2022, so maybe after that.

Celso:              Yes.

Heather:         Yeah absolutely, but thank you for sharing that with us, Celso.

Can you share with our listeners a bit about your background?

Celso:              Yeah, absolutely. So I’m based in London. But as you can imagine from my accent, I’m not from these parts. I’m originally from Lisbon in Portugal. I was born there, decided to move to London almost 10 years ago. And yeah, I’ve been enjoying the famous British weather since then.

Heather:         Sensational, thank you for that. So you have said that “I love building teams to deliver delightful products that make someone’s day a little better.” And you go on to say that you got hooked into doing this when doing a skunkworks project over 20 years ago.

What is a skunkworks project?

Celso:              Oh, it’s a late-night project that no one vets them, and it’s pretty much outside of the radar of the management. So that project in specific was very interesting. It was something related to GPS and mobile weather forecasting for yachting people, for a company here in the UK. And the interesting bit of that was that I was just doing it to learn the technologies at the time. And it ended up blowing up actually, obviously given the context of the time of the day as well, but it got far more traction and more users and more press than everyone anticipated. And yeah, it was really interesting seeing people using it to plan their journeys around the British Isles, and yeah, that was a very interesting experience for me.

Heather:         Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s always fascinating when software developers take on these side projects, again, as you said, to learn, and it seems that they have to take on a few, but then something can, as you said, unexpectedly blow up. You never really know where that’s going to come from. So you are a serial entrepreneur founding or co-founding multiple companies, including SevenSintex, SimpleTax, Pomar and Pixie, the practice management solution.

What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?

Celso:              I guess it’s the freedom that it affords us. I would say that if anything, I’m really just thankful for the ability to do this and pursue these opportunities. And then also just being able to put together teams that tackle the problems and the opportunities that we see in the market. So those two things are, for me, the biggest benefits and the biggest pros of starting something. Obviously. usually at some point,? we all go back to… I’m getting a bit tired of this routine and what’s new there, what else can we do, et cetera. So sometimes that occurs and there’s a bit of switching, but otherwise, I would say that just that feeling of starting something, getting people around it or gathering people around it and going altogether at it, I think it’s a very interesting experience.

Heather:         So you like the freedom, you like building a good team around it, but you’ve exited a few companies that you’ve built.

Have you found exiting the companies you’ve built to be hard?

Celso:              Yeah, definitely. I mean, SimpleTax, that was a tough journey, I’ll tell you that much. And the process of having to let go of something that you started isn’t the easiest. And at some point, we all developed coping mechanisms and distanced ourselves from the company, but there’s always a bit of identity there and a conflict, which is, this is me, and tomorrow it’s no longer me. And I found that break-up, I’d say, I found that really, very tough, but that was the first time it happened. After that, it was thankfully a bit easier, the experience.

Heather:         Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

Can you briefly describe for our listeners Pixie and the journey to starting Pixie?

Celso:              Sure. So the goal for Pixie is to make small accounting firms more efficient with software. To give you an idea, the average accountant has to do the work, they do what they’re paid to do in terms of delivering all the compliance work, the bookkeeping, et cetera, at the same time, manage clients and manage the client relationship and keep track of about 800 deadlines per year. And this is just an individual. That’s a lot to manage, and it’s very easy for things to fall through the cracks.

Celso:              And what we aim to create with Pixie is to create a system of records that ensures that services are delivered consistently and work gets started before the deadlines. And we try to automatically collect information from clients before it’s actually needed. In addition to that, Pixie also creates a system of record for all the client data points, guaranteeing that anyone in the team can find any information that they need to get the job done for the client. So this is primarily what we are aiming to achieve with Pixie.

Why did you come up with the idea for Pixie, because it seems to be a bit different to other projects that you’ve created?

Celso:              It’s interesting, in fact, because Pixie started almost as a research project for SimpleTax. And so that’s when the idea got started.

Heather:         So another skunk work project?

Celso:              No, SimpleTax was not a skunk work project at all.

Heather:         No. Okay. Another side project and then it got bigger, that’s what I meant.

Celso:              More or less. More or less. So what we were doing at the time… So simple tax is a consumer tax filing product. And what we were trying to understand is how could we serve small accounting practices with our products as well. At the time, this was back in 2013, there weren’t many app-based tax filing products out there. I’d actually venture to say that there was none if memory doesn’t fail me. So the opportunity that we saw was quite interesting.

Celso:              And at the time when I started doing this research, what I realised is that it was really, really challenging for small firms to deliver the work and manage the clients. So that was the primary challenge that they had. And it was interesting because what we were being asked to do for SimpleTax for these firms was exactly that. And so just manage the collection process for accountants so that whenever the clients had all the information ready, then they could start doing the work, so managing the communication piece. And in doing that, whilst we were doing this research, there was an opportunity also to exit SimpleTax, so we ended up doing that and the project didn’t go anywhere. However, that challenge stayed in the back of my mind.

Celso:              Now fast forward a few years, and I’m reading this article from a friend of mine in accountingWEB, where they were using Trello in their practice. And I’m thinking to myself, hold on, it’s been five years already. So why are you using Trello? Surely there’s something out there. And in speaking to him and to a number of other accountants, what I realised is that, yes, there are plenty of cloud-based solutions, but nothing that’s too streamlined or streamlined specifically for small firms. Everyone has the ambition to go towards mid-sized to large firms, which is super natural for a business to do. However, that leaves smaller clients in a tough spot because the software that they have frequently has way more features than they need, et cetera.

Celso:              Anyways, I’m digressing, the long story is that Pixie started as a research project for SimpleTax, and yeah, took us a few years to get there and pursue the opportunity.

Where did the name Pixie come from?

Celso:              Oh, boy. So you remember one of the companies that you mentioned, it’s called Pomar. Pomar was primarily a consulting company with the objective of essentially… So Pomar means orchard in Portuguese. And the goal for that was to create various products, so plant various trees, and hope that some of them would bear fruits. And the code name for Pixie was Tangerine. And then Tangerine isn’t a very easy name to spell out or to find a good domain for.

Celso:              And I spent some time trying to find types of tangerine, maybe there was something there that would be interesting. And at the same time I was listening to my Spotify, and this is just what happened by complete coincidence, there’s a tangerine called pixie, and the Pixies were also playing on Spotify radio, right? This is a sign. So as I looked around trying to find how to get the name registered, and I’m thinking to myself, “All right, let’s do this one.” Now looking back, I think I should have given it a bit more thought, but yeah, it ended up right. It’s working out fine.

Heather:         And I think no one expected that to be the reason why you called it Pixie. Have you had a pixie tangerine yet?

Celso:              I have not, but I hear they’re okay. A bit punchy.

Heather:         I know, that needs to be a goal then, to have a pixie tangerine.

Why is it important not to get stuck on perfect? What do you see firms do to adapt to new systems successfully?

Celso:              Sure. So the firms that we see adopting new systems when they do it successfully, they don’t go for, let’s stop everything, re-imagine the entire firm, the entire processes and then create systems around this. They’re a bit more organic in the adoption of technology. So they start with a small point and organically, they move towards their ideal, whether that’s across a number of weeks of months. This isn’t to say that you should expect from a soft package of software that they can only deliver the value that you’re expecting after a few months, they should be able to deliver things immediately. You mentioned Receipt Bank earlier, and that’s an amazing example. You should sign up for Receipt Bank, and you get value right away. And so that’s the way it should be.

Celso:              However, getting all the clients on board, et cetera, that’s a long-term goal. And trying to wrangle all the clients to get them to sign up for something right away, that’s going to be a tough proposition. Again, that’s the perfect state, but let’s work towards that as opposed to just starting from there, I guess. And this is really the definitive traits that we see in firms that successfully adopt new technology, is just getting started with the smallest point and moving towards their ideal.

Heather:         Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I like how you use the word wrangle there, “wrangled the clients together.”

Why is it important to believe in yourself and to join a group of peers? Why is that so important to you?

Celso:              Absolutely. It’s interesting. And one of the things that kind of struck me coming into the industry after being out of it for a few years is how some propositions are built around almost influencing the thinking of small practice owners, thinking that they’re not good enough, they don’t know about business, they’re not creative. And for me, maybe I’m just lucky, maybe in the hundreds, well, at this point, thousands, of the companies that I’ve interacted with were all amazing. And they’re all super creative people. They definitely know about business because they’ve been running their businesses for many years. So I don’t really believe in that.

Celso:              And I think it’s really important for folks to not get dragged down with that messaging and find communities that primarily support them with a positive message. And there are some communities out there that are frankly amazing. Obviously, GoProposal community, I’m sure you know about them. Everything they do is at the service of the customers and elevating them. And I think that that’s the primary function of the community. So whenever someone seeks out a community of peers, they should seek out people that help them elevate themselves to the next level and not, the opposite of that.

Heather:         Yeah. Absolutely, I agree with you. And some marketing people take the approach of scaremongering people. Telling people what to do, which is not something that I align to or something that resonates with me at all. I don’t mind someone putting some education out there, but don’t tell me I need to do this. Especially when you’re not running a business yourself, you are a marketing person selling me a product for that particular reason. And I do think that the large communities like James Ashford’s GoProposal are good. And also if you are looking for a community, also look for a small one as well, like a sort of a niche one. And you want them to elevate you. But also, I think being truthful with you is also important as well if you need to be… Feedback, feedback’s always good.

Celso:              Yeah. Absolutely.

What were the lessons you learned in achieving 3 million in sales in nine months at a startup consulting firm?

Celso:              Yeah, absolutely. I guess that the main lesson from that particular journey was that positioning is everything, quite literally. So going through the motions of understanding, what are we in a position to sell, who the target clients that we want to have that can afford the pricing that we want to charge, and how do we position ourselves from a marketing and sales perspective if these clients make all the difference in the world. We stopped being slowed down by customers that weren’t willing to pay what we wanted, and that didn’t have the impact that we wanted to have, and wouldn’t give us the impact that we wanted to have as well.

Celso:              As a consulting firm, consulting firms aren’t that much different from an accountancy firm, for example. It’s all about knowledge. And obviously, you always want to have time available to work on the projects that help you develop that knowledge because that’s the bread and butter of your work. So for us to be able to find the right positioning, what we want to do, and having it resonate with our target customers, that made all the difference. And that’s something that I brutally recommend to anyone, if they can, just spending a bit of time understanding what type of client we want to work with and absolutely just reject anyone outside of that. And it’s a very strong word, rejecting, but it’s definitely worthwhile giving it a good shot and seeing where it leads in terms of results.

Heather:         I think you know that a business has reached a certain level of maturity when they can say no.

Celso:              Yeah.

Heather:         So you’ve mentioned you’ve got two books that you’d like to share with listeners. So the first one is The Score Takes Care of Itself, a management book about Bill Walsh, and Managing the Professional Services Firm by David Maister. What is it about these books you think listeners will be interested in?

Celso:              Well, starting with the latter, this thing I mentioned about understanding what’s the value that you provide and what will generate future value as well, ie acknowledge, that is the number one thing I learned from David Maister’s book. I learned it going into that startup consulting firm because I had never been in a management position in a consulting firm before. And suddenly, I was trying to wrap my head around, how do we shape this, how do we get to that ultimate goal in terms of growth? So for me, that was a very important understanding to have from the perspective of, again, what’s valued to us, getting to that value and also understanding how can we scale the term. So that is a very good book precisely for that. If someone just wants to go back to the basics and understanding what are the fundamentals of a consulting firm, that’s a really good book to start.

Celso:              Bill Walsh’s, I love that book. I absolutely love that book. Primarily because, again, it’s one of the things that is very core to Pixie. So Bill Walsh coached the San Francisco 49ers. This is an American football team. I won’t go into the details of it, but let’s say that they weren’t exactly a top team when he joined. However, he completely transformed the way of thinking about the organisation. And one of the nicest things I’ve learned about his management style was it was… almost better saying a bit of a micromanager. So what do I mean by that? He created bullet lists, checklists for everyone to follow, from the coaches to the players to the receptionists, everyone had a checklist on how to communicate, what would they need to achieve, how to perform their job, et cetera.

Celso:              So all the fundamentals, he would always step into a checklist. And that is something that we see happening a lot in Pixie as well, which is whenever someone wants to guarantee consistency of service, they always create a checklist. This is interesting because it also enables them to juggle things. So it’s always coming in and out of tasks and trying to understand where things were left open. So having that checklist really, really helps as a memory aid as well.

Celso:              But the interesting bit is that checklists are a baseline, and then you can also refine them towards improving processes. And this is something that Bill Walsh did, but that’s pretty much the title, which is as long as the fundamentals are in place, this score will take care of itself. So if we do the fundamentals right, we will win the game. And that’s the basic lesson of the book. And I absolutely love it for that. So even if someone isn’t a sports person, I would definitely recommend you to read, it’s very lightweight so…

Heather:         It sounds like he could use Pixie for all of his checklists.

Celso:              Yeah

Heather:         You should develop them all in Pixie and hand them over to him.

Celso:              Actually, yes. That’s a very interesting thing to do.

Heather:         Yeah, absolutely. Well, that seems to be what you were outlining in what you were suggesting there.

Do you have any thoughts on how the government and policymakers can support small business digitalisation?

Celso:              So it’s a fairly broad question. I would say that, again, maybe this is just my personal preference, but not enforcing change and just letting it happen organically. There are ways to influence people making certain decisions, and if you read some work from, for example, Dana Arieli about behavioural economics and things like that and how to influence people, there are definitely ways to get to the desired outcome without having to carry the stick.

Celso:              And I have two views over this, interestingly enough, because I have the Portuguese experience and I have the UK experience. And it’s almost like night and day. Whereas here in UK, it’s more like this, a matter of influencing towards the ideal outcome, back in Portugal it’s a bit of the opposite, it’s almost like just imposing that change and then expecting everyone to fall into line. Obviously, from my personal experience, I think the UK has been a bit more successful in doing that, or at least less troublesome, even though we all know about the MTV happenings and ways, but yeah, I think they’re on a good track.

Heather:         So you’re saying, influence, don’t impose.

Celso:              Yeah, pretty much.

Heather:         Yeah. Okay. Thank you. Thank you for that, Celso. Can you briefly share with us, what tech stack are you using to run your business?

Celso:              So Pixie is hosted on Amazon servers. This is something that’s really important for us because we have to comply with the privacy regulations of multiple regions, from the US, to the UK, to Canada. I say UK, I actually mean European, but now it’s UK and Europe. Still need to get used to it. And yeah, so just from that, then the rest is pretty much on modern web stack.

Heather:         That’s fair enough. No, that’s fine.

Celso:              But yeah, if there’s anything I can explain in more detail, I’m more than happy to.

What’s the most popular app you use on your mobile device?

Celso:              I’ll say Reddit. It’s my guilty pleasure, looking at memes, looking at memes of cats.

Heather:         Memes of cats, oh my goodness. Very good.

Celso:              I haven’t said this to anyone.

Heather:         There’s a meme of cats that appeared last night on Reddit that a guy lost his cat and he went out and found his cat, but then his cat came back, and now he’s got two cats that are identical. And he’s like, he doesn’t know which one is his cat now. And he’s got a photo with them, so excellent. So, Celso, what is next for you?

Celso:              So the ambition really for us, for Pixie, is to try and make it the default solution for accountants everywhere. It’s a pretty big task. So the next stage for us, really, is just to continue pursuing this goal. We’ve been very fortunate so far, and we have lots of support in the market where we’re at right now. But again, our ambition is really to turn this into a global business, and hopefully, as one of our clients said recently, make Pixie the first tab everyone opens in the morning and the last stop they close in the evening. If we get to do that, I think we would have a very great journey.

Heather:         Yeah, absolutely. Except they need to close it in the afternoon so they can have the evening, they can be relaxing.

Celso:              Good point. Good point.

Heather:         But I understand where you’re coming from, but we need to build in that normalisation of work-life balance in there.

Celso:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Heather:         Thank you, Celso, for joining me here today on the Cloud Stories Podcast.

Celso Pinto

Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners? How can they get in touch with you or with the team at Pixie?

Celso:              I go back to the conversation we were having around just believe in yourself. Take it easy and believe in what you’re doing, and don’t go for perfect right away. It’s super normal to start small and ride things towards the ideal goal. It might take a while, but it’s like that for everyone. So no matter what it might seem from the moments we get here and there from talking with other people, the journey out is always never a straight line.

Celso:              To get in touch with me, just feel free to drop me an email. My email is celso@usepixie.com. I would invite everyone to start the trial of it as well, but let’s keep it to the email for now.

Heather:         Absolutely. Thank you so much, Celso, for joining us in the Cloud Stories Podcast, we’ve really enjoyed having you here.

Celso:              No problem. Thank you so much again, Heather.

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