Swimming with sharks? Starting a business? Both changed the lives of PicThrive’s Belovay brothers

Jackie Gill - March 17, 2020 PicThrive co-founders Neal and Keith Belovay aren't just brothers. They're also thrill-seekers who make it easy to share life's most exciting moments in adventure travel.
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In the dead of night, two brothers sat on a boat just off the coast of Australia. All around them: sharks.

“Jump in!” came the order from onboard.

They did. First, Neal Belovay, an experienced scuba diver, slid into the inky ocean. Keith Belovay followed shortly after, with a group of less experienced divers.

“You jump in the water, completely terrified,” Keith says. “I remember when I jumped in, the only one [from the learning group], and a shark was rushing towards me.”

“You don’t even really understand the power of sharks until you jump into the water with them,” Neal adds. Yet once they were in, they didn’t want to come out.

They were taking part in a night dive with reef sharks, just one of their adventure activities lined up in the country. It was scary, blood-pumping and life-changing, the Belovays say.

That’s not much different from the adventure that came next: starting PicThrive. Neal and Keith aren’t just brothers; they’re co-founders who launched their own business. And since 2016, the thrill-seekers have been helping tour operators make photos more easily available for guests who want to remember and share their experiences.

That has heart-pounding moments, too. Or, as Neal puts it: “It’s such a crazy journey, and it’s a rollercoaster ride. You get the highest highs and the lowest lows. And that’s entrepreneurialism.”

Diving in with both feet 

Neal has a funny habit of pitching business ideas to his younger brother. As an engineer, Keith has a funny habit of poking holes in them.

They’ve been doing that dance for years. The idea for PicThrive was different than the others, though.

In 2012, Neal left his job as an equity analyst after failing his second-level CFA exam and realizing he’d need to go full-steam into the mining sector to make it any further in finance. So, while figuring out what he would do next, he spent a year abroad in Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, the U.S. and Canada, living out of a backpack.

At first, he was content just visiting new cities, but soon he found it repetitive – even boring. “Then I found I love nature and everything to do with it, and then discovered all these cool activities,” he says.

Neal learned scuba diving in India, attended surf school in Australia and even did a canyon swing in New Zealand (something like this). But after thrills like those, Neal found himself turning down the photos and videos his tour operators offered him. He only had his phone and a backpack, and they only had CDs, DVDs and USB sticks.

“When I was at a surf camp for a month in Australia, I’d surf in the morning, then I was researching and writing the business plan.”

– Neal Belovay, CEO and co-founder of PicThrive

Now that was a problem he could solve, Neal thought.

Soon, that year abroad became half-adventure and half-business. “When I was at a surf camp for a month in Australia, I’d surf in the morning, then I was researching and writing the business plan for PicThrive,” Neal says. “I also had access to people at that surf camp and [could see] how the operations run.”

While Neal was busy enjoying the thrill of adventure tours and travel, his brother was busy, too.  

A software developer at Amazon in Seattle working on AWS AppStream, Keith had built an impressive resume. With internships at Bluesun, Google, Digital Extremes and Amazon, he’d built everything from video games to streaming platforms.

“Everything was lining up. Get rid of the parts that I don’t like. Be my own boss. Learn and explore something.”

– Keith Belovay, CTO and co-founder of PicThrive

He had an appetite for adventure as well, flying out to meet his brother in Australia. But this time, when Neal pitched a new business idea – to help tour operators manage their photos – Keith was on board.

Keith was looking for a change, too. “My team was great. I liked it. But I got a bit tired with some of the top-heavy, top-down-ness,” he remembers. “Everything was lining up. Get rid of the parts that I don’t like. Be my own boss. Learn and explore something.”

The time was right for both brothers – so they went for it. Keith quit his job, they moved to Vancouver, and they got to work.

Go big, go broke or go home

If you ever go surfing and hear people calling out “Yeww!” it’s probably because they caught a great wave. It’s a common expression of excitement in the sport.

That’s also why Neal and Keith picked YewwShare as their company’s name. “Not that great of a name,” Neal says in retrospect. Nonetheless, it was their first kick at the can.

YewwShare began as a pure photo platform for tour operators. But the more the brothers talked to their market, the more their market asked of them. Add in digital waivers. Real-time customer intelligence. Instant feedback. “So, we thought, okay. Photos aren’t going to be big enough for just a business,” Neal remembers.

As they added more features onto YewwShare, though, they didn’t see a corresponding uptick in customers. The latest feedback brought them right back to square one. “They were all primarily, ‘just make your photo thing better.’”

“This was our last shot. Let’s just do it. And that’s when PicThrive was born.”

– Neal Belovay

In the meantime, Neal and Keith were running out of money – fast. As a fully bootstrapped company, they hadn’t earned any investment. Neal even took on a part-time job as an office assistant to help pay the bills.

From their small apartment, the brothers had to make a difficult decision: give up and kill the company, or go all-in on the photo product – again – and drain the last pennies from their bank accounts.

“This was our last shot,” says Neal. In the end, they agreed. They’d dive in again. “Let’s just do it. And that’s when PicThrive was born.”

“To really make sure that we weren’t making the same mistakes as we did before, we needed some additional help.”

– Neal Belovay

This time, though, they were determined to do things right. In 2016, they joined Travelport’s Denver-based accelerator and moved to Colorado. For about six months, they got additional help from the program’s mentorship opportunities and thrived in a tech scene they found surprisingly vibrant. “To really make sure that we weren’t making the same mistakes as we did before, we needed some additional help,” says Neal.

With a new platform – now named PicThrive – they took another shot in the dark, spending their last dollars getting a booth at a trade show. And people loved it.

Their goal four years ago today? Get ten customers. Hit that, and the brothers would reward themselves with a specialty beer and some ketchup chips. Today, they have customers in tourist destinations around the world, helped hundreds of tour operators save time and boost revenue, and helped thousands of adventure-seekers relive and share their brightest memories.

WATCH: Should we make it easier for employees to travel? Vacation Fund’s Erica Pearson says yes.

Making memories – and sharing them

Think back to the last time you went ziplining, rafting, bungee jumping, skydiving, parasailing or speed boating – anything like that, really. The tour operator probably had a photographer snapping photos, and when the tour was over, you’d pick up a CD, DVD or USB stick.

But there’s so much that goes on that tourists don’t see, the Belovays say.

Take a rafting tour, for example. “There’ll be a photographer on the side taking shots of the boats going down. They would either wirelessly beam that up or have a runner,” says Neal. There’s even one rafting outfitter that uses a pigeon to fly the camera’s SD card back to home base.

“It’s more the wild west of tourism because it’s so fragmented. It’s like the last frontier of innovation.”

– Neal Belovay

Then, to get those photos ready, employees have to sort through photos before their guests return. The rafters wait in line as, one-by-one, staff load the images and process payments. It’s a lot of extra staff, time and opportunity for error.

PicThrive wants those memories to be right, and last as long as possible, without added hassle on operators, which are often small or medium-sized businesses driven by passion over profit.

Not only does their platform house all of the photos taken, but their tablet-based kiosks let guests pick their own from the gallery. Once paid for, those photos go directly to guests’ phones, so they can instantly share.

“You’ll see the group or family or couple crowding each around their own kiosk, laughing and joking and reliving that experience.”

– Neal Belovay

“You’ll see the group or family or couple crowding each around their own kiosk, laughing and joking and reliving that experience, and picking and choosing their photos,” says Neal.

And those guests who need to take off before they can pick and choose? No sweat – there’s an online store they can order from later, the brothers add.

For Neal and Keith, it just feels good to help out such passionate people, Neal says. He estimates that only 20 per cent of adventure travel providers use digital or online reservation systems, much less photo management platforms.

“There’s lots of opportunity within tourism activities, but it’s a very complex ecosystem with lots of little parts,” he says. “It’s more the wild west of tourism because it’s so fragmented. It’s like the last frontier of innovation.”

On adventures yet to come

Running a travel startup is still a rollercoaster. Like divers dipping their fins into shark-infested waters and dreading a bite, there’s no telling when something like COVID-19 could make waves in the travel market or how far the ripples will go. “If anyone’s read a headline, travel’s down,” says Neal. “So there’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to happen.”

But the brothers know a few things for sure.

Keith says he’s grown personally along with the business. “Me today is completely different than me a year ago, me five years ago,” he says. “The first conference we went to, I had to do selling. And that was like, I’m an engineer. Why would I be selling?” Now, on top of being CTO, he runs the customer success team and has learned more about being a manager.

They’ve even grown closer as brothers. Not just because they used to live together, Keith points out, but also because they’re honest with each other. “When we were first starting, we were in the living room together, and Neal’s making those calls in sales. I could hear everything, and so could really give them feedback – blunt feedback which, if he wasn’t my brother, he might not take well,” he says.

“Me today is completely different than me a year ago, me five years ago.”

– Keith Belovay

They’re proud of the team they’ve built, too, which now numbers 11 people. “Most businesses fail and they don’t get past year three. The next drop-off point is year five. So, it’s [rewarding] getting to here and then making big decisions that are life-changing,” Neal says – like moving the entire operation to Kitchener, Ont. in 2018.

Neal adds that they’re both still passionate about travel, tourism and the tour operations they support. “It’s helping or empowering tour and activity operators to thrive with their photos. It’s really diffing into understanding what and how we can help them … and there are big opportunities there,” he says.

And they know they’re ready to jump in.

WATCH: Adventure enthusiast Richard Campbell quit his job and followed his passion project

DRAFT CARD

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  • Name: PicThrive
  • Solution: Photo management for tour and activity operators
  • Owners: Neal Belovay and Keith Belovay
  • Employees: 11
  • Headquarters: Kitchener, Ont.
  • Founded: 2016
  • Contact: [email protected]
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