Monday interview: Cat Smith, Pixel Image

PROPERTY boom and shifts in buyer behaviour give Pixel founder clear vision of success

Cat Smith established Pixel with her husband Steve as a pioneering provider of digital images for the property market, and their company is now looking to expand. Picture: Greg Macvean

It’s been a “very interesting and bumpy journey”, but Cat Smith, of Pixel Image, reckons the time is ripe for her company in the UK.

Co-founded by Smith and her husband Steve in 1996, Pixel began life in Edinburgh as one of the first producers of digital images for the property market. Now standard across the industry, these computer-generated graphics replaced the water colour representations previously used to depict an architect’s design before it is built.

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Their company expanded over the years, adding animation, web search, interactive video and other tools to what would become an array of marketing skills geared towards selling new-build and refurbished homes. This culminated in an international accolade in 2007 for its work on Sundial Properties’ prestigious Ravelston Terrace development in Edinburgh.

Annual revenues were approaching £1 million when the financial crash hit, taking with it vast swathes of a property market reliant on debt funding. Turnover at Pixel plunged to mid five-figures, forcing a rethink by its owners.

They decided to pull the entire operation back to India, where Pixel has run an office in Pune since 2001 providing 24-hour 3D production services. They continued working for their few remaining UK clients from India, where the Smiths have lived since 2009, while picking up additional business locally. But a resurgent property market combined with a marked shift in consumer buying behaviour has paved the way for the return of Pixel, which is recruiting to expand its newly established team of three in Edinburgh.

With 80 per cent of property hunters expected to be online by 2020, Pixel is launching the latest version of its interactive system for viewing and comparing properties. Already used by builders such as Dundas Estates and Mactaggart & Mickel, Home Selector gives online browsers outdoor aerials, internal floor plans and “lifestyle” aspects of furnished rooms, including views out of the windows.

Smith said consumers increasingly expect this kind of detailed information, particularly for the “biggest buying decision of their lives”. This shift in assumptions has been particularly marked during the last five to seven years.

“Research out last year from the National Association of Realtors [NAR] Report 2015 speaks for itself,” Smith explains. “It showed that in 2014, 43 per cent of people searched online for their new home, compared to only 8 per cent in 2001.

“We also know from this NAR report that almost 90 per cent of people searching online expect detailed information about individual property units as they browse.”

A veteran of the UK property industry, Smith was born abroad and spent part of her time growing up in Holland and Brazil before her family returned to the UK where she finished her schooling in Gloucestershire. She met her husband while both were working for Edinburgh-based Miller Group, she in Miller Partnerships and Steve in Miller Homes.

With support from his future wife, Steve set up Pixel in 1996. Smith joined full-time in 1998, the year the two were married, but it was a close-run contest as to whether she would stay full-time at the business.

“I had about six weeks to make it work before I had to find another job,” she explains. “I did call the employment agency a couple of times, but in the end I stayed.”

The couple have intimate knowledge of the property sector, not only from their professional backgrounds but also by virtue of having designed two flats of their own. The first was a converted floor of a bonded whisky warehouse in Leith, the second two levels of a former flour mill in Edinburgh’s Dunedin Street.

The latter was only completed as the couple were moving to India in 2009, though they continue to rent the property out and occasionally stay there between tenants. Whether they will eventually return full-time remains to be seen, but the plans for Pixel suggest this is a possibility.

The team in Edinburgh will more than double, with two to three production specialists and two sales executives being sought. The Pune office will carry on, but will revert to being a back-office for the Scottish business.

“Going forward, we are moving towards the UK,” Smith says. “Now that the market is picking up again, we prefer working with UK clients.”

30 Second CV

Born: Netherlands, 1969.

Raised: Holland; Brazil.

Education: Westonbirt School, Gloucestershire; Esher College; Huddersfield Polytechnic.

First job: Worked alongside Charlie Bananas selling perfume in Oxford Street.

Ambition at school: To build windmills.

What makes you angry: Lies, indiscretion and plagiarism.

Can’t live without: I ‘d love to have very few possessions, but if pushed – 70 per cent-plus cocoa chocolate.

Kindle or book: Kindle.

Favourite city: Barcelona.

Preferred mode of transport: Rickshaw or motorbike.

What car do you drive: Tata Safari 4-wheel drive.

What inspires you: Blue skies and success stories from hard workers and underdogs.

Best thing about your job: Seeing products we have developed enter the market and get a positive response.