We only know each other through social media but as soon as we met for real, Ani and I both went in for a hug. It was the same when I was introduced to Madlene, another member of the Picsart team I had chatted with only on Linkedin.
Ani and Madlene are exuberant, connected, super-friendly people, and so it seems are the rest of the 400-strong Picsart team. This is probably just as well because they interact in one form or another with 95 million people every month. Picsart is a social media application and website that allows users to upload their photos (450 million every month–and growing), edit them, add text and effects, and share them with a special someone or a special everyone, either through private messaging or in a public forum. Think Facebook meets Instagram meets Snapchat, but more varied, arty, techy and cool. Better yet, download Picsart on your phone, or check out the website on your laptop. Playing with Picsart is easy and fun and everything you are likely to want is free.
Picsart is a real Armenian success story. Started by two young men in Yerevan in 2011, it now has offices in San Francisco and people in Japan and China. Most of the staff are in Yerevan–designers working on stickers celebrating a trending Korean pop group, technical wizards using both real and artificial intelligence to develop new products that will know what you want before you do, and marketers making sure there is always something new and fun and quirky for their mostly teen users to do. The company has its pick of young engineering, programming, analytics and creative talent, all educated in Armenia. Everyone speaks English. The company offers free lessons for those who want to brush up.
So what do people do on Picsart? Want to do something for Madonna's birthday? Design your own celebratory sticker and channel your inner pop diva. Mad about the weekend's events in America? Check out #lovenothate and add your own peaceful picsart to the mix. Wrung every FB like you possibly can out of your own inner circle? Share those summer beach pics with strangers and develop a whole new fan base. Disappointed with your own creative efforts? Never mind–pick the remix option and let a complete stranger have a go at making art out of your everyday images. Madlene's team use algorithms not only to spot what kids care about in Mumbai, Manchester and Minnesota, but to weed out bullies and haters. There are backgrounds and effects and add-ons to suit every taste. A lot of what's posted looks like the cover of school-girl copy books of old–doodles and cute animals and hearts with boys' names–but there is some real creativity, taste and innovation on the site too. Billy, for example, has 649,322 followers worldwide and mostly photographs nature.
In a country where design is often dilapidated Soviet-era, or where there seems to have been no design sensibility at all, it is a pleasure to visit Picsart's offices in Yerevan. They rent space in the TUMO building–itself a marvel of design and innovation–and their warehouse is all poured concrete and bean bags, swing seats and succulents. There is table tennis. There is foosball. There are tropical fish. Everyone looks glad to welcome a middle-aged visitor, and people rush to get me a proper office chair when they see me looking warily at a bean bag. The office is entirely open plan. The founders are out of the country at present, but they sit in amongst everyone else when they are at work. There are meeting rooms, but the doors are glass. This means I see a morning meeting take place. The participants stand up and lean on the backs of office chairs while they talk. Standing is healthy, keeps people focused and alert, and means the meeting lasts only minutes. A sign on the office wall reminds people that their most valuable asset is time–please pay attention in meetings, it says. Rooms are named and themed for the world's greatest artists and quotes from Da Vinci, Picasso, Saroyan and Van Gogh encourage greatness.
Picsart is mostly funded by advertising–five second interruptions that break into an enjoyable hour or two of adding thunderbolts, and tessellations and a rose gold tinge to your iphone snaps. They do sell bundles of stickers for $2.99–100 variations on unicorns, mermaids, hairstyles, ninjas or muscle cars– but I was sufficiently diverted by free tools that allow you to melt and manipulate photos, shift perspective, and create confetti-like clouds from picture fragments that I needed no other stimulation. Here in Armenia, I meet too many well-meaning foreign types encouraging locals to set up small businesses using old-world creative skills–wood-carving, hand-knitting and a hundred ways with raffia. I am as fond of crafting as the next little old lady, but it is not the key to a golden life. At Picsart, these clever, original, and irreverent young people are building a global business using both their hands and their brains. Give them a keyboard, a stylus and a server loaded with data, and they will create the future, one social media sticker at a time. I have been smiling all day because I had such a good time at Picsart. Thank you Ani and Madlene. Glad to know you.