I’m sunsetting my passion project.

Why I’m putting PixelPaws.ca on hold (and 4 reasons why I still consider it a success).

Justin Veenema
Jun 11, 2018 · 9 min read

A Brief History

In 2016 I launched a passion project called PixelPaws.ca. The idea was simple: Take stunning photos of dogs to convince more people to adopt them.

To get this idea off the ground, I launched a GoFundMe campaign which raised $5210 with the help of friends, family and colleagues . Within a matter of weeks, my passion project was up and running and I was photographing dogs for LEASH Animal Welfare Society and the SPCA.

Over the next year and a half I photographed dozens of dogs, produced videos, helped with fundraising events, photographed the cover of a calendar, had my work published in a local magazine and watched as my photos were used on countless animal advocacy websites all over the world.

Our story was run in Vancouver is Awesome and our dogs were featured in Daily Hive (numerous times — thanks Darcy!).

When all was said and done, we ended up helping 34 dogs find incredible, loving families — but not without hitting some major snags along the way.

Setbacks and challenges.

Despite having such a positive impact, there were a few key areas that the project ultimately fell short on.

1. Online Directory

The first major setback was with the online directory. A big part of my pitch was to showcase the dogs on the PixelPaws website, complete with a bio and beautiful web gallery, and then drive traffic towards the website.

In practice, this idea just caused more confusion than anything else. First, there are already online directories such as Adopt-a-Pet.com and Petfinder, both of which are wildly popular and offered a much better user experience than what I could deliver.

Second, I received a lot of feedback from users and rescue organizations saying that my online directory was confusing and unnecessary. There were a few times that we still had dogs listed as “available” when in fact they had already been adopted (due to lapses in communication with the shelters).

At the end of the day, this part of the project was doing more harm than good, so I decided it was best to pull the plug.

2. Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

About six months after this project started, I made the tough decision to pack my stuff and move back to Ontario to spend time with my dad for half a year. After that move, I chose to forego the rising rents in Vancouver and relocated to Montreal, Quebec, to join the Unbounce satellite office.

Shooting the cover for Rosie’s 2018 Calendar.

Eight months later, that satellite office was shut down for good — so I decided to take the plunge and joined an exciting startup called BlockCAT, which was located in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Throughout all of this shuffling around, I still managed to work with rescue shelters such as LEASH, SPCA Montreal and Rosie’s Animal Adoption — but constantly relocating took a huge toll on my personal life, and the project.

3. Communication

I originally planned to share my journey by utilizing email, twitter, blog updates and social media— but it just didn’t work out that way.

Although I was still doing really awesome things with organizations across Canada, I wasn’t quite hitting the goals I set out for myself. I had a really hard time sharing any project updates, even if they were wins, because I was worried that it wasn’t living up to expectations.

A mentor once told me that “perfection is the enemy of done”, and boy was he right. I set such a high bar for myself — and the project — that I viewed anything less as failure.

This was my single biggest regret with the project and one that I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on. If I could re-do one thing, I would have been much more transparent about what was happening with the project, including what was and was not working. I also would have asked my network for help with certain areas of the project, instead of just trying to take on everything myself.

4. The straw that broke the camels back

The final major blow is a tough one to admit — but ultimately, many rescue organizations simply weren’t interested in what I had to offer.

  • “We don’t need photographers at this time.”
  • “We already have a photo guy/girl.” or “We have a good camera.”
  • “There’s no point (aka we don’t think it will help).”
  • Or even worse… no response at all.

Getting my service rejected time and time again (despite it being free) was a tough pill to swallow. This was a stark contrast from the other rescue organizations I’ve worked with, but it didn’t matter how many times I called/emailed/showed up, some organizations just weren’t interested.

Unfortunately this has become the case here in Kelowna; which means there simply aren’t many ways I can contribute to the project at this time.

Despite these challenges, here are 4 reasons why I still consider this project a success.

  1. We helped get 34 dogs find incredible homes.
  2. We helped raise over $18,000 for animal rescue organizations.
  3. My photos are being used on blogs/websites all over the globe.
  4. I got to work with incredible organizations and volunteers.

1. We helped 34 dogs find incredible, loving homes.

The original goal was to get 50 dogs adopted — but helping 34 dogs find happy, loving homes is still a success in my books.

As I’ve come to realize, finding the right home for a dog is a lot more challenging than it looks. Most rescue organizations will do a thorough background check, including home visits and employment validation, before they even think about adopting out one of their dogs.

To know that we helped play a pivotal role in these dogs’ (and humans) lives makes this entire project 100% worth it. We don’t always get to see what life looks like after the adoption, but here are a few of my favourite follow-up stories from the dogs we helped find homes for.

  • Donkey — The very first dog we photographed. (LEASH)
  • Sullivan — Found the perfect family (and a best friend!) (LEASH)
  • Huey — Who ended up being in the right place all along. (LEASH)
  • Betty — Now a famed Instagram celeb. (LEASH)
  • Buckshot —From cruelty investigation to loving new family. (SPCA)
  • Xena — Now has a younger (and much smaller) brother. (SPCA)
  • Tuffy — High-energy, one-eyed golden retriever. (SPCA)

“We have been lucky enough to have Justin donate his time on more than a few occasions. We can say with certainty, that both his photos and videos have helped us with promotion of events and finding our dogs amazing homes.”

— Cassi, LEASH Director

2. We helped raise +$18,000 for Animal Rescue Organizations.

Did you know that most private animal rescue shelters/organizations run on a limited, donation-based operating budget? With no recurring revenue, many orgs need to think outside of the box when it comes to fundraising to cover costs like veterinary bills, food, transportation and housing.

Turns out photography can help lend a pretty big hand for fundraising initiatives.

For example, LEASH Animal Welfare Society runs an annual Santa Paws event where they invite members of the community to get photos of their dogs with Santa (by donation). These events often raise thousands of dollars in a single day, and give families a cherished holiday memory for years to come.

Next come the calendars. When I reached out to Rosie’s Animal Adoption in Montreal, they presented me with a unique opportunity to help them raise money by providing photographs for their annual calendar.

After an initial shoot with their dogs, I ended up being offered the chance to shoot the cover, which ended up being printed and distributed to thousands of people across Canada. So far the 2018 calendar has brought in more than $15,000 for their rescue organization.

3. My photos are being used on blogs/websites all over the world.

I shared some of my best photos on Unsplash, an incredible creative community that allows photographers to share their work freely so that others can download and use them in their projects.

My goal was to empower animal welfare organizations to use my work to promote health, obedience, training and education to existing and potential pet owners. I also embedded info/links about PixelPaws.ca in the description of each photo, as a way to increase the awareness for my initiative.

My images have gained millions of views, thousands of downloads and are being used to promote animal welfare initiatives all over the globe:

4. I got to work with incredible volunteers and rescue organizations.

One of the things I’m most grateful for was the opportunity to work with so many passionate animal advocates across Canada.

From dog boarding and fostering, to organizing and administration — to burlesque fundraisers and pitbull protests in Montreal. The amount of time, effort and resources these volunteers offer are nothing short of incredible and I commend each and every one of them for their contribution.

I want to give a special shout out to some of the volunteers I worked with the most, including Cassi Macdonald and JoAnna Rickard (LEASH), Zina Hussein (Rosie’s), Jason Brawn and Alyssa Boobyer (kick-ass photographers) and Darcy Matheson (CTV). You are all incredible humans.

Left: Tuffy at the SPCA Vancouver Branch (📸 Justin Veenema) // Right: JoAnna Rickard (📸 Jason Brawn)

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’m still incredibly grateful that I got the chance to work on this project. I’ve learned so much about the industry (and myself) and I’m proud of the progress we were able to make with such limited resources.

Although the project is considered sunsetted for now, I’m going to leave the website up indefinitely, should a rescue organization require my services in the future (and I sincerely hope they do). Until then, I’m going to focus my free time on a few other side projects that I have in mind.

Lastly, I wanted to thank all of the volunteers and contributors for believing in this project. You’ve helped make an incredible difference in so many peoples lives, and none of this would have been possible without you. 🙏

About the Author

Justin Veenema is founder and Production Manager at BrandStories™ — a video production company that helps brands unleash the power of video marketing. He’s also a photographer, educator and advocate for pineapples on pizza.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

Justin Veenema

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I help people and brands tell stories online. www.brandstories.ca