McLain Harvey (07) knows that when a good idea meets great leadership, you can’t go wrong. Harvey is the co-founder and CEO of Pixster, the largest photo booth rental company in the U.S. Pixster provides photo booth experiences for events nationwide, with locations in Southern California, Arizona, Texas, Illinois, and Tennessee. Pixster provides photo booths for 7,000 events per year. Pixster has taken over 3 million photos and has accrued over 1 billion photo views.  

“At our core, we’re a customer service company,” he said. “Anyone can buy a photo booth these days, so what’s setting us apart is really giving our clients that immersive experience.”

Harvey began his Bachelor of Arts in business at PLNU in 2003. He feels that PLNU helped him know how to lead with tact, collaboration, and generosity.

“My time at Point Loma helped me decipher what my core strengths were and where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do,” Harvey said. “To find out what got me excited and what didn’t.”

Harvey worked at Nordstrom during his time at PLNU and became a manager in 2007 after graduating. He ended up working for them for 10 years. Harvey said that PLNU helped him to model humility within leadership, which helped him to put his employees first and highlight their accomplishments, even as his own responsibilities became more demanding.

“One principle they teach at Point Loma is the servant leadership component, and what that looks like,” he said. “They [ask], ‘how do we model servant leadership in a business setting?’”

“One principle they teach at Point Loma is the servant leadership component, and what that looks like. They [ask], ‘how do we model servant leadership in a business setting?’”

After working for Nordstrom for a decade, Harvey knew he wanted to create something of his own. He briefly ran his own marketing company, but struggled to upscale it. Harvey and his business partner at the time, Ian Cote, sought out opportunities to create a new business with the potential for growth.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age,” Harvey said. “I’ve always valued creation and doing my own thing.”

In 2013, Harvey and Cote had a conversation with Cote’s brother-in-law, who provided DJ services for weddings. The DJ told them he was surprised at how much photo booth providers charged for their services and how little planning seemed involved. Harvey and Cote were immediately interested in the potential to create a photo booth company that could provide services on a broader scale.

“Cote’s brother-in-law was frustrated that they were making the same amount of money for less work,” Harvey said. “That was the lightbulb moment — more money, less work — that sounds great.”

The first few years of Pixster weren’t quite so easy, however. Harvey and Cote had little money to start with. Harvey often worked 70 hours per week to build the booths, provide services to clients, and help get Pixster off the ground.

McLain Harvey and his business partner Ian Cote are standing next to each other at their first work event. Both are wearing black blazers and are smiling. McLain is wearing a grey button-down and Ian is wearing a white button-down.
McLain Harvey (right) and his business partner Ian Cote (left)

“Pixster started in my garage — I was employee number one,” he said. “We built the photo booths ourselves, I built the website, and we were off to the races.”

Harvey was excited that no one had cracked how to grow a photo booth company while upholding ideal standards. Part of Harvey’s passion is scaling businesses — taking smaller businesses with winning ideas and helping them expand their reach.

“No one had truly really figured out how to scale a [photo booth] company without franchising,” Harvey said. “There were some nation-wide ones, but they had franchised out and reviews were awful.”

By 2018, Pixster had a large inventory, a strong staff, and three locations in Southern California. Harvey stepped back into a corporate role to focus on business development, and Pixster expanded to open several Texas and Arizona locations without franchising.

Despite its growing success, Pixster almost shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the sharp drop off of in-person events. Harvey explained that despite the significant layoffs that were required, he’s proud that Pixster acted quickly to save the company and was poised to bounce back as soon as it was safe to reopen.

“When things opened back up, we were the first to move,” he said. “We were eating up market share.”

In 2021, Harvey asked one regional manager who was laid off during the pandemic to come back to Pixster. That manager ended up starting Pixster’s Chicago office, which has become their fastest growing location.

“She had moved back to Chicago to be with family, and asked if we would consider opening a location there,” Harvey said. “If we have a good person who wants to grow with us, we want to do everything we can to take care of that person.”

Research and development constitute a crucial part of Pixster’s business. One example is the Pixster 360, which takes slow motion, high-quality videos while patrons stand on a rotating platform. Although he couldn’t disclose specific details, Harvey revealed that Pixster has been working on a new product that will greatly impact the market.

“One way to stay ahead of the competition is to constantly innovate and evolve,” Harvey said. “The product [we’re working on] will not only change the photo booth industry, but also be a great asset for cinematographers and production studios.”

Corporate and social responsibility have also been key priorities for Harvey. Harvey remembers that PLNU business and marketing classes frequently stressed the value of philanthropy and using success to create a positive impact.

“From the beginning, I wanted [Pixster] employees to feel like they were a part of something bigger,” Harvey said.

At the beginning, they sponsored children in developing countries through Compassion International. For every photo booth they manufactured, they would help provide food and education for one child. As the company grew, so did their ability to help communities in need.

“I had the idea that when people order a booth, each booth is named after the kid that it sponsors,” Harvey said. “So when an employee picks up a booth, they remember that what we’re doing here is reaching a global impact.”

After their success bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, Pixster partnered with Compassion International to open a child development center in Puebla, Mexico, which sponsors over 150 children in impoverished situations. This center provides food, housing, clothing, and education for local children.

“We chose Mexico because we wanted an easy place to get to and to be able to send employees to visit,” Harvey said. “We wanted to say ‘we’re your neighbor, we see you, and let’s help each other.’”

Harvey is thankful not only for all the continued patronage from PLNU alums and faculty, but also for the support during Pixster’s early days.

“When we first started, we relied on Point Loma pretty heavily for our employees,” Harvey said. “I’d say 75 percent of our staff was from PLNU, and they were always friendly, hard workers.”

Harvey is no stranger to hard work, but creating a successful company and being able to help others at the same time are worth the effort. 

Toby Franklin is the copy editor for PLNU’s Marketing team. He is a reader and writer of speculative fiction and comic books.