Monday, May 7, 2012
Interview with Sean Broihier, Fine Art America
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
If you're a photographer or artist, what's the easiest way to display, print, frame, and sell your photos or artwork to customers? You could handle all the details of printing, framing things, collecting payments, dealing with shipping, and more--or you can go online and use Fine Art America (www.fineartamerica.com), a Santa Monica company which is doing all of that for more than a 100,000 members. Fine Art America handles all of the details of fulfilling sales for images from photographers and artists. The company's founder and CEO is Sean Broihier, who told us all about the site--and also how he's taken and built a company, literally single handedly, to multiple millions in revenue, by enabling artists and photographers to sell, print, frame, matte, and ship prints of their artwork automatically to buyers.
First of all, tell us what Fine Art America is all about?
Sean Broihier: We are an online art marketplace, and help living artists and photographers sell prints of their artwork online. By prints, I am referring to anything that hangs on a wall, whether that's a framed photo, stretched canvas, acrylic print, in about a month metal prints, and greeting cards. The way our business model works, is, for example, if you're a photographer and live here in Santa Monica, you can take an image of the Santa Monica Pier. If you want to participate in our marketplace, you go to Fine Art America, join, and you get an online profile, much like a Facebook or Google Plus profiles. Once you get that profile page, you can upload your beautiful images to our site. You can then decide to sell it as an 8x10 print, 24x36, or so on, and you get to name exactly how much you want to charge for that print in various sizes. You hit submit, and your images are instantly available for sale as prints on our website. Those prints can be framed, on acrylic, as a stretch canvas, and so on. So, buyers will come to our site, which has all of these beautiful images from all of these fantastic, living artists and photographers from all over the world. If someone loves your image of the Santa Monica Pier, they can buy it, and Fine Art America takes care of everything, from order, fulfillment, printing, matting, framing, shipping, and the charge, and thirty days later cuts a check to you for a profit. What we provide for the artist and photographer is an online web presence and an order fulfillment partner.
We understand you have a technical background and an interesting story on how this started?
Sean Broihier: I'm actually a mechanical engineer out of the University of Illinois. I graduated in 2000, and spent ten years as an engineer. I learned how to program as a little kid, and when I was in school when Netscape debuted in the late 90's. As I was working my engineering job, I got obsessed with programming and building a business for the web. I started building Fine Art America in 2006 as a part time project, and launched the web site in 2007. I grew it from 2007 through 2009, at which point it was generating enough revenue for me to live on it full time.
As I was working as an engineer, I had actually built something like Facebook for engineers and engineering firms. My first website allowed engineers and engineering firms in the industry to advertise their products online, posts events, and things of that nature. It happened that my brother was working for an art gallery at the time, and as a favor, I was building a web site for him. That's when the light bulb went on. I realized that I should build a platform to put content online. In 2006, the whole concept was new and novel, and I converted by engineering site to an art site. I figured there must be millions of artists and photographers all over the world who would want to do the exact same thing. So I took the platform, turned it into an art site, and it just took off from the get go.
How did you know you had something there?
Sean Broihier: When I was doing the site for my brother, every time they did an in-store promotion, or had an appearance, or they needed to change the prices on their prints, he had to call me, because I had done the website for him. I eventually built a do-it-yourself interface for him to do that on his own. I instantly had the idea that if he needed to do that, other galleries must need to do exactly the same thing. The next step was, artists probably need to do the same thing too. I spent about six months converting that engineering platform into an art platform, launched it, and I knew immediately it would be a success. I had spent every waking hour outside of my full time job working on it, and I knew it would be a success when the first two artists joined the site--which was literally the second or third day--and they quickly had their first sales, which made us profitable. I had built the entire thing without outside capital, and with no credit card debt. My only expense at the time was $8 a month for a server, so the first sale made us profitable. I knew, if you are an artist or photographer, and you want to sell prints, you need to have an online partner. I knew we had something unique, which was exciting, and millions and millions of people who could use it.
It looks like you have some pretty substantial revenues, but a very small staff - can you talk a bit about what your business looks like?
Sean Broihier: I'm the only programmer, and built the entire business. The only people full time on Fine Art America are myself and two women who do customer service and tech support for me via phone and email. That's three of us full time on the payroll. In addition, we outsource the actual production of prints to companies around the U.S. For example, we have a company in North Carolina that does framed prints and stretch canvasas for us, and in Atlanta we have greeting cards, and a company in Hawthorne which is doing our acrylic prints. I worked for ten years as an engineer, and my job was factory automation, which is designing automated machinery to assembly cars, food, beverages, packaging, pharmaceutical packaging, and so on. I am obsessed with automation. I built this business to be fully automated. I built the website, so that it's all do-it-yourself. Artists can control all the content, set the prices, and it's all fully automated with no need for a staff to interact with. The whole order process is fully automated. We process credit cards or PayPal, and instantly transmit orders to fulfillment centers around the U.S. Their staff takes care of the order, and it ships in two or three days, and it's all fully integrated back into our system which ships, tracks the information, and sends out an email confirmation to the buyer that their order has shipped, and so on and so on.
Everything in a transaction, from start to finish, is fully automated. Thirty days later, the payment is all fully automated to the artists. Half of our artists receive their payments via PayPal, and at a click of the button on my end, thousands and thousands of PayPal payments are sent out. The other half is paid via business check, and we mail them out using a checkwriting service, where with a click of a button we send out thousands of checks. The whole thing, start to finish, is fully automated. The beautiful part of that it allows us to do X dollars of sales currently, and we could ramp to 20X tomorrow and we wouldn't have to bring anyone else onto staff. Our fulfillment can handle any volume sent through them.
How do sellers learn about you, and what's the biggest draw of your service for them?
Sean Broihier: The biggest selling feature and biggest draw for artists and photographers, is our pure pricing model. What I mean by that is, a photographer can decide exactly what they want to charge for any size of a print. They can charge $10 for a 24x36 print, and that will be great, or they can charged $500 for the same print, which is absolutely fine as well. We let you charge whatever you want. The price to the buyer combines what you are charging, price of the frames and mattes, and Fine Art's markup. The reason that is so great, is artists feel like they're getting exactly what they want. They can set a price, and get that price exactly. The others options to selling like Fine Art America are sites like Art.com, whose pricing model is that they're going to give you 15 percent of the sale price, and they also decide that they are going to sell your 24x36 for $50.00, and they set the price. They say, Mr. or Mrs. Artist, you get 15 percent of that sale, so you are only going to get $7.50. Lots of artists regularly get $100, $200, or $500 for that print on our site. That's why artists and photographers love us. The business has a huge viral component, because when you upload your images and sell something, and 30 days later we send a payment in the mail, they get super excited. That artist and photographer probably has friends, and they tell them about it, and those friends join. It goes on from there.
We also provide lots of online sales and marketing tools for artists to promote themselves. For example, we give them a Facebook shopping cart, they can embed Fine Art America into their Facebook fan page, and we generate a very nicely designed, PDF sales sheet they can print out and bring to art fairs and trade shows and hand out. That handout is a catalog of prints showing images prices, with QR codes. We also give them HTML newsletter functionality, where they can upload a list, and have a graphical HTML newsletter blast out from their site. It goes on and on. Our business model, is to take images on our site, and empower the artist with online marketing tools to help them promote. We're happy to make money on the order, and the artist making the money on the order is happy as well. It's a very pure business model, where artist get to focus on creating beautiful images, and we focus on giving them spectacular tools to be successful.
How are things growing at your firm?
Sean Broihier: We're experiencing explosive growth. We launched in 2007, and it took almost five years to get to 100,000 members. We just passed 100,00 members, but we're now adding 300 new members a day. At that rate, we'll get to our second 100,000 members in a year. So, we'll go from 100,00 members in the first five years, to 200,000 this year, and who knows where we go from there. There hasn't been a lot of mainstream attention to the site yet, and we're trying to build awareness. I think there's a limitless potential. Assume that 1 percent of the population is an amateur photographer or artist, and wants to showcase their images or get some revenue, and that's 3 million people in the United States alone who could be using our service.
What are some of the new things you're working on?
Sean Broihier: We're coming out with an iPad app, because the whole world is going mobile. We'll have an iPhone and iPad app where buyers can browse through our artwork more easily. Also, it will make it so sellers and artists can show their images at trade shows. We have a clean interface which can pop up on your mobile device, and allow you to thumb through your portfolio. We're also advertising on TV. We have TV commercials nationwide, trying to build brand awareness for our business. We also have some exciting online contests for photographers in our community, where new photographers can submit their photos to a juried panel of industry experts and photographers, and get a chance to appear in our national TV commercial. We're also getting ready to debut metal prints on our site, and we'll be one of the first art sites to offer metal prints, which are images printed on metal and hung on the wall. We're also getting ready to not only have images from living artists, but also have partnerships with large image libraries. National Geographic already sells through our site, for example, and we will be announcing a major partnership with a company with premium images, where we'll be their exclusive provider online.