Start-Ups 2010: Building a Market for Art
Ashley G and Drew
Co-Founders: Ashley Goldberg, 29, and Drew Bell, 32
Location: Portland, Oregon
Funding: Self-funded; the only start-up expenses were the cost of a used Mac laptop, a high-quality digital printer, and archival paper.
2009 Revenue: $100,000
Start-Up Year: 2005
Breakeven: Immediately. With virtually no overhead, every print Ashley G and Drew sells is profitable.
Insider Insight: Art buyers want to know that there is a real person behind the purchase -- and they want to know who that person is.
Blind Spot: Revenue growth is a challenge when everything you sell is handmade by a single artist.
Ashley Goldberg loved to draw from an early age, and like many such children, dreamed she would grow up to be an artist. By the age of 15, however, a realization had set in: Sure, she could have fun with her doodling, but hardly anyone -- especially in St. Louis, where Goldberg was growing up -- actually makes a living that way.
Flash-forward about a decade, and Goldberg was still carrying that impression around. She was in her early 20s and had been waiting tables and bartending since high school. But having seen her mom build a modest massage therapy practice, she aspired to self-employment and was nosing around for an idea. Then it happened: On the same day in September 2005, Goldberg discovered blogging and the website Etsy. These would play crucial roles in starting Ashley G and Drew.
Now a thriving electronic marketplace of handmade goods and crafts, Etsy was then in its infancy. Goldberg was captivated, but, still convinced that "people don't make any money selling drawings," she first tried her hand at jewelry. Making jewelry felt too much like work. "I already had a frustrating job," Goldberg says. "I didn't need another."
It wasn't until six months later that Goldberg finally put a digital print of one of her pen-and-ink drawings up for sale on Etsy. It sold in a day. So she put up a few more; they sold, too. Soon she was coming home after every bartending shift and working on new drawings.
All the while, Goldberg had been blogging. Sometimes about an object she had found at a thrift store. Sometimes about cool stuff she had seen on various websites. Sometimes about her latest drawings. By all accounts, blogging is a crucial part of Etsy success: The site's emphasis on the personal and handmade means that buyers tend to want to know about the people they are buying from -- who they are, what they are into, why they do what they do. More than half of Etsy's sellers maintain blogs. Etsy users apparently read blogs for evidence of authenticity. And they seem to have found it in Goldberg's: Of more than 400,000 Etsy stores, hers has frequently been one of the 100 most "hearted" -- which is how Etsy users express approval and, one suspects, affection.
By July 2006, Goldberg had sold enough prints to justify a three-month hiatus from the bar. Mentions by a few influential design bloggers kept the ball rolling, and by February 2007, Goldberg's boyfriend and business partner, Drew Bell -- who scans Goldberg's drawings, digitally colors them, and prints them on archival paper -- left his job, too.
Selling on Etsy has built-in efficiencies: low overhead and, in some cases, no inventory. Goldberg and Bell print her drawings only after they are purchased. On the other hand, even after some 20,000 sales, the couple still print, quality-check, sign, and ship each purchase by hand. And Goldberg, whose Etsy store maintains a 100 percent positive rating, still e-mails each buyer a few words of thanks and a ship date. "I take customer service seriously," she says. "I'm a big Zappos fan."
Goldberg and Bell hope at some point to "decouple our time from our income," as Bell puts it, by cutting more licensing deals like the ones they signed with retailer Urban Outfitters in 2008 and 2009. But Goldberg can't imagine hiring other people to fill orders or make prints. Yes, she runs the business to make money, but she still wants to touch everything that goes out the door.
In other words, she has finally accepted that she is indeed a professional artist -- as well as an entrepreneur. "There's art with a capital A, and we're probably not in that world," she says. "But maybe this is art with a small a."