Art has always been a thriving business. Many companies (like Sotheby’s and Christie’s) have taken advantage of it, raking in billions along the way. But one man found a way to enter the market using very little capital. His name? Sean Broihier, founder of the online art marketplace, Fine Art America.
Fine Art America generates more than $25 million in annual revenue selling art to buyers all over the world. All sales are done through its website where more than 500,000 artists display their work. The site has 14 fulfillment centers in five different countries that manufacturer ordered prints. You may think this type of operation takes countless employees, but not so.
“Our entire business is as automated as we could possibly make it,” says Sean. “We have six full-time employees focused on business development, sales, marketing, graphic design, programming, and customer service. We contract all of our manufacturing to printing and framing companies located throughout the U.S. and abroad. In doing so, our small team is able to focus exclusively on the big picture of building the business without having to deal with the day-to-day logistics and headaches of manufacturing thousands of highly-customized orders.”
While Sean had been involved in other ventures along the way, it was his love of art and his ability to create that motivated him to launch Fine Art America. “I was an artist in my younger days, and I still have a number of illustrations and paintings from my teenage years that I’m proud of. But, I never pursued art beyond those early years.”
A self-taught programmer and web designer, Sean had previously built a website for his brother who worked in art sales.
“I built him a simple website to help him advertise the art gallery business and the artists that he represented,” says Sean. “Each time one of his artists would debut a new painting or announce a new public appearance, my brother would call and have me update the website. That’s when the light bulb went on.”
Sean built the site on weekends while still working full-time as an engineer in New York City. The goal was to create something that allowed artists and galleries to upload their content and offer it for sale. The result was a website that cost very little to run while generating profit for artists as well as the founder.
“When I launched the business back in 2006, my only expense was $15 per month for a web service,” says Sean. “I was the only programmer and the only employee at the time, so there was no debt or monthly salaries to maintain. The result was a business that was profitable within days of launching.”
Sean says his ‘a-ha’ moment came within days of the launch. “I remember everything about my first order to this day. A buyer purchased a print of a gorilla drawing. I made about $5 in profit on the order and knew that was it. This was my future.”
His ‘future’ continues to generate profit while still running lean. Today, Fine Art America has only six full-time employees who mainly work on sales, marketing, graphic design, social media, strategic partnerships, and programming. He has since launched the website Pixels.com, a print on demand website that allows people to turn prints into wall art, home décor, and lifestyle products.
As with all entrepreneurs, Sean had a few hiccups along the way. All of which were lessons that he readily shares with future entrepreneurs. One of which was the ability to break into a market despite no-one paying attention.
“On the marketing front, it was very difficult to get anyone in the press to pay attention to the company,” recalls Sean. “So, I just focused on what I did best and continued to create powerful sales and marketing tools for our artists. It kept them engaged and excited, which encouraged them to upload more images to the site and share them on social media, which then drove more artists and buyers to the site.”
His one piece of advice for entrepreneurs? Don’t raise money unless you absolutely need to.
“Almost everyone who advises you throughout your career is going to encourage you to raise money. Think carefully before you do. The minute you raise money from an investor, you’re no longer the boss. You’re answering to a board of directors and 4–5 years away from selling or losing control of your company.”
Sean has plans to turn Fine Art America and Pixels into household names. He has started by entering into partnerships with companies such as Condé Nast while pursuing other partners such as Amazon.com and Target.
The success of Fine Art America provides a lesson for all entrepreneurs. With a little self-teaching and entrepreneurial spirit, you can create a $25 million business with very little money.