Spotlight on NJ Tech Startups: Artspan’s Eric Sparre and Caoimhin Barry
As part of our continuing series shining a light on New Jersey tech startups, NJTechWeekly.com turns its attention to Artspan LLC, thus far a self-funded company located in Lambertville for the past 10 years. Artspan has just reached a “sweet spot” in its history and is seeking $750,000 in funding for an ambitious expansion into Europe, Asia and different artistic environments, such as antiques and interior design. It is able to do this thanks to the savings it has achieved over the years, including that now offered by cloud computing.
Artspan offers artists a simple way to make their material visible on the web, through easy-to-use, templated site development. Artists can use their own logos and domain names, and keep their own identities. At the same time Artspan.com offers a portal to these individual websites, which helps the artists get “discovered” on the web.
The company provides some interesting features for artists. Users can purchase prints directly from the site, picking out, for example, different frames. The checkout/shopping cart feature, integrated into the individual sites, has been upgraded and is seamless for the user, the firm says. So far the company is hosting about 4,000 individual artists on the site. For this article we spoke with Artspan’s founder, Eric Sparre, and its chief operating officer, Caoimhin Barry. Our interview:
So how did Artspan get started?
ES: I was a working artist, and in 1994 I got a commission to create some art for a gentleman who had just joined a startup called Netscape. We talked about the Internet, and I got hooked. When I returned to N.J., I immediately registered a domain name and proceeded to commission my personal artist’s website. That website turned out to be very expensive, and I didn’t like the way it looked. It wasn’t elegant and didn’t represent my work properly. What’s more, there was nothing I could do to change it because I was not a developer. Also, even at that time, back in the mid-1990s, there were millions of art websites, and I was clueless about how to attract traffic to my website over others out there.
So that gave you the idea for templated websites for artists?
ES: Yes. I started the company in 1999, based on the idea that I could give artists a full-featured, attractive, templated website they could manage and customize themselves. The plan included making these individual websites part of a larger group so they would be much more likely to attract traffic. This is still the essence of Artspan. The first website went up in early 2000, hand-coded by yours truly.
Did you try to get funding then?
ES: That was at the end of the dot-com bubble, so there wasn’t a lot of funding out there. I decided to bootstrap this myself. Also, having had prior entrepreneurial experience, I knew you could spend the time either trying to get funding or building the business. I opted to build the business.
How have things changed?
ES: The current big change is that we are going international and require funding for the marketing to do this right. We launched in the U.K. in September, with a localized presence and full-featured e-commerce options. This move represented the company’s first step in expansion into Europe, and we recognize the value of respecting local connections and a regional market. We continue to develop features with this in mind. Also in September, we launched support documents for German-speaking artists to develop their own sites. We think American artists like to show in Europe, and our research tells us European artists prefer to have an outlet to exhibit here. There is no question that opportunities are huge for individual artists to promote and market their work all over the world.
What technology challenges do you face?
CB: To move forward with our various initiatives, including international expansion and targeting related markets, we are pushing forward into a cloud environment. This will allow us to grow very easily and give us the server power we need. We won’t be hampered by waiting for servers to be delivered, set up and serviced, and the cloud will be able to handle possible traffic surges. We decided on the Amazon cloud because we had been using some storage there. Our storage hadn’t been performing well and we were paying much too much for it, so we initially turned to the cloud for this.
We are confident that our cloud design will be completely flexible. Some very good software consultants have been helping us design it. They have experience with companies that made mistakes, so they are helping us avoid pitfalls. By switching to the cloud we will be able to put more money into marketing and pursuing our new ventures.
So what’s next for Artspan?
ES: We intend to seek funding of $750,000 to invest in our expansion, especially our moves into the European and Asian markets, and we’re in the process of identifying sources. After the U.K., the next step for the company’s expansion into Europe is Germany; we are eyeing a number of other European, as well as Asian, markets next. Looking down the road, Japan, in particular, would be a good market for us, as prints have traditionally been so strong there.
We are planning to expand our e-commerce capabilities here, with sales platforms that encompass all members and all items on their sites. And we will use the technology we have already developed to target related markets, such as antique dealers and interior designers. Finally, because of the versatility of our templates, we feel they can be adapted to many markets that have nothing to do with art.