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Innovator: DeviantART's Angelo Sotira

This story appears in the February 2011 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Angelo Sotira fidgets like a kid caught without his PSP2. Skinny, fashionably unshaven and looking even younger than 30 in ripped jeans and a True Religion thermal, he scoots back and forth on the couch in his office, bounces his knees and leans over the coffee table as he talks about launching the biggest, longest-running social network you've probably never heard of. The tabletop is littered with pieces from the Lego kits he works on when he wants to unplug (he goes through about three a month), and a chat alert periodically pings from the big-screen computer across the room.

"When we started this," he says, fingers tapping against his leg, "we wanted to build the deepest, most vertically integrated network that ever existed."

By all accounts, Sotira has succeeded. He is co-founder and CEO of deviantART, an online artists' community that started in 2000 and now has a staggering membership of more than 14 million. DeviantART users, lovingly referred to as "deviants," sign up for free accounts that come with a personal profile page, a blog and a space to post artwork and photos, along with the ability to chat, message and comment.

If it sounds like what other social networks have been doing for years, well, that's because they have been doing it for years. But, in fact, deviantART was doing most of it first. It is one of the world's first comprehensive online communities formed around user-generated content, and it was up and running three years before , four years before Flickr and --and a whole decade before Aaron Sorkin and Hollywood decreed it the age of The Social Network.

As of December, deviantART's Alexa page rank was a respectable 125, and the SEO website ranking site SEO Stats Script listed the company's valuation around $19 million. Sotira hit those numbers by deliberately keeping membership viral, allowing "artists to tell artists to tell artists." Now, he says it's time for deviantART to go mainstream.

Deviant Art

The site is bursting with content--roughly 155,000 art submissions, or "deviations," are uploaded daily, with 2.4 million unique visitors posting 1.5 million comments every day. A groups platform that was launched successfully early last year lets any deviant create a smaller, niche community, allowing the site to preserve its sense of intimacy. There are now 75,000 such groups, with hundreds more springing up every day. "We spent three years architecting it," Sotira says, using his preferred verb for what he does,"because if this place feels too big, the community loses its identity."

And all this attention to community is paying off. While other early networks like Friendster and Xanga have tanked, deviantART continues to grow at a healthy clip. Three of the company's revenue streams--ads, subscriptions and branded retail--are multimillion-dollar businesses, and overall revenue is expected to grow by about 60 percent this year.

"Angelo did all these things that we attribute to Facebook or way back," says , founder of Scour, one of the earliest peer-to-peer multimedia search engines. "And it's by design that the site is doing as well in the space it's focused on after so many years."

Kalanick, who worked with Sotira at DMusic, a multimedia site Sotira founded in high school, says deviantART has been so successful because Sotira has an "absolute passion" for a strong online art community, and the natural ability to build things--cultures, applications and companies.

These days, Sotira, whom Richard Branson consulted before starting his push into new media in 2006, has been working on products that might appeal to non-artists, like a drawing tool for people to leave comments in pictures instead of words, and a program that recommends artwork based on an individual's viewing history. If the pattern holds, it's just a matter of time before these latest innovations become industry standards.

Video: The Innovators: deviantART's Angelo Sotira

Building the Company
DeviantART's offices look out over one of the main tourist drags in Hollywood, Calif., and the decor pegs the boss as a gamer: A Super Mario Bros. wall decal spans one side of the room, a mustachioed Pikachu beams down from the top of a filing cabinet, the window ledges are crowded with toys and figurines and the walls are filled with manga-influenced pop art canvases. It feels a bit Google-y, but arcade-and-comic-book style.

Sotira, who moved from Greece to Fairfax, Va., as a kid, has been leveraging the power of online communities since he was a 12-year-old Doom fanatic and helped turn The Netherworld, a local bulletin board system (an old-school chat room), into the No. 1 video game BBS in northern Virginia.

"I was designing maps for the game, and because I listened and built what people wanted, I became pretty popular," Sotira says. Then, he used that popularity to write blogs about other players, which meant players were logging in constantly to see their names in the news.

From there, Sotira's interest in online communities morphed into DMusic, a site he started in the fledgling (and majorly disruptive) MP3 music space that became the first dedicated site for independent musicians and fans to upload music and trade songs. In 1999, the company was acquired by media mogul Michael Ovitz, who brought Sotira on board right out of high school, where he quickly became the face of the company, blogging daily, running community outreach, even dabbling in customizable graphics for Winamp Media player skins.

It was during this time that Sotira stumbled across a JPEG of a random painting in a chat room. "It was maybe two megapixels, but it was amazing," Sotira says, laughing. "It riveted all of us, and, to me, it was a clear sign that if we made a community that allowed for skins, wallpapers, paintings and digital drawings, it would be extremely successful."

So, when Ovitz's company folded, Sotira put $15,000 down on the first iteration of deviantART, launching the company with Matthew Stephens and Scott Jarkoff (both still own shares, and Stephens is a consultant).

Sotira never set foot on a college campus. But when it came to the business, his instincts were spot on, says Michael Rappa, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University and an expert on online business models. "To be successful online, you have to be nimble and evolve where the opportunities are," he says. "You have to layer revenue streams, and deviantART was able to do that."

Several different monetization schemes allowed deviantART to grow on cash flow until 2007, when the company accepted a strategic $3.5 million investment from video-viewing software developer DivX. Multiple revenue streams were a boon, too, when the ad market--deviantART's biggest revenue source--sank during the recession. The company shifted its strategy, eventually increasing subscriptions by more than 35 percent, and launching a successful virtual goods and currency system.

About 5 percent of deviants are premium members, paying $29.95 a year (or $4.95 a month) for bells and whistles that include ad-free browsing, poll-making capabilities, more customization tools and widgets, access to the archives and more deviations views per page. DeviantWear, the site's retail shop, sells art-related merchandise and branded goods, and the site's print service allows artists to sell their art and earn royalties. A partnership with a microstock service also gives members the ability to purchase images for use in their own work.

Right now, deviantART's fastest-growing business line is virtual goods, bolstered last year by the launch of its points system (a dollar buys 80 points) and the introduction of llamas, an improbable nod to an old Winamp meme.

Deviants give one another llamas in recognition of anything--a thank you for a nice comment or for general lulz. Getting 10 llamas upgrades subscribers to a super llama, 50 to an albino llama, 500 to a ninja llama and so on until the pinnacle, a golden llama worth 10,000 regular llamas.

"The llamas started as just a fun way to get traffic, but there was also a little bit of how to do virtual currencies right … because people were just haphazardly throwing stuff out there with too many features that nobody needed or wanted to use," Sotira says. "We know it's ridiculous to say, 'Here, I present you with a llama,' but it's part of the culture now. Communities love ridiculous things."

Indeed, llama gifting was frenzied in the first 24 hours after launch. A total of 1.7 million were handed out, and at one point, llamas were trading at around 17 per second. There's real currency at stake, too, says Steve Gonzalez, vice president of business development: The llamas are free, but the llama glasses and bow ties are not.

The different business lines are constantly being expanded, Gonzalez adds. For instance, deviantART is searching for a way to offer T-shirts in addition to prints for artists. "We want it to have style and creativity to reflect the company's brand. It's not good enough to partner with a company to get a square image in the middle of the shirt."

While the side businesses are bolstering revenue, the core reason deviantART is thriving is the user experience. "We want to make how you interact in deviantART's platform better, so we commit code that goes live three times a day, and we're constantly adapting to the edge," Sotira says.

One of its latest developments is Muro, a free drawing tool the company released last summer that lets users comment with art rather than words. It works on more devices than Adobe and doesn't need to be downloaded; Corel's got nothing that comes close in terms of features--or fun. For instance, one Muro-enabled thread, "Long cat is long," begins with a drawing of a cute cat, front paws outstretched, with a body that extends down past the panel and a "to be continued" scrawled along the bottom corner. More than two dozen responses follow: cat-body segments with dragonfly wings, scales, a mom tattoo, a nesting bird and even a doodle of a bewildered superhero's midflight encounter.

"Just imagine if this application was attached to every single comment box on the Internet," Sotira says. "We could have all these conversations without text."

Sotira, who heads up product development, is working on the eighth version of the site as well as a Pandora-like art-recommendation engine. The idea is for it to scour submissions, spit out images matched to individual tastes and pioneer the popularization of art. It's a difficult task because the average person's consumption of art is roughly zero.

"But," Sotira says, "we're going to be very, very accurate. And if we do our job right, we'll inject you with a shot of inspiration every day of your life."

Building a Community
The strength of deviantART's community is an impressive thing to behold. Last August, Sotira threw a 10th anniversary bash that filled the three-story Hollywood House of Blues to capacity, with deviants flying in from as far away as Australia, Singapore and Brazil (thousands more tuned in on livestream) to participate in a daylong program of art tutorials, craft workshops and Q&A sessions. Real llamas were on the red carpet for photo ops, and meme-savvy VJs spun video mashups of the Reading Rainbow theme and the Double Rainbow guy. During Sotira's closing speech, he scrolled through the different iterations of deviantART, and cheers went up as deviants rooted for "their" versions.

The enthusiasm can be a little overwhelming, and a first-time visitor to deviantART's site might balk at its busy navigation. But for artists, the site is a real resource, offering products and services like brushes and tutorials, as well as a place to post and sell their work. Even established artists like oil painter John Paul Thornton (johnpaulthornton) have joined, right alongside early adopting deviants like Lara Jade (larafairie), whose ethereal, glamorous portraits have landed her gigs for Elle and Lush magazines; and Nina Matsumoto (spacecoyote), a comic book artist whose manga-fied drawing of The Simpsons captured Matt Groening's attention--and a job offer.

deviantARTIn fact, deviantART is the only online network Matsumoto still uses. "Without dA, my career in comics probably never would have happened," she says. "But now it's hard to find an artist that isn't on it. It's what everyone does."

Certainly, 10 years is a long time on the web, especially under the same management, says Dan Perkel (perkelate), a doctoral candidate at University of California Berkeley's School of Information who's been studying deviantART since 2007. Perkel says deviantART thrives because it pays more than lip service to the notion of community building and functions more like the real world than a networking tool, even down to its coolness toward outsiders.

"It will be interesting to see how the community reacts to more mainstream exposure, but the site's reputation isn't under question," he says. "While some artists have left for Flickr, and people can make incredible communities on LiveJournal, deviantART has attained a level of currency in the art world as having the most comprehensive, best display of visual media."

Now Sotira, who posts his own photographs of street scenes under the deviantID spyed, has his sights set on building up the brand. "We've always wanted to take some of the sting off 'deviant,'" he says, much the way Richard Branson did with Virgin Group Ltd.

To that end, Sotira finally hired a vice president of communications and is planning to raise deviantART's visibility in the art scene by sponsoring events and targeting schools. The company has 80 employees globally, and Sotira hopes to push that number past 100 this year.

"The future of art is a big part of our story," says Sotira, whose ultimate goal is to expose people to art in a more engaging setting than a hushed museum or intimidating gallery--and to help them discover the artist lurking within. "There was a time when every single one of us was drawing or coloring. But we just stopped, and that part was never developed. DeviantART can be a bridge back to the art world."

DeviantART launched it in...
Other networks (year founded)
A messaging center that tracks and highlights community interactions 2000 Facebook, 2004
Galleries for photos, artworks and videos 2000 YouTube, 2005
Personalized, blingable profiles 2000 Myspace, 2003
Default subdomains ( 2000 Tumblr, 2007
Small square 50x50 avatar icons 2000 Twitter, 2006
Crowdsourced emoticons 2001 Friendster, 2002
Thumbnail images with drop shadows 2002 Flickr, 2004
CSS-based layout (no HTML tables) 2003 Just about every network out there now
Tool for commenting in pictures rather than words 2010 No one, yet


Rules of Engagement

DeviantART is thriving after 10 years because it has a super-engaged community that buys into the deviant lifestyle with subscriptions, toys, clothes and even llama accessories. Using his community-building skills, Angelo Sotira has created a place where 14 million independent artists around the world can feel deeply connected to one another. Here's how he wins (and keeps) their loyalty.

  1. Listen to the crowd, but don't get ahead of it. When you release a product, even one that's sorely needed, don't do it without first seeding the concept and getting approval. "Pitch it, blog it, be transparent about it, and do some outreach and education," Sotira says. Or else people will feel betrayed and leave.
  2. Fire up emotions. Before Sotira adds a new art category, he waits for the community to request it, and then he denies the request, even if he thinks it's a good idea. "If they say they want a tattoo section, we'll say, 'We're not sure you guys really want that category.' Then there'd be this stuff, these emotions and feelings about this category, and just as there was enough of that, we would launch and it would take off."
  3. Don't play favorites. DeviantART employs a "fair exposure" policy so that all users feel as if they belong, even if they're not part of the "popular" crowd. The system makes sure that no matter how big or fast a single community grows, the front page always features a balance of groups and mediums--important since the site now has 2,400 categories. (It started with just 12.)
  4. Keep your cool. "Don't just react to what the community says. You'll never release a feature without negativity. Ever," notes Sotira. "You just have to know what volume is too high."
  5. Act as if you're in public office. Remember that you'll be held accountable for any change you make on the site. "If there's a fireball of negativity from hell, react superfast, be very apologetic, express how you feel about it and promise that you will adapt to whatever is necessary--or revert the change if necessary," Sotira says. And, most important, follow through. --J.W.

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