How This Man Made the Leap From Artist to Entrepreneur
Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story that was originally published in Entrepreneur's February issue.
How does a lifelong artist transition into entrepreneurship?
Easy: He relies on his creativity, like everyone else.
It’s a Saturday in December and things are not going well for Kevin McCoy. His year-old startup, Monegraph, released a major software update the previous evening and the bug fixes aren’t documented properly, the marketing materials aren’t complete, and the interfaces are barely holding together. The release, it seems, is a work in progress.
But then again, this CEO is a work in progress too. Until recently he just called himself an artist. Since the 1990s, McCoy and his wife, Jennifer, have been making art out of internet media -- using an online ad network to distribute 1 million absurdist banner advertisements, for example. But now he’s taken on perhaps the hardest challenge in the arts: He’s trying to turn a creative passion into a business, relying on his artistic instincts to build something completely different. That does have its benefits, though -- like right now, when the artist inside him knows that even failures can be fascinating.
“All of my artwork is about building systems that generate meaning,” he says, sitting in his Manhattan workspace. “Monegraph is about building systems that generate value. I’ve relied on what I’ve taught myself as an artist to teach myself what to do here.”
McCoy’s company helps digital creators license their work for artistic or commercial use. A photographer can upload orignal works to the site, say, and set specific usage rights. If a media outlet or advertising agency wants to use that photo, it can purchase rights (or full ownership) directly through Monegraph.
Monegraph’s goal is to address a problem that basically every artist on the internet has experienced: Their work is difficult to monetize but very, very easy to steal. McCoy’s interest in the project was born out of his personal experience -- because he... well... has often been one of the guys copying other people’s work without permission. “There are tons of issues in the art world around fair use and appropriation,” he says. While Monegraph isn’t a silver bullet for content theft that’s endemic on the likes of Facebook and Reddit, the platform bakes an e-commerce component directly into a digital work to make legitimate licensing easier. “4chan doesn’t care, but NBC Universal might,” McCoy says.
The idea came to him about a year ago, at a hackathon. The event matched artists with technologists, and he was paired with serial entrepreneur Anil Dash. The two soon discovered a shared fascination with the blockchain, a wonky system used to track bitcoins. It can verify authenticity -- that is, it sees that you own the contents in this file -- but doesn’t store anything in a centralized database.
McCoy and Dash got to thinking: What if you used the blockchain to track the ownership rights of digital assets such as photos and GIFs? The idea seemed more important than ever. “Everyone I knew in the creative community was just feeling such pain, and the questions of value -- What is my work worth? How do I translate that? -- became so much more important,” he says.
McCoy had a passion and a purpose; what he needed next was guidance. He found it when he was invited to join New Inc, an unusual startup incubator attached to the New Museum, a modern art museum in New York City. It draws in people at the intersection of art, technology and entrepreneurship and offers them a deep bench of R&D and business-development resources. “There’s a world of difference between creating a piece of art that goes out into the world and a product that ‘goes to market’,” McCoy says. “I’m sitting there thinking ‘What the hell are these terms? What’s a convertible note? What is debt financing?’ I had no idea.”
First step: Assemble a team. McCoy asked his art-world contacts to put him in touch with the right financial, technical and legal minds. Carlos Mendez, Monegraph's lead investor, helped refine the company's message and drew in potential investors who understood McCoy's passion. Chris Tse, a technologist with a design background, came on as CTO. They enlisted law firm Pryor Cashman to help craft rights language in plain ol’ English -- because most artists are not lawyers. Using Mendez's investor network, the company secured $1.3 million in cash. Monegraph now has six employees.
Dash is an advisor and likes what he sees. “People who know how to code are a dime a dozen, but Kevin’s unique in that he understands the social, economic and political considerations of actually making a living off of art,” says Dash. He has an encouraging message for creative people who don’t know a thing about business: You know stuff others don’t, and that’s valuable. “It’s an unrepresented perspective in the tech world.”
McCoy feels that. He’s even found that an artist’s mentality easily translates into CEO leadership. To start, he trusts his team to do what he can’t. “I have a vague idea as to how software works,” he says with a laugh. And he knows that an artist’s work is inherently entrepreneurial, and vice versa. ”You think about an artist doing sketches that go into to making a painting,” he says. “For us those sketches were a visual design and conversation-based process, on a conceptual and product level. We’re constantly revising, revising, revising. And it’s not just about revising a pitch deck, but constantly revising the idea, piecing apart the idea.”
He focuses less on checklists and reports and more on conversation and creation. Rather than stick to a detailed product road map, Tse and his engineers iterate daily. McCoy and Tse have big-idea debates about what Monegraph even is, and then use the outcome to guide its marketing. Instead of organizing his teams on siloed projects with parallel targets and regular meetings, McCoy brought his team together for what was basically a weeks-long meeting. He values “intuition and insight” as much as analytics and data.
So yes, the product and the CEO are a work in progress. But shouldn’t they be? “The entrepreneurial spirit of defining, of iterating on a vision,” McCoy says, “is what artists are fundamentally all about.”