Why Community, Not Capital, Helped This Founder Find Success

Uprise Art aims to make the experience of buying original artwork more accessible, which is why it carefully curates and doesn't view itself as a marketplace.
Why Community, Not Capital, Helped This Founder Find Success
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Within the last 10 years, most types of products and services have become available for purchase online. But the art industry was late to the game. Not in the sense that it didn’t have an online presence -- many galleries had websites with contact info, but little else. Plenty of sites popped up selling prints by the thousands. Art galleries, meanwhile, weren’t as easily translatable to a digital setting.

Tze Chun decided to change that. Upon realizing that many people who were interested in arts and culture -- her art history major self included -- didn’t have any original works on their walls, she saw an opportunity to make one-of-a-kind art more accessible and affordable. In 2011, she launched Uprise Art.

She’s careful to distance her company from marketplaces such as Etsy, however. While Uprise Art fosters a more welcoming environment than many traditional art galleries (where first-time buyers might not even get the time of day upon entering to browse), it isn’t considered a marketplace.

Related: Balancing Act: The Founder of a 'Venture Generator' Shares How He Deals With Focus and Scale

The company has learned that it has to be selective about the artists whose work it features. By vetting artists, the company keeps its growth sustainable while also preventing the Uprise Art buying experience from becoming overwhelming. After all, that’s the whole problem the company set out to solve. Chun didn’t want people to have to apply filters and sorting and weed through countless options. She wanted to create a process of discovery and education.

To that end, the company has had to turn down some sellers, including those looking to sell art they did not create. But that’s all in the name of financially and creatively supporting the full-time artists it does work with. In Chun’s view, that’s what a gallery is supposed to do.

Entrepreneur spoke with Chun about how she built a profitable business by growing slowly and deliberately and sticking to her mission.

This conversation has been edited.

What have you learned about growth while doing good?
Never sacrifice quality for growth. Instead of trying to scale by changing our product and selling mass-produced posters and prints, we decided to focus even more energy on our curation. We also expanded the price range of the artwork we offer so that collectors have more options, regardless of if they’re looking to spend $100 or $10,000.

It’s tempting to flood the market with inventory and raise capital to blast out your marketing budget in hopes of growing fast. We took a different approach and built meaningful, real-life relationships with our artists. We wanted to offer a higher quality, higher touch experience, which meant growing at a slower but more sustainable pace. We bootstrapped for the first few years, and that allowed us to listen to our artists and collectors, rather than being tempted to scale too quickly or invest in tech that we didn’t need.

What have you learned about culture while doing good?
Storytelling is increasingly important as consumers are more focused on sustainability. People want to know where their food comes from and how their clothes were made, and they are willing to invest slightly more in better-quality options.

We keep our customers engaged by creating content that tells the stories of our artists, their artwork and our company. We feature interviews and studio visits with artists in the Uprise Art Journal blog, and we use Instagram to keep people engaged with what our artists are actively creating in the studio. Most artwork in our online gallery is accompanied by quotes from the artist, describing their process or their inspiration for the work.

Related: This Founder of a Custom Skincare Company Looks to Make Acne Treatment Accessible

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
You may have a target customer in mind, but keep your eyes open for larger opportunities and the full range of customers who could benefit from your solution. Pay close attention to people who are actively raising their hands for your product or service. They might be your biggest promoters! Our mission to make original art more accessible has stayed consistent, even though we’re constantly surprised at the range and reach of our collector base.

Edition: June 2017

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