Interview with Steve Gow.
Steve Gow is the co-founder of Adappcity Inc., a software company that builds decentralized blockchain applications for social good.
He recently designed, built and launched www.uppstart.io, an online marketplace for original artwork that uses blockchain technology to sell art online, prevent art fraud and pay resale royalties to artists.
Before taking the plunge into the tech world, Steve worked in private practice at a large national law firm as a corporate attorney and completed a tour of duty with the Canadian Armed Forces in the Taliban heartland of Afghanistan in 2008.
In his spare time, he volunteers for a not-for-profit art gallery run by artists for the benefit of emerging artists and runs a successful Youtube channel called “Smoketrails” that is all about BBQ and Hunting.
Steve’s secret to success is hard work, grit and personal accountability, but his “superpower” is his wife Jackie who ceaselessly supports him and inspires him to be the best version of himself.
Wow this is going to be a really interesting episode. so I’m bringing on Steve Gow from Canada and we’re going to talk about his journey from the Canadian military to creating this really frickin awesome online art company and it’s really kind of crazy how this all came about and how he’s changing the way artists do their business and sell their stuff online. It’s a great episode guys, enjoy this one.
Donny: All right guys another fun episode today, I’m bringing a Steve Gow. A new Canadian buddy that’s got a really really interesting business. So I’ll let Steve introduce himself and walk us through his journey. So Steve welcome to the show man tell us your story.
Steve: Hey Donny thanks so much for having me. So yeah my name is Steve Gow and I am an entrepreneur. I’m a corporate lawyer by training and I also served in the Canadian Forces for a number of years. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the Lord Strathcona Horse which is an armored regiment up here in Canada. So I’ve had quite an interesting career and the path I’m on right now is more of the entrepreneurial path. I’ve recently left big law to found my own company called UppstArt. We’re an online marketplace for original artwork and we sell original artwork to art lovers and collectors all over the world and we track all of the provenance information of the artwork. That means basically the history and the artist information and the medium of the art. We track all that information using this new type of technology called blockchain technology. Which basically, in a nutshell, immutably and publicly records all this information. So it can’t be defrauded or deleted. So it helps with the fraud prevention.
Donny: That’s awesome, that’s awesome. You know you’re going to have to forgive my ignorance. But I’m not sure I even knew Canada had a military. You know I mean I’m a US Marine and served in the US. But I don’t know much about the Canadian military, walk me through that a little bit. Is it is it similar to the US with multiple branches?
Steve: Yeah, so it’s very similar to the US. I mean, obviously we’re based more on the United Kingdom British military traditions. Because we were originally a colony of the UK. But we have different branches. So we have the Army, we have the Navy, we have the Air Force and we don’t have anything similar to the Marines. But we do have Special Forces.
Donny: Well nobody has anything similar to the Marines. It’s okay.
Steve: Obviously not, you’re a force of your own. So we’re very similar to the US military. I think a lot of us [in the Canadian Military] have an inferiority complex when it comes to talking with a lot of US soldiers. But I mean, the fact of the matter is we served in most of the major wars and engagements in the last century together. We’ve always been a really close ally of the US.
Donny: That’s really, really cool to know and I’m actually really glad to know that. I mean in my mind I really thought that the US was your guys’ military and that’s how ignorant I was. That’s awesome and you served, I mean is it a four-year stint, like we do down here, or…?
Steve: No actually I took a bit of a different path. Because I was in the military reserves. It’s like the National Guard.
Donny: We have National Guard and we have the Reserve. So like, you can be in the Marine Corps Reserves. You can be in any of the reserves and then you have the National Guard. Which is basically it’s own service.
Steve: Yeah, so I was in the military reserves and in a city called Calgary in Alberta, which is one of our provinces, and we were in an armored reconnaissance regiment. So, due to budgetary constraints sometime in the 80s, they took away our armor and tanks and told us that we were going to drive around in armored jeeps basically. In our regiment, it’s the King’s Own Calgary regiment, we were always having a bit of an inferiority complex. Because we always thought of ourselves as true heavy armored tankers, “black hats”, and those tanks were reserved for the Regular Force. So we always wanted to play with the “big boys”, but never got a chance.
Donny: Well that’s closer to the Marines. Because you know we don’t ever get the good stuff.
Steve: The joke is that you go around you don’t have any ammo so you just yell, “budget cut! budget cut!.”
Donny: That’s awesome. I was a mechanic in the Marine Corps and the running joke with me was, my nickname was Bo, “hey don’t worry Bo, if all else fails just throw a wrench at them!”.
Steve: You know, it’s interesting, I had deployed with the mechanics regiment. I was deployed in an armored recovery vehicle. A big 70 ton behemoth that’s built on a tank chassis and has a recovery crane and a dozer and I drove with them and we fixed tanks when they got blown up by IEDs or threw track or anything like that. So I love working with the mechanics.
Donny: Nice, nice, and so you deployed to Afghanistan then I think 2008 is that right?
Steve: That’s right yeah. So there’s a bit of a story behind that. I mean, at the time and I think going back to 2016, Afghanistan was pretty red-hot and the war was in full swing. For Canada it was huge. Because our last major engagement was Bosnia and that was a lot of UN peacekeeping. So every soldier really wanted to go to the theater of war in Afghanistan.
Donny: So if it was Bosnia, that’s the late 90’s early 2000.
Steve: That’s right yeah, so it had been a long time since Canadian soldiers had seen any action. So at the time, the worst thing that could happen for us is that the war ended before we got to go.
Donny: Says everybody who’s never been to war right?
Steve: Exactly, exactly! Yeah, until you go to war in your first rotation then you never want to go again, right. I got an opportunity to go and I put my name in the Hat and we were going to get deployed with the big tanks, which we really, really always dreamed about, and unfortunately my brother was also in the regiment with me and I think out of overprotection or maybe he was just ignorant about my situation, he told our leadership that I didn’t want to go or that I wasn’t in a situation to go. So he went and the spot was filled up with him and my buddy Nathan Hornburg and I didn’t get to go that year. But I luckily, when they were gone, my brother’s influence was out of the country and I finally got a spot and I got on to it.
Donny: Well that’s interesting because my oldest brother and I served. We did four year at the same time. I only did four, he did 24. But I guarantee given the same situation he would have pulled the same shit on me. You know I would had to go around him, which sounds like what you tried to do.
Steve: I did eventually.
Donny: Right, that’s awesome, so you get deployed over in Afghanistan. Are you guys deployed alongside the US forces then?
Steve: Yeah we are in a lot of cases. Because the US was in a lot of different operating zones in Afghanistan. We were more in the Kandahar area and an area called the Zhari/Panjwai district. Which is the birthplace of the Taliban. I was based out of a Forward Operating Base called Masum Ghar, which is a giant mountain in the middle of this bald-ass prairie field that overlooks everything. So we had all the tanks there and we operated with the US military to search for IEDs and do “kinetic” operations where we went out and took out the bad guys. I also worked with a US bomb sniffing team. They had dogs with bomb sniffing abilities and we worked really closely with them. So it was a lot of fun getting to know them.
Donny: Nice nice nice. And then how many tours did you do?
Steve: I did one tour. I did the one tour in 2008 and then when I came back I served another six years in the military. Got all my junior leadership training and I achieved the rank of master corporal. Which is similar to probably a sergeant in your military.
Donny: Okay what I mean how many ranks up is that?
Steve: That’s like so you started private guy and then you get promoted to corporal and then you get promoted to master corporal. We don’t have a lot of specialized ranks like the US military.
Donny: Well yeah yeah the army is the one that’s got the most finicky titles. So a master corporal in the Marine Corps just equivalent would be a corporal. You know private, PFC.
Steve: I think it would be one step up. It would probably be sergeant and then our sergeant would be whatever is just above sergeant.
Donny: That’s great very interesting. Wow this is actually kind of cool. I just didn’t know anything about this and during your deployment that had to be a rough rude awakening while you’re playing over in the sandbox and we don’t have to go into intimate detail by any means. But how many months were you over there?
Steve: I was there for seven months total. We have shorter deployments than the US military.
Donny: Yeah cause most the guys will do a year to 18 months just depending on the deployment. So then you get back to Canada. How many years did you have left in the service after you got back?
Steve: I was in the military till about 2014. So I served just over ten year’s total.
Donny: okay and as a reservist capacity, so same setup where you’re going one weekend a month that type of thing?
Steve: Yeah something like that. I mean it’s one weekend a month, every Wednesday and as much time as you want to put into it.
Donny: Oh that’s interesting. Do you get paid more if you put more time in?
Steve: Oh yeah you get paid by the day or the half-day. So if you want more work then you can go in and deal with stores or you want to fix vehicles or do whatever you can.
Donny: Oh hell they should implement that with our military.
Steve: It’s pretty good.
Donny: Yeah that’s a pretty cool setup.
Steve: But I mean yeah the tour was tough. But I think the toughest part just happened just before the tour. unfortunately my buddy Nathan Hornburg who was on the deployment before me with my brother, he was hit by a recoilless rocket and just through some freak of nature accident; the recoilless rocket traveled through a bolt hole in the thick armor of his armored recovery vehicle and it hit him in the neck and he passed away pretty much instantly. We were hit by tragedy pretty much right off the bat and you know I was going into theater. Basically spelling off my brother and they were really hit hard. So luckily I didn’t lose any close buddies on my tour. My good buddy Mark lost both his legs in an IED hit. But fortunately survived the attack. So we got off pretty much unscathed. but I think going back to my brother, I think my brother has a lot of guilt about being overprotective of me and I didn’t get that spot on the tour and then our buddy Nathan passes away and like, “what would have happened if I went on that tour” [instead of Nathan]?
Donny: I mean, everybody that this served overseas unfortunately goes through that. It gets hard because of mental shit that they go through like that. I mean, that would be a tough thing to live with right?
Wow tough tough tough. So you know a lot of guys in the US when they transition out of the military ,and I don’t mean to keep going to the military, it’s just fascinated me. But a lot of guys when they transition out you know it’s a really really tough transition. Is it the same thing for you guys up there [in Canada]?
Steve: Yeah. I think it was way tougher coming off of tour. You know, all my battle buddies were basically going back to their life in the Regular Force. I was coming back. I didn’t have any sort of decompression where I got to talk to my buddies about what had just happened. I was sort of thrown back into the civilian world and went right back to school. So I battled with depression for a number of years.
Donny: Yeah. Because you got to turn it off mentally and pretend that there’s nothing happened right.
Steve: Yeah. I think that’s an element of it. I think the big thing is just like you’re so close to it with your family over there and everyone has your back and everyone’s supporting you and in the real world and the business world especially no one cares if you succeed. So it’s a very different mindset.
Donny: yeah that’s the number one thing is that guys when we talk about transitioning out is that’s the biggest struggle. As you go from hanging with your buddies 24/7. I mean, there’s no secrets. Everybody knows everything about everybody to nothing and nobody cares. You know, it’s a really really bad mental game to try and play and that’s what unfortunately gets most guys.
Steve: Yeah I agree.
Donny: You know, that’s tough. So were you an attorney before you went in?
Steve: No. I was in my undergraduate degree. So I finished that up when I got back from Afghanistan, I was sort of a changed man and really turned my grades around and got really good grades. Good enough to get into a really good law school and that’s when I started going to law school for the next four years.
Donny: Now what goes through somebody’s mind that they want to go through enough school to become a… , why does anybody want to be an attorney?
Steve: I guess we’re masochistic, we want to push ourselves. I think it’s like I’m an overachiever. Like I want to put the experience under my belt. I want to keep going to the next level and the next thing in life. So I think that was a big element of it and I didn’t want to just settle into a job and do something mundane like most people do. So I really wanted to do something unique.
Donny: So being a lawyer is unique?
Steve: I eventually found out that it wasn’t. It’s a pretty soul-destroying profession as far as things go once you get into it. But I think everyone starts every journey with a lot of enthusiasm and hoping for the best.
Donny: Well yeah it’s a good point. I think a lot of people get into things and they may have wanted to do it since they were kid, until they get into it and it all sucks.
Steve: That was definitely me. I did really well in law school. I got a job immediately with a prestigious law firm. I actually got a job as a first year summer student. In my first year of law school, and I stuck with that firm for the next six years. Yeah, it was a fast track sort of life. But you know, it’s like being an investment banker. If you know any investment bankers you probably don’t hang out with them much. Because they’re always at work, they’re always working. It’s 18 -20 hour per day shifts and in a lot of cases you’re working for people above you to fill their pockets and it’s kind of a pyramid scheme. They are not seeing much of the results.
Donny: And the goal is to get to partner. Cause once you’re partner you don’t do work anymore. But [in reality] you double the hours.
Steve: It takes about eight or nine years to become a partner and then that’s where the work really starts.
Donny: Right because now you gotta go find the deals and of course you don’t ever tell a lawyer he’s a sales guy.
Steve: I mean, that’s all you do in law. If you want to bring in clients you got to go out and find them and network and business develop.
Donny: Yeah absolutely absolutely. So Wow what a crazy ride and then somewhere along the way you stumbled into this whole art thing.
Steve: So yes it’s a weird story. But it makes sense. I practiced in startup law, corporate finance. I helped a lot of startup companies get financing and do a lot of the corporate stuff. I was a corporate attorney and I accumulated a lot of clients that were in new and emerging technologies like VR and AR and the blockchain distributed ledger and I happened to have a client in the blockchain world that was really interested in different applications of blockchain. This is in 2017 when it was sort of at its height and so we started talking and I suggested “hey why don’t we look at art?” Because I had always had a passion for art; I’d bought a lot of art online; and I volunteered a gallery, a not-for-profit gallery. So it turned out that this was a really good use case for the technology. Because blockchain technology is really good at immutably recording information publicly, so it can never be changed and that’s a big problem in the art world – fraud and lack of transparency and people not knowing whether they’re getting ripped off.
So it was a really good use case. We started just spitballing ideas and I was at a stage in my life where I really wanted to try something more entrepreneurial. I worked with a lot of these entrepreneurs and I found that I was more interested in the business side than the legal side. The legal side was just really really dull and didn’t have a lot of excitement for me. So I decided to quit my job at the time, this was I think last September. so pretty short time ago and just jump off and start this company with one of my clients and it was kind of one of those situations. Because I didn’t have any business experience or entrepreneurial experience. I had no idea about anything so it’s kind of like jumping off a cliff and trying to figure out how to build the airplane on your way down and hope you build it before you hit the ground.
Donny: Well it’s funny, that’s how I started my company. I walked away from a large business partnership that I was in the process of buying out and then realized that I wasn’t chasing my dreams, I was living somebody else’s and walked away from it all to start all this. So are you married?
Steve: I am married. I don’t have kids.
Donny: Was she with you through this whole portion?
Steve: Yeah yeah she’s been the only reason I could do this.
Donny: So I have that same setup right with my wife. How many of the conversations go “honey I know you got this” That nervous energy in her voice?
Steve: It’s tough because everything’s fine to start. because you set milestones and you’re like “well we’ll reevaluate in six months” and then six months comes up and the business isn’t moving as fast as you thought it would, nothing is happening. so you say “okay, another month and we’ll talk about it again” and then another month goes by and I think my wife was very supportive at the start and then we went through this series of struggles and failures basically on my part in my business and I think there’s always this feeling that your significant other is losing faith in you. So you’re always trying to just look on the bright side and try to push through. But it’s always a nagging feeling in the back of your mind like “gee so what does my wife think about me?” You know, she’s supporting me through this whole thing and the only reason I can do this is because of her. But I really want this to pay off. I want all of her trust in me to be realized at the end of the day. I don’t know if you have felt similar.
Donny: It’s the same exact thing and so now you’ve got the double whammy of pressure. You know you got the pressure of honoring your commitment to your wife. because you said this was going to work, you’re putting everything into it and then you’re trying to make sure that stays stable and strong even though they’re supportive as hell and then you got the added pressure of well my businesses didn’t hit the pinnacles I thought they would, those things along the way. So now you put that stress on yourself to make it all work and you’re trying to put a good face on to everybody; good lord knows nobody wants you want to tell anybody that you’re struggling to make this all work. So it’s a mental game.
Steve: No, I hear you man. That’s exactly what I was going through and you know we’ve experienced some measure of good success now and the business is doing well. But you know, I still have those feelings. Because nothing’s ever really good enough in the business worlds.
Donny: Right right right. So now you’ve got this whole new company that’s helping out artists. Walk us through, I mean what the heck it actually is and what you’re doing with these guys.
Steve: Sure. I guess I should start at the technology first. When we started looking at the application of this blockchain technology in the art world, we started doing a deep dive into it.
Donny: Okay so let’s do this. Because I know I’ve got listeners that have not studied blockchain. Two second overview what is blockchain.
Steve: Blockchain is an internet protocol that securely, immutably and publicly records information so that it can never be changed, altered or deleted. It’s like having a Google spreadsheet on Google Drive that everyone is contributing to. But every time you put in a new entry, it can never be changed and everyone can see it. That’s basically the Coles Notes version of blockchain.
So we were thinking about how to use this technology and how it could work to help artists. So we started interviewing a bunch of artists and then we really started getting into their pain points and just realizing how crappy it is to be an artist. A lot of artists really struggle, they pay really high commissions to galleries of up to sixty percent. They don’t get resale royalties in Canada or the US when their art sells on the secondary market, like they have in 93 other countries in the world. So both of our countries are kind of lagging behind in that protective legislation for artists and just listening to the artist’s stories it just seemed like there was something wrong with the things people had to deal with when they wanted to become artists. They struggled with sales, they struggle with a business side. The galleries were kind of exploiting them and taking high commissions and it just struck us like there’s got to be a better way to do it.
Donny: That’s just explained every creative in the world.
Steve: I think you’re right.
Donny: You know they are phenomenal at creating. Whether it be podcasts, whether it be arts, whether it be you know graphic designs, VR, AR you name it. Most times are really good at creating that. They just suck at the sales marketing business development side of it.
Steve: Yeah that’s true and I think the reason is because in a normal business you’re not manufacturing things yourself. You’re getting someone else to manufacture them and you’re dealing with the business side yourself, you’re marketing it. You’re selling it, you’re dealing with bringing customers in. the artists have to do that plus they have to make the actual product. Which is very labor intensive and it’s expensive and at the end of the day it’s a luxury product that people don’t need to survive. They just buy it for personal aesthetic reasons or investment reasons or to decorate their home.
Donny: Yeah so it falls into that that novelty sales category. Which is one of the toughest sales in the world.
Steve: Yeah so it takes a lot of marketing. Being a creative is being a marketer really.
Donny: Yes and now you’re taking a lot of people, and I’m not stereotyping, but a lot of them are introverted in nature and the idea of putting themselves out there, sometimes the idea of putting their art out there is a stretch for them and now you’re telling them from a marketing sales standpoint that they’ve not only got to speak to people, that they have to try and convince somebody that this is the piece of art to buy; when in their mind this art is the greatest thing that’s ever been created, you should just buy because it’s awesome.
Steve: Exactly. We saw that right away and we initially built this blockchain technology to track resale royalties and automatically pay it back to artists, record all this information. But we realized that in order to do that we needed to create a platform that artists could use and they found value in. So we could market and sell their work on this platform, track it all with this technology and actually take a lot of the work off of the artists plate so they can spend more time the studio creating.
Donny: Now that’s cool. So since if they sell it through a retail outlet or something, they don’t get paid the royalties on it. But if they purchase through your site, you guys can send out commissions or royalties if you will.
Steve: Yeah exactly. Yeah it’s somewhat of a closed system. So when someone purchases the art on our primary marketplace, then the artist just gets the money – minus our commission, just like anyone else would. We charge a very low 20% commission; which is extremely low by industry standards. Then if someone on the platform wants to resell their art, then if they do on UppstArt, then the resale royalty automatically gets paid to the artist. I mean, if they sell it off the platform, there’s nothing we can do. But we incentivize people to resell it on the platform. Because we charge a very low commission. We sell it for them due to our marketing efforts and we have all this blockchain certified provenance.
Donny: So that’s a really really cool setup. you know I mean you took away one of the biggest pain points for an artist and developed a system that they literally can go actually make money with their artwork and you guys have to do all the dirty work, but it’s all automated.
Steve: Exactly and we just take a small commission. We don’t have to charge as much as a gallery. Because we don’t have very high overhead cost. Our overhead costs are just marketing.
Donny: Now so if I’m an artist, which I’m not, but I mean I can doodle really well. So if you want to sell my doodles I’m in right?
Steve: Yeah show me your stuff.
Donny: But if I’m an artist and I want to sell on your site, there are you guys pushing out this artwork through channels or is there still some sort of marketing aspect on their end do they got to do?
Steve: There’s a little bit of both in it and you get out what you put in right. So it’s just like anything else it’s like if you sign up to YouTube, no one’s just going to organically come to your channel just because you started a channel. You’re going to have to do a little bit of work yourself. But YouTube also does a lot of work to bring in those viewers. So in our situation you come to UppstArt. You sign up, you go through a jurying process. So we actually look at your work and if you get accepted, we set you up with your own profile and you upload all of your artwork. You actually upload your artwork with a little description of why you think people should buy this artwork, what the meaning of it is and why you priced it the way it is. So there’s a lot more transparency and understanding of what’s going into it.
Donny: Yeah so you’re telling the story behind it.
Steve: Exactly. Because that’s what sells art. You know you can only go so far with just the image of the artwork. A lot of people want to connect with the artist and the meaning of the work. So then we put it through our marketing channels. We do pay-per-click advertising, we do blog content, and we do featured artists, articles. We do affiliate marketing, social media posting; all of the digital marketing techniques you can do these days and we also do in person events and attend events at trade shows and everything like that. So we do a lot of work to market the artist’s work. But we find that a lot of artists are successful to a greater extent if they start funneling traffic to us from their own channels and they’re more willing to do that with us because we charge a much lower commission.
Donny: Yeah yeah so I mean I don’t want to compare you to anybody but it’s like having an Etsy shop, a Shopify shop or you know anything like that. You can’t just build it hope somebody’s going to come find it. You know you’re going to have to build it and get out there in some format to tell the story behind it.
Steve: Yeah I mean the difference is Etsy isn’t promoting your stuff right. You’re basically paying them a commission to sit on their platform and them to process payments for you. Which you could just build your own website and do quite easily.
Donny: Right right right. Now since I haven’t seen your website is there like this rotating artist type feature that when you know somebody gets your homepage you know these are some of our featured artists and those types of things going on as well?
Steve: Absolutely yes. So when you hit our homepage at www.uppstart.io, you come to the main banner image and it has all our featured collections. Then we have a bunch of artists featured. We write up articles about them, people scroll through that then they can go to different categories and curated collections. So if they want to have a summertime collection, if they want some sort of summertime painting or they want a “hipster” category…they want some hipster art or street art, then they can go browse through those collections. We find that’s a lot more easy for people to browse through then just you know browse by color, browse by oil or acrylic painting. People want something more tangible.
Donny: Yeah, no I get that. Because my wife she was redoing the living room or dining room or something. She’ll have a theme in those rooms. She’s going to want to go find a piece of artwork that fits the theme, not necessarily the color. I mean don’t get me wrong the colors are definitely important. Especially when you’re talking about paintings and stuff. But that would make life really simple and expensive for me.
Steve: It’s got to fit in which is always good. I like to say affordable because a lot of people have issues with inexpensive, they associate with lower quality. All of our artists are very high quality. It is just at an affordable price. So in our marketing we separate the quality from the price. Because those are very different things.
Donny: Yeah yeah and do you help the artist price their artwork?
Steve: Yeah, so we have pricing guidelines and we actually have a one-on-one coaching call with each of our artists and if they’re having difficulty, we talk about their pricing and there’s a lot that goes into pricing. A lot of inexperienced artists or artists that just aren’t selling their work and don’t know why, they’ll price their art extremely high and they don’t have a history of sales and they don’t really price their artwork due to any sort of tangible metrics. The ones that are successful really price their artwork low. They make high quality artwork, they price it low and then they build up that initial collector base and the history of sales and once people see that other people are buying your art, then the floodgates sort of open and everyone wants a piece of it. Because it’s sort of that social affirmation that everyone is liking this, so I should like it too.
Donny: Yeah the cool kids club.
Steve: Yeah absolutely. So we coach our artists through that and then once they have a base of sales, then we suggest increasing your price by something like 4% to 10% every year. Pricing per square inch from 30 cents all the way up to four dollars if you’re a senior artist and so there’s a lot that goes into it.
Donny: Yeah that’s pretty cool because you know how you price something really affects it. I mean my dad just had an air-conditioning unit that he sold on Craigslist and I mean the thing was old, been around the block. I mean it was built like a tank. But you know he was done with this he’s like he put it on Craigslist for $40 and nobody would go for it. So we’re like you know what put it up for 250 bucks and see what happens. So he put it up for 250 bucks, 19 hits in less than five minutes and the only thing was is was the perceived value of it. I’m surprised that the artists are over pricing their stuff. Because usually when I’m working with people, they tend to underprice stuff. I because they were like well nobody’s going to buy this or you know nobody can afford this and when you underprice you do yourself a disservice in the in the same. So talk to us a little bit about how you walk people through the pricing strategy, that’s pretty cool.
Steve: Yeah so I think just going back I mean what I said earlier about art being a sort of luxury good and not being a necessity. When you’re buying an air conditioner off Craigslist you’re sort of sitting there sweating in your house and you need to fix that problem. That’s really or else you’re going to die. So in some places in the in the southern states especially you know you really need to solve that problem. When your walls are just blank and you need some art on it, you know you can leave that for a couple months. It’s not going to kill you right. So I think that’s part of the issue. But when we when we talk to our artists about pricing it depends on what stage of their career they’re at. so they’re emerging artists, they’re just getting started, they don’t have many sales; then we suggest pricing their artwork lower just for the first maybe five to ten sales and then upping the prices. because after you get all that the social media images, you know the collectors holding your art happy in their own homes and everything, then you can really start increasing your prices and getting a lot more traction out of that. So we usually advise at a lower price point. It’s usually based on a per square inch framework that we basically have and then as the artist progresses in a career they get more sales, then we increase that per square inch price. The other element of our pricing is that its shipping is inclusive. We say that it’s free, but nothing’s really free when you’re doing shipping. So the artist incorporates their estimated cost of shipping anywhere in Canada or the US into their price. Because what we’re finding is collectors don’t want to get to the end of their shopping experience and then they’re hit with a 250 dollar charge in their cart. They’d rather know upfront exactly what they pay for it.
Donny: Right in taxes too. Because you don’t want to hit all that as much as possible.
Steve: Taxes is a really really touchy subject. Because it’s very complicated. Especially when we’re selling things on behalf of a vendor in the marketplace scenario and then there’s you know there’s provincial sales taxes, state sales taxes, federal tax and the UK has value-added tax. So there’s a lot that goes into it.
Donny: That was four taxes! For every dollar you make you owe us four!
Steve: You’re a business owner so you understand.
Donny: Totally totally totally dude. So this only works in the US and Canada or does it work in other countries too?
Steve: It’s international and we actually have artists everywhere now, we’ve only launched our new website for a couple months now and we already have artists in six different countries. We have an artist in Guatemala, we have artists in Scotland in England and Spain. So you can buy it from anywhere around the world. But if you’re not in the US or Canada, then you’re paying an extra cost for shipping. Because obviously we can’t estimate costs for shipping to Spain or something like that.
Donny: Nice now as an artist does it cost me to get on your site?
Steve: No it’s free and actually that’s a big part of our value proposition. Because a lot of sites will charge you a listing fee and if the artist is high enough quality, they’re professional artists and by professional they have dedicated a sufficient amount of time to their artistic practice; then they get on and we start marketing their work and we only take a commission if we actually provide the value and bring the traffic in and sell that art on our site. If we don’t then we don’t take anything.
Donny: You know so I’m going to go buy a couple of canvases take them out back in my farm, throw some you know spray paint cans up in the air and shoot them and just let them splatter over the canvas; can I sell those?
Steve: No absolutely not. We have a lot of safeguards to prevent that sort of stuff. We have a jurying committee. So jurying just means looking at the art and making sure it’s of sufficient quality and that the artist has a background and artistic vision. So we’ll look at their website, we’ll look at their Instagram account and see how far it goes back. If it goes back all the way to 2006 and they’ve been posting artwork, then we know with sufficient certainty that they’re legitimate. They have a history of gallery showings they have an artistic statement, they’ve went to art school.
Donny: That’s awesome. Because it is preventing somewhat of the spammers coming in there and you know trying to gain the system.
Steve: oh there’s a lot of those that apply.
Donny: I’m sure you know there’s also the reseller aspect of it. So I can’t as a regular guy, I can come into a reseller account though right?
Steve: Correct. That’s where things get really interesting. The reason though the way we’ve gotten around that is we created a closed system. So you can only resell art on our secondary marketplace that you purchased on upstart. You can’t just you know upload whatever artwork that’s hanging on your walls or in your basement and the reason is because we want to create a secure record.
Donny: Yeah I love that. let’s say Thomas Kincade who’s a famous artist out of my hometown right had his stuff up there and I know he passed away six years ago, but let’s say he had his stuff up there; I’d have to go purchase Thomas Kincade artwork from upstart and then turn around add it to my account. Which means now I’ve got to mark it up above whatever I just bought it for to make a profit off it, true?
Donny: Okay that’s a pretty cool system. I mean that’s at least helps, well that definitely keeps down the imitation art. You know the guys that are you know copying people’s artwork in trying to sell as authentic, which is really cool. Do you ever get anybody coming to you and worrying about now I’ve got resellers competing with me?
Steve: No it hasn’t really been a concern. Because we’ve been up front with the artist from the outset that this is happening. That there’s a resale marketplace here and we’re marketing their work just as hard as we are marketing the work on the secondary market and the two marketplaces are different. So someone that’s coming onto the site and just looking at the primary marketplace, they’re just seeing art that’s directly for sale from artists. If they want to go to a secondary marketplace then they can go check that out. But it’s a different marketplace.
Donny: okay very cool. Very cool. This is a really really cool concept and one that I don’t think anybody else out there the marketplace is doing is there?
Steve: No there’s no one is doing exactly what we’re doing. There’s all we have competitors just like any other business. But there’s no business that is using this unique combination of art technology and a primary marketplace directly from emerging artists and then an integrated retail marketplace where everything is tracked on this public immutable record that no one can change or defraud.
Donny: That is so cool. So what’s the ultimate goal with this thing? I mean it’s a beast and has true potential to scale like massively. So what’s the game plan?
Steve: The vision is to see upstart be the number one source to buy and sell artwork online. it’s the one-stop shop where you can go and you can find art you love and purchase it knowing that it’s authentic and real and from true artists and then if you’re sick of it down the road or if you just are storing it in your basement, then instead of doing that just list it for sale and trade it in for something new instead of just either throwing it out or keeping it locked in your basement for your kids to find it when you die. so we want to be that one-stop shop where you can come and you can buy art and you know you could even list it for sale right away and just enjoy it while it hangs on your wall and if you get a good offer come in and then you can trade it in for something else.
Donny: Well here’s what’s so awesome about this. Especially in the day and age we live in. one, retail stores are dying. Because so much purchases are being done online. Which is sad because I still like going to the mom-and-pop retail stores. I don’t like one of the big Giants in the conglomerates right. So that’s one aspect of it. Second is the generations that are coming up now don’t want their parents junk? I’ve got a friends that owned a huge online antique estate selling business with auctions and everything else that they had to shut down. Because nobody was buying the antiques and stuff, nobody wanted it. At least not in the volume they needed to sustain a business. so the fact that you’ve got a system where I can go purchase a piece of artwork, put it on a wall oh now that we’ve decorated we needed something new there, that artworks not going to go. Like you said instead of putting in the attic or basement, I can turn around and read list it on your site and recoup my money, maybe make a little bit of money on it you know while I’m purchasing another piece of artwork. That’s a brilliant play.
Steve: Yeah and you hit the nail on the head and this is all based on talking to hundreds of customers and figuring out what they want and recognizing exactly what you said is that the younger generation these days, you know the under 35s; Millennial whatever you want to call them. They don’t want to just use their parent’s art or store it in their basement. They want something with a more of an authentic connection to the artists. they want to feel like they have an authentic experience and they want to be able to have it more of an investment potential than just a sunk cost on home decor. They want to see it more as an investment you can hang on your wall.
Donny: Right right. My wife and I we still could enjoy going to the antique malls. But you go look at the old furniture and old furniture is huge. I mean you’re talking about these just ungodly huge pieces that nobody’s buying, because you have no place to put it in. your houses are getting smaller you know and everything else. So this is primed to explode brother.
Steve: Oh yeah and the online market is going huge these days. It’s valued at around six billion dollars right now and it’s increasing every year. The total global art market is around fifty to sixty billion dollars. So the online art market is about 10% of it.
Donny: Yeah I mean cause you got my generation, your generation maybe and an older; we still like to go look at things in stores before we buy. But everybody underneath us they grew up in the online world. So you know…
Steve: Plus it’s yeah I hear you. Plus it’s getting easier to have that in-person viewing experience without having to go anywhere. Because we actually have an app on our site now where you can see the art on your own wall. so you can upload a picture of your own living room to us and you can then see the art on your own wall and move it around and see what it’s going to look like above your couch and see what it is.
Donny: Okay don’t tell my wife that. No cause that’s going to get expensive real quick. because now she has a couple of rooms in the house where she’s decorated around an art piece and she can do that with multiple art pieces, I’m going to have a new room every freak in month man.
Steve: Well if she gets bored of her home decor then she can trade it in for something else.
Donny: That is so cool man. Do you have like any you know stories of an artist coming on there that was make maybe an unknown, but because of your platform has now become found and like an on demand you know everybody’s buying their stuff type stories.
Steve: I mean we don’t have any stories of people becoming the next like Picasso or anything like that. But we do have success stories. there are a lot of artists who came on with not a lot of sales and the social media exposure and the sales that they got through upstart and the education that they got through upstart with me you know coaching them on one-on-one calls and providing educational material on how to actually market and sell your work online, that’s really helped them to develop their own art business, develop their own website and use upstart as a tool. But also integrate all of these other different strategies you can use. Because the artist have an advantage over us. Because they’re the artist. They can show them creating the work through the creative process. They can connect with people and that’s huge. So a lot of it has been helping artists get those initial sales. Helping them get the confidence they need and the education and training they need to actually succeed.
Donny: Yeah dude and this is what just ran through my head is you’ve made the platform that allows people who do it like on YouTube to become you know YouTube famous.
Steve: Yeah that’s what I always make the analogy to YouTube. As a hobby I have a YouTube channel so I guess I have some experience there. But I always think of YouTube and how it just provided this platform for people to get their own voice out and for everybody to become a TV star you know regardless of what your interest is. so I think that’s always sort of guided me and I always I’ve always felt like why doesn’t the art world have something like this that where people can just go to cut their teeth and really just get started and start learning how to build the business side.
Donny: Dude dude I’ll say it again well done. Why didn’t you call me when you started this whole thing? I would have bought in. That’s awesome brother. Well tell me how people can I know we got the website www.upstart.io. How else do people get in touch with you so they can walk through the process and everything else, is it all through there?
Steve: Yeah it’s all through our website. Everything is on our website. We got our blog on there. You can sign up to our mailing list and we have a lot of good informative material in our emails. It’s not just like blasting you with sales and everything. We always focus on providing value to our customers. So we provide a lot of educational material that like how to really pick the winners and get good quality art for affordable prices and how to search for art online and really connect with the artists. So yeah it’s all through our site and you can also reach out to me personally. My emails on the site, firstname.lastname@example.org. I always love to chat with people if they have any interest in the art world.
Donny: There’s the other thing that popped in my head. Is it strictly wall art or you doing sculptures and things as well?
Steve: No we do have sculptures. We actually have a… we’ve partnered with an Inuit art dealer. So Inuit’s are a cultural people in northern Canada.
Donny: Forgive me for this, they are like Eskimos. Forgive me for I’m ignorant on my part.
Steve: That’s exactly what it is and as these Inuit people they create these sculptures out of serpentine stone and then they get shipped down and people from all over the world buy them and we partnered with a dealer in Calgary to offer this artwork and we’re really interested in the possibility of getting a resale royalties going for this. Because a lot of people in that area the world really struggle and their artwork is really their only means to make a living.
Donny: Yeah and you know what’s interesting to say that is I don’t know about the Inuit’s up there. But we see a lot of you know the living in Alaska you know shows and things that come on TV that really let you into that world and that’s cool that you’ve made them an outlet to reach the rest of the world with their artwork.
Steve: I mean yeah I think that’s like a major point. Like art is like a way. It’s a portal into another culture right. It’s a way of sort of translating a culture and making it more accessible across the world and making it more democratic. So we have an artist from Guatemala who paints a lot of really impactful paintings about like sort of the social and political aspects of Guatemala and we have the Inuit arts. It depicts a lot of the sort of religious and cultural aspects of that culture and I think that’s just huge and I love doing that. Because everyone just gets super interested when they see the art and it’s something tangible and then they get interested and they want to learn more about that culture.
Donny: Yeah and I love the fact that you get to meet the artists in a lot of these cases you know and hear their story. I hope you’re encouraging them to get on and you know post videos and things about you know their stuff. Because I think that’ll go a long way to help them what they’re doing.
Steve: For sure yeah we have we have big plans to start making the artists more front and center really getting them to sell their story and putting them up front.
Donny: That’s awesome that’s awesome. all right well dude I got to tell you it’s been awesome having you on the show and letting my crowd know about this. I swear I’m never telling my wife about the site. Oh don’t worry she listens to the episode, I know I am in trouble. So that’s awesome man. So here’s how I like to wrap up every show and I do stump some people, so get ready. If you were going to read my crowd, my listeners, and my champions with a phrase, a statement, a motto, a mantra, and slogan something that they could carry with them on their journey as they’re going through it. Maybe they’re going through a tough time or they’re getting stacked up against it. What would be that phrase or model you would say you know think of this when you get there.
Steve: Yeah I would say when times get tough and things get dark at the model I always live by is be scared, but do it anyway.
Donny: Love it, I love it. It’s the US military phrase of embrace the suck. That’s awesome dude, that’s awesome. Steve thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing your story. Keep killing it brother. It’s going to be exciting to watch your journey and how big you make this thing go.
Steve: Thanks Donny. Yeah the sky’s the limit and we’re going to go all the way with it.