Unbeknownst to me three years ago a friend of mine started working on an idea for an online art gallery. About a year ago I had a similar idea and excitedly called him up only to find he had had the idea first. That conversation was the first nascent beginnings of the The Portman Gallery. This is not a idea to launch in a few days like you often hear these days, it was a long journey that has taught us a lot which early signals suggest we have executed well (we had our first sale within 30 minutes of going live!).
One year ago we started with the simple mission to provide an online platform to help and support emerging artists with their careers, by showcasing and selling their work so they could concentrate on their art instead of taking a part-time job.
We saw our differentiation as the following:
- Unique artwork, there is only one of each artwork on the site
- Exhibition led, we have monthly exhibitions just like a traditional gallery except ours are online
- All the artwork is chosen by experts so you can feel safe in your purchase
- Emerging artists only, we do not have famous or well known artists
Another differentiator is our artwork priced from from £200 upwards with some pieces selling at £6,000. This was a radical change for the online art market where the average price for artwork is around £50. We felt a bit like net-a-porter when they started and everyone said no one will pay £1,000 for a handbag online, but they did, and now net-a-porter is a hugely successful site.
Pivot 1: It’s not a shop
Our first mistake was to make the site too commercial, too much like a shop, yes it sells artwork but it is not a shop. Our first iteration was an art shop and the artists hated it and did not want to get involved. We realised this very quickly after several workshops and made the site more editorial.
Pivot 2: Distributed logistics and sales
In the beginning we wanted the artists to post the artwork to customers when a sale was made. We quickly realised that although it sounded good on paper the loss of control for our brand was too great. We decided to hold all artwork in a secure distribution centre, which of course means costly insurance but the upside is that the customer gets their art the next day after their order.
Pivot 3: Exhibition led
We started off like any other online shop with stock that customers could browse. Galleries on the other hand have been using the exhibition approach since they started business so why did we think we knew better? So we changed our approach and now we are the first online exhibition led gallery.
Pivot 4: Digital and physical
The initial idea was to be a 100% online gallery, but so many customers wanted to see the artwork that we decided to introduce pop-up shows around London. Our first show is on 19th May and we are all really excited to see how it goes. Having a physical event is a great way to meet your customers and it gives you something to build campaigns around.
Key lessons learned
- Your founding partners are all important I was lucky enough to know my founders before we started this business, your relationship with them will make or break your business.
- Get a heads of agreement written before you start work written in plain English you can always get a lawyer to look at it when you are successful.
- Have the tough conversations before you start, we locked ourselves in a room for a whole day and talked about our views on operations, acquisitions and long-term plans. There are no right and wrongs here but you need to all be aligned or there will be friction later on.
- Keep an eye on your vision, it is so easy to get caught up with ideas but if you move too far from your original motivation you may lose your enthusiasm for the project.
- Make sure each partner has clear roles and time commitments, these might change but it can really help stop arguments.
- Don’t let frustrations fester, a few times on the project we all had to have frank conversations which made us stronger as a team.
- It is a long journey to success don’t expect the world immediately you have to be in it for the long haul.
- Change, tweak and alter the site until it is a masterpiece.
Technically I learned a lot from coding an ecommerce store from the ground up and all of the API integrations along the way have made me a better programmer. Who knows what the future holds, but I have wanted to be involved with ecommerce for a long time and now I have finally achieved that. Of course any lessons I learn along the way I will document in future blog posts.