In the age of tech, there is a certain image one has of start-ups that make it. This archetype usually includes a small company that picks up investors, goes to Silicon Valley, eventually goes public and makes the company’s board a large profit.
This is not the narrative of Pixels, the world’s largest online art marketplace, headquartered right in Santa Monica on Main Street. Founded in 2006 as Fine Art America by CEO Sean Broihier, Pixels now serves 500,000 artists around the globe, including independent artists as well as massive corporations such as Conde Nast.
It started as a website for Broihier’s brother who was working at an art gallery. He soon realized creating an e-commerce art website would be a good idea and by 2012, the website surpassed 100,000 members. At that point, he had already become his own boss and was operating the website full time along with three other employees.
Now the company employs eight, an unusually small number for an e-commerce company. According to Broihier most websites similar to his, such as cafepress.com or art.com, have hundreds of employees but he said they can get too big for their own good.
“What happens is you raise money and your company is not profitable,” he said. “So you watch all this money that you raised dwindle, dwindle, dwindle month after month, and your life becomes a never ending cycle of ‘How am I going to demonstrate to the next investor that they should give me even more money?’”
He said the companies that initially raise millions from investors get the most attention and grow the fastest, but usually end up laying off employees and selling to larger corporations.
“Raising money is often the beginning of the end for your business,” he added. “I got into this because I wanted to run my own business based on hard work.”
In 2011, he was able to quit his day job and run his website full time. With his lease ending in New York, he could move anywhere. He took to Santa Monica, wanting to live near a beach and a big city. Santa Monica was one of the few cities that could offer both. He said he purposefully has not gone to Silicon Valley.
“I knew I wanted to build this on my own, I didn’t need to be in a tech mecca,” he said.
Ironically enough, many other tech companies soon joined what is becoming known as Silicon Beach, although Broihier doesn’t mind.
“Even as poorly connected as I am, even I can see this is a booming tech scene now,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in Santa Monica and Venice.”
Santa Monica is also ranked ninth nationally for art buying, so perhaps it is a better location for Pixels. The site allows artists to price their pieces for however much they want, whereas other sites might have restrictive price settings. Because of this, Broihier said artists who use Pixels can make a better commission.
Other websites have a pricing model where “they’re going to give you 15 percent of the sale price, and they also decide that they are going to sell your 24×36 for $50, and they set the price. They say, Mr. or Mrs. Artist, you get 15 percent of that sale, so you are only going to get $7.50. Lots of artists regularly get $100, $200, or $500 for that print on our site. That’s why artists and photographers love us,” Broihier told SocalTech.com in 2012.
Lindsay Frost, a Santa Monica resident of almost 20 years and artist said Pixels, back when it was only Fine Art America, jumpstarted her art career.
She said the site was “structured it in such a way that gives the artists a lot of freedom with pricing and deciding what they want printed.”
But more importantly to her as someone restarting her art career, Pixels offered a way to communicate with other artists.
“There’s a whole network within the site for members,” she said. “With fun contests which provide a platform to show pieces and see similar artwork, there is direct messaging so people can comment on your work, there’s just a whole myriad of user friendly things within the site that support the artist.”
Local artists like her are the main source of business for Pixels, but their recent partnership with Conde Nast is a good sign of growth for Broihier. He hopes this continues. His goal right now is for Pixels to be a household name, and is currently ramping up marketing.
“So that when anyone thinks of selling artwork or buying artwork Pixels comes to the top of their mind,” he said. “Because art, in my opinion, is one of the last spaces in e-commerce where there is no household name.”
Still, Pixels has been growing rapidly without the increase in marketing according to Broihier because of word of mouth and Broihier’s obsessing over “search engine optimization,” so that when someone Google searches for canvas prints, Pixels comes up at the top.
Pixels currently has 14 fulfillment centers around the United States and other English speaking countries such as Australia, Scotland and Canada.
Visit https://pixels.com for more information.