Dec 1, 2010
In Part I, we learned how Jason Gracilieri’s path through the world of entrepreneurship led to the formation of TurningArt. In Part II, he talks about serial entrepreneurship, balancing engineering and business acumen, and how he turned an idea into reality.
MITER: You’ve been a serial entrepreneur. How has that helped you throughout your startups? What are your biggest lessons as you move from one startup to another?
The biggest lesson is staying laser-focused on what’s most important. It’s very easy to get excited about all the different things you can do, and you can get distracted by all these different initiatives and thoughts. It’s really all about evaluating what’s most critical for your business at this stage in the nearterm. By nearterm I mean two or three week; our development planning cycle is one to two weeks. We don’t plan too far in advance because we’re reacting to feedback we get from customers.
When you’re launching a product, it doesn’t work like that because you’re building for version one. Even then you need to focus on what many today call the minimum viable product — getting the basic version of your product out to customers as early as possible and iterating from that point. That’s something I have found useful across my startups.
MITER: You have a great combination of skills in business and engineering. There’s a lot of talk among entrepreneurs about the relative value of each of these backgrounds. What’s your own take on that?
Coming from a very strong engineering background, I struggled with certain aspects of the business world early in my career. I spent a lot of time in engineering, and really enjoyed it — I love problem solving. But the thing about engineering is that there’s generally always an answer. If you’re an engineer who develops code, there’s an answer and you’re eventually going to get to it! Maybe it’ll take you some time and you’ll bang your head a bit, but at the end of the day, there’s an answer.
When you move to the business world, however, it’s not always as clear cut. That can be a challenge for engineers and it may also be part of the underlying challenge between the two spheres. For marketing or business strategy, there’s rarely a single right answer. It took me time to get comfortable with that level of uncertainty. But now, I just see it as a different type of problem solving.
Of course, I will always love and respect engineering. I still write queries to my SQL databse because it’s faster. I modified much of our CSS in our early days, and I can still code. But I don’t have a development environment on my machine anymore because I shouldn’t be spending my time there.
MITER: Going back to TurningArt, how did you validate this idea and what steps did you take to do that to convince yourself that you should go forward with it?
I started with focus-grouping a range of potential customers. Along the lines of, “Here’s the product I’m thinking about. What do you think?” Since this is a two-sided market place, I did focus groups with both artists and consumers. On the artist side, I had access to great artists through my wife, who is a painter and gallery director. She made initial introductions so I could talk to many different artists and have conversations around, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking, it’s pretty different. Is this something that would interest you?” I certainly got many different questions because it is a very different model, but I also got a lot of positive feedback. On the consumer side, I started becoming confident in TurningArt when people would ask, “nobody else is doing this?”
At the end of the day, I’m definitely of the belief that you can focus-group as much as you want, but the difference between somebody saying what they think they want and then actually putting down a credit card or interacting with the product is big. And it’s perfectly understandable because no matter how great a job of explaining the product I feel I’m doing, I have an internal model of the business in my head and it’s difficult to convey that to other people. So I’m a big believer in building and testing. We launched our first beta back in March and did a lot of testing with artists and consumers. We got some great initial responses.
Step one was getting that early feedback and thinking, “Do I want to take the time to build this beta?” I got enough positive feedback that I said to myself, “I’m going to regret it if I don’t build the beta. I’m really going to kick myself if I don’t take it to that next step.” Another way to think about it is, “Can I kill this idea? Let me talk to many people and see if I can kill this idea.” I got to a point where I couldn’t kill the idea. There were enough people who were excited about it, so I went ahead and built the first beta. Andrew Lau and Mike Manning helped me out and we got the beta out in about two and half months. We moved really, really fast. People loved the first beta, paid with their credit cards and we said, “Alright, let’s now go and recruit more artists, because being able to find art you love is going to be critical to consumers.” Having the beta up really helped us recruit artists.
MITER: How are you funded?
Frankly, raising money takes time. So the question is, which do you want to do: take time to raise money or build your product? There comes a time when you need to do both but in the very early days, if possible, I would suggest, building the product first. You’re going to learn from it and it’s really just the best use of your time. Obviously, every case is different, but in general: build it first, educate yourself about the market, and then when you have something you can work with,raise money.
MITER: How are you marketing yourself?
Among our many marketing initiatives, we’ve integrated TurningArt into the Facebook OpenGraph. The idea is that even if you’re not a TurningArt subscriber and even if you’re not at a stage when you want to be beating the drums about TurningArt to your friends in a concerted way, artwork in and of itself is a media object. So even if it’s not hanging on your wall, you still have an emotional reaction to it, and by plugging into the OpenGraph, we feel that we’re giving people an opportunity to make a little statement about the kind of art that they like and share that with their friends. This creates awareness for our artists, and spreads the word about TurningArt at the same time.
MITER: What kind of feedback have you received from artists whose work you have used?
The feedback from our artists has been wonderful. They are very excited about the platform as a zero-cost way to get their artwork out to a very large, new audience. It’s a lot of fun to work with them, and pretty rewarding as well to be helping them out.
We’ve also had artists reaching out to us to see if they could participate. We still curate all of the work that goes onto the site, as we think that’s important for both the artists as well as customers. While not every artist who has contacted us has gone up onto the site, we’re very happy to say that a number of them have. And we’re excited to keep adding more quality artists from across the country…if you’re an artist reading this now, get in touch!
For more information, visit TurningArt.com.