Back in 1998, the Internet was still brand new. The “Y2K problem” was still two years away. A brand-new search engine named Google was born. Windows 98 (First Edition) was released. And down in Dallas, Texas, digital artist Rebecca Collins began selling digital portraits of dogs and cats. She called her home-based business “Art Paw.” Eleven years later, Art Paw is going strong, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just that the portraits are outstanding; Art Paw gets Internet marketing right. Digital artists–and any small business owner–can learn a lot from Art Paw.
According to the website, Art Paw “… was the very first of its kind on the web and continues to offer the largest contemporary Art Gallery for hip and cool urban animals.” The vast majority of me-too digital pet portrait firms use a cookie-cutter approach involving one or two Photoshop filters. Art Paw has always been about creating unique, hand-painted works on canvas, executed in a bold and exciting style. Today, Art Paw is run by two humans (Rebecca and Dan Collins), assisted by their three Scotties (Ajax, Big Tommy, and Pixel).
Ordering a portrait online couldn’t be easier. As Rebecca advises those just starting out, “Before you launch a huge marketing campaign, make it easy to order on-line.” The website is easy to navigate and organized logically. There are just three main portrait types, which makes it easy for prospective buyers to decide what to get. The types are Painterly (an example of which is seen at left), Warhol, and Master Paw. The studio was the first to offer the now-ubiquitous Warhol-style for cat and dog owners. The Master Paw series puts your pooch or kitty into a famous work of art. Ten years ago, according to Rebecca, “It seemed like magic to have your pet in Mona’s lap.” There are several masterworks to choose from. You can also suggest a different painting, as long as it’s in the public domain. These paintings really show off the sense of humor and whimsy of the artists at Art Paw.
In addition to offering custom portraits, Art Paw also sells dog and cat artwork through Cafe Press. The studio retains the copyright to all paintings, and offers a huge range of images on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs, calendars, and magnets, as well as framed art. (Portrait customers can request to keep their work private, if so desired.) The Cafe Press pages look just like the Art Paw website, so that users are presented with a seamless buying experience. This is a very smart business model, since it allows Art Paw to make income repeatedly from past portrait jobs. The products go out into the world, helping to spread the word further. Art Paw also offers products through Etsy.com.
Art Paw makes use of two other web tools: Twitter and blogging. The Art Dog Blog is frequently updated, showing off new work as it is produced. One blog entry in particular, ” Pet Portrait Marketing Guide” is highly recommended. Another web technology important to their success is SEO (Search Engine Optimization): do a search for “pet portraits” and Art Paw will be on the first or second page of results. That takes a lot of effort, but it pays off.
Print and other traditional advertising are also part of the Art Paw recipe for success. Click on the Press Room link and you’ll see a long list of magazine articles featuring Art Paw. You can even watch a clip from The Today Show featuring an Art Paw print. Rebecca has the following advice for getting the word out to the media: “IF YOU WANT TO GARNER SOME PR YOU HAVE TO CREATE A MEDIA KIT AND ALSO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY. ASK YOURSELF “WHAT ABOUT YOUR WORK MAKES IT NEWSWORTHY”? I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE AND HAVE HAD MANY JOURNALISTS STUMBLE INTO MY WORK VIA THE WEB. I ALSO HAVE BEEN COACHED BY A GOOD FRIEND THAT IS A PUBLICIST. HIRING A PROFESSIONAL PUBLICIST IS THE BEST ADVERTISING DOLLAR YOU CAN SPEND. IF YOU DO HAVE A WRITER INTERESTED IN YOUR STORY YOU MUST JUMP ON THAT OPPORTUNITY FAST. I NEVER HESITATE TO OVERNIGHT IMAGE CDS WHEN THEY ARE NEEDED.“
It’s worth noting that this web-savvy business credits its early success to print ads. “For the first 6 or 7 years I spent a few thousand dollars a year on magazine ads and this was a great way to build my brand,” says Rebecca. “I have been pulling back some on print advertising lately because the word of mouth and repeat business has been so high. I find that I don’t have to place ads to continue to keep my calendar full. In the beginning I also did a lot of outdoor doggy charity events to find my clients. That is another marketing arena I have pulled back from due to time constraints.” Being too busy with paying jobs is a nice problem to have!
Art Paw customers come from everywhere. 95% of their sales comes in from the website. Working from amateur photographs can be tough. Rebecca told me “It is always a challenge to get good photos to work with, no matter what style we are doing. People have no clue really about proper resolution and I have had to get really good at my craft in order to compensate for low resolution images, glow eye and out of focus shots. High resolution, well shot images are always a joy to work with however you are going to learn ten times as much from having to work with a lower quality image. Sometimes I send people back to look for better photos and yet often we are dealing with a pet that has passed away and picture choices are limited so I just have to make them work.”
Art Paw sells through pet shops, too, giving the shop a commission for orders it takes. This is one of the advantages of a well-defined niche: your market is clear (dog and cat owners), and your strategy is to get your work in front of that market wherever it is, be a pet shop, a dog show, or online surfing. Art Paw is thriving, even in this difficult economy, which shows that digital artists can indeed make a living from their art. Just don’t expect overnight riches. “It takes about 5 years to really find your groove and start making a real income,” says Rebecca.
I guess you could say a successful business isn’t born overnight!