Singaporean Artists Sam Lay and Josef Lee started a web resource portal for Asian artists in February 2007 because they wanted to showcase works from talented Asian artists (but we think its because they simply like to draw). Apparently, a lot of other people like to draw or look at drawings and so within a year, over 500,000 unique visitors from all over the globe have taken a look at what they have in startdrawing.org. They share their exciting story with us here:
1. We are always interested in the reasons behind the birth of a business. Can you tell us the story behind startdrawing.org (not the corporate story)?
Sam: Well, for a start, startdrawing.org wasn’t the main idea for us. I remembered it was a year ago, in February, I was having coffee with Josef at TCC (The Coffee Connoisseur) in the city. It was one of our regular coffee session where both of us will meet and update each other on some ideas, industry trends, or occasional gossips. We were chatting, and I remember asking Josef this question – “If Scott Adams is speaking at a conference, would you pay to attend it?” The answer from him was a definite yes. We repeated this question using a few other experts in the art field as the speaker. And almost in all instances, the answer was yes. Now at the time, I was a conference producer with an international events company and Josef was a lead designer with a well-established local firm. Both of us came from a different industry background. However, there is something in common for us, we have a passion in drawing since our secondary school days. And knowing how to draw certainly helps us in our career.
Shieko, is one of Malaysia’s street artists and is a full time freelance illustrator.
TRYING SOMETHING NEW
There has always been a strong will in both of us to do something, to try out something new, to explore a new business, something of that sort. So at that point, I was sharing with Josef that the conference business was booming, and the art field is a relatively niche market yet to be fully explored. The main idea then was to create a mega drawing conference and exhibition inviting key artists, cartoonist, film makers as speakers. These speakers would be the successful and famous individuals that had leveraged on their drawing skills to reach their current status. The event itself would be targeting the young aspiring individuals providing them a platform for role-modelling.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE INITIAL IDEA & THE SOLUTION
We were relatively convinced that the conference idea would work well, but at the same time we did realize what would hinder our progress: the lack of a marketing channel, an effective system that can help us drive the information across to the target audience. We did not have a ‘reach’ mechanism to create the desire for people to want to attend the conference. So we thought that for all pieces to connect, we would need to first establish our presence through a portal. The need for an information driver, the need to establish a strong presence, and the need to reach out effectively to our target audience gave birth to the portal – startdrawing.org.
THE NEXT STEP
After that, we needed to decide on the direction that we wanted to head towards. The objective for the portal is simple, to create the desire for people to start drawing. We saw two ways to approach this:
(1) Create activities, and
(2) Provide inspirational role models and case studies.
These two became the cornerstones for the portal.
ONE LAST THING: the UNIQUE SELLING POINT (USP)
Lastly, a drawing portal is not unique. You see lots of these art portals everywhere, and that naturally translates to massive competition and high barriers to entry (or at least getting eyeballs). Well established sites like Drawn! or Lines and Colours are examples of successful drawing portals. Rivalry in the same market would be suicidal for us.
THE KEY QUESTIONS
We started asking ourselves, what is our leverage? What is a unique product that the market is lacking? The answer came to us when we explored our own cultural heritage – Asia. Art in Europe and America is at a mature stage. It is easy to get information on those regions. Asia on the other hand is an emerging market. Accessibility to art-related information is still relatively weak. This present an opportunity for us. startdrawing.org can bridge the information gap in this region to the world. This helps us to derive our mission for this portal – the aspiration to be the door that opens Asia to the World and the window that brings the World to Asia.
2. If I am an artist, how do I join and/or get featured in startdrawing.org? Do I need a certain portfolio? Can I sell/promote my collection through startdrawing.org? Can you give us a brief rundown on how the whole thing works? (Point form is fine)
Josef: The draw of startdrawing.org has always been firstly, an online art gallery showcasing the finest drawings in Asia, and secondly, a one-stop station where you get the most up-to-date news of what’s happening in the arts and illustration markets in Asia. As such, we see overselves as both curators and reporters.
The site has always been a two-man show, till most recently. The two of us will regularly source for artists and artworks via the internet / books / magazines, and whatever is Asia or drawing-related, and deemed good or interesting enough, will be featured. Our interests in the subject definitely helped. I do design for a living and has to score through tons of research daily to keep myself inspired. As such, I covered most of the illustrations, concept art and toys / products news on the site. On the other hand, Sam is a comics fanatic and has deep interest in fine arts, so he tend to feature more of those content.
THE 80/20 RULE STILL APPLIES
In general, about 80% of the content on the site are sourced out by us. The other 20% comes from tip-off from our viewers, or from self-promotion by artists / agents. When we receive tip-offs, the very first thing that we assess will definitely be the portfolio of the artists. Online portfolios are especially important as we tend to provide links to the artists’ sites so that our viewers can access them to see more works. The quality, or rather resolution of the images are also very important. startdrawing.org stands out from other news portals as we only display big and high-res images of the artworks. And we will make it a point to feature more than one artwork, so that viewers are able to see a range of the artist’s drawings. When you surf through our site, you can easily understand why we are regarded by many of our viewers to be an online art gallery.
RECENT CHANGES WORTH NOTING
Our site has recently underwent a major revamp. The new site allows for easy uploading of articles from multiple contributors. We have already added 8 new contributors, who are accomplished artists from various parts of the world. They will act as our international correspondents and help to beef up our content and increase the rate of article updates. The new site also comes with a ‘Public Feed’ side panel that allows for anyone to post any interesting news and links. All these new features will ensure more variety of content on startdrawing.org.
3. What kind of marketing have you been doing since you launched? Can you tell us what percentage of your efforts are spent online v. offline? And what has worked better for you?
IMPORTANCE OF WEB 2.0 MARKETING STRATEGIES
Sam: Working on the portal has certainly gave us a lot of opportunities to try out new methods of doing things. We came to realize the massive implications following the emerging trends of Web 2.0. We are at the frontier of the next generation of world wide web. The understanding and adoption of viral marketing methods via social networking sites and web-based communities definitely gave us the edge over other established sites. We know exactly who are the ‘connectors’ of the industry, and by strategically driving the site information across to them, it ensures the effectiveness in reaching the right audience.
There is a lot of channel exploration and development for us. Some work and some don’t. In the beginning of this year, we started marketing ourselves via Facebook. We managed to garner a decent following of like-minded people through this channel. It is a good alternative way to maintain a focus network and to broadcast information.
NEXT STEPS: GOING OFFLINE
We are currently at the second phase of development. A lot of ground work has been done during phase one, or in your words, online initiatives. Following the revamped of our site, the next phase is to develop relationships and establish close links with key partners, the offline elements. Project collaborations, to be specific. Understanding what are our key strengths and weaknesses, and to collaborate with partners that complements our shortfall.
Josef: Our efforts for this year will be to focus on the offline possibilities, or rather, to branch out and be more than just an online news portal. Many interesting plans are in the pipeline and hopefully, we can get them running soon.
4. What has been the most difficult aspect about keeping startdrawing.org growing? Have you held any events to gather the artists in the offline world? If yes, what have they been and what can we expect next? If not, any plans to do so?
BUILDING THE BRAND CONTINUOUSLY
Sam: I think we are fairly strong in terms of content. There is a natural hype and demand for Asian art information, and we are possibly the only site that is focus on fulfilling that demand. The challenge is in building the brand further, and making it it ‘sticky’ enough to generate repeat visitors. It is great to have lots of new people visiting the portal, but we do recognize that it is equally important for people to come back regularly. And to do that, we need to constantly create activities, announce new project collaborations, post exclusive content. People like to see movements, new things happening, a stagnant site is a dead site. Complacency at this stage is the last thing we want. The difficulty for us is in terms of time management. Both myself and Josef have our own career, I am in the events sector and he is in design. Managing our time between work and startdrawing requires careful planning. Having said that, the portal is gradually moving towards self-generation through contributors and public feed mechanism. That eventually free us to do business development.
CREATING A LANDMARK EVENT
We are definitely looking at creating a landmark event in the long run. We did a startdrawing in Green campaign last year where we asked for submissions internationally to support the Live Earth event. That went pretty well and we received over a hundred pieces of works all over the world, within a span of 2 weeks. We do have plans to do a roving exhibition within the year. Looking ahead, we will pursue our aim to strongly position startdrawing.org as Asiaâ€™s best drawing hub. Moving forward, the 5 key initiatives for us would be;
– Key involvements and support for major events
– Strategic partnerships and collaborations in drawing-related projects
– Training and development for the drawing community
– Special projects and initiatives in support of environment conservation
– Production of publications in tribute to talented Asian artists
5. Tell us about your personal inspirations as an artist and a writer and what kind of impact the internet has had on you.
Josef: The internet has made such a big impact in my life and I have done so many stuff through it that it is difficult for me to imagine a world that is any less connected.
I do motion graphics and broadcast design for my day job, a fairly niche industry in Singapore considering the number of TV channels that we have. Five years ago when I started on this, it is still considered a very new market here and even the schools are not teaching this subject. However, through the internet, I managed to see what designers in other countries are doing. I downloaded free video tutorials and taught myself new software tricks. I joined online forums and learn from fellow motion designers. The internet was my best teacher and I learnt everything through it.
About a year ago, I started exploring the internet as the main medium in my various self-initiated projects. Every new project that I do made me understand more about the internet and how to best leverage on it to my advantage. Besides startdrawing.org, I started an online graphic novel titled “The Life of Mann“, a global collaboration in creative storytelling. This project is unique because every 5 pages of the story is continued by a different contributing artist / writer. Many local and international creatives have professed their interest for the project and already signed up as guest contributors. The Life Of Mann has since been selected as one of the projects supported by Synthesis 2006, an MDA funding scheme that supports innovative and creative digital productions that are Web-based.
Two months ago, I drew a short story titled “Adam’s Apple“, which is a funny retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, but this time involving the Apple Computer and Steve Jobs. I uploaded the 12-page comic on my blog and spread the news out via a couple of news portals. What followed took me by surprise. The story was a big hit amongst Mac fans and it was featured on various blogs, forums and Mac-related sites. I was linked by sites from countries like France, Russia and Japan and within one week, the story was accessed by more than 30,000 visitors! This experience made me understand how powerful the internet can be.
Sam: The internet gave me another option of reaching out to the masses. I started cartooning back in the 90s. At that time, the only medium for a cartoon to be seen by the public would be through the newspapers. And that being the case, it presented a real challenge for aspiring cartoonist. There was a huge dependence on the papers to publish the comics. So you really have to be the very best to stand out and for the papers to select your cartoons. Thatâ€™s really not the case for now. If you look at the current generation of artists, they have many options for their works to be seen. Blogs, online art galleries, personal websites, even social networking systems like the facebook offers a platform for posting of works. So in a way, I have more choices to start with. The negativity following this convenience is the drop in quality of works.
CALLING ALL ASIAN ARTISTS:
startdrawing.org showcases works crossing various disciplines such as
startdrawing.org currently showcases artwork from the following Asian countries (in no particular order): Singapore, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, India, Cambodia and Vietnam.
NOMINATIONS & AWARDS
startdrawing.org was recently nominated for the â€œBest Asian Weblogâ€ category under the Eighth Annual Weblog Awards. startdrawing.org is also proud to be appointed as one of the official online media for the Singapore Toy & Comic Convention 2008 – Southeast Asiaâ€™s definitive global pop-culture event.