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Onilne-only small business success

“The importance of building relationships and over-servicing customers can’t be underestimated.”
Ed Hartley - bluethumb

bluethumb is Australia’s largest art marketplace, connecting art lovers, collectors and interior designers with emerging and established local artists.

Co-founded in 2011 by brothers Ed and George Hartley, bluethumb is now a major player in the online art space.

Recently recognised as one of Inside Small Business's Top 50 Business Leaders, we asked Ed how long it took to get bluethumb established and the benefits of being an on-line only enterprise.


Take us back to the beginning. Where did the idea come from,  what capital did you have, what were your goals?

When I came back from working in the Middle East I decided it was time to do something that really mattered. I'd grown up in an artistic household, seen artists struggle to make a living despite being crazy talented and realised if the rest of the world was moving online, then so too must art. We had almost no capital, and after a modest initial investment built everything ourselves with whatever income we made selling art.

How long did it take before you were confident you could make a success of this?

We were bootstrapped for four years, and three-and-a-half years in I just decided to quit work and go for it. We were lucky enough to find fantastic investors quickly (this is unusual) and from there, with some capital, we grew exponentially and it was then we realised how big it could grow and the contribution we could make to the Australian art industry.

What major obstacles did you have to overcome?

The market for art online didn't exist when we started, so we had to connect the dots and create from the ground what we now have. It took time and perseverance.

What are the pros and cons of owning your own business?

The freedom and the opportunity to create something lasting that society can benefit from is compelling. However, as the business and market grows, so does your responsibility and you really have to stay focussed.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you began?

The importance of building relationships and over-servicing customers can’t be underestimated. It will all pay off in the long run, so even if you’re busy, invest in this. Hire great people when you find them, even if you’re not in the market. Great people build your business for you and are the best investment you can make.
What mistakes have you made along the way?

We all make some mistakes, focussing on long shots or hoping for silver bullets is not a good investment of your time. You need to be constantly doing the legwork and hard yards to create something of lasting value.

Why online-only?

Online is the only way to have the breadth of artists and collectors to build an art marketplace that is scalable and valuable to its members.

Are there any negatives to being an on-line only business?

No, it’s great and means you focus on what matters.

How do you promote your business?

Every way we can think of and can find the time to do, from big budget marketing campaigns to calling previous buyers. Online this includes things like email newsletters, blogs, SEO, social media and offline art prizes, exhibitions, events, magazine features – the list goes on and continues to grow with bluethumb and the team.

What advice would you give to other small business operators?

Persevere and work with great people.

How competitive is your field?

There are a few people attempting to do what we are, a couple of overseas competitors, but in Australia we're pioneering the market of art online. What that means though is no one really knows how big the market is; time will tell. To us it's not about size but being the best and adding true value to those involved.

What sets you apart?

bluethumb was founded in service of Australian artists, to empower them to create a sustainable career and, in doing so, give everyday Australians access to amazing original art that is great value. We do this with simple - yet powerful – technology, combined with helpful “old fashioned” service to the people who take part in bluethumb, our artists and collectors.

Fast-forward 10 years – what do you see for bluethumb?

One of - if not the - largest exporter of Australian art and culture.

What should a buyer look for in a piece of artwork?

The objective is to find art that captures your interests, personality and taste; all that matters is you love it. This need not be expensive either, as original handmade art on quality materials starts from $100 (less than IKEA prints).

Finally, tell us about the name. Why bluethumb and not, say, purplethumb?

bluethumb comes from the early sketches an artist might make planning a piece, and the inevitable blue ink stains.

Visit bluethumb at bluethumb.com.au, or on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr or Instagram.