We reached $100 million in fine art inventory. Now what?

Our journey building a marketplace for the private art market (part 2/2).

This article describes my team’s yearlong journey to build a new platform for people to buy and sell artworks online at the right price. It outlines the process that came after we created the product and attracted $100m in inventory, in order to make ArtList a real business with real sales. My name is Maxime Germain, I’m a cofounder and product designer at ArtList and here is its continued story. (You can read part one of this story here)

ArtList’s one year anniversary dinner, a few weeks ago. It’s not all online, duh!

ArtList is an online marketplace where collectors can buy and sell works of fine art confidentially. We take a flat 10% commission on artworks sold. From our offices in New York City, we are making the global art market fast, secure and fair.

Art is moving online, and auction houses are not adapting well. A growing number of art collectors are discovering art through email, SMS or Instagram — and even feel confident making financial decisions based on JPEGs and conversations with sellers they trust.

We are the world’s first and only platform to make high-end peer-to-peer sales on the secondary market possible. We’re direct, secure and confidential.

Phase 1 of ArtList entailed building a functional marketplace where people could buy and sell works of fine art. There were already a lot of challenges such as finding the right way to maintain privacy and build the right messaging system: we had to innovate in a lot of different ways to do this.

Since our launch on January 21 2015, we have accumulated a strong inventory (totaling $100m in value, from a $600k Botero or Warhol to $800 editions), from collectors all over the world. We have also had thousands of collectors creating profiles on the platform and we have been able to generate strong sales.

8 months after launch, we had a strategy meeting with the team and looked at numbers. What became clear is that our website was much better at attracting inventory and users than at closing sales. Our next challenge was to make changes to better convert new users into buyers. This is Phase 2.

In Phase 2, we underwent different steps of gradual improvement to the product, responding to challenges as they emerged. This is also when we on-boarded Elena Platonova as our art specialist — we worked closely together to get a fresh inputs on the state of the website and we’ve been able to find major improvements to be made. I’m going to guide you through the decisions we made, including a drastic homepage redesign, a simplification of our user flows on key actions, more effective data gathering to generate sales, bonding the business and product sides of the company and, lastly, merging Gertrude & ArtList.

Help people find art they love

ArtList being a website to buy and sell artworks, our first question was: “is it easy to discover artworks you love on our site?” The answer was “not really”. Here’s what we changed.

- Homepage -

Initial choice and first assumptions

When we initially launched ArtList we wanted the website to be really inspirational. We chose to avoid the aesthetic of a classic e-commerce website. We dropped most of the filters and categorization of the content to let our trending work algorithm organize the content for you.

This is what the homepage looked like initially:

Even if this way of browsing works for sale is probably a great “eye-education” for a young art collector it’s not made for an e-commerce platform. The algorithm was good at ranking the artworks that had the most traction — but as we started to have 300+ artworks it became impossible.

Problems to be solved

  • Find a way to focus on fewer artworks
  • Display more with less scroll
  • Categorization of works

New homepage

We started by building a smaller artwork card that we are able to use in a variety of places— it’s now easier for us to display more artworks on the home page in a specific context.

Small cards for featured works of the week:

We created a better structure for displaying information, allowing artworks to be categorized in relevant categories by their medium and price range:

A major difference here is that we now have full control over what we display on this page; the sales team spends hours each week curating our inventory and selecting the most relevant pieces for each category.

During the curation process — each piece goes through a deep “revaluation” check as prices can change quickly in the art market, making sure the price we display is still up-to-date. We then translate this research process on the product page by explaining what we think of this work:

https://artlist.co/artworks/c87e8fd0-46d1-4be2-ae4f-7dd38e778866

On top of allowing a better display of content — it creates a link between the product and the human effort behind ArtList to generate sales. Before, we were frustrated by the value our team would create but was unable to be displayed on the website. The new format is a good first step to show the work going on behind our selections.

- Flows -

Sell an artwork on ArtList

ArtList was initially built as a tool for professional players in the art market —and a lot of product decisions were made according to this idea. After some time running the website, we noticed that our target was much broader and that professionals would end up being a very small chunk of our users.

Below, you can see the first form for people to submit an artwork for sale — it was a very long and detailed process not really made for the casual art collector.

On top of not being that approachable — it would duplicate the work our team already does: we check the entered information to ensure the quality and authenticity of the work before proceeding to valuate a piece. We also decline a lot of work submitted for sale on the website and it could be very frustrating to fill out a very long form when the artwork will never be listed. We currently receive ~40 artworks for sale every week — and only 5 to 10 end up being listed on the site.

We came up with the idea to simplify this form by only asking the minimum information we would need from the seller.

This change resulted in a major difference in numbers of artwork posted by users every week — it’s been multiplied by 3.

Peace of mind guaranteed

In a market where reputation is key, and where we are competing against 250 year old brand names (Christie’s and Sotheby’s), it’s important clients can trust us. This means making sure all artworks for sale are at the right price while guaranteeing that each artwork is authentic and in good condition. We took the time to think through each process from both the buyer and seller side, and made the following changes.

- Valuation process-

Submitting the artwork on the website

As previously mentioned, we redesigned the sell an artwork flow to require only 5 different pieces information that are the most important for us to decide wether or not it will fit our criteria to list the work on the website.

We then get in touch with the seller to gather all missing information regarding the final valuation.

Valuation process

After buyer fills out the form, we seek to verify their work.

Every artwork posted on the website undergoes a thorough process of verification. We check the condition of the work, its authenticity, dimensions, series, etc..

After this information is gathered, we begin the actual valuation process, through which we obtain the most fair and relevant price for the work.

The sales team will check every online database for:

  • Auction results for the artist with the relevant series
  • Current first market price and availability
  • Scarcity and provenance of the work

This is when we have a precise notion of the right price for the product.

At the end of this process they will gather so much data on the work and the artist that they can write a perfect pitch for the work, trusting their deep research process.

Inventory organization

The sales team can check our Kanban board on Trello where every new work for valuation will appear. It will go through those steps before being published:

The Artwork is: Accepted → Valuated → Posted

It’s also easy for everyone in the team to visualize our entire inventory and share information in the comment section of each artwork.

- $1M insurance-

“Is it real? How do I know?” We want to make sure anyone can buy a work of art without having to worry about any of this. That’s why we have created a $1,000,000 guarantee — effective today — for anyone who buys art on ArtList.

The ArtList Authenticity and Title Guarantee provides protection for up to $1,000,000 in damages for artworks sold on ArtList — in the event of authenticity & title issues — for up to 2 years after the work is purchased on ArtList. This insurance is backed by a major insurance underwriter.

We are the only one company in the art world to provide such a guarantee. If you know of another, please comment or email!

Getting this insurance up and running has been a 6 months long project, as this insurance product is new on the market. We’re proud of it!

You can read more on our website.

Help our sales team close sales

Selling art is a high-touch business. Many people that go to ArtList with interest for art still need advice before they buy something. Therefore, it’s very important that our product gives our sales team the best information and tools possible to generate leads and close more sales. We made a number of changes on the website to reflect that.

- Align the content across media-

The initial strategy we had on our social media would make us grow very fast (+60k followers on Instagram in a year) and build a strong image. Once we reached the number we wanted, we shifted away from purely visual content to posts that were more relevant to our business and inventory.

Here’s how we created a more sales-oriented strategy:

  • Every week we select the current best 3 to 6 best artworks we have available for sale.
  • We write a pitch about each of them and make sure our valuation is still up-to-date.
  • We schedule all our Instagram post for the week based on those work we previously selected: posts on the work / on the artist
  • We include those artists as much as we can on our blog
  • We feature the works in our newsletter and on the website of our media partner Art Market Monitor

This allows us to create very high quality content on each artist we have for sale on the website, helping us display more data for people browsing the site. We hope that users can learn and build their taste in contemporary art through our content outlets as well as our platform.

It also helps our sales strategy in creating as many focused leads as we can every week, trying to reach all our users through every outlet.

- User data = Sales -

The key value we developed during this year of running ArtList is our very structured database. We have around 10k users registered and we built a smart system to gather all the information linked to them.

We record:

  • Artworks they have in their collection
  • Artworks they’re looking for
  • Every single discussion our team has had with them
  • Pages they visited on the website (specific artwork or artist)

Thanks to this information we’re able to react quickly when we have a new inquiry: someone looking for a specific work or someone willing to sell one.

I spent the last 3 months, along with Kenneth and our sales team, building this smart system that relies on Intercom.

Every single piece of information here is searchable via the main search of intercom and we can quickly know everyone who owns any artist.

We loaded our database of 500,000 artists into Intercom with two tags:

  • The artist name + “in alert” = the collector wants to be informed if we have any work from this artist
  • The artist name + “in collection” = the collector owns a work from this artists

In the middle column we can see discussion we had with him or her:

Our mail server is linked to Intercom and analyze every email that goes between us <-> a user — if it detects that an email is part of a discussion it will automatically show up here.

Inside the right column, we have more personal information such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin profile that are automatically looked up through the email address of the user.

We can also see which pages he has visited — how many times and when.

Finally we can add up to date comments that we want to share with team inside this admin panel. It allows us to extract part of discussion and important information to be shared with the rest of the sales team.

- SEO efforts -

To build our database of 500,000 artists, we created scrappers to find the latest news, updates, Instagram posts and biographical information on specific artists.

We used all this information to create a better experience; when people are looking for a specific artist that we have for sale, we can provide them with context and unique information.

By doing so we also generated pages for hundred of thousands of artists that are now well referenced on the Google search engine.

It allows us to detect artist trends and is great point of entry for people into our website. If we don’t have a work for sale from a specific artist, we still display relevant information about them.

ArtList x Gertrude merge

The idea for ArtList crossed our minds when we were building Gertrude — a platform for art events around the world. We built Gertrude knowing that the experience of buying artworks at white wall galleries was generally poor and cold.

Our first approach to this problem was to gather people around intimate events in beautiful places in New York — this way people would discover events online and then experience the work in real life. The platform was able to scale around the world and provide a new buying experience far from that of a gallery or auction house.

We recently linked the two websites in order to use the available synergies: artwork for sale on Gertrude and events on ArtList.

The homepage of Gertrude has been slightly redesigned to display our top trending artwork:

We also merged the content generated by Gertrude into ArtList by linking the Facebook pages and mailing lists. We think people love it — we spend a lot of our time producing high quality content on artists we love and the Gertrude community can enjoy the access of the best events in the art world alongside the curated news that we write ourselves for ArtList.

We also started to organize ArtList events in New York City that we feature on Gertrude — showing artists from ArtList that we love and talking about them to small crowds. We missed the direct relationship with people that Gertrude offered and it’s a way for us to find it again.

Gertrude has been key to provide a great database of art lovers around the world that we slowly took into account in ArtList.

I

I wanted to write this article to give an update on where we are and the challenges we’re currently facing after building a website that answers the needs of a specific market. I would be very happy to read any feedback you could have on the platform and the approach of the article. Don’t hesitate to email me!

It’s been a 14 month (+2 more years including Gertrude) process building ArtList and we went through many different learning phases along the way: you can read the first part here.

If you’re currently building a product and are facing difficulties in finding the right solution to the problem you want to solve — know that it takes time and iterations to learn and find solutions. Once you have found the product solution, you face a new challenge of connecting the product to the business behind it.

Thanks a lot for reading,

Maxime.