The founders of Web startup ArtAnywhere are so sure of their product, they're giving it away for free.
The Montreal-based firm, barely a year old, specializes in creating art galleries for businesses whose corporate spaces - lobbies, reception areas and the like - are boring and bare. Contact ArtAnywhere, and they'll create a pop-up gallery, essentially a temporary art exhibit.
That's the first part of ArtAnywhere's business plan - a part the company doesn't make any money on, because it doesn't charge businesses for the galleries.
"What we're really doing is reaching out to the business community," says ArtAnywhere chief executive officer Julian Haber, who co-founded the firm with Raymond Luk last summer.
Their hope is that the visibility of a prominent display in a public space will help spur the other side of ArtAnywhere's business model: an online store where users can buy or rent the work they see in those public spaces.
"It's about connecting with artists, creating a marketplace for local artists and building up that network," says Mr. Haber, who adds that ArtAnywhere has relationships with about 140 artists and a database of about 1,000 pieces of art.
In a way, ArtAnywhere's business model exemplifies the mantra of new Web startups: audience before monetization. Perhaps the most famous example of such a model is microblogging site Twitter, which has amassed one of the largest (non-paying) user bases on the Web, but is still trying to figure out a way to make money off that audience. In ArtAnywhere's case, the company is focusing on getting the word out among and about Canadian artists using free public galleries, and making money only later in the process, by collecting a commission on all works later rented or purchased.
Like Twitter, ArtAnywhere also relies heavily on a sort of long tail - individuals who, alone, don't have enough mass appeal to build a business on, but grouped together, become viable. Just as one or two Twitter users alone would be hard-pressed to turn their Tweets into a standalone site, many of the local artists ArtAnywhere deals with aren't yet popular enough to stand out on their own. Mr. Luk says the company deals mainly with local artists and artwork that, were it not displayed on the site and in the temporary installations, would likely end up in storage.
The company's relationship with artists somewhat resembles that of a literary or artistic magazine and its contributors. Once ArtAnywhere receives a request from a business for a temporary gallery, it puts out a call for submissions. Artists must agree to temporarily showcase their work for free, and ArtAnywhere makes a 25-per-cent commission on any subsequent sales.
Literary and artistic business ventures have been on the forefront of new, experimental sales models online. In Vancouver, publishing house Douglas & McIntyre has put years of work into a venture called BookRiff, which the company describes as a sort of iTunes for books. The project allows users to custom-create written content into "playlists" of their choosing. For example, users can combine chapters of various books and other articles available on the site and publish a custom book. BookRiff and the authors whose work is included make money in the process.
Whether ventures such as ArtAnywhere and BookRiff ultimately prove successful is yet to be seen. While services such as iTunes offer customers access to obscure artists, for example, the majority of best-selling content every year comes from already well-known musicians.
But the rise and success of many "hyper-local" websites - which tend to focus on services for specific neighbourhoods - has helped lend credence to the niche model of online business. Indeed, even big corporate names such as ESPN have begun creating sites focused on individual cities - albeit big-market ones such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
ArtAnywhere's co-founders are travelling to cities such as Toronto to meet with artists to expand their network. But in addition to giving customers access to hard-to-find art, Mr. Haber believes the company's model makes it especially attractive to businesses for one simple reason.
"Free art is hard to turn down," he says.