Debut of Thursday Feature: Reviews and Interviews - Presenting John A. Jacobs, CEO of Art Fire
ArtFire, in its own words, is "...the premier online marketplace for handmade products designed by artisans around the globe. Our free community is designed for artisans to buy and sell their works, while celebrating unique handmade items and designs. It is always free for buyers of handmade products to search through our listed artisans, buy, or request for items to be specially made. No matter if you are looking for local handmade crafts, or handmade products from artisans around the world, Artfire.com is the marketplace for you."
You'll want to visit their "About" section to learn more about the people and history of ArtFire - it's a great story.
Dawno: The love and respect you have for your mother is very obvious - if you are comfortable about it, would you talk a bit more about what kind of jewelry she created, if she is still active in crafts and what does she think about Art Fire?
John: My mother is very active in many different handmade genres and very much enjoys making custom jewelry with semi-precious gemstones and sterling silver. She is one of our biggest fans here at ArtFire and certainly one of our earliest fans! I recall when we were just getting going with ArtFire, my mother, Kay offered to start making handmade items for EVERY category and sub category of ArtFire so we could start filling all the categories!
That still makes me chuckle a bit as we now have over 200,000 items in thousands of categories and expect many millions of items to pour in over the next year! My mother taught me balance and though I find myself in the office six days a week, I always remember that family must come first! She really is the glue that helps hold our family together and has certainly guided my course over the years.
My mother's struggle to establish herself as a successful artisan has always been very frustrating for our family. ArtFire has really become an answer for all those artisan who, like my mother, are trying to get a foothold but just can't afford the fees and cost of starting a new business or stepping up to the next level with their businesses. There are not many venues or companies that are willing to help a starving artist and we think that's a shame. ArtFire was built for my mother and all the mothers (and fathers), sisters, and brothers out there that just need a hand up and deserve a chance at being successful.
Dawno: As an Air Force brat, it was rewarding to read about your service. You mention that you "worked hard to both fulfill my service to the country and attend college full time. I graduated from Louisiana Tech University and then returned to Tucson after an honorable discharge from the Air Force." Just to clarify, you went to college full time during your time in the Air Force or was it afterward? If during, when did you find time to sleep?
We worked very hard in the Air Force in fact most typical days at Barksdale AFB were 12 hour shifts, and we worked six days a week. Of course there were TDY assignments, training, etc on top of staying proficient at my duties and volunteering for the local SWAT and Emergency Services Teams.
Just making it to class was a challenge every day. Most days I was late to class or had to pull the undesirable posts to earn the right to go to school. I often say the Bachelor's degree that I earned while serving on active duty was substantially harder than the Master's degree I earned as a civilian.
That being said, I wouldn't have it any other way. Much like what I learned in the USAF, we pride ourselves on speed of execution of projects here at ArtFire, and our team understands that to be successful and to truly serve the ArtFire community, we must work harder than we are comfortable with, and accomplish our goals each and every day.
Dawno:What would you say was the most important thing you learned during your time in the Air Force that you apply to your current role?
John: I learned the meaning of discipline in the Air Force and decided that I would carry that with me in life. Not just in work though, but in my personal relationship with my family and my wife, with physical fitness, and in with the way in which I allow myself to think. Discipline to me means pushing yourself to do the right thing even when it is not the easy thing to do.
I think that most of us can point to dozens of missed opportunities each day that if we would properly motivate ourselves to do, could change our lives. I find that to live a disciplined life, the first step is to never make an excuse when a solution or action could be substituted (even if the action does not yield the perfect result), inaction can often be the worse course.
Dawno: It's no surprise, after reading "About our Founder", that you are passionate about supporting the independent craft artisan, and the Art Fire business model certainly proves that. Were there nay-sayers in that regard? If so, what did they tell you that you've,so far, proven wrong and what challenges are still left to overcome?
John: Sure there are always challenges to success and naysayers along the way. To build any business takes an overwhelming belief that no matter what the challenge, you can and will find a solution to it and push through. With every business I have ever built, we have been undercapitalized, understaffed, under experienced or just plain not as qualified as our competitors.
Here's the good news; in most situations, none of this matters. Success has nothing to do with money or experience, success is a choice that we each make every day. Make a list of what you can and will accomplish today and don't allow yourself to fail. If you are working on a large project, then break it down to daily tasks. If you do this with your business, with your relationships, or with anything in your life that you want to complete; there is nothing you can't accomplish.
Dawno: Other than it being your home town, what are the business advantages to being headquartered in Tucson?
John: Tucson has a strong history of technology and is the home of the University of Arizona which produces world class talent that we are fortunate enough to be able to draw on. We are not too far from California either and have seen an influx of technical talent in the past several years, which has really turned Tucson into a hidden technology gem than many companies such as Intuit, AOL, Ratheon, Reliasoft, and even IBM have greatly benefited from!
We have a burgeoning arts and music scene here and a relatively low cost of living as compared nationally. By being based in Tucson we can effectively compete through substantially lower operating costs as compared to companies based on the east and west coast. This allows us to keep our overhead and ultimately our rates lower for our members.
Dawno: How important do you think social networking, web 2.0, etc., are to Art Fire's success now and in the future - any thoughts about what that future might look like?
John: The reality is that social networking is how business will be done as we move forward and technology evolves. As many as 80-90% of fortune 500 companies are increasing their investment in social networking and online channels or virtual contact points with their base. If a company wants to lower costs, become more efficient and sustain growth it is now more important than ever to use social tools to connect with their customers.
ArtFire could be compared to a traditional Gem or Craft show like CHA, G&LW, GLDA, etc. in which a 10x10 booth might cost thousands of dollars for a weekend, or a brick and mortar collectables shop that might run thousands of dollars in overhead to operate each month. ArtFire utilizes emerging technology to connect member artisans to an enormous pool of buyers, which never would have been possible for many artisans because of the cost barriers.
We take it even further than that with ArtFire though. As costs continue to fall on bandwidth, servers, storage and with an aggressive system of management and a focus on ease of use for our members, we can deliver the absolute lowest cost solution for sellers available on the Internet. Our objective is to be substantially less expensive than even building your own Web site and thus far we have easily pulled this off. On ArtFire there are no listing, final, or hidden fees. Just $12 a month for unlimited listings in your full custom Fusion Studio with integrated features and functionality that help artisans and business owners easily utilize social media sites to promote unique handmade items.
Best of all, we do all the hard work for our member, with just the click of a button, items can be posted to sites like Twitter and VoteHandmade.com or members can promote themselves by writing for sister sites like HandMadeNews.org.
ArtFire is young and the future is bright! We have shown amazing month over month growth numbers in traffic, members' sales, and market penetration that we expect will continue and accelerate. We have plans for many more facets of the community and even more sites and our commitment is to never stop innovating and executing ideas quickly. In fact some of the most innovative US companies are now following the lead of ArtFire and attempting to match our business model and features.
Dawno: You briefly mention your mother's and your experiences with eBay - where do you think they most went in the wrong direction for the independent artisan? Are they still the web's 800lb gorilla and if so, any thoughts on why that is?
John: I remember when eBay used to go around to gem shows and almost beg sellers to sign up and sell on eBay. Yep, an actual person would shake your hand and explain what eBay could do to help support your business. Over the years eBay changed and appears to have forgotten that their site was built on the backs of its members.
There was a time that you could find many independent artisans on eBay but changes to eBay which put substantial pressure on artisans and businesses to lower prices and offer free shipping just to get seen, have since driven many great artists and businesses away from eBay.
Several years ago we saw Etsy step up as a solution for many handmade artisans and most of us hoped that this would be a new approach and a potentially a venue that could support the true needs of artisans. Unfortunately I think that where a venue goes wrong is when they bring in Venture Capital and profits become more important than service. It may seem noble to go "public" with a venue, however when this happens the fiduciary duty of management by law must shift to protect the interests of the investors or shareholders, even at the expense of the members.
Yes, eBay for all intents and purposes is still the 800lb gorilla, they were one of the first to market and they do have momentum, however there has been a drastic shift in where the internet is headed and being the gorilla is not the necessarily the best strategy for survival anymore. Micro segmentation and customer service is making a comeback as companies like ArtFire can be built and serve communities better for far less expense, overhead, and operate with a flat management hierarchy that connects management with members.
We now see a thousand, one hundred pound gorillas that are fast and flexible taking market share from sites like eBay, and we think this is an exciting change that will prove to empower the seller/user/member/buyer and we will be a part of this change!
Dawno: What are the two or three most important things you thing an Art Fire artisan needs to do to get the most out of Art Fire - and not necessarily become the biggest seller or make the most money, but the whole package - community, collegiality, and yes, sales, too.
1. I mentioned this technique already but I think it is in fact one of the most important things you can do for your business. Commit to your business and your success and make a list every day of things you can do today to improve your business; then check those items off as you accomplish them each day. We make ArtFire as easy to understand and use as possible, but there is still alot to learn. The Internet is far easier to use and grow a business on now which means that every day there is an increasing amount of competition that you have to consider. It is simply not good enough to put up a Web site and wait anymore. You have to have a plan to promote and we want to be your partner in this endeavor.
2. Put a schedule on paper that plans for one hour a day to promote your business using social medial sites, writing a blog, submitting an article to HandmadeNews.org and building Karma on sites like VoteHandmade.com. As a business owner you have many tasks on your plate. Stay focused on what needs to get done and how you will accomplish critical tasks like customers service, shipping, making listings, creating new product and budget time for each of these tasks. A venue or a web site does not sell your items for you. Your efforts are necessary to drive your success. Planning and managing your time effectively is critical to your success.
3. Embrace change and adapt quickly. If you see that one of your items is getting more views than others, what do you do? You should figure out why this item is getting more attention. Does it have a better picture or title or is it an item that is more in demand? Change the rest of your items to follow the lead of your successful items and look around you at your competitors for suggestions. Sometimes the items that you don't enjoy making, sell the best... You might have to make more of what the market wants. This can be hard for artisans, my mother and my sister have taught me this very well, but a balance can be found if you are willing to embrace change and adapt.
Many, many thanks to John for his time and wonderful answers. If you want to thank him personally, follow him on Twitter @ArtFireJohn and let him know you read about him here.
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