Startup Bluethumb leads the next wave of Australia’s fine arts industry

- January 16, 2014 4 MIN READ

Aussie startup Bluethumb was named the ‘Best New App’ on the Australian Apple App Store four weeks after its November launch and has been downloaded over 6,500 times. The virtual arts marketplace now features more than $2.6 million worth of original Australian art from over 500 artists.

The art and collectables category is currently the fifth-fastest growing of all online retail categories. The purpose of the Bluethumb iPhone app was to expand the reach of its accessibility for its website that has been running since 2009.

The iPhone app is simple to use. Artists simply upload images of their work so that art lovers can browse through their virtual studios and purchase them. Bluethumb then takes care of all the practical aspects like freight and secure payment. Rose Hartley, Bluethumb Content Curator, says Bluethumb is basically the “Etsy for fine art”.

The app was developed by Bluethumb co-owner and UX developer, George Hartley, who says, “The more apps I work on, the more I value apps that do one thing perfectly. Simple apps like Snapchat and Instagram are often very complex, but their best quality is to hide this from the person using it. It’s this easy and simplicity that we’re looking to emulate with Bluethumb.”

He continues, “We are a small art startup, but we think this app could be a game-changer for Australia’s fine art industry. People are ready to buy art on their mobile phones.”

Bluethumb is co-owned by brothers George and Edward Hartley who bought the site in late 2011. At the time, the concept of an online visual arts marketplace hadn’t taken off in Australia yet. As former artists and current collectors, the Hartley brothers spotted a gap in the Australian market for an online gallery focused on selling original art directly from artists to art lovers.

The Hartley brothers self-funded the site upgrade and the development of the iPhone app. Rose says the app required substantial investment to develop, but with over 6,500 downloads in the two months since they launched, it’s been well worth it.

“Bluethumb has been growing rapidly in the last 2 years and this additional income has been re-invested in technology. We pride ourselves at being tech leaders in the art world,” says Rose.

“We may look at raising funds to expand the website to include photography and sculpture. At the moment the only art we accept is 2D paintings, drawings and limited edition prints.”

Rose Hartley at the "Pop-up" exhibition for the SALA festival in Adelaide

Rose Hartley at the “Pop-up” exhibition for the SALA festival in Adelaide

The visual arts and crafts industry in Australia alone is worth over $1 billion and the Bluethumb team plans on being a dominant player in this market, already occupying over $2.6 million worth of art.

“For now, a major chunk of our artists are emerging artists selling their work at really affordable price points, but there’s huge potential for growth in the market for online purchases of artwork by established artists, once collectors get used to the idea of buying art online. Most established artists still sell their work through physical galleries for this reason,” says Rose.

“But we are seeing a growing number of established artists focus more on Bluethumb now we have proven ourselves by successfully selling their art. This coupled with the restraints of physical galleries – such as not being able to display all their art at once, limited opening hours, high commissions and a limited customer base – tells us the market is ready for recalibration.”

Their business model isn’t any different to other online marketplaces or traditional art galleries. They take a commission on each piece of artwork that is sold. Without disclosing any numbers, Rose says their commission is lower than physical galleries.

She admits their marketing strategy has been very grassroots: “For the main part, our business growth has been organic.”

They spent next to nothing on advertising and rely on word-of-mouth to find customers. They did, however, direct some of their budget into PR during the launch of their app, earning them mainstream press coverage.

They’ve also hosted physical “pop up” exhibitions in Adelaide, hanging Bluethumb artists’ art from iconic Hills Hoists clotheslines, which has helped them gain brand recognition, as well as new artists and buyers.

Being named ‘Best New App’ on the Australian Apple App Store was their biggest achievement.

“It made our business so much more visible, and now around half of our sales are via the app. Besides that, it just felt really good to have the fruits of our labour get noticed and appreciated!” says Rose.

“After it was featured, app take-up and usage was so strong that we had a scale issue – it maxed our normal hosting bandwidth within a couple of weeks.”

Their biggest challenge as a startup has been the sheer volume of emails they receive every day and dealing with the nitty gritty of couriers who might not show up on time, or at all, to collect artworks.

“Each piece of artwork sold is packed by the artist, but we organise the courier to deliver it to the buyer. We are serious about giving our customers excellent service, so the odd occasion when we have to email someone to say their art will be late is rather annoying. Still, for the most part things go pretty smoothly,” says Rose.

This year, they have an Android and iPad version of the app coming out. They will also be expanding into international markets, and including photography and sculptures into their collection.

“We have a good business model, and it’s just a matter of having the time and money to scale it up,” says Rose.

For information on Bluethumb, visit www.bluethumb.com.au. The app can be downloaded via iTunes.