Bluethumb: A State of the Art Startup

Adelaide’s tech startup ecosystem is growing, with more than 100 startups established in recent years. Within this, one early startup success story has a very Adelaide kind of focus: art.

Bluethumb, founded in 2012 by local brothers Ed and George Hartley, is an online marketplace for the selling and buying of art. Bluethumb represents more than 6500 artists and is a contact point for 5000 collectors.

It began as a spare-time endeavour, “starting with the question: can you sell art online? Because everyone said you couldn’t”, Ed tells The Adelaide Review. “We could see that the world was evolving to selling online, and we were curious: why hadn’t art moved there?

“At the same time, we knew how difficult it is for artists to get gallery representation and distribution.

“So we did some research – we realised that less than one per cent of artists will end up in a gallery,” he says. “And we thought, ‘there must be other buyers like us, people who are interested in art; who don’t really go to galleries or have the budget to buy from galleries, and who expect to be able to buy online’.”

Building the right technology to buy and sell online has been critical to Bluethumb’s approach from the beginning. “At the time we had full-time jobs as well, so we were super small, just selling a few paintings at a time, booking the freight on our lunch breaks, that kind of thing,” Ed recalls. “We were focussed on investing in the technology, so we could build something at scale.”

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After nearly four years of bootstrapping and steady success (including listing among Apple’s ‘best new apps’ in 2013) the startup has raised over one million dollars in private investment from venture commerce and e-commerce heavyweights, and they represent artists such as Archibald and Sulman Prize nominees Loribelle Spirovski and Kim Leutwyler, BRW top 50 artist Matthew Quick, and Kelliher Award winner and Royal Society of Arts fellow Rex Turnbull.

Today, George is based in Melbourne where Bluethumb also has an office and the company has staff in Spain, Singapore, the Philippines and Brazil. Ed and George recently appeared in an advertising feature for Qantas frequent flyers that showed one of their regular cross-time-zone meetings; in that case between Adelaide and Toyko, where George was putting on an exhibition for Bluethumb artists.

Melissa Cooper recently joined the Adelaide team. She is a designer who returned to her hometown after several years in the United States, including leading the User Experience team at Eventbrite in Silicon Valley. “It’s thrilling to be working on a product that supports the arts,” Cooper says. “It is a two-sided marketplace and there are sellers who have been empowered to reach a different audience and make some extra income.”

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Bluethumb is bringing some Silicon Valley principles to buying and selling art, but rather than employing the ‘disruption’ model that is so often attributed to the world of tech startups, Ed says that what Bluethumb does is more like inclusion.

“What we’re doing is connecting thousands of artists who didn’t have a distribution or a route to market with thousands of buyers who weren’t participating in the market. So our core is very grassroots: everyday homeowners connecting to everyday artists, they were both locked outside the market.”

And, rather than being usurped, galleries are included in the Bluethumb model. In particular, Indigenous art centres have come on board in a big way. Bluethumb has allowed Indigenous art centres in places such as Arnhem Land and the APY Lands to sell artworks online even when, say, in Arnhem Land, the wet season prevents people getting in and out.

For Adelaide art lovers, Bluethumb’s online service means that “you’ve got access to Australia’s greatest artists no matter how remote they are,” according to Ed.

“Where you live, your proximity to other cities, doesn’t matter anymore – you can get on our website or on the app and find what you’re looking for.”

bluethumb.com.au

Photography: Sia Duff

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