A Platform for Selling Art and Pursuing Dreams

by Diana Drake

Inspiration for business can come from anywhere. For 18-year-old Adam Stiefel, it came from Snapchat.

He was brainstorming ideas for a business plan to submit for his Investments and Entrepreneurship class at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida, when a friend, Katie Boroian, sent him an original piece of artwork on Snap. Stiefel says that he was so impressed with the painting, which depicted the sun rising over the ocean, that he started thinking, “Wow, that’s a tangible object that has monetary value.” He started thinking that there might be a market for talented teens like Boroian to sell their designs online.

A Winning Idea

And from that one Snapchat, a new business was born. HighSchoolArtists is the only e-commerce site dedicated to marketing and selling original artwork that is conceptualized and created by high school students. “Some students don’t believe their artwork is good enough to sell. Some just doubt themselves. We encourage them to put it on there,” Stiefel says.

The site has been up and running since April 2019, but the story behind it goes back to that Snapchat moment a few months earlier during the school’s winter break. Stiefel, then a senior, entered the class-pitch competition and won. Along the way, he picked up a few classmates to round out his team. Stiefel is founder and CEO; Billy Swann, 18, is the chief operating officer; Chloe Bogen, 18, is the chief marketing officer; and Dalen Michaels, 17, is the chief financial officer.

After winning the class-pitch competition, which was part of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship program, they advanced to the newspaper-sponsored 2019 Miami Herald Startup Competition, where they took first place. “We’ve become very close friends, all our families have become friends. It’s been a good experience for all of us,” Swann says.

Each team member takes ownership of a task. Stiefel is the boss. Swann, with the help of a “very smart friend,” created and launched the professional-grade website that features the art, short bios of each artist, a contact for visitors and an FAQ section for artists interested in selling their work.

As the only artist on the team, Bogen pours her creative knowledge and ideas into the marketing, while Michaels is responsible for crunching the numbers. The team expects to make $40,000 in sales in the first year, with a gross profit of $11,600 and a net of $1,700. By the fifth year, they hope to be making $140,625 in sales with a net profit of $338,968.

The sales projections are based on securing five to 10 artists per high school to place their works on the site. To promote the business and get clients, each team member is using connections with friends, social media and word of mouth. They contact different high schools and ask for permission to pitch the business to students in art classes and art programs, and they plan to buy Facebook advertising once they can afford to do so.

For each sale, 80% goes to the artist and 10% goes to the business owners, who say they plan to put the money back into the site to help it grow. The remaining 10% goes to the artist’s school to help incentivize the school to promote the site.

As of June 1, a total of 30 pieces were on the site, and five had been sold. It’s no surprise to Stiefel that his talented friend, Boroian, is the top seller. Prices per piece currently range from $50 to $130.

For the team, it’s not just about money. It’s about the experience of turning a concept into reality, learning to work together and helping young artists find their worth. Many teen artists don’t explore their capabilities because they don’t have enough money to buy art supplies, Swann says. “With our website, you can sell your artwork to have money to continue to pursue your passion,” he notes. “We wanted to create a platform for students to pursue their dreams because they may not have the financial means to do so. We are trying to inspire within the education system, so hopefully we’re helping humanity for years to come. “

“They have momentum now, and they have to hit hard this summer. If they don’t, I think there’s a missed opportunity.” — John Daly

The four seniors recently graduated and are heading off to college. Stiefel will study political science and entrepreneurship at Florida State, with plans to go to law school and perhaps work in business law. Swann will study electrical engineering at the University of West Florida. Michaels plans to study international business and entrepreneurship at the University of San Diego, while Bogen is headed to the University of Texas at Austin.

Even though their lives are going in different directions, the team members say they are dedicated to the business. Each member plans to make connections in his or her new cities to reach out to local high schools and find more artists. They want HighSchoolArtists to go nationwide. “The goal is to keep moving forward with it,” Stiefel says. “I have a level of passion and enthusiasm that I see with everyone else in the group, also. We want to keep going at it and going at it together.”

While early interest from local high school artists suggests a market on the seller side, demand on the buyer side may be more of a challenge. And though the business may not have any direct high-school-focused e-commerce competitors, it is going up against more established online art marketplaces, including Etsy, eBay, Zazzle and Amazon.

Learning from Failure

Their teacher and mentor, John Daly, believes that his enterprising students can make the idea work. But it’s going to take hard work and dedication. He has advised them to push hard this summer to reach out to big names in the art world, philanthropists, angel investors – anyone who can help them finance the business and get the word out. “It can’t just be self-sustained. It can’t just be, ‘We have a website up,’” says Daly. “There’s additional work that has to be done. You have to get momentum and keep it going. They have momentum now, and they have to hit hard this summer. If they don’t, I think there’s a missed opportunity.”

Swann’s advice for other teens who have a business idea is to dismiss the naysayers and go for it. “I’d say just do it because [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg and [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates failed many times before they became successful,” he says. “I started two businesses that failed before this, but I learned a lot of skills that were able to carry over.”

Stiefel, who also has a few failed endeavors behind him, agrees and offers his own advice: “Talk to everyone you can about your idea. Everyone has a unique perspective, and everyone can help you along the way.” He relied on his parents, his teammates, the artists and Daly for valuable input.

Daly, who worked on Wall Street before becoming a business and economics teacher, says that he was impressed with the team’s presentation skills, attention to detail and ability to work together.

His advice to budding entrepreneurs is straightforward: “You have to do your research, but you have to be ready to pivot. Any successful business that takes off, I don’t think it’s a linear process. There was definitely some type of a pivot where they had to move in a slightly different direction or a greatly different direction.”

He also cautions against developing tunnel vision, saying entrepreneurs need to be flexible and open. “Sometimes you’re foolish with your own pride,” he says. “Definitely ask for help.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Would you sell your artwork on HighSchoolArtists.com? Why or why not?

While the website has had some success in its first few months, it still has a long way to go in establishing a market. With the information from the article and the website, help write a marketing strategy for HighSchoolArtists.com to get the attention of both sellers and buyers in the e-commerce market. Discuss with a group and share your best advice in the comment section of this article.

We see from this story that entrepreneurship is not necessarily a one-person show. In other words, the commitment of the team helped to drive business development. Discuss the value of teamwork in shaping and implementing business ideas. What qualities are essential?

4 comments on “A Platform for Selling Art and Pursuing Dreams

  1. I love art. It’s been an ongoing hobby of mine as well as a stress reliever during the demanding high school year. Whether it be an elaborate painting on a canvas, or a simple doodle in a notebook, I always find myself immersed in the picture I’m trying to create. After reading this article, I am inspired to sell the artworks I’ve created on the High School Website because I want to be able to easily express myself and earn some money at the same time. A quote in this article that I think is very inspirational is one that Billy Swann, the COO of the business, stated:

    “We wanted to create a platform for students to pursue their dreams because they may not have the financial means to do so. We are trying to inspire within the education system, so hopefully we’re helping humanity for years to come.”

    I then realized how valuable their purpose is, and how it goes beyond just allowing students to sell their artworks online. College is the near future for most students, so selling artworks online can make it easier for these students to pay off the expenses as well as advance their art careers if they are interested in pursuing that.

    The word “we” is used quite often in this quote, throughout the entire article in fact. This brings light to the idea that this business isn’t just about the art, making money, or expressing oneself. It’s also about the team that’s running this business as a whole as well as the individual qualities each of the members bring to the business, making it successful. I went onto highschoolartists.com and briefly looked over the roles of each person involved in the business. The CMO, for example, is greatly interested in both art and business. This is important because the whole business is centered around allowing high school students to make profits from their art and potentially grow their careers, so having a team member with a deeper understanding of the specifics of the artworks being sold on the site(for example) and increased creativity is helpful. Although they all have very distinct backgrounds and roles, all their minds are focused on the same objectives and are dedicated. This leads to increased productivity and efficiency.

    In today’s world and age, I notice that many students, including my own friends, are interested in pursuing careers that are STEM related. This is great, especially as the world becomes more automated and technology-dependent, but there are more career opportunities out there that shouldn’t be ignored. This article and the business itself are reminders that we shouldn’t think of art as just an occasional hobby that some people enjoy in their free time, but a potential career for many passionate students as well.

    Not only that, the site encourages passionate young artists of all classes to sell their artwork. Not everyone can afford a high quality life, much less art supplies. This website is also a great way to increase the diversity of artworks.

    I think the business has a lot of potential despite the ecommerce competitors such as Amazon because it shines a spotlight on the great young artists whose works are often underappreciated and undervalued. I think that if the team works a little harder on increasing people’s awareness of the company(i.e. presenting in high schools around the nation or using Facebook ads), the impact will be larger and the business can reach its peak of success.

  2. I was saddened to see that the website domain name is up for grabs. Does this mean the business is shut down?

  3. After reading Karen P’s comment I, like many who were inspired by this article, felt disheartened to learn that HighSchoolArtists were no longer active.

    This unfortunate realization immediately led me to type http://www.customportraitsss.com into a new tab to revisit my own failed online art-selling venture. I was greeted with a familiar web page complete with portraits of Ariana Grande and bright pink text in ALL CAPS that spelled out “BUY CUSTOM PORTRAITS NOW!!! (I was an aggressive 13 year old ok)

    Just like Katie, I was a student who was ecstatic about visual arts, practically begging my parents for art classes at 7 years old. However, just like Adam, I also saw my skills as a tangible way to earn some profit. This led to two art-related businesses that I started at age 13 and 14, and two very different outcomes.

    So, armed with a crushing amount of deja-vu and the scars of using bright pink text, I will attempt to share with everyone why I think HighSchoolArtists discontinued, with examples from my own business endeavors.

    Part 1: Failure

    During the summer of my 7th-grade year, I was bored and decided that it would be a fantastic idea to sell custom portraits to an online client base. Similar to Adam, I only had the support of my parents and fellow 13-year-old friends. The pricing of each commission was also set to around $50-$120 so that I would be able to cover the expensive art materials needed. I still remember the giddiness I felt when I clicked the publish button on my Wix website builder…..and that feeling of giddiness vanished faster than it came when I spent the next few days tediously posting ads on Instagram, all to no avail.

    Pause. If you backtrack and reread the last three sentences, you would find the core problems that kept my business from succeeding. To start, most students under the age of 18 do not have the financial capacity to purchase a custom piece of art over $50. They also don’t have a reason to purchase a pencil-crayon portrait of their dog drawn by a middle schooler. The lack of a target audience and the inability to find a sustainable way to market to the target audience was why my business inevitably failed. This is why after half a year of trying, I finally shut down my website…… and went back to doing chores for an allowance. That was until one summer later I had another idea.

    Part 2: Learning from Failure

    In the article, John Daly, Adam’s teacher stated that “Sometimes you’re foolish with your own pride, definitely ask for help,” which was exactly what I did the second time around. Sitting down at the dinner table during the quarantine-filled summer of my grade 8 year, my father encouraged me to think of another small business idea. Inspired by my own art teacher who began her business at 19, I took advantage of the niche market for virtual development during covid and decided to open my own online art classes for young children. Because my classes were online, the expenses required were low which meant that almost every penny I earned counted towards profit. With this idea in mind, I set a goal to earn $6000 by the end of the year to pay off my braces.

    The second step of my game plan was surprisingly easy to accomplish. I needed a demographic who would pay to send their kids to an online art class, and the answer was Asian parents. Hear me out. As a Chinese-Canadian teen, I was bilingual and my art classes kept children busy during a pandemic. Imagine this: you’re enjoying your Sunday afternoon watching the last episode of Love O2O…… and little Timmy starts SCREAMING at the top of his lungs. Now imagine this going on for months on end. Not very relaxing, right? I identified a need in my target audience and offered them a solution, and the only thing left to do was to reach them.

    This is where John Daly’s advice came in handy and I asked my father for help. He taught me everything I needed to know about advertising to Asian parents, such as using social media platforms like WeChat. And it worked. After 2 weeks of advertising, I began to build my client base until I was teaching 12 students for $15 an hour.

    And this is how, after a successful year of running classes, I was not only able to meet my $6000 goal but surpass it earning a total of $8000 in profit from teaching kids how to draw Spongebob.

    Lastly, Karen P mentioned that HighSchoolArtists domain name is up for grabs, but I want to encourage all youth to consider entrepreneurship. To the Adam Stiefels and Katie Boroians of the world, sometimes making your dreams come true can be as easy as a dinner table conversation and a homemade ad.

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