ARTLIFTING IS AN INSPIRING BOSTON-BASED COMPANY that provides artists facing homelessness and disabilities with a market for their art while transforming their lives for the better.
With the help of ArtLifting, Stacey Williams of Boston was able to make a new life as an artist. An Air Force veteran and mother of a college student, Stacey became homeless while still working. A medical condition makes it difficult for her to work a traditional 9-to-5 job. At a shelter, she began painting portraits — stunning and evocative works that radiated empowerment and pride.
Beautiful and Bold
ArtLifting co-founder Liz Powers spotted Stacey’s work and was impressed by how beautiful and bold it was. “That was it,” according to Stacey. Liz took one of the portraits, and today Stacey’s work is available as prints, on tote bags and even on phone cases at ArtLifting.com. To Stacey, Liz is “a kind powerhouse, gentle, effective and powerful.”
Liz was just 18 years old when she received a grant from Harvard University to bring art programs to homeless shelters. In this work, she discovered that one of the most profound problems affecting homeless people was a deep sense of loneliness. “The artists I got to know in homeless shelters did not want handouts,” she says, “they wanted opportunities and jobs, and to be treated with dignity.” Liz decided to go beyond helping individuals facing homelessness and disabilities to express themselves artistically, and started creating opportunities for them to become part of society.
Forming a Business
Having worked for nonprofits in the past, Liz was wary of forming a nonprofit, not wanting to spend her time applying for grants. Instead, she started ArtLifting as a business. The company has become a public-benefit corporation, which has a legally-binding social mission. Liz followed the lean startup model. Rather than work to create the ideal product, her strategy was simple. She began with four artists in the Boston area and a Shopify.com site. Liz and her brother, Spencer Powers, used $4,000 in savings to start ArtLifting. Two weeks in, they had made thousands of dollars for the artists and were on the front of the Boston Globe business section. ArtLifting has been part of three different accelerators: the Harvard Innovation Lab, MassChallenge and TiE ScaleUp. Over three years, Liz has built a small and nimble team.
Multiple Points of Sale
ArtLifting now represents more than 100 artists, and sells their work through several channels. E-commerce and gallery displays are vehicles for selling paintings, tote bags and phone covers. ArtLifting also licenses the works of the artists and has a business-to-business arm. In addition, the company operates some pop-up shops around the holidays.
When their artwork sells, the artists receive 55 percent of the price. One percent of sales goes to purchasing art supplies distributed to therapy groups around the country. The remaining 44 percent goes to support the mission of ArtLifting.
The company’s name captures an intentional duality, the words “art” and “lifting” speaks to uplifting not only artists but also customers. In keeping with this optimistic theme, Liz’s title at ArtLifting is “chief happiness spreader.” Liz says she envisions ArtLifting expanding nationally and globally, and she hopes to be in every U.S. state in five years. Her goal goes beyond selling art — she wants to start a movement about celebrating strength.
This section is a special feature published by Banner Biz.
Rank & File sits down with founder Liz to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on how she started, grew and scaled ArtLifting — from its lean startup model and accelerators to pitching for investment. Let’s listen in.
Take us back to the beginning, when you had just $4,000 and a Shopify site. How did you gain that initial traction?
“Since we were starting with such little money, we couldn’t afford marketing. We wrote to reporters. It’s free to send emails to reporters, and almost all reporters’ emails are published. Even if a specific person’s email isn’t published, you can figure out what their email is based on a formula of OK, the people’s emails that are published are firstname.lastname@XXX.com.’
“Revenue was really slow before we had the press … We sent tons of emails to reporters, and a couple of weeks after launching, we were featured on the cover of the Boston Globe business section. That really helped drive revenue. That led to $10,000 in sales.
“Press has been our main source. We would go to events and startup showcases with our accelerators, which helped to have some in-person meetings, but certainly labor intensive and time intensive. It’s a balance, but the press has been a big game changer for us.”
There are differing opinions about the true RIO on being in accelerators at the early stage. There are so many out there now, and many take equity. What is your take on accelerators?
“We were in three accelerators (Harvard Innovation Lab, MassChallenge and TiE ScaleUp), and none of them took equity. We are so blessed. ArtLifting would not be where it is today without the accelerators.
“[I] was the only one working full time at ArtLifting, and it can be really isolating if you are just working in your apartment alone. So, (at Harvard Innovation Lab) it was really nice to have a space to go and sit next to other entrepreneurs and when I hit a roadblock, ask the person sitting next to me for advice. So, the community was the biggest game changer. But also, there was a whole network of different mentors. I could sign up for free office hours for legal help or help with creating a business plan or whatever the specific need was that day.
“TiE ScaleUp was a group that met every couple of weeks, and the goal behind that was to help companies go from pre-seed to series A. We had all different Harvard Business School professors giving three-hour classes on different needs related to scaling, whether it was operational or scaling at marketing or whatnot. I found that incredibly helpful because I didn’t go to business school. It was a mini-business school ‘crash course’ over the course of six months.”
After a lean start, why did you decide to raise capital?
“We purposefully wanted to ‘bootstrap test’ the idea when we launched. So we just started with $4,000, and we scaled to revenue in the six figures from that, which we were really happy about. Then we were at the point where we realized we really needed a team to be able to scale at the level we wanted to. So we decided to go for investment.
“I was certainly a bit intimidated because I had never worked at a business before ArtLifting. My background was running shelters, case work and actually, as a sailing coach! None of it completely related to pitching for investment. But our COO Kelly McKenna went to Harvard Business School, so we tag-teamed and basically met with anyone we could, even if they were an investor we didn’t think was a good fit for ArtLifting. They would be good for intros to other investors who were more relevant. We set up a bunch of meetings for a week in California, and that helped get a couple hundred thousand committed.
“The whole round ended up only taking a month, which we were really blessed by … It’s definitely not normal! We are probably the exception — most companies who pitch for seed investment don’t have any revenue. So the fact that we had revenue in the six figures … is part of why our round went so quickly. We had proven traction. We also got investment from the founder of Toms, which helped spur investment from other people.”
Having raised capital successfully, what is the advice you would share with others walking down this road right now?
“When we started the pitches, since neither of us had done it before and we wanted to start conservatively, we asked for $500,000. But then, the round filled up quickly, and there were several strategic investors that we wanted to sign on.
“I think it’s always a good strategy to be conservative with your original ask because it looks bad if you are underfilled. A lot of times investors will say, ‘I’ll invest X amount if your round is full.’ But if you don’t hit that ‘filled line,’ then they won’t invest at all. So, setting a bar low is always good.
“We came at it with a loose vantage point. While impact investors are a good fit, so are traditional investors. Think about your current network and meet with as many of them as possible. Even if they are, let’s say, a VC that only puts in multiples of millions into companies, and therefore, wouldn’t be a good fit for you at that stage. Having a coffee with them will be super helpful because they will know angel investors who could be a good fit.
“Also, don’t be shy about wasting people’s time, but be honest about ‘I’m learning and I want your advice on if my investor pitch is good,’ and ‘I want your advice on who I should talk to.’ We were pleasantly surprised that so many people are more than willing to help.”
What was the hardest question you got from investors during your meetings?
“We came prepared with a deck, but one of the hardest things to answer was a five-year projection for the company. That is really the hardest thing, because you are in startup stage, and things are shifting constantly. You know that and the investor knows that, but as an exercise, you need to go through and present a long-term projection.
“That was a very interesting exercise for me because both sides of the table are well-aware! A lot of it is guesswork, but you still have to go through the motions.”
What is your biggest piece of advice for early stage e-commerce companies?
“Coders are very expensive. So just launch with a do-it-yourself website on Shopify or Squarespace. The beauty of all of the existing templates and commerce companies out there is that they are extremely cost-effective and you don’t have to have any website experience to create with them.
“Sure, we had many dreams for the website that were not possible within the templates when we launched, and we would have needed to pay an expensive coder to create, but it was a lot better to test the concept with a low monthly fee on Shopify, with not super beautiful graphics, but good enough. Follow that lean concept, and don’t follow a coder to start.”
What is it about Stacey, and the other people you support, that keeps you inspired in your mission every day?
“Stacey Williams is a homeless veteran and also my friend. She is constantly inspiring. She creates really beautiful, colorful portraits of women, showing them as incredibly strong and powerful. She has been through a lot … After the service, she was working full time, and during the recession, lost her job, couldn’t pay her bills and ended up homeless. And she continues to have such a positive outlook.
“She has said that every time that she gets a check from ArtLifting, she starts crying. This keeps us super motivated because our whole concept is providing dignity and giving people hope in their lives. Stacey really illustrates that.”