NYCC 2012: An Interview with Redbubble’s Peter Tomassi

RedBubble’s cool, eco-friendly pop-up shop on the floor of NYCC.

Redbubble is a cool artist-driven company that puts unique art on all sorts of fun products from t-shirts to iPhone cases.  Focused on helping artists “share their authentic, high-quality work with the world,” Redbubble seeks to provide products that reflect the current cultural trends.

Redbubble’s Chief Community Officer Peter Tomassi sat down with Open the Fridge at New York Comic-Con to chat about their unique business model, the cool art it carries from artists worldwide, and the role it’s playing in global geek culture.

Open the Fridge: Let’s talk about Redbubble and your brand – how did you get started and what are you all about?

Peter Tomassi: When we started the site back in 2007 in Melbourne, Australia, all the founders were artists or writers themselves. They wanted to build a site for themselves, their friends and their colleagues that would allow artists to upload work and connect them with the facilities to print, manufacture and ship that work to people all over the world who were interested in buying it. We’ve actually grown quite a bit in five years; we used to have three artists and now we have over 220,000 around the world in just about every country, many of which are represented here. Together, they have uploaded more than 9 million works and have approximately 60 canvases to print on, meaning t-shirts, posters, art prints, skatedecks, iPad/iPhone cases, etc. or any item in the home, or on apparel that would benefit from original art. We’re not just a community, we’re also a business and a marketplace. And those 9 million works are literally available in hundreds of millions of configurations.

We’ve tried to build not only a platform for artists, but effectively a retail site, offering an alternative to what the mainstream malls and stores offer people. We don’t think that what people wear, put on their walls, put on their phones, or put in their dorm rooms should be dictated buy a couple VPs of marketing for big brands. That kind of monotony really bothers us – we’ve taken the opposite approach. We don’t decide what is popular on Redbubble; artists do. We encourage and nurture them through contests; we had a contest to develop our official poster for NYCC; this artist is from Gdansk, Poland and it’s someone who might not have the exposure otherwise.  This artist is going to now be on CNN next week. So we continue to provide artists with a platform for selling their work, we faciliatate the logistics, shipping and so forth, and they get a cut of the proceeds; they can actually set their margin.  Not everything is exactly the same price – an artist can put a value on their work. If they want they can make a $25 t-shirt, or if they want they can make a $70 t-shirt. So the artists have a lot of control over the front end. We also do some our own marketing, getting them exposure so our site is authentic, honest and very searchable. For us, our artists are the spotlight and we really take a backseat.  We are really a platform to empower artists.


OTF: It sounds like you have a very unusual business model!  How did you go from the small base in Australia with the three artists to such a huge community of worldwide artists?

PT: A lot of it happened virally, as artists would tell each other about what us – hey, I’m an illustrator, or I’m a photographer, have you heard of Redbubble?  Word of mouth marketing. It’s fairly unusual for a retailer agency to have a chief community officer. We honestly try to grow the company by bringing artists on staff; I have an MFA in creative writing myself and we’ve got many artists on staff. The artists in the community really respond to that. We can’t pull the wool over their eyes.

One thing you won’t find on our site is the official merchandise that you see from big box retailers, and artists really appreciate that. Another thing that’s helped us grow is that they see the quality of materials, our canvasses, that we use. For example, our iPhone cases are a bit more expensive but the ink is actually tattooed onto the plastic so you can drop this 30 times and it won’t break. When we choose a partner or supplier – for example, we currently use American Apparel for all our apparel – women’s, men’s, kid’s clothes, and they have a high quality to their product that honors the art. Honoring the art and nurturing our artists is really our mantra, and by building a friendly ecommerce site we really care about the user experience. We’ve achieved success that way, growing over 100% each year over the last three years. And now we have bases in both Australia and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

OTF: I know what you mean about the quality, since I have some Redbubble products myself. The way you’ve grown your business so rapidly is so impressive, and something I don’t think you would have been able to do in years past without the network of social media available to you – let’s talk about your presence on social media.

PT: We started as a big, wild Facebook group and we didn’t have a corporate Facebook page until much later, only a year ago. Now we have over 80,000 fans and we didn’t market that page much at all. Being on Facebook put our artists primarily in charge of the social content. As we grew, we wanted to be able to put our own messages out there about our ethics, our values, our brand and who we partner with. We also use Facebook and tumblr and Twitter to curate some of the best of the best work so that Redbubble is associated with really high quality art, like that found at our pop-up shops. We do a lot of giveaways through social media, and invite input from our customers. A lot of companies kind of don’t listen to their Facebook page, but we’ve integrated our page with our customer service platform, so that if someone has a question or complaint we deal with it the same way as if it was on the website. We’re not afraid of Facebook and we’re as responsive as we can be given the volume on there. We’re definitely committed to social media; there are a lot of options on there for artists to integrate their work on their own social media pages. We have a team specifically tasked to social media development.

OTF: Consumers are really driving corporate responsibility for content and quality, which you are on top of in terms of the industry. What would you say to your fans or even other companies in terms of business responsibility and the consumer driving the content?

PT: A lot of companies have an appetite for the original, unique art that drives the content of the site. But just having the appetite and the dollars to purchase that art doesn’t do it – you have to build a community of artists and be the agent for them, which is essentially what Redbubble is. It’s hard to do that within a business plan – you have to really go out there and find the artists, build the trust and build a community if you really want that sort of art as part of your retail offering. Community development is not always a profitable thing to do – you can’t really put a price tag on that sort of outreach or on artist meetups. We do artist meetups around the world – London, Melbourne, San Francisco. We invite artists in to show them the new kinds of canvasses and products they can put their art on, new paper and new fabrics, and new ways to get their designs out there. They appreciate that, and when they come up with a new brilliant idea, we think they are more likely to put their work on RedBubble because they see how we’ve taken that extra step of staying in touch with them.

OTF: How do you select your artists? What is the process?

PT: It’s a very open platform, just about anyone can join and post art, and post it for sale. The featured work is selected by a number of means, most notable the popularity of the art, and there is an algorithm that ranks it on a various combination of factors. People can show appreciation for your art on Redbubble through liking it, giving you feedback, giving reviews, and posting comments. We do some curation ourselves, and our email features are also hand-selected. It’s not just based on what’s selling well, but a balance of things. Our art is taken from pop culture, fantasy, scifi, geek, nerd, seasonally…we have seasons as a retailer. All retailers have seasons, but we like to celebrate other things besides Christmas, Father’s day, etc. For example, we’re celebrating the anniversary of Woodstock – it’s interesting and fits right in our demographic. We’ve done a lot on Earth Day, partnering with nature conservancy and other nonprofits that share our values. We are always looking for fun unique holidays to celebrate, whether it’s bacon day or whatever. I have an email and social background, and when we send out emails containing new art and featured work, people see those things as content instead of spam. Not everything sells at the same rate, obviously, but there is something for everyone.

OTF: What designs are your favorite or favorites of your staff?

PT: A lot of us like the stuff that is a little more subtle, we certainly like the fantasy stuff, we have some steampunk enthusiasts. We’ve got Monty Python fans on staff, and we have folks on staff with a wide range of interests, whether it’s nature, literature, line drawing, or TV, and you’ll find repeated examples of that on the site. We have artists on staff who are very focused on creating designs that look really good on a t-shirt and they think more about the product element, or about a line-drawing as an iPhone case – certain designs wouldn’t work as a t-shirt but pen-and-ink drawings look great on the iPhone.

We also really welcome the writers on our site; a number of us have that writing background. A lot of art that does the best on the site has some sort of typography associated with it. This way, on Redbubble we sell not just art but ideas, be they humorous or serious. If you go to the site and type in ‘politics’ you see the sense of humor of our artists, where they take a theme, a candidate, or something a candidate said and they’ll mash it up with something in pop culture and create something funny, biting, serious, sad or whatever and we have thousands upon thousands of those examples. We let the artists and the market decide what is going to sell. We are there to curate their work and provide the platform and help with issues. We have a ‘play nice’ policy in the community – with almost a quarter million artists in the community, you are going to have some disagreements. We’ve hired some great community managers to enforce our terms of service strictly. We’ve had to unfortunately kick people off the site for different things, but we’ve really kept a strong community going. It’s reflect in our volume of work – we get anywhere from five to ten thousand new designs a week. It varies based on the holidays, which are coming up, as people upload more calendars and things like that. The community is very good about rating themselves – if something is really great or just inauthentic, the community really responds. That has really helped us create a niche as a high-quality art site.

OTF: Geek culture is really having a moment – I didn’t have a site or a company like this to get products from when I was growing up as a ten-year-old nerd who loved Star Trek and thought no one else understood. Now that geek culture is cool, social media is developed and growing all the time, and a company like yours is really at the forefront of that in terms of getting your brand out there. What would you say to your fans and artists who want to contribute about the role you have in geek culture right now?

PT: I think we play a pretty big role, as we’re looking for the strange, the unusual, and the obscure references. One thing about Redbubble and why we’re at Comic Con is people come to us and they’re looking for a product that fits their identity, their sense of humor, or their interests. A college kid in Des Moines, Iowa, can come to our site and find something uniquely his or hers and be the only one on campus who owns that, and maybe 20 other kids get the reference. Or maybe it’s a piece of wall art, or a canvas. I think geeks find that experience at Redbubble every day. Two guys came to our booth, and they both wanted the same shirt. They both thought it was funny, but they each wanted to be the only one with that particular shirt. The value they put on the uniqueness or the originality of the shirt was high – only one bought the shirt. Most retailers want you to buy a million of two or three designs; we have designs on the site that have sold maybe 10 times, ever. We’ve facilitated printing that through print-on-demand vendors that can print just one of something, which really fits our brand.

Thanks so much to Peter for his time, and sharing Redbubble’s neat philosophy and inner working with us at OTF. We support their excellent attitude and dedication to bringing us unique products with cool designs from stuff we love. Now get thee over to Redbubble and support some independent artists! Like this awesome, Fringe-inspired design that I may or may not have already purchased: 

Happy shopping!

Written by: Amy Imhoff

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