Sheldon Laube and Artkick are taking fine art from museums and into homes

When you’re not watching your TV, it can be transformed into a work of art with Artkick.

The startup company is looking to change how people view art similarly to what Pandora and Spotify did for music. Artkick was launched in January and has hit 10,000 subscribers who use the free app to select from among 60,000 images that can be displayed on Internet-connected TVs and computer screens.

“If you think about it, the notion of art and decorating the space you live in is as old as civilization. It goes back to cave paintings of 40,000 years ago,” says Sheldon Laube, CEO and founder of Artkick.

Bill Gates attempted a concept similar to Artkick when he started Interactive Home Systems in the late 1980s to commercialize a home system he created.

“The original idea of putting art on flatscreens predates Bill Gates. It’s been in science fiction books for decades,” Laube says. “Unfortunately the system he created cost tens of millions of dollars. Back then, there were no flat-panel TVs, so he used studio monitors. There wasn’t any digital photography, so he hired photographers with prototype cameras and arranged with museums to let them take pictures.”

Now, technology has caught up with Gates’ vision and enabled Artkick to provide its subscribers with free images of masterpieces, turning homes into mini museums.


Launching on the cheap

Technological advances are allowing companies to launch with a lot less capital. Artkick is Laube’s fifth startup company, and that’s the biggest change he’s seen along the way.

“You can get infrastructure on demand from Amazon Web services and other cloud-based services. So the investment in infrastructure for companies is now negligible,” he says. “Nowadays, the startup mentality is to spend as little as possible until you can get to the revenue stage.”

His last startup, Centipede, was 10 years ago, and was very infrastructure-intense.

“It is outsourced IT support for small and medium sized businesses. We had to build our own data centers, network operations centers and 24/7 customer service centers,” Laube says.

At Centipede’s initial investor meeting, more than $150 million was raised to get the company up and running.

“The major change from 10 years ago to today is the ability to do a lean startup. Right now, Artkick has 10 people and most are still working out of my house,” Laube says.

“It’s this lean philosophy to spend as little as possible until you can get to revenue. We’ve embraced that completely.”
Artkick was initially self-funded by the five people originally involved with the company. The first outside funds will come from a fundraising round underway now with a goal of $500,000 to $1 million.

“That money is to help fund marketing and get the word out about Artkick,” Laube says.


Generating revenue

It’s a tried-and-true revenue approach for apps — start with a free service and then charge for add-ons or to eliminate ads. Artkick expects to expand into those areas later this year.

“There are going to be three revenue sources. One is premium content — think of that like HBO subscription channels. Second will be a premium version of the product with new features like the ability to put images on multiple TVs. And the third is advertising. Every once in a while you’ll see an ad as images are rolling by on your TV,” Laube says.

Artkick’s current content is mostly artwork available in the public domain — copyrights expire 70 years after an artist dies. But Laube says they’re negotiating with digital photography houses to license images that would be available on the premium version of the service.

He also expects Artkick to provide an important outlet for new artists looking to find an audience.

“We’ve been able to get rights to show more emerging artists and new art simply because they want exposure,” Laube says.

But whether it’s attracting new artists or ad dollars, the key is to first build Artkick’s subscriber base.

“The whole idea is to move this to 100,000 people and then 1 million people,” Laube says. “Initially our main expense was paying for programmers. Now it will be in marketing.”


Changing habits

People think of art as permanent. They put a picture on a wall and almost never change it, Laube says. That’s something that he plans to change in a profound way with Artkick.

“There’s almost nothing else in the human experience that’s like that,” Laube says. “We change most things based on our moods. That goes for the clothes you put on each morning, what you eat for lunch or dinner or the music you listen too.”

Artwork has been treated differently because it’s physical, and it can be a hassle to move works or to fix holes left in walls.

“Some days you want to listen to The Beatles, other days it’s Katy Perry or the symphony. That’s never been possible with art before,” Laube says.

But perhaps a bigger challenge in reshaping how people think involves getting them to leave the TV on when exiting a room.

“The biggest obstacle is your mother. Because your entire life your mother told you to shut the TV off,” Laube says.

The power used by modern LCD TVs costs $7 to $10 a year if left on five hours a day, Laube says. Even on 24/7, it only costs about $30 a year. Combined with TVs coming down in price to around $200, that removes barriers to displaying art on the TV and could lead to people having screens dedicated exclusively for Artkick images.

“There’s music on wherever you go. The same thing can happen with art,” Laube says. “Everybody likes to look at something. For an 8-year-old boy it could be cars and athletes. For a 15-year-old girl it might be Justin Bieber. It’s about whatever you want to look at, whether it’s art, photographs or something else.

“We put up an exhibit with the Computer History Museum that features artifacts of the computer age. There’s no limit to what we can do. If you like it and want to look at it, we’re going to have it on Artkick.”