Charlie Clark is the founder of VSUAL, a marketplace dedicated to selling museum-quality art prints from amazing artists. Like many good startups, Charlie created VSUAL to solve a problem he already had: drop shipping high-quality art prints.
Long before he even started thinking about VSUAL, Charlie was working on another project called The Colors of Motion. Essentially, TCOM was a data visualization project in which Charlie wrote a program that took the average color from each frame in popular movies and composted those colors together into beautiful prints. In 2015, the project won a Webby, and eventually Charlie started selling TCOM prints on Etsy.
But selling on Etsy had its own set of challenges: Charlie had to carry inventory, could only offer customers the sizes of prints that he had, and had to constantly spend time responding to purchases, packaging, and shipping prints. What he really wanted was a fully-automated, print-on-demand, full-funnel drop shipping solution… a solution which didn’t really exist.
Undeterred, Charlie built a website for selling his prints. He found printers he trusted, worked with their APIs, and managed to piece together an online store that worked with practically no ongoing intervention. And, in the process, he realized the problem he was solving wasn’t exactly unique.
TCOM was a side project, but it was successful enough to convince Charlie that there was a real business to be had in building an art print marketplace. In the Spring of 2019, Charlie left his primary job, and, armed with his relationships with printers and a keen visual eye, spent the next six months building VSUAL before soft launching it to his circle of friends.
Despite launching only four months ago, over 200 artists have applied to open shops on VSUAL. Over 1800 original artworks are listed and over 300 more are being added each week. While VSUAL may still be in its infancy, it’s already helping hundreds of artists make money selling their art online.
Charlie is a great person to teach other entrepreneurs about bringing their ideas to life because he did it: every step of the way, he identified opportunities and addressed them. His story is that of the quintessential problem-solver, and VSUAL is as much a business as it is the solution to his biggest problems.
Where did the idea for The Colors of Motion and VSUAL come from?
A few years ago I built and launched a project called “The Colors of Motion” where I turned the colors of various movies into fun data visualizations. The project was a success, and people started asking me if they could buy prints. Initially I was selling the posters on Etsy and handling printing, packaging and shipping myself, but that quickly became unmanageable. Next, I started looking at existing print on demand marketplaces, but was really disappointed by the quality of the prints. That’s when I came up with the idea for VSUAL: A premium print on demand marketplace focused on high quality artwork, where artists and art enthusiasts can buy and sell with confidence.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I typically wake up around 7:30am, and the first thing I do is make myself a cappuccino. I used to really struggle getting up in the morning, but a few years ago my partner got me a nice espresso machine for Christmas, which really changed my mornings. Now I look forward to getting up and going through the process of grinding the coffee beans, steaming the milk and brewing the espresso. It takes longer than making a standard cup of coffee, and it’s trickier to master, but it’s also more fun and rewarding when you get it right. This little morning ritual wakes me up and gets me in the right mindset to start working.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When I have an idea, I usually start by sketching it out in a notebook. If I’m feeling excited about an idea, I’ll do some research to make sure it’s not something that’s been done before (or at least that I can bring some new value or perspective) and then I jump straight into building it. I’m a software engineer with a design background and feel pretty comfortable executing most small to medium projects on my own, so I usually try to put out an MVP of my idea as quickly as possible. Once I feel good enough about the thing I’ve built, I’ll share it on Twitter, Reddit and with friends and family to start getting feedback. From that point, depending if I feel the project has legs, I’ll continue to iterate and do a more formal launch on Product Hunt.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I think an existing trend that has been enabled by new technologies and accelerated by the recent pandemic is that more and more people are trying to turn their hobbies into side-hustles, and their side-hustles into businesses. Building tools that can help people make a living doing what they love is something that I find really exciting and rewarding.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Whenever I feel like I’m doing something that involves mindless repetition, I always take the time to either find or build a tool to automate that thing. It takes some time upfront but almost always ends up saving time in the long run.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The stuff you learn in math class can be used to create art and build video games! More seriously, I wish at a younger age I’d understood the practical applications of a lot of the things that were being taught in school.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
If you approach any activity with the right mindset, there is no such thing as wasting time. I believe that as long as you’re intentional about what you want to get out of something, it can be a useful undertaking.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I think it’s super important to think about the “packaging” of whatever you build. Whenever I make something, I take the time to come up with a catchy name, url, logo and branding. I see a lot of really useful tools that are missing those finishing touches that could make them stand out and significantly broaden their appeal.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Being your own target user is a super useful strategy for building a business. With VSUAL, being my own target user helped me focus on building without needing to do extensive research. It also helped me discover potential bugs and pain points that might’ve gone unnoticed otherwise. Finally, being your own target user helps with your credibility when you start trying to acquire new users.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Sometimes I’ll spend a lot of time building something and when I finally share it with the world: *crickets*. When a product launch doesn’t go exactly as hoped it can often feel like a failure, but sometimes it’s just bad timing or bad luck. If I believe the product is good and useful, I’ll keep iterating and trying to acquire users by other means.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
One app idea that I’ve been meaning to build for years is a visual progress tracking app. You would create “projects” that would start with a picture of something that will progress over time. For example: a plant, a painting, a home improvement project… Every day (or week) you would take a picture of the thing from the exact same angle (a semi-transparent overlay of the previous picture would help you find the right angle). In the end, you’d have a timelapse of the “project’s” progress over time. There could be a social component where users could give comments or give each other feedback on the progress that’s being made.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
With the quarantine, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to make lunch more interesting. I recently bought a panini press that instantly makes any sandwich a whole lot more yummy. The panini press was $30, I’ll be spending the other $70 on delicious hams, cheeses and other sandwichy things over the coming weeks 😋
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I recently discovered Gmass, a cool little tool that can be used to send out customized blast emails from within Gmail. You can connect an email to a google spreadsheet where each column is a token, and dynamically replace tokens in an email template. It’s super useful for personalizing cold outreach emails and can avoid a bunch of time consuming copy & pasting.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I think it’s valuable to have a diversity of interests, so I tend to stay away from business books and read mostly fiction. I would highly recommend The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a lovely book about the relationship between people and nature that’ll make you look at trees in an entirely different way.
What is your favorite quote?
“Done is better than perfect” – Sheryl Sandberg
- Automate mindless tasks
- Package your ideas beautifully
- Be your own target user
- Approach every activity with intention
- Diversify your interests
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.