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Start Your Business Success Stories

Remember That Reddit Proposal? It Turned Into a Business! (Op-Ed)

Jolly Imp - ArtCorgi, small business Simone Collins's husband, Malcolm Collins, proposed to her on reddit using 21 commissioned artworks, including this one. / Credit: Jolly-Imp.

Simone Collins is founder and chief operating officer of ArtCorgi, a company that helps people commission personalized, original art. She contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

This is the story of two startups: One is practical; the other is compelling. Which one do you think did better?

Startup A was inspired by a serious and growing need, created over 13 months, bolstered by thousands of emails and extensive market research, built with the help of an expensive developer with a great reputation and associated with a booming online industry.

Startup B was inspired by a touching romantic gesture, created in fewer than two months, bolstered by several hundred informal emails and cursory competitive research, built independently (with lots of Googling) and associated with an obscure online niche.

If you had asked me six months ago which startup would do better, I would say Startup A. Boy, was I wrong! This past year, I learned that startup ideas can come from unexpected places, and that doing everything "right" and building something practical are not nearly as important as presenting a simple, compelling idea.

An artwork from Malcolm Collins's marriage proposal to the author via reddit, commissioned from the artist Denoro. Credit: Denoro

I quit my job in May 2013 to work on the "right" company: Gigaverse. Gigaverse offers a series of free courses and guides designed to help people establish independent careers as self-employed professionals and one-person businesses. Before quitting my job, I extensively researched the growth of independent careers and online education; put together a detailed business plan; ran my idea by an endless stream of entrepreneurs, experts and professionals; hired a developer to help me build the site; and saved up enough money to bootstrap the startup's development.

I spent the summer creating detailed courses on the top independent careers online. I wrote hundreds of pages of lessons, quizzes, guides and interviews. I created an automated grading, vetting and credentialing system. I did everything I could to ensure the site would be a useful, practical resource.

Gigaverse launched in September 2013. Despite great efforts, the site got almost no press coverage. Despite heavy outreach, few visitors graced the site. By November, my co-founder and I began to come to terms with the fact that Gigaverse was going nowhere — at least in its current state.

A logo from the Collins's new ArtCorgi website. Credit: ArtCorgi.

Little did we realize that ever since the summer, a far more compelling startup had been pounding at our door. The co-founder with whom I quit my job to work on Gigaverse also happened to be my boyfriend at the time. We grew closer while working together. He proposed to me in August.

This co-founder/boyfriend of mine, Malcolm Collins, didn't go for the typical marriage proposal. Instead, knowing I love art and reddit, he commissioned 21 pieces of art from 18 different artists that depicted the two of us, packaged them with a bunch of Advice Animals (common online images paired with text overlay that are used to convey advice and other ideas),and posted them on the popular website reddit for me to find by surprise. I was surprised and enthralled (and, of course, said yes). Lots of other people were surprised and enthralled by Malcolm's proposal as well — it went kind of viral.

In the months following Malcolm's marriage proposal, we were repeatedly asked about the art he commissioned. Friends, family and strangers regularly approached us, asking how they could commission art of their own. The artists from whom Malcolm commissioned art for the proposal were flooded with requests.

We blew off the attention. Commissioning art online is really tough. Malcolm emailed about 300 artists just to get commissions from 18. It took him countless hours to coordinate each work's completion. Besides, we were working on Gigaverse, and were frustrated that people didn't want to speak with us about that.

We only realized we had a business opportunity on our hands after we began to come to terms with Gigaverse's lackluster launch. We realized that although commissioning art online is a hassle, we have the opportunity to make it better. We also realized people's interest in Malcolm's commissioned art, rather than Gigaverse, meant his marriage proposal touched on a compelling idea. Art commissions may be obscure, purely recreational and indulgent, but there is something about them that resonates with people.

An artwork from Malcolm Collins's marriage proposal to the author via reddit, commissioned from the artist Sumi. Credit: Sumi.

Rather than spending more than six months researching the commissions space, I created a simple Microsoft Word document outlining the strengths and weaknesses of other online art commissioning channels and emailed several hundred artists to learn about their personal pain points and needs with regard to accepting commission requests online. Rather than hiring a developer to build our site (which we simply couldn't afford to do, given our bootstrapped funds were dwindling), I taught myself how to build our online marketplace.

What resulted was something that, while perhaps not practical, was compelling. ArtCorgi, our solution to the online art commissions hassle, launched this January. Now, anyone can easily commission art as a romantic gesture for a loved one — or simply a cool gift for a friend, family member or colleague.

ArtCorgi's launch went well. We got excellent media coverage, our friends and family love the idea, and we're getting positive feedback from artists and clients alike. Given that our site went live to the public only days ago, there is no telling whether ArtCorgi will ultimately fail or succeed. But our experiences with Gigaverse and ArtCorgi have been like night and day.

When I created my first startup, I thought entrepreneurialism was all about pragmatism and practicality. Over the past several months, I have learned that starting a business also requires some spark and romance — not, perhaps, literal romance as it was in my case, but certainly a level of romance that catches customers' and clients' attention.

The reddit proposal, commissioned by Malcolm Collins. Credit: sTivia.

Most important, I have discovered the power that simple ideas can have. Gigaverse is detailed and useful, but muddled. ArtCorgi may be fluffy, fun and off the beaten track (it is not yet a common practice to commission art of you and your lover for engagement announcements and Valentine's Day presents, for example), but it is, nevertheless, simple and alluring.

Going for an eye-catching business does not require that you compromise your professional ambitions. Both Gigaverse and ArtCorgi help freelance professionals — just in different ways.

All I want to suggest is that you keep an eye out for shiny objects in your peripheral vision. They may turn out to be just the spark you need to kick off a great business.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.