Wondereur.com brings brings art to the people via iPads, but no one’s buying
Olivier Berger, Sophie Perceval and Angelica Fox
720 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON
Online publishing/app development
Less than one
Sophie Perceval and Olivier Berger are passionate about breaking the barriers alienating ordinary people from the oft-rarefied world of art.
So passionate, in fact, that the French-born duo launched Wondereur — an iPad magazine that features weekly photo essays on up-and-coming artists, whose art it also sells — with nothing but their own money in the coffers.
They could have pursued investor capital, but chose to start out bootstrapped.
And, in hindsight, the company may have been better off with more cash at their launch in June. Wondereur’s free app has seen less than 10,000 downloads. And, even worse, they haven’t yet managed to sell a single piece of art.
There have been some close calls, but in monitoring user activity, the founders noticed a distressing patten.
“They put something in the basket, click on ‘checkout’, but then something happens that seems to confuse them,” Perceval explains. “There’s been a lot of intent to buy, but we haven’t made any sales yet. So we’re missing something.”
Mandeep Malik, a marketing professor at McMaster University’s Degroote School of Business, says these users could be having difficulty ascertaining certain information, like if Wondereur ships internationally, what it costs, and what types of payment it accepts.
It could also be that customers don’t feel the site is secure, or that they’re uncomfortable buying from a business lacking an established brand identity.
That lack of familiarity with Wondereur could stem from their funding issue. Because the company’s owners didn’t have the cash to hire any outside help, they opted to handle their own PR. They became active on social media, and pursued their target audience by contacting design and technology blogs. This got them features on a few sites, such as Toronto’s TrendHunter.com, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest, most popular trend community,” and Design Mom, a popular French design website — but the launch ultimately caused more of a whimper than a bang.
Perceval, who has a day job as an arts reporter with CBC/Radio Canada, admits the company could have simplified its initial presentation to make the concept easier to market.
“The magazine the shop, buying online, original art, recommendations, it’s a complex product,” she says. “Sometimes you have to (talk about) the one thing that’s interesting to that person, and not the 25 other things. We were lost in the message.”
Still, despite initial challenges, the pair continue to believe in Wondereur’s mission: to help make art more accessible to the masses, and make money in doing so.
“The key assumption of this business is that by building a story, people are going to be convinced that this artist is amazing, his work is interesting, and want to buy it,” says Berger. “If nobody’s buying, there’s no business.”
Each week the site features a new documentary-style photojournalism essay on a lesser-known contemporary artist. The features — assembled by Wondereur’s 10-person staff, most of whom are on the editorial and design team — get up close and personal, taking users behind the scenes with in-depth interviews and evocative images meant to capture an artist’s personality and creative process.
Recent artists have included Toronto photographers Meryl McMaster and Alex Kisilevich, and illustrator and Ontario College of Art and Design instructor Catherine Lane. After perusing photo essays — which highlight McMaster’s work on identity, memory and the environment, or Lane’s exploration of fragmented storytelling, for example — visitors have the option of purchasing original works, which sell for anywhere between $225 to $2,500.
With no purchases yet, the business has only managed to continue operating thanks to its unique payment arrangement — staff get their salaries through a combination of guaranteed income and a percentage of total art sales. Some have chosen zero guaranteed income, while others receive some salary along with their share in the art sales — usually a 50/50 split.
The arrangement enables the company to spread risk and minimize costs.
“And it works well in terms of making this project not just ours,” says Perceval. “Everyone around the table has an interest in making it work, (and) everyone who’s been here for the adventure has been happy so far.”
Still, Wondereur’s founders know the good attitudes likely won’t last long if sales don’t pick up. They hope the challenges they’ve faced so far are simply a result of early missteps, and not an indication of an unworkable business model. But Berger admits the low number of downloads is an ongoing concern, and would like to see them reach the mid ten thousands, which will require more than tripling the company’s user base.
Degroote’s Malik suggests the key to success hinges on marketing.
“Their top priority right now should be getting the awareness out there and gaining credibility as a reliable resource for art,” he says.
So, to address their marketing issues, Perceval and Berger recently started working with a PR agency that specializes in the art industry.
“They’ve helped us make partnerships and build the brand,” says Perceval.
On the financing front, while Wondereur has gone it alone initially, Berger indicates they’ve had informal discussions with investors and are currently building relationships. He says the company will go looking for additional capital this fall, and that he and Perceval will do everything possible to forge ahead.
“We’re willing to kill it if necessary, but we’d be very surprised if we had to, ” says Berger. “Financially it would not be good news.”