Like a relay race, some Internet commerce plans get handed off a few times before they cross the line to become real businesses.
Art.com was like that. The Web-only art retailer, based in North Carolina, was founded by two college students nearly a decade ago. It spent six years operating under another name, AllWalls.com, before becoming the fourth owner of the Art.com domain name in 2001 -- and the only one to turn a profit.
Now Art.com employs 200 people who toil in a warehouse in Raleigh, and its owners have decided to branch into the high-priced world of original art. Co-founders Joshua Chodniewicz and Michael Marston, both 30, won't disclose revenue but say they built their "highly profitable" dot-com without taking any venture capital. They are considering selling stock to the public now that Wall Street's appetite for Internet investments has rebounded.
Their site draws nearly 5 million visitors a month. Tractor-trailers filled with artwork leave the 60,000-square-foot warehouse every few hours for the airport. Art.com's facility, meanwhile, has been reengineered to spit out custom-framed posters and prints on an assembly line modeled after the mass-customization computer line created by Dell.
"Five years ago, you saw me putting the posters in my Jeep and licking stamps to put on them beside the handwritten labels," said Chodniewicz, the chief executive. "Thank God I am not doing that now."
So far, Art.com's success has come from mostly inexpensive reproductions and framing services. But last week, it launched a more ambitious online marketplace for paintings and photography.
What's unusual is that Art.com is inviting artists to showcase and sell their original work on Art.com -- in many cases without charging artists any commissions. The owners are gambling that they will be able to sell other services if they can turn their site into a supermall for art.
Art.com faces many challenges, including competition from other would-be art sellers on the Web. To date, none has succeeded in becoming the Amazon.com of art.
The site's biggest competitors, though, likely will be the thousands of offline art galleries, where experts provide the kind of hand-holding and pep talks often required to sell high-priced art. The masses have embraced buying products online that they can't first hold in their hands, because the items are identical to what they can find in their shopping malls. It's still unclear how many art buyers will want to go that route for a one-of-a-kind item. Art.com's founders say, however, that they can take advantage of the fact that the world of original art is highly fragmented, reflecting the whims of those thousands of dealers and galleries that represent tens of thousands of professional artists.
"We are going to change the way the world finds art. Our purpose is to simplify the buying and selling of art," Chodniewicz said grandly. "Currently it is a complex and frightening process, and out of reach to many."