Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

How We Built It: Artist and retailer, Kerwin Blackburn

1. Elevator pitch – tell us about your brand

By Kerwin is my range of exciting, action-painted acrylic pop art paintings, prints and merchandise. My hand-drawn, handpainted original portrait paintings capture some of music and pop culture’s biggest icons in my unique signature style. I aim to make art accessible; print editions start from £35 and are available in various sizes at www.bykerwin.com with fast, worldwide delivery, to inject energy into any home. It’s colourful, creative action artwork that is easy to love – or, as the BBC described it, “pop culture in a chaotic Jackson Pollock style”.

2. What inspired you to set up your company?

I’ve had a desire to start a business since I was young and strive to create exciting new products and put these out into the world. In 2019 I had the idea to start small with the goal of creating a single income stream, so I combined my commercial background and skillset (including a degree in international business, finance and economics from Manchester Business School, a Master’s degree from King’s College London and my experience working in sales at an e-commerce consumer gifting business in Singapore) with my natural painting ability to start an e-commerce side hustle, ‘By Kerwin’, which has grown from there.

3. What was your biggest challenge in year one?

Year one (Q1 to be precise) saw the start of the pandemic and national lockdown. When I launched my online art business in November 2019, I knew I’d have to work out a roadmap to take my artwork and paintings public. The closure of much of the arts sector just meant I really had to use my initiative. Nevertheless, without art industry experience I decided to use this as an opportunity to not to get bogged down in the traditional presumptions of the sector – after all, artists aren’t typically known for being the most commercial people! – and to instead create my own blueprint.

I’d already started an online shop – a platform I knew played to my commercial and technical skills – and step-by-step I researched and learnt each of the necessary components for a successful DTC business – coding, UX design, painting photography, digital marketing, Facebook advertising, video production and more. My choice of e-commerce business model proved a very good decision, and also one that has informed the development of my artistic style; optimising my paintings for print editions and ensuring they are impactful when viewed online.

4. What would you say has been your biggest marketing success?

My biggest marketing success has been the whole video dimension to my artwork – another product of the lockdowns and being restricted to only selling art online. Recognising that my unique, explosive painting style – featuring layers of splattered paint and dramatic masking tape face reveals – lends itself perfectly to timelapse videos, I created a series of behind-the-scenes painting videos which are ideal for capturing social media attention and conveying the energy of my Jackson Pollock-inspired artwork. The videos are also a valuable tool in my real-life exhibitions, too, which help me really stand out and build a connection with visitors.

However, the single most impactful marketing was being shared by the official Tupac Instagram account to 6+ million followers – this grew my following by 20% in one weekend and led to the sale of the original Tupac painting to a collector in Los Angeles! It really showed the power of influencer marketing – particularly when it comes to art and the emotional connection needed for a successful DTC art business.

5. What has been the biggest mistake you made?

I’ve avoided any catastrophic mistakes so far, so the biggest early mistakes were probably not being focused enough, and too scattergun in my marketing and message. However, an iterative, lean mindset is embedded in my approach to By Kerwin, so I value constant learning and continuous improvements as I go. I started my business with little experience of selling art and few expectations – so I’ve focused on taking small, frequent, compounding steps in the right direction; tweaking and correcting things that I see can be done better as I go. I think that’s an effective approach for anyone starting a small business – and particularly with a DTC brand that has the huge advantage of direct contact with the customer, which provides the most informative, authentic feedback possible.

6. Tell us about your plans for the future

I’ll be exhibiting internationally for the first time in New York at Saatchi Art’s The Other Art Fair, Brooklyn in June 2022, so I’m looking forward to that milestone. My main focus is to continue developing the print side of By Kerwin as a DTC e-commerce business – this is the area with real scalability (in March 2022 I reached 250 prints sold since going live), with the physical exhibitions a great way to support this. I’ve also got plans to launch my blog, sharing my artistic business learnings and continuing to put my story and personality into my artwork, as well as exploring the NFT space to see what genuine opportunities lie there. Watch this space!

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