A conversation with David Sasson

09/02/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:12 AM

David Sasson didn’t know much about art when he started Overstockart.com, but he knew what he liked: success in business.

Sasson, 44, runs the marketing and sales side of the company that specializes in copies of famous paintings.

Israeli-born, he graduated from Wichita State University in 1997 and worked for a small firm that sold used computer equipment. He met his future partner, Amit Yaari, who already sold oil paintings, and they started Overstockart.com in Wichita in 2002.

The company has grown every year since, and was recognized again this year as one of Inc. Magazine’s 5000 fastest-growing companies in the U.S. The magazine put the company’s 2011 sales at $4.1 million.

Sasson is married to Stacy, and they have two children.

What exactly does your company sell?

We have three different types of art. We have hand-painted oil paintings, which are mostly reproductions by van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Picasso and the like. The reproductions are made in China. They start with a blank canvas and the artist actually goes through and paints a detailed reproduction of the famous painting. We also have some of our own designs, which would typically be van Gogh or whatever, where we make modifications to the painting using our own designs.

The next kind of art that we carry is hand-painted art tile that is also a reproduction of paintings, and these are also done in China.

The last kind of art that we carry are prints on canvas made by emerging artists. The website is www.artistbe.com, and the artist gets to set their own gallery and offer their original for sale, and we reserve the right to reproduce their art and pay them a 15 percent royalty on the reproduction. The original is offered for sale by them directly, and they do not pay any commission to us.

How close are the oil paintings to the originals?

It’s close, but it’s not 100 percent. It’s hand-painted so there will be slight variations. If we get 50 pieces of the same painting, at first they all look the same. But if you look closely, there will be a circle here that will be slightly bigger or whatever.

How do you ensure quality control?

We prefer to work with small studios, where we know our product will be touched by not more than three people. So we have some control. We have studios that make van Goghs; we have studios that make Klimts; we have studios that make Monets. They get good at doing the van Gogh brushstrokes and the Monet brushstrokes.

How can you compete with posters of the original?

By the time you frame and matte the prints, you are actually getting close to the price we are charging now (around $150). We believe the reason people choose an oil painting over a print is that it is actually done by an artist, actually done by hand. While the image is not 100 percent, the techniques are there. You get product in the same medium and same spirit as the original.

Who buys these works?

The typical customer buys one. They are, from surveys, mostly located on the coasts, New York and California are our two big states. They’re married, 35 to 55, homeowners with kids that are older. He has a college degree and has an income in the higher middle class. So we’re not selling to wealthy people and we are not selling to poor people.

How much growth have you had?

In 2008, up until September, we’d had growth of 30 to 40 percent a year. Then the whole financial debacle happened and the fourth quarter was flat. 2009 started and, boy, we were not doing well. And then June comes along and June was bad, and now we were shrinking for the first time ever. Our cash is dwindling, too.

July rolls around and starts the same way, which is not a good thing, and my brother, who is head of marketing, said, you know, I think we just need to get more aggressive. We need to offer more deals, bigger deals, just get in their faces. The second half of July was better, and August was phenomenal. By the end of 2009 we were back to a good level of growth bringing us back to 30 percent for the year. It was a complete shift. It’s been good ever since. This year is the best growth we’ve ever had. At the end of July we were north of 70 percent year over year.

How did you rev up your marketing?

We invested more in search-engine marketing. The other thing is we started e-mailing more to customers. We have a permission-based e-mail list and everyone is registered. We started being more aggressive about sending out e-mails. And we’re setting shorter time frames (on sales). If you look at the site and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to wait,’ pretty soon you‘ve forgotten. But if I gave you 24 hours to buy or 48 hours, you’ll be more likely to act.

Have you learned something about art since you started?

Absolutely. I knew very, very little. I’m not the biggest expert in the world but, if it’s an artist that we carry, I will recognize it.

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