DeviantArt CEO on painting with a broader brush (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Angelo Sotira discusses plans to bring the niche artist community site and its now 15 million registered users to the mainstream.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
In 2000, a young entrepreneur named Angelo Sotira co-founded an online community site built around giving artists a place to showcase their work, and art fans a place to discover new talent.

Over the years, the site, DeviantArt, has signed up 15 million registered users and today sees about 35 million monthly unique users, according to Sotira. Yet, despite laying claim to being "the largest online social network for artists," it's likely that most people have never even heard of the site.

Angelo Sotira has built DeviantArt into what may be the world's-largest social network for artists and fans of art. DeviantArt

Now, CEO Sotira has decided to do something about that. He plans on undertaking what could be the site's first major marketing push in an effort to become more mainstream. And though it isn't yet talking about its specific plans, the Hollywood-based company is clearly hoping that not long from now it will be much better known.

Of course, just saying you want to be more famous doesn't get you there. But then again, starting from a base of 15 million registered users and a billion page views a month can't hurt.

Sotira's previous success as an entrepreneur is also likely to help. As a teenager just out of high school, his underground music and MP3 discussion community,1 Dimension Music, drew the attention of super agent Michael Ovitz, who bought the site and brought Sotira to Los Angeles.

Having lived in L.A. ever since, Sotira is now 29 and one of the movers and shakers in the online art world. Earlier this week, he sat down with 45 Minutes on IM for a discussion about what DeviantArt is and how he plans on conquering the Internet.

Q: Thanks very much for taking some time to talk to me. I appreciate it. Can you start by describing DeviantArt for those who aren't familiar with the site?
Sotira: Sure. DeviantArt is the world's largest art community where millions of artists come to share their creations to get feedback and connect with peers and mentors, etc. But it's also a hub for art enthusiasts to check out awesome artwork.

DeviantArt was described to me as the biggest site no one's heard of. With more than 15 million registered users, how is that possible?
Sotira: I'd say that's true. If you're in the arts, you've probably heard of us. But the wider world probably hasn't. Which is bizarre. Because we see 35 million unique visitors every month. We've been extremely focused on our community and building it organically--having our most passionate members tell their friends, who are typically artists or sensitive to the arts in some way and so on. We've found that people are selective about who they invite to the network. This is very much our strength, as we've been able to build perhaps the most passionate, emotional, creative community on the Web in this way.

Just so we're clear, you're saying 35 million monthly unique users?
Sotira: There are 35 million monthly uniques and 15 million registered members.

I was told that DeviantArt is getting ready to aggressively ramp up its marketing efforts so that the wider public knows you better. Talk a bit about what that would mean?
Sotira: Yes that's true. I think it's time for a broader awareness of the incredible things happening in the "digital city" that is known as "DeviantArt." Now I also think the way DeviantART.com today functions is incredible for our members, what with the nurturing atmosphere that we've fostered. A wider audience might need a simplified, more direct way to find the art that intrigues them more overtly.

How do you plan to create that broader awareness?
Sotira: One way we've been thinking about approaching broader awareness is through our product. We've been developing some underlying technology for two years to reshape the underpinnings of our search capabilities, and I think once those are fully surfaced, the world will have a "Pandora for art" to help make art as a concept more accessible.

Do you have an example?
Sotira: Sure. I would say that the world at large doesn't really "know art" or know the art world. It's daunting. If we take an approach where we ask you to type in the name of an artist you know, to find more artists that are like those artists, guess what? People don't know what artists they actually like. We prefer the approach where you see pretty artwork, and we use what you click on to continually refine your visual interests. To do this we need to surface a lot of data in to a search engine--billions of rows of data--that can be searched in about 15 milliseconds So the task is big, which is why it has taken us some time. But our engineers are in love with the work, adding the colors of pixels in our artwork in to the database and building algorithms that respond ultimately to a person's tastes.

I know that deviant Art isn't a photography site, and Flickr's not an art site, but both seem to have very passionate users. So how would you compare the two sites, and the commitment level of their communities?
Sotira: They don't really compare. Our members specifically intend the exact submission they post in to our community. At Flickr, you can "dump" hundreds of photos at a time. Inherently that sets a different tone. Additionally, we accept and encourage submissions from all mediums. Plus we're rather focused on mentoring and the growth and development of our artists, which I think isn't as much the case with Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook Photos, etc.

How did you come to start DeviantArt? What were you trying to achieve?
Sotira: A popular trend in 1998 to 2000 was to skin applications, like the popular WinAMP MP3 player or Sonique, or other (typically Windows based) applications so that they would look awesome. At the time I was the CEO of an MP3 community known as DMusic.com, and we had launched WinAMP Facelift as a site to facilitate application skinners showcasing their creations. Long story short, a trend naturally arose where artists wanted to post more than just one type of skin, and skins for other skinnable applications, and soon enough for paintings and renderings and even tattoos. So we founded DeviantART as a response to that community.

Okay, I have to ask. I read that you brought your mother to the 1998 MP3 Summit in San Diego. How did that go over?
Sotira: Ha ha. Oh, my God, I'm going to be 30 in February and that story still haunts me! It was great. It was the first time in many years my mom and I had traveled somewhere together and certainly the first time we had been to California. So it was a great trip for us. I spoke on my first panel there, which had me completely nerve-racked. But she's a very proud mother and it was and always is wonderful to have her support.

So, has she come with you to other professional events more recently?
Sotira: Of course! But I'm not an unaccompanied minor anymore so I go to a few all by myself these days.

Well, all joking aside, I know you've done a number of different kinds of tech start-ups. What would you say is the common element among your different ventures?
Sotira: Identifying trends that are going to lead to somewhere awesome is what I'd like to say. But more realistically I think being passionate about something has been the common element, and then connecting with others who are also passionate, which ultimately leads to me doing the thing I do, which is identifying opportunity and motivating result. So geek first, until the natural entrepreneuring does what it does.

We're almost out of time, so just a couple more questions. First: do you have an iPad, and if so, what do you think of it as an artistic tool?
Sotira: I hug my iPad every morning before I go to work. It stays at home, it's my home slice. And I love using Muro, our HTML5 drawing application, on it. And I also enjoy using ArtRage on it for layer and element blending. The iPad needs some more horsepower before it can really be a device for this. But tablets certainly will be important to artists moving forward, both for creation and for display and showcase.

This weekend in San Francisco, there's an art show called Future/Canvas that's featuring only art made on iPads. What's your take on something like that?
Sotira: An iPad Art show? Awesome. I want to go.

Last question, and it's a 45 Minutes on IM standard. Interviews on instant message are great for many reasons, including that it gives me a perfect transcript, and because it allows my guests to be particularly thoughtful and articulate. But IM is also great because it allows for multitasking. So, tell me, what else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Sotira: Eating a Turkey sandwich and doodling with my Pentel color brush.

Well, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it.
Sotira: Hey, thanks so much.