The story of deviantART, as most know it, goes like this. Once upon a time the yellow alien and a pug were sitting around thinking, hey it would be great to create a massive online art community wouldn’t it? And then the yellow alien went off and wrote thousands of lines of alien code, and the pug ran around telling all his friends about this great new art site they had to check out. And when the alien was done coding, he told all his alien friends to come too! Once they’d all arrived, this heavenly new community came about and we all lived happily ever after. Until people started “first posting” and what not. But that’s another story.
But not quite.
Actually, there was a lot more to it that couldn’t be discussed until now. Like the fact that there were always three deviantART co-founders, not two. That deviantART was wholly owned by DMusic Network, LLC, and then Lynx Technology Group, LLC which, to begin with, owned DMusic Network, LLC. A gentleman by the name of Michael Ovitz (former President of the Walt Disney Company. Founder of the Creative Artists Agency and a Hollywood legend to boot.) was the owner of all three of these companies. And also the little known fact that deviantART was nearly shut down before it reached its first birthday, and was saved by this mysterious third co-founder by the skin of his teeth.
Here’s that story, which is quite a bit different from the fairy tale we all remember.
[Rewind 5X playback]: I founded a company called “Dimension Music” in 1997, which was later renamed to “DMusic” – it was huge, tons of traffic, lots of money. In 1999 it was acquired by Michael Ovitz, a very powerful Hollywood “super” agent and his Lynx Technology Group. I went to work for Ovitz right out of high school, and while there I worked with all divisions of his new management company (Artists Management Group) to help them make their projects more appealing to the tech generation. Throughout this time I continued to run the DMusic Network on behalf of Lynx Technology Group, and in early 2000 I went out and acquired a handful of other similar online music sites, and the management teams behind those sites. One of these acquisitions was Cybertropix, run by the now infamous $ jark – soon after Cybertropix was transitioned in to the DMusic Network, $jark approached me about an idea he felt strongly about. And so we agreed, he would create deviantART which would be an art community, run off of the DMusic Platform, and would also power our much needed skin section for DMusic.
Skinning wasn’t a new concept to me or to DMusic. In cooperation with Mark Streich (Gllen), DMusic created the very first skin site in late 1997 early 1998. WinAMP Facelift was an extensive database of skins for WinAMP, the only popular skinnable application that existed at the time. After WinAMP Facelift was complete, Mark Streich saw an opportunity to open up a website that enabled artists to submit skins for all skinnable applications, it was called Customize .org and it was developed and launched on DMusic ’s servers, and resided there for about six months before it needed its own servers. I’m sure many of you remember it as the grandfather of all skin sites. Customize later sold to a company called Rare Medium in New York – I had negotiated to sell DMusic to them as well, along with numerous other MP3 sites, but fortunately I chose to work with Michael Ovitz instead.
A bit later in 1999, $jark built a site called Screenphuck which was very similar to Customize .org but with many interesting innovations. The project didn’t go far because soon after this the DMusic Network bought Cybertropix and many new opportunities were on the horizon for $jark.
Under contract with DMusic Network, LLC, $jark built and launched deviantART on August 7th, 2000. Soon afterwards, $jark realized that he’d need his own staff, because the management of deviantART was a task he couldn’t take on by himself, so he found `matteo to help him out. And ` matteo was awesome, he knew many talented artists, more artists than even $jark knew, and he was great at spreading the word about deviantART. Soon afterwards, I officially hired ` matteo as a consultant to the DMusic Network to help $jark – and the magic began to happen.
Interesting note; six months after deviantARTs launch, I began discussions with David Gorman and Clark Temple to bring their many talents and DeskMod .com in to the DMusic Network, specifically to help $jark. deviantART was very young at the time, and needed quite a bit of programming work; David Gorman would have been a major score for the team. After reaching an agreement to complete this aquisition, the deal was terminated due to “late-term-jitters” on signature day. This happened again after we reached a hand-shake agreement a few months later. We’ve always had much respect for DeskMod and its founders, and looked forward to working with them; it’s unfortunate that this never came to be.
TROUBLE IN NEVERLAND
It was around this time that the Internet bubble had burst, and soon the Lynx TG lawyers were on me like bees. deviantART was still small, and wasn’t generating nearly any revenues to cover its many costs. DMusic on the other hand was quite a bit larger at the time, so I focused on expanding it to bring in more cash to compensate for the dramatic changes in advertising rates, and so that we could keep both deviantART and DMusic going. Companies in the digital music space were going out of business left and right and with every competitor around us filing for bankruptcy, things weren’t looking good. Dream land soon turned in to a bit of a nightmare, but the worst was still to come.
The only part of this story I still cannot reveal has to do with a legal matter that faced deviantART in its early days. Skipping over the details, that are almost irrelevant; due to this issue I was directly instructed to shut deviantART down. And rightfully so, because not only was there a serious legal blunder that had been made (which has since been corrected) but deviantART was very young, so it needed quite a bit of investment and time in order to begin cash flowing positive. The bubble had burst and, regardless of how fantastic I knew deviantART could be, it certainly did sound like a very dot-bomby idea to anyone not as close to the project as I was. I also needed to find a buyer for DMusic .com, but I was not permitted to find a buyer for deviantART. And, I was also not permitted to purchase deviantART back from Lynx Technology Group myself, due to this legal issue.
The struggle to save deviantART in the months that followed this were not enjoyable. I will say, it was by the skin of my teeth that we walked away with an amicable agreement to both sides. The problems were side effects of the times, mostly a crashing economy. With that came a sense of urgency – a rush to secure businesses that could pull in significant revenues, a rush to stop the bleeding (of money) going in to projects that didn’t fit in to this first category, and a rush to terminate businesses that couldn’t stop the bleeding.
For me, AMG was college, an MBA and a tornado of wordly experience. I was 18 when I began working with some of the most successful people in the world. Harvard educated attorneys, MBA’s and experienced movie, music, television and sports executives. I met 3,000 people, took high level and many times investor level meetings with nearly 100 companies. Essentially, it was the opportunity of a life time. So while saving deviantART may have been a bit of a nightmare, believe you me it was a small and understandable price to pay.
EVERY PROBLEM HAS A SOLUTION
I soon found three interested buyers for DMusic, and it sold to a gentleman named Larry Feldman, ESQ. I’m proud to say that DMusic is still alive and kicking to this day. In fact, Michelle Robertson, twin sister of Michael Robertson (the founder and former CEO of MP3 .com) is now the President of the DMusic Network. Michelle built the DAM CD system at MP3 .com, and being a Robertson I feel confident that DMusic is in great hands with her.
After the DMusic sale, I was finally given permission to find a buyer for deviantART. Up until that point I was still under the impression that I was not going to be allowed to do so. What changed? We patched up the aforementioned legal matters, in the nick of time. The trick to all of this was, I had 3 days to find a buyer. I’m sure you can imagine the stress of these circumstances.
I had a number of folks in mind that we could bring on as partners. In the end, we were fortunate enough to partner with two very good friends of mine. They made the best offer, and coincidentally they were our first choice. Andrew McCann and Ian Lyman were the two extremely talented individuals behind the popular MP3 player Sonique, which they sold to Lycos in 1999. Having built the most visual media player ever, I knew they would be the best fit for deviantART. Within a day, we had reached an agreement and deviantART was saved.
My partner $jark was sick throughout this entire process, and is on medication to this day from the stress this caused him. I took two months off, and went to visit family in Greece the moment all of these issues came to a close so that I could piece together the parts of my brain that were still able to function. We felt like we had come out of a meat grinder, to put things in to perspective. Not to mention we had gone through all of this alone, we hadn’t told the rest of the team ( `tack, `arc and `matteo at the time) what was going on so that we wouldn’t worry anybody, or let them feel the stress we were feeling so that they could focus on keeping the site running.
In retrospect, it was a bit like a fairy tale in that we all lived happily ever after. Well almost, because deviantART still couldn’t support itself when we finally had control of it. The strength we’ve built since is a credit to the powerful team we’ve assembled here and the love of deviantART that binds us.
I quickly went to work part-time on business development a few months after I returned from Greece, eventually I took that entrepreneurial risk and began working on deviantART full time. Everyone else was a volunteer, $jark had (and has) a full time job with a consulting company to the Navy, not to mention a family. For deviantART to stabalize, someone needed to jump on board and take control or it faced the possibility of bankruptcy once more.
That was a year ago, and the results so far have been the development of our printing service, strong advertising relationships and our subscription program. In addition, I brought DMusic’s CTO ( $chris ) over to deviantART, who is currently the lead engineer on the dA version 3 project. He is an invaluable solution to our scalability troubles.
Like any seasoned team we know that the road ahead will continue to be bumpy, but we’ve overcome the turbulance of our first few years. We’re proud of this, and we’re especially proud to announce that deviantART is here to stay; in regards to online art, you officially have a place you can count on to be there, serving your creativity, for many years to come.