Run Upstairs


    This post is by Clint Watson, former art gallery owner and founder of BoldBrush, known for FASO Artist Websites, the leading provider of professional artist websites, the $38,000+ BoldBrush Painting Competition and the free daily art marketing newsletter, FineArtViews. As a self-proclaimed "art fanatic", Clint delights that BoldBrush's San Antonio, Texas office is full of original art, as is his home office. You can connect with Clint on TwitterFacebook or his personal blog at



    Paul graham wrote in How to Make Wealth about his company Viaweb [1], which ultimately sold to Yahoo for approximately $49,000,000:

    Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim of your company, but also at decision points along the way. At Viaweb one of our rules of thumb was run upstairs. Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him...What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we'd always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground...And I'd be delighted, because something that was hard for us would be impossible for our competitors.

    I touched on this idea previously, in High Hanging Fruit, but let's explore the idea further:  


    When I was in the gallery business, we had a similar philosophy to Viaweb.  We never had it easy, because our physical location was such that nobody could find us "by chance."  Upon first thought, it seems that a low-traffic location would be a liability for an art gallery.  But it turns out, the "bad" location was really an asset because we had to, by necessity, "run upstairs."


    Here's what that meant in practice:  We learned what works in advertising and what doesn't. We perfected phone follow-up systems.  We took detailed notes about each customers' likes and dislikes...and we used those notes to match them to artwork...even if the match came years later [2]. We loaded up vans full of art and drove to clients' homes for in home sales. We developed computer systems to streamline all these processes. We hired a professional photographer to teach us how to properly photograph artworks and then invested in the equipment to do it ourselves. We Fedexed photos all over the country.  We invested in a great website and kept it up to date every single day. We learned what works and what doesn't in email marketing, shows, direct mail, and events. We took sales courses and got really great at selling.  We treated our customer list as our biggest asset and invested huge amounts of time and money nurturing real relationships with those customers. We became friends with them. I'm still friends with some of those people. This is what all the Internet gurus tell you to do now, but back then, we figured it out on our own. [3]


    Since I had never previously been in the gallery business, I had no conception of what was "normal". So to me, everything we were doing was normal. And I really didn't understand that we were "running upstairs" until one day, we hired an experienced salesperson who had cut her teeth at galleries in Scottsdale, Santa Fe, and Laguna Beach, all big art resort towns.  She had sold very well in those towns and I was extremely excited to have landed a salesperson who had worked for the "big guys".  


    But, a couple of months went by and she had made virtually zero sales and started constantly complaining  about our lack of walk in traffic. Eventually, she complained that you just couldn't sell much art in San Antonio.  


    But that had to be a false statement. All the rest of us were selling at breakneck speeds and we were in San Antonio. So, I tried to teach her our system of "running upstairs".  But "that's so much work!" she complained.  


    She just didn't want to work that hard, so, after a couple more months, she moved on.


    The reality is, I didn't want to work that hard either. But when you're running a business, you want to give yourself every advantage possible and build every asset that you possibly can.  


    If you don't want to work hard on the marketing side, then make it a hobby.


    I've heard lately that many galleries have shut their doors. I've also heard that my former gallery is still plugging along, selling art and growing.[4] It doesn't surprise me.


    The galleries who have shut their doors likely didn't build the difficult but valuable assets by running upstairs during the good times.  Like the salesperson we hired, they didn't want to work that hard.  They never learned to "run upstairs" and now, when they most need to be able to run upstairs, they're too out of shape.


    Like Paul Graham  said in the quote above about seeking and solving hard problems, "And I'd be delighted, because something that was hard for us would be impossible for our competitors."


    Deliberately "running upstairs" forces you to build valuable assets that you can take with you anywhere and utilize to thrive in any economy.


    For most artists, there is no other way, at least until you are very far into your career.  By choosing to be a professional artist, you have chosen to "run upstairs".  


    If you realize that, you can thrive.  Those who truly run upstairs take command of their future and insist on finding a way to succeed.


    Those who don't tend to blame circumstances and bad luck when things don't work out.


    I'm still "running upstairs" and, for those of you who are with me...I'll see you at the top!


    Remember, Sharing Art Enriches Life.


    Clint Watson

    BoldBrush / FASO Founder and Art Fanatic


    PS - To start your own email marketing program, if you're a FASO customer, we recommend you use the built-in ArtfulMail program.  If you're not a FASO customer (or need more advanced features), we recommend ConvertKit.  Help us keep bringing you great content by signing up for Convertkit with our affiliate link here.


    [1] Paul Graham was a co-founder of Viaweb, which sold to Yahoo and it eventually became the product now known as Yahoo! Stores.  The $49,000,000 figure comes from this source  Mr. Graham now runs an investment company called YCombinator and writes essays here.


    [2] I once nurtured a potential customer via phone for three years before he finally bought his first painting.  He's still a friend (and a FASO customer) to this day.


    [3]  And we did it all without Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest...or, even Google.  Relying on social media is easy and, hence, less effective, and is running downstairs.  Building your own assets and augmenting them with social media is running upstairs.


    [4] Clint's former gallery is now closed.

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    An Art Marketing Lesson From Your First Painting

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