Alumni Spotlight: Up and Coming Easel
“Easel is a digital platform designed to make original artwork more accessible to everyday people, and to give artists ease in finding and completing commission work,” founded by UCI alum Sahand Nayebaziz and Negah Nafisi. About a year ago, Sahand and Negah moved back home to Laguna Niguel to directly address the issues of commissioning art in Southern California. The New University’s Arts and Entertainment team interviewed them to find out more about this project.
What about UCI motivated you to become a part of something like Easel?
Sahand: I studied in the informatics department. The informatics senior project is the most indicative of going off and starting a company later. It’s a project in which, normally, you are partnered up with a company in or around Irvine, and for the group that I was in, our relationship with the company fell off pretty early on. So, we were given the ability to make a project without being affiliated to any company. This senior year project with my group mates in 2015 was the first time I had the opportunity of working on software with other kids and it was pretty open ended. Back then, I hardly knew what I was doing, but it was really fun and I learned a lot… and besides that there was some research with two professors on-campus that was also open ended software development.
How did you start working with Negah and how did the knowledge of Computer Science transfer into working for art and essentially making something for independent artists as a business?
Negah: I guess I could drop in an anecdote — me and Sahand have known each other since we were probably 10 year olds and since I can remember Sahand was really interested in technology and design, and I think that really came through when he was working for anything like the yearbook. So, when he studied informatics maybe as a surprise to him I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone around him and seeing his body of work he was always producing really aesthetically pleasing work. It was more than solely just programming or building but building something with design intention. Maybe Sahand can answer this better but for me, coming from a background of engineering and art appreciation, it was just fortuitous. So me and Sahand were already discussing how can we impact the world with the skill sets that we have while also doing something that we are passionate about… This idea came and then we thought, “we can do it”. With our skill set and not coming from an art background but coming from a tech background, we tried to solve a tech problem for artists.
Sahand: The relation of doing something that helps artists or help artists at all… It may sound cliche but me being able to take software or whatever the heck we’ve learned and being able to apply it to something that is actually happening in the world is really the ultimate goal. Sometimes, I just tell my friends I just want to do something for someone and they would just respond with a “Dude, shut up that doesn’t really mean anything”… So I have a friend who is an artist and isn’t selling anything. There’s a system working in my head or any other programming friend’s head, that if we did this, “this” and “this” we could solve it. So, with Easel it’s taking the things I know about software and putting it to use that is really the most fun thing to do.
What is the process of finding artists like and how does that relationship work? Assuming you both came from a tech background, how did the networking come into play?
Negah: At the beginning when we were first testing this, we just went to several events because living in Laguna Niguel, which is very close to Long Beach and Fullerton and Santa Ana that have larger art communities. So, we just went to events to see what kind of art was in our own backyard and what kind of artists were there, so we tried contacting as many artists as possible from the novice that had just picked up the paintbrush to professionals that get commissioned by states and countries to create pieces. We tried getting more information and tapping into the actual artist knowledge base by contacting them, cold calling emails and talking to them in person and most of them were receptive to them. At the beginning, it was just identifying people who could help us have a better idea of what problem we were trying to solve. Later, once the prototype was ready, it was the same cycle all over again it was trying to find what kind of artists would be willing to try our website and help us figure out the kinks and then bring it to a level where we can launch it for everyone to sign up. Now, a lot of signups are happening through word of mouth… and the funds that we need for this are really unblurred and a lot of the signups happened through word of mouth and a lot of the new ones I don’t even know where they came from. So, we’re not sure where they’re coming from but I’m assuming the ones that we didn’t handpick, come from an extended process of separation of “Oh my friend is on Easel so I am going to tell my friend and he’s going to tell his friends.”
Every time an independent artist is is trying to make it, the pricing of his work suffers from the monopolization by nepotism-based artists, so how do you guys tackle the problem of pricing on Easel?
Sahand: It’s a little nitty gritty with the site. From our internal point of view we have the two big parts to Easel: all the features and pages that support artists by actually showing off the art, a place we can explore the art. Then, all the features that support the actual transaction and actual commission… As for new artists that may not be able to demand the prices they might deserve or get the attention they might deserve, we take both of these features and our solution is to give them to everybody regardless of how much people are willing to pay for their art or how long they’ve been in art. Then, if everyone has equal access to features, our hope is that the quality of the artwork is what sets them apart. Also, if you compare our website with competitors’ websites the way that we actually display the artwork, I think, we try and be the most beautiful and respectful to artwork. Little details like we never have text on top of the artwork and whenever you’re looking at the artwork it’s the biggest thing on the screen, and it’s centered and there’s nothing in the way. So, from a design perspective we’re trying to set it up such that the visitor feels like they’re in a gallery and they’re walking around art in their own court in their own tastes.
Negah: Yeah in the beginning we talked about, do we allow anyone to join or do we have to be juried? How do we make sure the art is “good” but then we quickly realised how that is just such an irrelevant question to us because what’s good to me is going to be different than what Sahand or you, Yanit, would find to be “good”. So, in order to try to create a platform for independent artists by setting up an avenue to giving them fair exposure by signing up … we realised if we charged people or suggested they price it in a certain way or put them into different categories like “check out these ameteur artists and check out these professional artists” we would be creating more barriers in their way and we just really wanted this to be a tool artists could use regardless of their level or where they are in their career. We just really want that “if I go on Easel and find an artist that I like I hope it’s not because of the price of the art but because of their work and how it speaks to me”. Just like Sahand was saying, we were hoping that the quality of the work will come through in the design and the way that they sign up, so we’re not suggesting prices to artists we’re just offering them another tool to get their work out there and whatever they find to be the best way to price their work or create their work. We’re not telling them that this kind of art is on trend so maybe shift their work that way, we’re telling them so this is your art, use Easel to get your art out there.
What about Easel makes it stand out when compared to other similar platforms?
Negah: One of the standouts is, Easel right now is only for commissioned work, so if you wanted to commission an artist something that has been done for centuries, right now, there’s a consensus that it’s usually reserved only for wealthy people, or even finding the art is also reserved for someone with a lot of resources so, and by connecting people with the artists directly on a platform that is designed to showcase fine art specifically and not other things like crafts or photography… Easel allows you to get in touch with artists directly and commission a piece that’s specific to you. So, instead of a print of something you like or maybe kind of like or finding an artist you really like except there’s this tiny thing was changed, we give customers access to in a way be involved in the creation of their art but also giving the artist full reign on what the customer wants.
Sahand: From a purely product standpoint. No other competitor has made as easy as we have or as feel-good as we have to commission somebody. Our whole platform is peppered with messages that help both the artist and the buyer. For the buyer to understand fully what their artist options are if this isn’t exactly what you want you can send them a message. We have really wrapped the commission process and focused on it for so long that we’re both really positive that the process of actually commissioning an artists is not as easy or as accessible on any other platform. Another thing that sets Easel apart is that our pricing structure is free for artists and there’s a small percentage fee, so every time they get a commission we take a small fee whereas a lot of other competitors charge their artists or if they want their art to be a certain way or they charge them just to have them on the site… It’s kind of similar to Instagram and every time Instagram updates everyone’s profile and feed it looks better with the new features. Easel is kind of just like that, everyone just has an essentially free artist website that, with our hard work, has the top of the line SCO and comes upgraded on Google, works great on mobile and allows them to edit however they want all for just free, which is something the others can’t say, other competitors don’t offer that.
You both moved away from Laguna Niguel, your hometown with Sahand going to New York and Negah, Berkeley but now you’re both back home in the OC trying to establish yourself around Southern California, why did you think it would be better for Easel to move back home?
Negah: I was actually really happy to be in San Francisco but the thought of creating something that could impact people was such a real pull that we talked about it and then months later we said “let’s do this”. There was no second guessing until a couple of months later I realised while I was looking back that “Woah! I actually just quit and moved to follow an idea that I had!”. I know that there’s a lot less stability in that, but I’m aware of that and in trying to do this there are days when I think all my friends have stable careers and stable incomes and stable working hours and I am over here and I have to figure out what we’re going to do. When we’re going to do it and how we’re going to do it. Knowing that it may fail and that we may have to do it again. Otherwise,there have been super highs but there have also been times when I’m thinking “why did I make my life harder” and the answer is always there that this is something that will actually be helping people so why wouldn’t I be doing it. Moving back has been an adjustment because it’s no longer a metropolitan city, but it’s been totally worth it and you can’t complain about the weather here.
Sahand: I moved right back to my parent’s house. I mean, I liked where I was working but I just needed more. When I worked at Conde Nast I was working a job where I would go home and program for five hours or six hours and wake up on the weekends and work for seven to eight more hours. I was looking for something that would take more time and give me more to do. So, I remember going back and forth with Negah for a month and trying to think of an idea, talking about what would become Easel from a new angle to test ourselves and see if there were any obvious holes in it. So, with the support of my parents, I quit and we moved home, and it’s funny because being someone who went to school at UCI,living 30 minutes from UCI and my parents were so close all through college and so they wanted me to come back home so that has been great thing.
How does your experience in art like photography help you and motivate you for this project?
Sahand: When I was in my senior year at UCI, for two to three weeks I used to work on my senior design project and my Computer Science classes but then I would reach a point where I would get really bored and would feel the need to take pictures and interact with people who were more artistic for two to three weeks. Then, when I got bored of taking pictures I used to go back to Computer Science and this cycle honestly continued for the whole year. Even later, when I got hired at Conde Nast I really thought this would be the perfect life long career I could take because I would be around writers, photographers and artists and I’ll be supporting them through software. There were plenty of days at UCI, I hate to admit when I was in class and should’ve been paying attention I was instead trying impress my friends by redesigning the website for some fashion brand or working for a portfolio. So, my artistic tastes and technical abilities have always been getting less ameteur but at different speeds and never really tied together. So, working at Conde Nast was fantastic for me technically, and I learned a lot of software tricks and gained a lot of experience that directly made Easel possible but I really wasn’t exposed to anything artistic those were conversations reserved for people who were experts in their fields. So, Easel was the opportunity to quite honestly work with design mockups that literally had art on the page. To me, Easel was the first actual opportunity to use software and design in all of its several components.
What’s your elevator pitch for Easel?
Negah: Easel is a digital platform where you can connect with artists and discover what type artists speak to you and have an original piece made specifically for you, and giving you access to artists all across the country while making commissioning safe and easy and allowing it to be less intimidating.
Sahand: Easel is great because it’s safe to buy art, we’re not like the anonymous online buyer’s sale, we take the buyer’s money directly and hold it in escrow while they work on the artwork and then if the buyer and the artist can’t come to an agreement then we take care of both of them and you don’t lose the money that you put in.
Do you have any advice for an audience specific to UCI?
Sahand: Especially for an audience at UCI, and a Computer Science audience, a little nitty gritty but something like Easel is possible today because of a lot of advancements. Easel’s infrastructure is not particularly different from that of AirBNB’s or Netflix’s in very big ways. You could imagine that AirBNB or Netflix are larger and more complicated deployments of what Easel is but it’s just larger in scale not complexity. Specifically, Amazon web services makes Easel possible because it’s a stable service and I don’t have to learn a lot of new things to deploy on Amazon. We handle cash and actually down the line handle other currencies and all of that’s because of a company named Stripe. A lot of our work was in integrating with Stripe but we didn’t create legal commissions or a bunch of crazy things to be able to handle money. There’s some services out there that make starting a company easy, that are really safe and are really understandable from a development point of view. It is possible to stand up a software infrastructure that is really impressive with a lot of new tools out there that make it easy.
How do you think the knowledge you gained at UCI or elsewhere made you shift your focus to Easel and stay motivated about it?
Sahand: Absolutely. One hundred percent. There’s a group of professors in the UCI Computer Science department that I think are particularly special, in that, just the age that a lot of them are at means that when they were college students, colleges were first receiving large computers. The professors at the Computer Science department are, if I can rattle some names out, Dr. Kay, Richard Pattis, Andre van der Hock, Bill Tomlinson and more. These were professors who thought computers were cool when they were in college, interested with a passion about how cool computers are, they don’t really take computers for granted, like a younger person might. There’s a lot of stuff, technical stuff that I learned at UCI after the core level of how do you write functions that are safe? Why do you write a function at all, or how you name your programs or how you organize your profile, just a lot of technical knowledge. Even at Conde Nast I remember this time we were working on this app where we were supposed to sort names and at some point you would search through the names of a bunch of hotels and you would want the one that is most relevant up top. My coworkers were thinking of writing a new algorithm or figuring out patchy ways to do it and I remembered a class at UCI in which we had learned about an algorithm that sorts words based on the first letter and then does it even incrementally so after that. I was able to Google that, I looked at a UCI lecture pdf, then I found an open-source implementung of github and we used this algorithm that solved our problem and was invented in the 60s and that is exactly what we needed, and if we would have tried to implement it would have been far worse and we would have bugs and it would not be that good of an implementation. Now, that moment I completely owe to UCI. Other things that did not come from UCI are the things I think developers learn with actually interfacing with other sources. For example Stripe, it was great when we started using it on Easel because it has really
great error messages… I was really inspired by that level of control over their APIs and I’ve tried to use in Easel’s API so those are the kind of skills I learned by developing my own services, but the really down and dirty software developing,and code writing skills and appreciation came from UCI. I count my blessings all the time for going through that program because even software has just given me the ability to do something I love today.
We’re honored to learn more about the success of past students, and are more than happy to shine a light on their work in order to encourage present students to keep up the hard work.