Max Slavkin and Aaron Perry-Zucker Want You to
In the summer of 2008, the childhood friends launched a website called Design For Obama. Part of their inspiration was the now-iconic HOPE poster, a red, beige, and blue stylized stencil portrait of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, created by contemporary artist and activist Shepard Fairey. The purpose of the website was to give artists a place to contribute art in a meaningful way, to support Obama's run for the Oval Office. It was fun. And it took off.
Tons of artists contributed work to the platform, and visitors to the site downloaded art for free, turning it into collateral that soon started showing up at Obama rallies all over the country. The New York Times paid attention. So did Spike Lee, who helped them create a coffee table book to be published by Taschen.
Max and Aaron knew they were onto something, and Creative Action Network was born to rally artists around more causes. And to sell stuff. Lots of stuff. Cause-driven art started showing up on t-shirts, posters, smartphone cases, and candles, with sales proceeds going back to the artists and to non-profit partners.
After incorporating, CAN went five years before seeking significant funding to grow the business. In 2018 they decided to look for funds and reached out to Upstart Co-Lab, who introduced them to a German impact investor called Purpose Capital.
But before exploring impact investors, the pair tried to secure venture capital funding. While unsuccessful in finding a deal, they learned a lesson: that the VC construct, with its power and privilege, seemed antithetical to the fabric of an artistic community intent on creating an opportunity for grassroots artists to make a living through creative expression of a cause.
And the folks at CAN are not what you might expect to see in a Silicon Valley boardroom. They don't offer a technology platform. They eat granola. They talk about their feelings. And when you start a meeting with a wealthy investor by saying, "Hi, I'm an artist!", it can create what Max calls "a deficit of legitimacy."
Not that VC investors haven't shown interest. Some have looked at CAN and recognized an enterprise capable of generating millions. They just didn't always see a path to the mighty initial public offering.
Still, CAN's commitment to maintaining a B Corporation certification sends a message to investors that this is proper commerce for cause, grounded in the discipline and rigor needed to create a better world and to turn a profit.
With support from the likes of Purpose Capital and their decidedly anti-VC model of steward ownership, CAN has expanded its business while maintaining its independence and values. The results? CAN has returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to artists and non-profit partners more quickly than anyone could have expected. And their momentum is strong.
It's real money. With a hopeful face.