I came up with the idea in 2003, noodled around with it in the back of my head until I thought I had the rough framework of something that would work, and presented the idea to Jennie, to see if she thought it was worth pursuing. She loved it. The other people I tentatively talked about it to said: o.O and !!!! and Jennie started on a site. We immediately attracted some amazing talent, and we shortly had a forum up, and a site built around greymatter - a pre-wordpress blogging software package. We opened in February of 2004; Jennie did a big portion of the coding, and I did all the contracts and customer service and artist wrangling. Customers were enthused by the service, and it wasn't long at all before we added the submitted description project and customization options. I honestly expected the $5 sketches to be the driving force of the site, but to my surprise, customers opened their wallets for the $50+ beauties that were available, and happily paid up into the several hundreds of dollars. Some characters had thousands in total spent on them, and artists were enthusiastic and well-rewarded for supplying work.
The site totally overwhelmed the software within about a year, and we set about to rebuild it, better and stronger than before (complete with four million dollar man music...). Alas, about this time, the primary fantasy art shop software (which had also been built around greymatter) outgrew its code, and went through a failure cascade that got my hosting account suspended for hogging resources. It took precedence. With... one thing and another that we are going to gloss over... the site was not fixed. And not fixed. And NOT fixed. The business, at this time, was my only source of income, and a string of people who said they would take care of it Right Now, Did Not. This was the point at which I realized I would need to learn to program myself. I had been doing some basic stuff - little more than html cut'n'paste and 'see what happens' with .cgi and .php. I ended up paying about $2000 to get the site to where it is today, and my total downtimes added up to... mm... about 6 months of a complete freeze, with more than an additional year limping along with half-finished, labor-intensive, error-prone platforms, I think. These delays, naturally, were a big impediment to the momentum to the project, and honestly gave me a LOT of teeth-grinding baggage.
Despite that, it steamed along quite respectively, with regular general adoptions, lively submitted descriptions, active banks of artists, and generally steady sales. It never quite recovered to that same early level of enthusiasm and promise, but has still managed to hum along nicely. Several of our artists have gone on to remarkable personal achievements, and while I know I can't take much credit for that, I still like to think I played some small role in building their skills and confidence, while actively rewarding their efforts.
Overall Feelings about the Project
I love this project. I am still quite proud of the concept, and feel like the site has (finally!) gotten close to the vision I had - even exceeded it in places! It hasn't been a runaway success, and there is some emotional abandonment baggage that has been sort of eating away at my brain. Most Internet-only businesses could not survive 18 months+ of crippled website - that's almost 1/3 of the time the project has been up! This one has survived, and that says a lot. It continues to give a handful of active artists good pocket money, and even pays some major bills for a few of them.
Cold Hard Cash and Time Evaluation
This project asks very little of me, anymore. I have to check once a day to approve any new work, which can be done with two clicks, and approve adoptions when payment is received (another two clicks) and print the portrait (for standard adoptions) and pay the artist (easily managed through the lilypad, now). I can program All By Myself, now, if I want to add improvements, but it doesn't **require** any, and I've been able to fix any problems that come up with relative ease.
I set up the payment structure thoughtfully from the very beginning, and it's fair - I don't make a ton on artwork that's not my own, but I DO make enough to make my time investment worthwhile, and I also have the opportunity to sell my own work as one of the artists - which is very worthwhile indeed.
Oh, don't think that improvements couldn't be made - there are several that I'd love to pursue: the ability to share wishlists, and to show wishlist counts, more peer review interactivity, more forum activity for artists (which is more a personal activity push than a coding investment), and the avatar adoption option that is already half-built. I have been toying since the very, very beginning with the idea of approaching established gaming platforms for licensing rights to legitimately offer things like WOW portraits and Star Wars specific races and creatures (and enter partnerships with those platforms for more exposure), and the very basic framework for making that happen is actually in place, should I have the guts to actively try.
But none of these improvements are necessary for its current forward motion, which is very nice indeed.
Portrait Adoption is safe from the executioner today. It is worth ramping up again, even - it's time to let go of my frustration and baggage and actively pursue this in earnest. The momentum we had at the beginning was tremendous and encouraging, and the whole concept has serious merit. There is so much potential in this project it's somewhat staggering, and I've under-utilized it because I've been so afraid of further platform failure. It's time to let go of the negative here and let this project reach the heights that it can.