bluethumb is Australia’s largest art marketplace, connecting art lovers, collectors and interior designers with emerging and established local artists.

Co-founded in 2011 by Ed Hartley and his brother George Hartley, bluethumb is now a major player in the online art space.

Recently recognised as one of Inside Small Business's Top 50 Business Leaders, we asked Ed how long it took to get bluethumb established and the benefits of being an on-line only enterprise.

Take us back to the beginning. Where did the idea come from and what capital did you have?

When I came back from working in the Middle East I decided it was time to do something that really mattered. I'd grown up in an artistic household, seen artists struggle to make a living despite being crazy talented and realised if the rest of the world was moving online, then so too must art. We had almost no capital, and after a modest initial investment built everything ourselves with whatever income we made selling art.

How long did it take before you were confident you could make bluethumb a success?

We were bootstrapped for four years, and three-and-a-half years in I just decided to quit work and go for it. We were lucky enough to find fantastic investors quickly (this is unusual) and from there, with some capital, we grew exponentially. It was then we realised how big it could grow and the contribution we could make to the Australian art industry.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you began?

The importance of building relationships and over-servicing customers can’t be underestimated. It will all pay off in the long run, so even if you’re busy, invest in this. Hire great people when you find them, even if you’re not in the market. Great people build your business for you and are the best investment you can make

Why did you choose to go online only?

Online is the only way to have the breadth of artists and collectors to build an art marketplace that is scalable and valuable to its members.

What sets bluethumb apart?

bluethumb was founded in service of Australian artists, to empower them to create a sustainable career and, in doing so, give everyday Australians access to amazing original art that is great value. We do this with simple - yet powerful – technology, combined with helpful “old fashioned” service to the people who take part in bluethumb, our artists and collectors.

How do you promote your business?

Every way we can think of and can find the time to do, from big budget marketing campaigns to calling previous buyers. Online this includes things like email newsletters, blogs, SEO, social media and offline art prizes, exhibitions, events, magazine features – the list goes on and continues to grow.

How competitive is your field?

There are a few people attempting to do what we are, a couple of overseas competitors, but in Australia we're pioneering the market of art online. What that means though is no one really knows how big the market is; time will tell. To us it's not about size but being the best and adding true value to those involved.

Fast-forward 10 years – what do you see for bluethumb?

One of - if not the - largest exporter of Australian art and culture.

Finally, tell us about the name. Why bluethumb?

bluethumb comes from the early sketches an artist might make planning a piece, and the inevitable blue ink stains.