Student entrepreneurs: an eye for the bigger picture

How two students launched a successful company on the back of a final-year art project
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Unsure of what career he wanted to pursue when he finished university, Dan Glazer was persuaded by an old school friend, James Burke, to set up a business with him before he'd even graduated. "It was over a takeaway," he laughs.

Neither had seen themselves as entrepreneurs, although they did know they didn't want to climb the corporate ladder. Their concept, a revolutionary means of applying imagery to high quality acrylic, has since been hailed as "the next generation of art" and their business, acrylicize, has gone from strength to strength since its launch in September 2003.

Among the latest commissions of the company - which started out with funding from student loans of £1,500 and now boasts an annual turnover of £500,000 - was for the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium. Glazer, whose title is marketing director, explains, "We worked closely with a team of people at the venue, using the latest materials and experimenting with new levels of 3D layering and colour coding, to showcase the club's exclusive archive photography, as well as doing some other display and branding work."

Other recent big name clients include Moët Hennessy, Veuve Clicquot, Sunseeker, Young & Rubicam and Selfridges.

Burke, who is acrylicize's creative director, was studying for a degree in contemporary arts when the concept was born and he decided to develop it as his final year project. "We knew we were onto a winner when his work was judged as the year's best and, when exhibited in a gallery, it sold very well," says Glazer.

But to get their product to market on a bigger scale involved some very hard grafting, he says. Working from the attic of Glazer's parents' home, they took advantage of every exhibition, art show and market stall they could and fortunately, it wasn't long until it paid off. Renowned artists and collectors began to buy their work, as did celebrities including George Michael. Even more reassuring was the "best product" award from the British Interior Design Association. "It was a major leap forward and we realised we needed to shift our focus from retail to contract work, to outsource production and to get an excellent salesperson on board."

Enter Paul Arad. "I try to do what it says on the tin," says Arad, "and within our first three months together, I compiled a three-year business plan and most importantly, bought in over £20,000 worth of business. These initial sales were key to us securing premises, basic equipment and helped to propel us into the limelight."

Much of acrylicize's work is for corporate spaces. "On average, we'll get commissioned to do about 10 to 15 pieces for a single project, but we get much bigger jobs too," says Glazer. "We've just completed one for a hotel in Croatia, which involved 750 pieces of artwork."

In fact, the global nature of the work has begun to take off, with business having come from New York, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. "We're based in Harrow, Middlesex, but we are aiming to have international offices," he says.

Each project is completely individual, says Glazer, which is why the company's work also appeals to private clients. "We've just done one project for a residential location in Kensington. It was one piece of art work split into three to go above a swimming pool."

The guys at acrylicize recognise that with any contemporary offering, particularly in the art world, there's always a danger of becoming unfashionable overnight. "We're fully aware that in five or 10 years, or even six months' time, the products might not be popular at all," says Glazer. "It's in view of this that we have started positioning ourselves not just as offering a product, but a service. With the Arsenal project, for example, we offered an in-depth art consultation process. We worked with a team of their people, including their sponsors and photographers, and I think this way of working is standing us in really good stead for the future."

The team had to learn about business quickly, says Burke. "We're three guys who came out of university and were forced into a position where we had to make decisions that could make or break the company, with no previous business experience."

He provides the example of the decision to shift from a focus on the retail to the commercial market. "We had to decide whether to stick with our original vision of making thousands of products on lower margins or fewer products on bigger margins. Fortunately, we made the right move."

He adds that working with the likes of Arsenal wasn't easy. "We'd never had dealings with people at the highest levels of organisations. It wasn't easy to come across as professional and dedicated, and we had to adapt very quickly. But we did it and we've learned things along the way so that our business sense is improving all the time."

Acrylicize has a strong foothold in the market, but there are inevitably others jumping on the bandwagon. The trio is not fazed. "When people copy our ideas, it leaves us feeling flattered, rather than concerned and with our growing focus on service we're confident we'll remain at the top," says Glazer.

By no means is he resting on his laurels, however. "When individuals and companies want artworks, I want them to automatically think acrylicze, so we still have a long way to go."