weird commerce

Weird Commerce: DNA11, Uniquely Personal Artistic Portraits From Chromosomes

Greatness may come from within — and so does personal, unique artwork.

DNA11 is an 11-year-old company that will create a “batch of one” portait: hyper-personalized art based off of your own chromosomes, thanks to a quick cheek swab.

“Just like a snowflake, all DNA portraits look essentially the same, but no two are alike,” said Adrian Salamunovic, a cofounder of DNA 11. “Each portrait is that unique.”

Back in 2005, Salamunovic, a web consultant, started DNA11 with his childhood best buddy, Nazim Ahmed, who was working for a biotech company. “We didn’t intend to build a multimillion-dollar eCommerce company. We just had a niche idea.”

Recalling the inspiring business idea’s founding night, Salamunovic said the two friends were sitting around looking at magnified DNA images that Ahmed had been working on for his full-time job. Intrigued, Salamunovic wanted to know what his own DNA looked like up close.

“I asked [Ahmed], ‘What do you need? Hair? Blood?’ He said, ‘No, just a cheek swab.’” And, with the help of a Q-tip and a plastic bag, Salamunovic said that, a few weeks later, Ahmed showed him a tiny black-and-white image. The two decided to start with an art piece exhibit, to which word started to take off — still just as an idea rather than a business.

“People started saying, ‘I want one, too!’ and asking, ‘Can you make me one?’ and we started preselling,” said Salamunovic, quickly adding that this was all before Kickstarter. “The lesson is to create something that you’d be your own first customer. Second, show it to a lot of people. Get a lot of people’s feedback. That’s what we did as soon as we saw market validation and that we were onto something.”

The “11” part of the brand’s name represents two chromosones, one and one. “I was just sketching out the word DNA, and I thought we should just use two chromosones and make it 11,” said Salamunovic.

Fully bootstrapped with credit cards at the time, the team built a website, added PayPal and the concept grew from there. Customers start by pre-ordering their art piece — prices are based on the size of the piece and range from $200 to $650 for a single person’s DNA art, but more if multiple persons are included. DNA11 sends an art kit that includes a cheek swab, which is then sent back and the art piece is developed.

DNA11 has a 100 percent money-back guarantee, although the company said they’ve seen less than 1 percent of the pieces returned. “We have had a frictionless return policy, and we’ve had that from the beginning. Very few people have used the return policy, and I think our policy is one of the reasons why we’ve had success.”

While the company won’t disclose specific numbers, Salamunovic said DNA11 produces more than 10,000 pieces per year. And now, the company has broadened the offering into fingerprints and lip kisses.

“From an eCommerce perspective, this is a complex, multi-stage, ‘batch of one’ company. It’s also hyper-personalization, as this is the most personalized product you can buy, and it’s a complex sales cycle,” said Salamunovic. “We started off with a big challenge of being a very niche product, with very high margins, which is a good thing. But we were very, very focused. We did one thing, and we did it very, very well.”

The brand now has its own lab and technician and leveraged into a larger market with various photography mediums. From DNA11, the pair of friends launched WorkshopX, which became the parent company that also oversees wall art-related CanvasPop and Crated, and GIF platform PopKey.

While DNA11 generated more than $1 million in its first year — which Salamunovic said it partly due to word of mouth and media exposure on CNBC, HGTV, the “Today” show and even an episode of “CSI: NY” — the company had some unique startup frustrations.

“One big thing was getting copied and focusing on the copycats,” said Salamunovic. “We needed to focus on being great and not get distracted by people who copy us.”

But that copying, which is ironic given the unique, individualized product, is something that is becoming what people want: individual and personalized products.

“The future of commerce is the ‘batch of one,’ which means people are ordering hyper-personlized products,” said Salamunovic. “It’s a complex process. Whether it’s Dominos Pizza or Nike ID shoes, I think we’ll see more personalized products — as opposed to mass production.”

While the “batch of one” model may be costly, in the long run, it could prove to be uniquely and artfully lucrative.


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