It began like many good ideas do – idling around the office printer. Ottawa-born-and-bred whiz kids and lifelong best friends Adrian Salamunovic and Nazim Ahmed (Naz for short) had already come up with one genius multi-million dollar business idea. And while waiting for a picture to emerge from a printer from the home office of their first business, they came up with a second.
Their first great idea was DNA 11. Founded in 2005, DNA 11 was personalized art at its finest. With DNA technology reaching its zenith, Adrian and Naz came up with the idea to turn photographs of a human being’s most personal trademark – our DNA sequence – into high art.
(The two were uniquely qualified to produce bioengineering art. Naz holds a degree in Molecular Genetics from the University of Western Ontario and worked for a California company specializing in biological imaging. Adrian had a decade of business technology marketing and design experience behind him.)
To add some sparkle, Naz and Adrian enhanced the DNA pictures with colour and filter effects and printed them on canvas, glass and carpets. The results were stunning. One New York client printed his DNA and that of his partner onto a glass screen waterfall situated in the penthouse patio overlooking the midtown Manhattan skyline. When the sun shone through the glass, it sent an array of coloured DNA light dots around the balcony and beyond. The sheer beauty and possibility of DNA’s bio-art made it destined to become a hit. DNA art also proved popular with dog owners, wishing to preserve memories of their much loved pooches. “When Nazim and I started this company we never imagined we would sequence the DNA of a dead Chihuahua,” quips Adrian. (Since then, the pair has added the DNA of “very expensive race horses” and a Bengal tiger to their non-human DNA list.) Clearly with customers sending online requests for DNA 11 art from as far away as Afghanistan, the idea had struck a nerve. And that nerve, to put it simply, was love.
“It’s about emotion,” explains Naz. “DNA art inspires a positive emotional reaction. For a person to have the DNA of their loved one, spouse or children or to have the whole family on a DNA portrait is about love.”
Soon Naz and Adrian came up with a second application for their unique print product. While DNA 11 captured the essence of a person, CanvasPop distilled the essence of a moment. Founded in 2007, CanvasPop turns photographs, drawings or other images into fine art. The sunset at the cottage, a smile on a child’s face and the antics of a much-loved pet become immortalized through CanvasPop technology.
CanvasPop came to be while Naz and Adrian were cruising around the printer. A friend had asked the pair if their state-of-the-art printer could print some family photos onto canvas. And from there, CanvasPop was on its way to becoming a reality. CanvasPop now serves all of the United States and Canada, while DNA 11 sells in over 52 countries worldwide. Both companies now operate from the same Canadian headquarters in Ottawa’s Hintonburg/Westboro area. The site includes a DNA lab and a printing and shipping facility. A Las Vegas site serves as U.S. headquarters for both companies and includes a 22,000-foot production facility. A third printing partner is located in the U.S. Both companies employ 45 full-time staff – more during the Christmas season. All employees except for the in-house laboratory manager work for both companies. Their success has been dizzying. “One word to sum up the last seven years is passion,” Naz enthuses. Adrian reveals that the secret to success is to “do what you are passionate about; if you do that, you will eventually succeed.”
Apart from passion, sheer elbow grease that secured their success. Or as Naz puts it: “We were 100 per cent committed to the vision.” This meant maxing out credit cards and “getting down to our last penny” and working day and night in Adrian’s apartment in the ByWard Market making their idea work. For months, Adrian and Naz hovered over computers, phones and printers so they could be as available as possible to their customers. For a couple of young guys in their twenties, resisting outside temptation wasn’t always easy. “We could hear people outside in the middle of summer partying and having fun and we were inside working,” says Adrian. “There is no such thing as an overnight success.”
So what prompted the original idea for DNA 11? The idea came about while doing what best friends do best – just hanging out. As Adrian explains it, “Being best friends, we spent a lot of time together. We were always looking for something we could both do that was interesting.” One evening at Nazim’s apartment, Adrian looked at a brochure of the bio-tech company for which Nazim worked. Inside were DNA pictures produced by a science lab. “Not being a scientist, I looked at the pictures from the perspective that they were just some cool-looking pieces of art,” Adrian recalls. The eureka moment came when they decided to take their own DNA samples just to see what they looked like. The pair took cheek swabs. Two weeks later, they received images of their DNA. “It was the first time I’d seen what my own DNA looked like and I thought it would look cool enlarged,” said Adrian. It was one of those moments of serendipity that turned into marketing gold. After running the idea past friends and family, the pair decided to commercialize the concept. They poured their all their sweat equity into this idea, not knowing if it would work. “It didn’t seem like anyone in the mainstream knew about DNA art,” said Nazim. “Even though we self funded the website to the tune of millions of dollars, there was nothing more challenging than selling art made of DNA to someone who has never met you.”
However, with their complementary talents (Adrian is the marketing guy and Nazim the process and detail-oriented guy) and expertise they were well equipped for the challenge. “To succeed as business partners,” according to Nazim, “you also need to have the same amount of drive to be pushing each other and to have an equal amount of passion to grow whatever you are building.”
Another secret to their success was their desire to go big or go home. “We always had the idea of going big from the start.” Avid world travelers, the pair speak seven languages between them, including Spanish, French, English and Italian. Their web site is available in four languages – German, Spanish, French and English. (Staff at the DNA 11 call centre can also provide customer service in a multitude of languages.) By the end of 2005, just several months after the initial idea for DNA 11 was hatched, Naz and Adrian were receiving a steady stream of customers.
But what really made DNA 11 take off was coverage in USA Today. The famous daily newspaper with the widest circulation in the U.S. featured an article on DNA 11. Predictably, sales soared. “The article appeared that morning and then sales just poured into our inbox,’’ Naz says. “It’s been nothing but growth ever since.” This initial exposure was followed by other forays into North American media. DNA 11 and CanvasPop were featured in Wired and Playboy. In 2011, DNA 11 Inc artwork appeared on the hit television series CSI: NY (Crime Scene Investigation: New York). The DNA sequence used in the artwork was decoded and used to track down a killer on the loose.
For a homegrown Ottawa business story, the future is looking stellar. But it’s set to be even brighter still. As of March 2012, customers can send their digital images from Instagram and FaceBook directly to CanvasPop and DNA 11. The business potential of this new move is huge. As of February 2012, Facebook had more than 845 million active users. Instagram, a free photo-sharing program launched in October 2010, allows users to take a photo, apply a digital filter to it and share it on social networking services including Facebook. On April 12, 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram and its 13 employees for $1 billion in cash and stock. Instagram’s success story has inspired both Naz and Adrian. “One of the cool aspects of the operation of CanvasPop has been to interface with Instagram,” Adrian sums up.
With its most recent high-technology hook-up with two of the world’s largest high-tech phenomena, CanvasPop’s future is looking limitless.