Asking hard questions to turn a business problem into software for art appraisals

Fine art gallery and services provider Hiro Fine Art was a venture between partners Michael Smith and Robert Snell. Art and antique appraisal services were their biggest source of revenue, but the act of creating them was slow, painful, and laborious.

The end product of an appraisal is a document that values an item based on many different factors per item such as age, condition, and provenance. Robert, Hiro’s licensed appraiser, would use Microsoft Word to evaluate items for appraisal. Their jobs were usually on the scale of entire estates or university collections, which meant Robert managed hundreds if not thousands of items in a single Word document. An appraisal for a single item might take Robert half an hour, but a 300-item job could take weeks.

Conversation in an art gallery

v1: Runaway features and bugs with their original partner

Michael, being well-versed in ecommerce and digital marketing, knew the answer to, as he put it, “Robert’s excruciating struggle,” was software. And being a serial entrepreneur, he knew that if they solved their own problem, others in the appraisal industry would be interested in the solution too. They envisioned a product that would generate elegant-looking appraisals quickly and efficiently called Appraisal Soft. In its fullest form, it wouldn’t just be an appraisal tool, but a client-facing, subscription-based platform that worked for additional categories beyond fine art.

Michael and Robert enlisted a friend to build them a proof of concept, who did so using the design web tool Canva. After successfully executing a few appraisals with their Canva prototype, they began looking for a partner for custom development. They found one, but the company didn’t ask many questions, and as development dragged on, the list of both features and bugs kept growing. After nine months of timelines and expectations not being met, Michael and Robert decided to pull the plug with their original partner.

Two coworkers problem solving in an art office

v2: Prioritizing and asking hard questions with Cloudburst

Michael and Robert could tell from the first meeting that Cloudburst was the partner they needed to save their vision. Says Michael, “They asked hard questions to back us up to a realistic starting place and then drilled into the why and how of each feature to help us establish an order of priority for their development. It was refreshing and built trust right away. They took a vested interest in the software and understanding it.”

For around a third of the dollar amount that Hiro paid the other agency, Cloudburst developed a basic solution that got Robert off of Word. Paring down the vision was difficult for Michael, but “Cloudburst was a mentor when it came to building the software’s foundation, something we could pilot, get feedback on, and then add on to more cost effectively two, three, four, years from now.” The web app automatically generated appraisals based on pre-populated fields Robert would fill in for each item so he’d no longer have to format each appraisal himself.

Building for scale and exit

From there, Cloudburst helped Michael and Robert think through the usage, feature, and pricing tiers that would make Appraisal Soft the subscription-based software for appraisers that Michael had envisioned. To Michael’s pleasant surprise, he found that Cloudburst had been thinking about the future from day one. “With the way they built things into the backend, by the time we’d ask for it, they’d say, ‘We’ve already built that, we just need to turn it on.’”

Eventually, Michael and Robert decided to sell Appraisal Soft to be able to focus on other ventures, adding Appraisal Soft to the list of other businesses Michael has sold over his career as an entrepreneur. Creating an elegant, easy to use piece of software for appraisers that shortened the amount of time they needed to do an appraisal—and having fun along the way—was to them, the ultimate success.

Michael says of the overall experience of working with Cloudburst to build and sell Appraisal Soft, “To this day I’m floored at how much they knew about the software—they knew it better than I did. It felt like we had another business partner, like we were building with somebody who actually wanted to see the software be successful.”