People Profile: Yizan He, Founder and CEO, ARTiSTORY
The global licensing community is powered by an incredible group of professionals whose diverse backgrounds and creative energy drive innovation and excellence. Each week we’re profiling one of these professionals in this ongoing series developed in partnership with MyMediaBox.
How did you get into licensing (or how did licensing find YOU😊)?
I started my first licensing business in a MacDonald’s restaurant in Singapore in 2003 and eventually wrapped the company up because of a vacuum cleaner!
At the age of 26, I was determined to become an entrepreneur and convinced my university buddy Christopher Lim to join me. I remember it was a summer day. Chris and I sat down in a MacDonald’s flagship restaurant to brainstorm what we wanted to do. We started to ask ourselves these questions: Why is IP is one of the most under-utilized assets in the world? There are tens of millions of patents globally, but less than 2% are commercialized and the rest are sitting in filing cabinets gathering dust. Why are so many great artworks (copyrights) but few are visible to the global audience? Why so many great brands (trademarks) are visible in limited markets but not elsewhere?
Off we go. The next day, Chris and I went to Company Registration Office and set up our first licensing company in Singapore – Eivio Pte. Ltd.
Frankly, Chris and I had no idea what licensing was at that moment, but we are convinced that IP is an under-utilized asset, and there must be some ways to unlock the values from IP.
With only passion but no experience, two young fellows started our business with patent licensing, and it turned out to be a bad decision. Even though we signed a few large clients such as Honeywell, patent licensing was not meant for a young start-up. We were forced to wrap up our business after we failed to pull off the patent licensing business; the turning point was some patents related to robot vacuum cleaners (well, that is another story for next time!)
I have always worked in the licensing business in the years following my first venture, including my 5-year tenure at LMCA – a New York-based licensing firm. In 2012, I started Alfilo Brands after returning to Shanghai. With luck and hard work, Alfilo Brands grew rapidly into one of the largest licensing firms in China, with over 100 employees. And in 2021, I started ARTiSTORY as the extension of my dream of building a truly global art and cultural IP licensing powerhouse.
What’s your biggest personal and professional accomplishment?
I am very proud of the unique business model that I developed in 2016, and it has changed the landscape of art and cultural IP licensing.
Museums and cultural organizations own some of the most prized collections of artifacts and art in the world. However, few had developed sizeable licensing operations in the past.
The business model that I developed is essentially a master licensing model plus “artifacts to merchandise” design capabilities. We start by securing master licenses with some of the world’s top museums. Then our research editors and creative designers develop various on-trend themes and design assets that are inspired by the artifacts. Please take a look at our 2022 Global Art and Cultural IP Themes that we just launched in Sept 2021. With the design assets approved by the museums, we then license the themes and design assets to various global brands and retailers such as Amazon Kindle, P&G, and Nestle. We also develop merchandise by tapping into the design assets, and we operate online and pop-up stores for the museum partners in our market.
This unique business model and “artifacts to merchandise” design capabilities have been instrumental to our business as we launched licensing and retail programs for the British Museum (in 2016), National Gallery, UK (in 2017), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2017), and the MET in 2018. All of these programs are in China. In the process, we generated substantial revenue for our museum partners with hundreds of high-profile licensing programs for the museum with global brands and retailers. We developed thousands of pieces of licensed merchandise and launched multiple museum stores, both online and pop-up. In the process, we engaged tens of millions of Chinese audiences who may not have the opportunity to visit the museums in person.
As Alfilo Brands is all about the Chinese market, my new company ARTiSTORY is taking the business to the global stage. We will be working closely with our museum partners including the National Gallery, UK, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Palace Museum, Dunhuang, and the Brooklyn Museum to develop a global licensing program for them.
ARTiSTORY’s global creative team presented the themes and artwork for 2022 and beyond just a few days ago. Prints and patterns inspired by the world’s great art masters and art movements included the ukiyo-e prints by the master of woodblock printing, Hokusai; the exquisite brushwork of Chinese landscape paintings; the aura of impressionist paintings; Mucha’s beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations; and the vibrant modernist artists of the Jazz Age.
Putting work aside, during my leisure time, I’ve tried some fun activities such as climbing the Siguniang Mountain in Sichuan province, China (5276 meters or 16000 feet), scuba diving in the tropical seas in Malaysia, and learning to surf with my 10-year-old boy on the North Shore of Hawaii.
What are the most significant trends or changes that you’ve seen in the business in recent years?
The trend is that more museums and cultural organizations are now starting their licensing programs both domestically and abroad.
What keeps you up at night? What’s your biggest challenge these days?
In the licensing business, people are our core asset. How to build a truly global team is a key challenge these days and ARTiSTORY is growing rapidly. Finding and attracting talent is the first step and I am glad that our vision and track record have attracted many talented people to join us. We have a very talented global team with offices in Barcelona, London, Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore, and a new office in Boston.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received? OR What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote hangs on the wall in our office and showroom in Shanghai. It is an old native American proverb that reads “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” In the art and cultural IP licensing business, it is vital for us to tell an authentic story about the artifact or artwork that inspired the licensed merchandise in the first place.
What is your favorite licensing deal of all time? (doesn’t have to be one that was signed by you)
My favorite licensing deal that I personally signed is the first licensing program that we executed for the British Museum in China with an upscale homeware retailer – The Beast Shop back in 2016. The licensed products are a capsule collection of silk sleepwear, inspired by Hokusai wood prints at the British Museum. Via thoughtfully prepared hangtags, shoppers are delighted to learn more about the landscapes, courtesans, actors, warriors, and monsters depicted in ukiyo-e, and why, according to a senior Japanese art specialist at Christie’s, Anastasia von Seibold, ‘Hokusai belongs in the pantheon of all-time great artists.’ The licensed products sold out within days of its launch. The Beast Shop was very impressed with the results, and since then, they have worked with us on multiple products and multiple museums, including the V&A as well.
The last licensed product I bought was…
I am always fascinated by licensed products that are related to art and culture. The most recent one that I bought is a box of hand-made mooncakes inspired by Dunhuang culture – a cultural crossroad dating back one thousand years ago. The designs of the mooncakes reflect the breathtaking artwork of the Mogao Caves on the Silk Road.
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