In 2019, Yatin Sangwan (BS ’22) launched his custom art startup, Canvasly, while a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Within 12 months, he had grossed more than $2 million in revenue.
“I was always fascinated by the idea of doing everything on your computer, like running a company or building something. I came across a lot of artists on these freelance websites. And I thought, hey, why not? I could get them on board and do something custom, something personalized, instead of selling a single product.”
Canvasly was fully online: customers would send in a photo of themselves, and one of the company’s100 independent artists would draw them in the style of their favorite cartoon, such as the Simpsons or a Disney character. It also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant people were stuck indoors, eager for entertainment and positive distractions. Not only was the advertising model 100% digital, but Yatin was able to test his product during the Christmas holiday season.
“The first sale was $80 and I remember it because I had that image on my phone,” he says. “I remember the family, because they were my first customer. I spent an hour talking to them on email, trying to convince them that we can do this, kind of chasing the customer. They were very happy with the product. We expanded and then I didn’t have to go after individual customers. Customers just wanted to buy from us.”
With no formal business training, Yatin says launching his startup was mostly a process of “trial and error.” Both his parents and a grandparent were doctors in a small hospital in a remote part of North India. “I wasn’t necessarily exposed to entrepreneurship as such, but in hindsight, there were ideas that I could relate to,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by statistics, graphs, and numbers. I love to learn more about other businesses, stocks, and public companies to understand what they’re doing.”
A meeting with Jon Eckhardt, founder of UW–Madison’s Entrepreneurship Science Lab, an associate professor of management and human resources, and the Pyle Bascom Professor in Business Leadership at the Wisconsin School of Business, encouraged Yatin to enroll in Jon’s venture build independent study that focused on acquisition criteria for internet-based companies. Yatin and Jon’s weekly check-ins were a time to explore ideas, discuss steps Yatin was taking with the business, and review his research on similar companies, such as Minted and Etsy that were operating in the custom art space. Jon advised him at critical junctures and reached out to his own extensive network at times when Yatin was unsure of how to approach something he would never done before, such as licensing art from Disney.
“Jon gave me a lot of confidence,” Yatin says. “He gave me the idea that, ‘You know what, I can do this. If someone else is so confident in me, I can probably do it.”
At one point during their study, Yatin, a computer science major, was baffled as to why a company like Etsy would acquire other companies that didn’t necessarily come with competitive levels of technology.
“We got into a conversation on how it is not always about the materialistic value of things,” he says. “It’s also about the people, the staff, the cohesion in the company, that you can take in this company and grow its sectors. So that was really interesting, I never would have thought about it that way. These were some of the ideas Jon opened my mind to.”
As it worked out, Yatin’s company was acquired—by a company recently valued at $750 million— before he even graduated from UW–Madison in May 2022. He received the Alan C. Filley Outstanding Undergraduate Award, an entrepreneurship award named after Al Filley, a WSB professor of management and a founding member of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship.
Based in Madison, Sangwan is currently working on his new startup, a software company called Sleek Polygon that builds applications for e-commerce businesses. He says his approach today is the same as it was with Canvasly: one step at a time. “In the last company, I didn’t start with the idea of selling it,” he says. “So even with this company, I’m not starting with the goal of selling it. I just want to build something and see it work. And then figure out where this can go.”
But Yatin is happy to share his entrepreneurial journey, helping others see what is possible.
“I love talking about my experience. I talk about it all the time. My friends are done with me at this point because I keep repeating the same stories,” he says with a laugh.