By Kate Rouse DuHadway
USU student and entrepreneur Tyler Tolson said he’s been told his whole life not to try to make a living with art. This fall, he launched Denik, a business aimed not only at doing some good in the world, but proving all of those naysayers wrong.
“Really the idea stemmed from the negative stereotype of ‘starving artists,’” Tolson said. “When I was little and some of the other guys (involved in the company) were little, we would always get told, ‘Why would you want to do anything with art? You’ll never do anything – you’ll be a starving artist.’ And so, really, Denik came from that – and we said we want to help people see that art and artists can change the world.”
Since September, Denik has been changing the world one notebook at a time. The for-profit business with a social mission contracts with artists from around the globe, printing their work on notebooks that will then be sold mainly at college bookstores, Tolson said. The artists receive 5 percent from the sale of each book as compensation, which he said is more than the industry standard of 2 to 3 percent. Ten to 15 percent of the price – at least $1 per notebook sold – goes toward building schools in Mali, and eventually all over the world.
Stamped with the slogan “these books build schools,” the fledgling company has sold some 800 notebooks in a little over four months, Tolson said. And that’s by word of mouth only. Denik books are available only online for now, but Tolson hopes to be selling them in campus bookstores nationwide by the end of this month. He said the USU bookstore has expressed interest in carrying the notebooks as well.
Tolson said the idea for the business is also relatively new – it formed into something concrete just last summer. “It was a bunch of different ideas that really just came together and formed into one,” he said. “It’s been really organic, it’s just been growing and changing and improving.”
Tolson said he and a friend had been thinking about starting a publishing company with a social mission, in which every book purchased would provide a book for someone in need somewhere in the world. He and some friends also toyed with the concept of designing nerd-inspired figurines – a spin-off of the “Homies” figurines – and to use the profits from that company to fund charitable “nerdprojects.”
“We started doing sketches for nerds and things, started putting together some concept art, and then people were more interested in the artwork than in the idea,” Tolson said. “So we were like, ‘Well, what can we do with this artwork?’ And that’s where those two ideas kind of came together. And then, yeah, it just kept going.”
Tolson found seven other team members, Tyler Andrews, McKay Felt, Shawn Koga, James Putnam, Jake Frisby, Chris Reese and Dave Grange, to help him make the idea a reality. He also found a charity to support: Mali Rising, a nonprofit foundation that builds schools in Mali, where executive director and former Aggie Yeah Samake lives.
Tolson said Mali Rising takes care of all the technical and legal considerations of building a school – obtaining land, constructing the school, working with the government and hiring teachers – while Denik contributes funds to build the schools from its profits. Tolson said with the success he’s seen so far, he hopes to travel to Mali this summer, to start construction on the first school funded by Denik.
Besides building schools, Tolson said his company remains committed to promoting artists. Each notebook displays a unique work, either something the artist produced a while ago, or something made specifically for Denik, on its front cover. On the inside cover, the name and website of the artist is displayed so people can find more of the artist’s work.
While Denik products feature artists from around the world, much of the work currently for sale at http://denik.bigcartel.com/ is produced by students at USU, including some of Tolson’s own work, he said. When the company releases its new product line sometime this week, one of the featured artists will include national slam poetry champion and trained artist Anis Mojgani. Most of the notebooks feature an indie, street art or underground style, “but that’s not the only art that works,” Tolson said. “We’re up for whatever.”
Soon, when Denik releases a new, more interactive version of its website, customers will be able to vote on their favorite submitted art and be able to see the pieces with the highest number of votes get printed, “kind of like a Threadless deal,” Tolson said.
A free-lance graphic designer and mural artist, Tolson said he’s always had a passion for art. “For me, art has just always been a way of being me,” he said. “Whether I’m drawing, painting, or creating some other type of idea, it’s all an art; it’s all creativity. I see it even in words, in writing, in poetry. Everything has to do with art in some form. And so to be able to have a social mission that incorporates art to make a difference is really, really exciting – it’s really invigorating.”
Tolson’s dislike for coloring in the lines, however, may be what also makes him a good entrepreneur. “I just encourage anybody, if you have an idea or want to do something – do it,” Tolson said. “We (at Denik) try to live by the quote from Aristotle where he said, ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ And whatever you see your fortune is, … if you want a part of that fortune, be bold, go after it, get it and make it happen. And you can do it while you’re in school too.”