On running a legacy social network, making art more accessible, and why he draws every day.
FORTUNE — Angelo Sotira was 19 years old when he started DeviantArt, a social network for people who enjoy creating and sharing visual artwork. It wasn’t Sotira’s first taste of entrepreneurship — he sold a music company when he was 18 — but he admits that he was at first unprepared for what his newest venture would bring. He forewent college to work on building DeviantArt; 14 years later, the company has 100 employees and its website hosts 30 million artists who upload 100,000 works of art every day.
Running a legacy social network has its challenges, but Sotira has helped his Los Angeles-based company maintain healthy revenues through advertising, premium memberships, and giving users the capability to reproduce their artwork. He credits DeviantArt’s success to the strong community of artists that use the site to share their work with others.
Sotira, 33, spoke with Fortune.
1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?
There are a few people. The first for me are Travis [Kalanick] and Garrett [Camp], who created Uber. I love technologies that make the industry that they’re going into more efficient but also create many wide reaching positive side effects from what they do. When you hear the mayors of various cities saying that D.U.I. rates are dropping because Uber exists, you’re seeing a technology that makes the world a better place.
In addition, from a geeky aspect, I’m also a fan of the work of Evan Williams. With Blogger, Twitter, and now Medium, he’s probably the best network architect that I’ve seen in my field of interest. With the quality of networks that he’s able to produce consistently, he seems to have a formula that is really well understood, and he also improves those networks.
2. Which area of technology excites you most?
The technology sectors that I really enjoy are essentially building networks, especially community networks that can affect the online world and offline world at the same time. I think that’s where the most value is created when leveraging the internet. That’s my thesis for what I admire in technology, making things more efficient and bringing constructive and positive change.
There’s a part of the DeviantArt community that engages in meet activities. We’ve gone on a crowd-surfing world tour where we showed up at some of the biggest cities around the world in 2009 and members of the community came and met us so that we could introduce members of the community to each other. We’re looking forward to going back on the road and doing it again sometime in the future. We’re also looking for ways to bring DeviantArt to mobile and bring that experience to the community so it’s easier to bring the value they’re creating online to the world.
3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
I would first say that research is very important. When you’re young, your mind is open to learning a tremendous amount. I happened to be right at an age when we where we were transitioning to the Internet, and I got to experience the internet in a very raw, early stage format. I had nothing but ambition for it, so I started to feel possessive over it. It was a huge advantage. Folks that want to do that now, should really study, research, and understand the dynamics that are really important to building social and community platforms.
Additionally, you have to think about the experience of a social network whether it be Twitter or Facebook or DeviantArt or what-have-you. You should also think about the lessons of what social networks have succeeded and why, and you should understand the subtleties between networks. You have to understand the industry before you attempt anything.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
My advice came to me at a young age from an advisor at the time. He told me that life is a series of peaks and valleys, and that my job, through all the peaks and valleys, is to try to remain level and be the same person throughout. There have been times in my life where things have gone super well, and there have been times where things are not going as well, but I’ve had to maintain a level balance with the knowledge that things around me are supposed to be moving up and down. It’s how you handle it that matters most.
5. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
My team and I are heavily focused on accessibility in the arts. It’s still extraordinarily inaccessible in today’s world, and the arts don’t have a known method for engagement with mainstream audiences like film does. It’s a big challenge, and I think we known how to do it. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.
6. What challenges are facing your business right now?
One of the biggest challenges is that DeviantArt is a 14-year-old network. There aren’t too many 14-year-old networks that are so vibrant still and growing. I think that one of our challenges in having built a web-based community network is that on the web, you tend to sprawl out a bit and do lots of features, so when you have to transform that product into something that works in mobile and in tablets, you face a really interesting challenge in how to get the same dynamic value translated onto a smaller screen.
Additionally, another challenge is that we have the look and feel of a legacy network, and in looking closely at some of the current design trends, we want to modernize, but we don’t want to offend our audience. We want to do it elegantly.
7. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I think the most important thing I learned is that rules can be bent. I love my school because I was running a successful business while I was there, and even thought I was concerned about it because I was distracted by working late hours, I felt that I had to have a certain kind of structure and grade and show up to certain classes at a certain time, this was very disruptive to when advertisers wanted to call me. By having the right way of explaining the situation and talking to the principal and explaining my case and having the confidence to do that, I learned that no matter how structured an institution you’re a part of might be, it will make exceptions. Learning that rules can be bent has been a valuable asset as an entrepreneur.
8. What is one goal — either personal or professional — that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I’ve been saying this since I was much younger. I feel an enormous responsibility to apply everything my team and I have learned to make the arts substantially more efficient and make the path for artists substantially more clear so that parents can say, “I think it’s really great that you’re going to be an artist.” I don’t want the world to have this view of starving artists and that you’re going to have a hard time if you go down that route. I really think that that’s where my team and I focus incredibly hard, about how to bring about that kind of change. We know that with technology today, in our lifetimes we’ll be able to make the lives of artists easier.
9. What do you do to live a balanced life?
Over the past four years, I’ve learned to draw every day. I view it as meditation and time to reflect. I use it to improve the way that I see the world, and what I mean by that is that I try to increase the intelligence of my perception. I tend to be in my head a lot, and I think most of our human experience comes through our eyes, at least for most of us, and drawing improves the perception of what I see. Drawing makes the world more beautiful. I think it has many positive effects and has made me a calmer, more balanced person. I’m pretty surprised by how different I feel in four years’ time, and I credit that to drawing.
10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?
I collect all change that I organically encounter. So if I’m given change after buying a coffee, I never use the change. I put it in my coin sorter, and I’ve been collecting it ever since I had the means to not need to spend it. When I was younger, I didn’t have much money, and I found that I still needed a budget as a kid to have fun, so I would always collect coins so that I could buy candy or rent a movie or something like that. I still collect my change as almost a ritual. I see it as a way to stay connected with where I come from.
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