In an era where technology is driving the evolution of everything, including art, at an unprecedented pace, artists are in search of platforms where they can not only exist but thrive despite ever-changing algorithms.
One such platform, born amidst the tumultuous backdrop of a global pandemic is HUG, which has shown itself to be a beacon for equal representation and opportunity for all – a platform that provides a platform.
To fully understand the gravity of what HUG is doing for artists in and outside of the Web3 space, we caught up with its co-founders, Randi Zuckerberg and Debbie Soon, and like any story worth hearing we thought it best to start at the beginning.
One Message and One Mission
While HUG may have been formed in 2022, it really started several years earlier as the world faced a global pandemic that would bring forth changes in the lives of nearly everyone on Earth, including Zuckerberg and Soon.
“Many may not know this… but after Facebook and before NFTs, I was a Broadway actress, and then producer,” shared Zuckerberg, adding “Covid shut down many of the shows that I was working on, and that resulted in me immersing myself in NFTs as a way to marry my passions for both arts and technology.”
She further explained “Before I knew it, I ended up becoming a mentor to many digital creators. All of them were struggling with the same thing – feeling challenged by the algorithm, and in general feeling unseen and at times lost on how to scale their artistic business.”
Eager to scale the existing support she was offering to creators, Zuckerberg set out on a search for a co-founder with a vision for creating a “thriving and sustainable ecosystem that would allow artists and art lovers to support each other.”
As fate would have it, Soon was also on that very same search. Having fallen in love with Web3 when navigating a mid-pandemic move from Singapore to LA, she decided to put her background in the finance and start-up sector to the side for a moment and sought out kickstarting a career in the NFT space.
“I put a wish out in the Meta Angels Discord,” she explained, adding “To my surprise, Randi found and responded to my message there one whole week later! We both are passionate about leveling the playing field for anyone to succeed in arts and technology, so this really was a match made in heaven.”
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— HUG 🤗 | Apply for an Artist Profile (@thehugxyz) August 25, 2023
Sharing her side of the story, Zuckerberg explained how Soon was still going by an anon identity when they first met but if you know anything about early Web3, that was often seen as a plus! “We got onto a Zoom call a few days later, and immediately hit it off,” Zuckerberg shared, adding “As I was getting to know Debbie, I was blown away by all of her thought leadership pieces that she was putting out on Twitter, and knew that there could not be a better person to embark on this journey with.”
Embark on a journey they did. Zuckerberg expressed, “In a nutshell, HUG’s mission is to help all artists become creative entrepreneurs, and we are doing that through discovery, opportunity, and education.”
What started as two like-minded individuals with a shared vision eventually grew into 200 people with a shared cause, and from those 200 passionate individuals, has emerged a diverse community of over 3,000 artists from over 85 different countries.
Soon explained that “We’ve intentionally flown under the radar and avoided being surrounded by moments of hype. Instead, we’ve been consistent with our mission from day one, and have adopted a really intentional and inclusive approach to building our community.”
In a space where nearly everything of value is hidden in secret alpha groups or housed behind a token gated club, HUG has dared to do something radically different, providing free resources for both artists and collectors alike.
These resources aren’t quick threads on X that you should bookmark for later or a halfway-finished hook to get you to buy into something at the end. Instead, HUG has dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to provide full-length guides and documents put together by its research team.
Explaining why this was and is important, Zuckerberg shared that “I have always been a firm believer that trust has to be earned, not given. We never want to extract value before we provide it, and offering these free resources is one of our ways of building trust within our artist and collector community.”
Further driving the significance of this decision home, Soon shared that “Accessible education has always been a core belief of ours. Particularly in Web3, where the technology is evolving faster than the average person can keep up with, we believe it is our responsibility to demystify these trends and make them easy for everyone to understand.”
At the time of writing, HUG has seven full-length guides and workbooks up on its site under the Resources tab. These range from “The Ultimate Artist Marketing Handbook Vol 1.” to “The Art Collector’s Companion: An Interactive Workbook” – again, available free of charge, as HUG believes anyone building in the space should be stewards and not gatekeepers.
To this end, the platform has recently had the opportunity to partner with TransientLabs, one of its many like-minded partners, and ran a six-week-long Innovation Lab program that introduced over 200 artists to dynamic NFTs via Transient’s no-code tooling.
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— HUG 🤗 | Apply for an Artist Profile (@thehugxyz) August 22, 2023
Following the release, Soon shared “We saw several artists landing their first-ever commissions through HUG. The outcome of that was many happy artists, and even happier collectors, who were delighted to acquire a personalized, one-of-a-kind artwork” – which includes Soon herself, as she commissioned a hand-painted football from artist and Women and Weapons founder, Sara Baumann.
Power in Profiles
While discoverability can often be used as a buzzword in the Web3 art realm, HUG has seemingly embraced every aspect of the word and made it part of its core mission. This has been done not in a broad manner but rather through a very specific and thought-out approach.
“From day one, we set out to build the inclusiverse, which was really our way of describing a universe… or metaverse if you will? Where everyone feels included,” shared Zuckerberg, adding “I’m proud that at the top of the HUG homepage, you will see a banner calling for us to celebrate diverse creators from all walks of life. These communities should be celebrated and feel supported 24/7, 365 days a year, and not just in specific months.”
This mission also strikes a chord close to home for Soon, who shared that “As a recent transplant to America and a woman of color, this is deeply personal as well.”
She further expressed “I know many people like to say that Web3 doesn’t care about race, gender, etc., but the reality is that many unconscious biases still carry on from the traditional arts and technology worlds. By acknowledging that from day one, we can be intentional about the way we design HUG, both from a product and community standpoint.”
This has been exemplified since the inception of HUG, as it continues to operate as a community-curated platform. Soon explained that this has been achieved through a thesis of community-driven and decentralized curation in which the members vote for which artists should be onboarded to the platform and which artists should be selected for various sourced opportunities.
Early on, HUG recognized the need for a platform that provides a platform. As a result, it has developed comprehensive profile tools that help artists to get eyes on and also benefit collectors looking to keep up with their favorite creators.
“We are biased, but we definitely believe that [artist profiles] are an artist’s best tool to getting seen, shared, and celebrated,” said Zuckerberg, adding “Not only can you collect the most amazing, thoughtful reviews from appreciators of your work, you can also showcase your entire portfolio of work, both within and outside Web3. We can’t wait to keep upgrading these Artist Profiles, and bring additional functionality and interactivity there.”
In addition to this, HUG boasts an “Artist Updates” tab, which Soon “Allows artists to share important updates directly to the email inboxes of their followers.”
She joked “While we love the gm vibes and community discourse on X, sometimes artists and collectors just want a dedicated place to share and discover art for sale. Today, hundreds of artists are posting their updates to HUG every day.”
Highlighting one of the most significant aspects of the Updates tool, Soon called out that a majority of NFT marketplaces tend to showcase creators that are trending based on trading volume, which in turn unfairly disadvantages emerging artists.
Beyond the Digital
With the royalties aspect of NFTs being yet again at risk due to shifts in stance from a variety of major marketplaces and loopholes created by aggregators, we asked HUG what they’re doing to prepare their artists for this change and to our surprise, it’s something they’ve almost anticipated in a sense, from inception.
“Artists didn’t wake up one morning because of NFTs and decided that they were artists,” said Zuckerberg, adding “Instead, they have been artists for years, even decades, before NFTs existed! As such, our view has always been that NFTs should be one of many ways that artists should look to monetize their artwork and that it is completely okay to shift priorities from one way to another depending on the market or even what inspires and excites them.”
She further explained, that in support of this, not only has HUG published a variety of resources on the topic but it has also introduced mechanisms like its commission feature, where artists can opt-in to receive commission requests through their HUG profile.
Other initiatives include merchandising opportunities as well as Open Call opportunities for both physical and digital exhibitions, like its most recent and ongoing call in partnership with the Seattle NFT Museum.
📣 ARTISTS WANTED
We want to share your art that shares your heritage! 🗺️✨
HUG is partnering with the monumental @seanftmuseum, the world’s first NFT museum, for our debut collaborative exhibition “Cultural Kaleidoscope” ✨
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🔗 Submit below ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/erP2TMquiG
— HUG 🤗 | Apply for an Artist Profile (@thehugxyz) August 15, 2023
A Bright Future
As exciting as all the growth detailed above is, Zuckerberg and Soon have shared that HUG is just getting started. In fact, thanks to a $5 million USD seed round led by Ohhsiny’s VC fund with participation from OKX and L’Oréal, HUG is now positioned to accelerate its growth.
“These funds help us build out our product further, and to really turn HUG from a place of discovery to one of social commerce,” explained Zuckerberg, adding, “We already feel like we are helping artists and collectors connect on an emotional level like never before, and these funds will help us extend that relationship from one of appreciation to one of patronage, and help artists build sustainable businesses out of their work!”
Looking forward, Soon described HUG as “the Facebook meets Etsy for a new generation of creators who are curious about blockchain and emerging technology,” joking that, how could they not be with Randi in their corner?
Soon further explained that as creators shift into an era where they are no longer selling their work in one single medium but rather in a range of mediums, on-chain or otherwise, HUG wants to help them explore those options and provide a one-stop shop.
“Similarly, we believe the consumers of the new generation will also purchase art across multiple mediums,” shared Zuckerberg, adding that “Purchasers of NFTs still buy prints for their wall, and similarly, we hope that by allowing artists to express themselves through multiple mediums, we can convince every single art lover to also become art collectors and curators on the blockchain.”
Encouraging words from the “Mother Hugger”
“First off, I will say that bear markets come and go. When I was at the frontlines of Web2, there was the same amount of uncertainty and extremes of euphoria and despair. Being in the world of emerging tech is always scary and overwhelming, but it is also an incredible opportunity to learn. My advice is to keep exploring, keep learning, keep creating, and more importantly, remember to have fun.” Zuckerberg continued.