Working from a Blank Canvas

Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography Courtesy of Winquist Photography

In an unassuming corner of a quiet block in Paradise Valley, tech whiz and entrepreneur Chad Little is hard at work. Coffeehouse music plays softly through a speaker as he studies his latest project, and despite the thoughts most certainly buzzing through his brain, his eyes remain fixed, absorbed in his task.

With careful precision, he eases a brush across the blank canvas before him, creating the first of many layers that will become a figure, then a face, then a subjective statement of human expression hidden between shadows and bleeding lines of color.

Little is an artist, and he always has been. Though his medium has changed from digital computer code to Internet algorithms, and more recently to oils on canvas, his genius is in transforming a blank slate into something never before achieved.

From his first start-ups in the early 1990s, Tracer Design and Sandbox Entertainment, to AdOn Network, Fetchback and Hivewyre, the companies Little has founded have always been innovative, and they’ve always been successful.

Like his art, none of the foundational concepts are particularly difficult. It’s Little’s ability to filter and funnel ideas through his mind and envision something entirely new that is nearly legendary in certain circles—and those circles are wide.

Marketing giant Prime Visibility (now Wpromote) acquired AdOn in 2007, and Fetchback is now owned by eBay. Hivewyre, his most recent venture, is still gaining momentum and will no doubt be equally successful.

Not bad for a guy whose parents were hoping he’d do something “normal” for a living.

Born in Arizona, Little says he “did time” in Oklahoma before heading west for college. “My mom and dad wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer—or go my dad’s route and fly jets for the Air Force,” he says with a hint of dryness. “I found that art was my passion, and I figured that, if I could make a living in the field of arts, that’d be the way to go.”

He went to school for graphic design, hoping to develop his portfolio enough to get into the elite California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Instead, he found himself with an associate’s degree and a job in Phoenix that paid $13,000 a year—but there were other perks.

“It had amazing computer systems,” he explains, drawing out the word “amazing.” “I didn’t mind the pay because I had unfettered access to the computers.”

He used his time wisely, developing a CD-ROM-based graphic design and marketing materials. That was the foundation for Tracer, his first company.

Next came Sandbox Entertainment, a platform for fantasy sports and games. Little raised millions in venture capital funding and created partnerships with CNN/Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! before the company was acquired by Wall St. Sports in 1999.

Though completely different in purpose, Little then applied his trademark business savvy and creative vision to Fetchback, AdOn and Hivewyre, identifying needs in the market and filling them with technological know-how and innovative ideas.

Success does not seem to have changed Little. The only difference is that the t-shirts and shorts he’s worn to work for the last 20+ years are now speckled and spattered with layers of paint.

His companies have all been known for their dog-friendly offices with self-driven, freethinking corporate cultures. Though he now works alone, save for regular visits from his wife Sophia, his love for dogs and personal freedom are still top priority—so much, in fact, much of his net profit goes to Altered Tails, the state’s largest low-cost spay and neuter charity.

Time and again, Little has pulled ideas from his mind, mixed them with inspiration from his mentors and muses, and figuratively filled an empty page with them. Once those ideas are perfected and completed, he lets them go (at a price worthy of their quality) and moves on.

Now that he has achieved his business goals, he’s moved on to a much more literal blank canvas. Construction is complete on his contemporary and more-than-a-little-eye-popping new studio, designed by Chen+Suchart. Little and his wife, Sophia, will be hosting art fundraisers for Altered Tails and other charities they support. The next event, titled “Misfits” after one of Little’s paintings, will be held November 9 from 5 to 8 p.m.

“It’s a big cause that’s near and dear to our hearts,” Little says, adding that his own “children” are four-legged. Art and pricing is available online.

It’s In the Eyes

Little’s paintings, which began as whimsical and almost cartoon-like, are now decidedly complex works of abstract impressionism. His subjects are strangers whose faces he finds in vintage photographs, but he comes to know them intimately as his brush recreates them.

Though the images are recognizable, they take on new life after they’re distilled through Little’s mind. His portraits are beautifully dark and raw, yet inherently human.

“It’s all in the eyes,” Little says. “That’s what usually inspires me.”

In his work, the eyes always stand out—either because of their detail, or their lack of it. One painting, titled “Loading Zone” is of a solid girl in a plaid shirt sitting at a table. A cigarette hangs out of her mouth and she is holding a half-empty glass. What is most notable is that she has no decipherable eyes, as if she was a character Little felt little connection to.

On the other end of a spectrum is a striking piece called “Vulnerable.” Piercing eyes look out as light and shadows expose emotions from deep inside of the subject—and likely from the artist as well.

Like the rest of his creations, Little’s paintings are fascinating in their imaginativeness and boldness. In fact, they’re very good, although he will likely never use that term to describe his own work.

“I think it’s better to be different than good,” he says without pretense. “The path to painting an apple amazingly well is different than the path to painting it differently,” he explains, holding up an imaginary fruit for emphasis.

Ironically, time and again, Little manages to achieve both.

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