Art Entrepreneur Catherine Levene On Her $11m Funding Rounds

Catherine Levene is the Co-Founder and CEO of Artspace, an online marketplace for contemporary art, offering collectors and aspiring collectors access to unique and edition artwork from the world’s top contemporary artists.

Earlier this year, Artspace undertook successful $2.5 million Series A and $8.5 million Series B funding rounds.

As a digital media innovator and entrepreneur with more than 15 years experience building successful online media companies, Catherine is responsible for the joint vision of Artspace as well as the overall day-to-day management of the company.

Prior to launching Artspace, Catherine held the position of COO and General Manager of DailyCandy, a leading daily e-mail and website targeted to women that focuses on the latest trends in fashion, food and culture.

Prior to joining DailyCandy, Catherine was part of the executive team at start-up shopping search engine, TheFind.com, where she served as Senior Vice President of Product and General Manager of Content and Distribution. In addition, Catherine spent seven years at New York Times Digital (NYTD), building the online properties of the New York Times Company, including nytimes.com. Catherine currently advises early stage Internet companies in media and commerce, sits on the boards of TheFind.com and RenttheRunway.com and is an advisor to LearnVest.com.

Catherine received a BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania and, concurrently, a BS in economics from the Wharton School of Business in 1992. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 1996.

We spoke to Catherine about her recent $11m funding rounds; the advice she most often gives to early stage entrepreneurs; and her tips for successfully building a social media presence.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Artspace and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality? Did you have any doubts about launching an art startup in a time of recession?

CL: Artspace was the brainchild of my business partner, Chris Vroom and myself. Our backgrounds were very complimentary. Chris worked as a research analyst for over 16 years covering retail and online retail. In this time Chris became convinced of the vital role artists play in the foundation of creative culture and in 1999 founded 'Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialogue', a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting artists directly through financial awards, public exposure and access to a national network of support. Through Artadia he made critical relationships with artists, gallery owners, dealers, curators and collectors.

I had over 15 years experience in the internet business building and managing companies such as The New York Times Digital and Daily Candy.

Chris and myself both have an incredible passion for art and felt that there was a tremendous opportunity to support galleries and museums, to help artists reach broader audiences and to help collectors and aspiring collections discover, access and buy art from the most important galleries and institutions in the world.

I have been in the digital business for many years and have witnessed many ups and downs, bubbles and bursts.

I find that a recession is the best time to launch a new business because one has access to hiring great talent, and people are the heart and soul of our business.

TNW: Is there an upcoming artist on Artspace who you are particularly excited about at the moment? 

CL: It’s extremely difficult to choose any one artist, as there are so many artists who have a presence on Artspace who I respect and whose work I want to collect. In terms of new artists being added to the platform, I am really excited about a print we are about to offer from Sarah Sze, the artist representing the United States in this year’s Venice Biennale. 

TNW: Earlier this year, Artspace undertook a successful $2.5 million Series A and $8.5 million Series B round of funding. What is your advice for entrepreneurs looking to raise VC funds for their business?

CL:

My advice is to be passionate, believe in your business and in yourself.

It takes time to find the right investors who share a similar vision for your business – so be tenacious and meet as many potential investors as you can!

TNW: The funds were raised so that Artspace could expand its team, boost marketing, and to continue to build out its product. How are these plans coming along? What challenges are you facing in your business at the moment and how are you tackling them?

CL: The plans are coming along very well. We have almost doubled the size of our team, acquired VIP Art (another company in the space), doubled the size our member base and added a number of interesting new features and functionality such as auctions, editorial content and currency translation. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about what our customers are looking for so that we can offer them the best experience and find the art they’re looking for from our hundreds of gallery and museum partners.

TNW: Artspace is a fairly new company but already has 50,000 fans on Facebook and 34,000 followers on Twitter. What are your tips for entrepreneurs looking to build a social media presence such as this?

CL: Social media is actually really fun and it’s a platform where you can get immediate response from your customers and your audience. My advice is to have a presence on multiple social platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest (if appropriate) and Google Plus. However, it’s important to understand what your expectations are for each platform. Not all platforms work for commerce but all are good for communication and engagement with your customers and potential customers. Then, test, test, test and ask for feedback from your customers.

TNW: You advise early stage Internet companies in media and commerce. What are the most common pieces of advice that you give to early stage founders?

CL:

Be passionate:

Starting a business is all consuming and you really need to feel passionate about the product you are building and the problem you are solving.

Take care of yourself:

As I mention above, start-ups are all consuming. They take time, energy, passion and there is rarely a moment in the day where you couldn’t be doing something more. However, making sure you are healthy, fit, getting exercise, and taking moments to reflect are very important. This is a marathon not a sprint and the company needs you in great shape.

Find a mentor or coach:

Everyone needs help. I recommend not only putting a great board and group of advisors around you that can provide advice and feedback on the business, but also at least one person – a coach of sorts, who doesn’t have a vested in interest in the company, to be a sounding board for you and who can help you through the tough times that naturally come for start-ups. 

This person should be knowledgeable and experienced with start-ups so they understand what you are going through, but not financially involved in the business.

This person should be someone who you trust, respect and can talk to openly, and can even be a shoulder to cry on if you need it.

Prioritize:

From my experience, companies succeed or fail as much by the opportunities they pass up as what they decide to pursue. All start-ups are resource constrained so prioritization is key. You can’t do everything, so you have to prioritize. Say yes to the most important things and be ok passing up good opportunities if it means taking your eye off the ball in front of you.

Know that other good opportunities are around the corner, and its better to do a few things well then lots of things not so well.

TNW: What was the most useful lesson you learned during your MBA and how do you apply it to running your business?

CL: I learned to have a broad perspective on my business and the industry as a whole and not to look at any one function or metric as the panacea.

Typically, what makes a business successful is a combination of strategy, execution and having a really great team.

Then, there are factors you can’t control, like timing.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

CL: Start-ups are about creating, and there is nothing better than seeing your creative vision come to reality.

It’s hard work and it takes tenacity, but it’s truly an incredible journey. If you have a great idea and the passion to see it through, go for it.

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