While working at Manhattan equity research firm Monness, Crespi & Hardt, Manish Vora often attended client events at galleries and private homes. Everyone was an art connoisseur.
“These folks are best friends with [artist] Jeff Koons,” says Vora, who started his Wall Street career as an investment banker at Citigroup.While his clients had access to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, he realised that there was a demand for something similar — or at least in the way of art exposure — for a younger demographic.
So he recruited his college friend Dylan Fareed, who was developing websites for gallerists in Brooklyn, and they launched Artlog.com in January 2008. The site features art and event information from more than 4,000 gallaries and museums — so it’s a marketing platform, which the institutions pay for — with a social media element for its users.
“It wasn’t a sexy time to leave Wall Street, with the economy crashing,” says Vora, who took a 90% salary cut and now works in Williamsburg. “But I remember being invited to an Obama speech at Nasdaq during the fall of 2007. He spoke about the historical importance of small businesses in America while at the same time lambasting greed on Wall Street. I started to believe that even in creating a business in the arts that I could make a bigger difference than I was making on Wall Street.”
We sat down with Vora to learn why he never pitched VCs, how he landed partnerships with NBC New York and American Express, and if he ever regrets leaving Wall Street.
What was your life like on Wall Street, before Artlog?
I worked at a hedge fund for five or six years. Then Citigroup for 2 years before that. It was the most unhealthy lifestyle. I gained 25 pounds and stopped thinking creatively.
I graduated the year after 9/11. The tech bubble had burst. My peers and I had become so risk averse — we went to the “safety” of Wall Street. So launching Artlog was about shedding risk aversion.
Artists and entrepreneurs are very simliar. They’re within a different world of thinkers. And they’re very people driven. On Wall Street, you’re part of a system. A role player.
Art and finance: two totally different industries. How did you know where to start?
The art industry was more complicated, fragmented and unique than any industry I had ever looked at. I often compare the art business to the gold industry — which I was deeply familiar with on Wall Street — with just a slightly fewer number of crooked prospectors.
So I threw myself into the industry. I began by talking to people in the trenches. I started at a Lower East Side gallery. But we just went door-to-door to institutions. Tried to get them on board.
Then in June 2008, we hosted a huge party with New York’s New Museum, and got 30 galleries to share their exhibitions on the site. We got 10,000 people to visit Artlog, and 1,700 people showed up to the event. With that, we proved our credibility.
So what exactly is Artlog?
Artlog is a digital marketing and communications platform. We provide services that leverage multimedia content, social media, email newsletters and events to help galleries and museums broadcast their information to collectors, the art industry and to art enthusiasts.
We charge institutions for our services and are currently working on an innovative mobile platform.
How did you fund the venture?
It took less than a week’s paycheck to start the company. We put in under $10,000. In the first two years, our goal was to operate off of $80,000 to $100,000 annually.
Our initial investors were predominantly Wall Street, former colleagues at Monness, Crespi, former hedge fund clients and friends who worked at various large financial institutions. They were also all supporters or collectors of art.
I weighed the opportunity cost, if I had paid $120,000 for business school. I’ve never felt bad about this decision, and I have more confidence as a business owner.
How did you get the word out about your business?
Partnerships. Knocking on doors. But also meeting with media organisations like NBC New York. During a meeting about sharing content, we asked them, “Why isn’t art covered on television?” And and they said they didn’t have the expertise. So we said, let us try it. A year and a half later, I’ve done 65 TV segments.
We also have a partnership with American Express. That’s another major accomplishment.
What about advertising?
We recently just bought Facebook ads — 6 months ago — primarily for event promotion. Our users pay to attend events. We’ve never done print advertising.
Your co-founder, Dylan once described the art scene as hyper local.
True. But the read of small organisations in New York is global. Currently we have 30,000 subscribers in New York, and 30,000 to 50,000 in other pockets around the world. For example, we’ll suddenly see that we’ve got tons of new followers in Turkey one day. The word just gets out.
How about renting a space?
We started at Park Avenue South. Earlier this year we moved to Williamsburg. It’s a cultural thing. We have more artist friends there.
We’ve got about 12 people working on Artlog right now.
What else is in the works?
We launched Grey Area, a sister company, a month ago. We created pop-up shops around the country. We just went to the Hamptons.
But in the next three months there will be dramatic changes to the site. The beauty of this business is that it’s malleable.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs?
Focus on the business, and what you’re passionate about, rather than the funding. In other words, don’t try to be what’s fundable. Investors and VCs are looking at the person behind the business.
Partnerships are the key to success. And don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll have many more rejections than successes.
Would you ever go back to Wall Street?
I believe in the corporate world. You can build a business within a business.