We chat with Ian Syer, co-founder of art buying and selling platform MyArtBroker.com about creating “the Uber for art” and learning new skills in making a secondary market for sellers of art.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
I’m Ian Syer, the co-founder of MyArtBroker.com an online platform which connects people looking to buy art with people looking to sell.
We have been referred to as “the Uber for art” in that we exist to bring two parties together for a mutually beneficial purpose.
We work only in the secondary market, which means that the artwork is not ‘new’ it has a provenance and has already been bought and sold. For that reason, much of the artwork bought and sold on MyArtBroker will be by artists you will know: Banksy prints, Andy Warhol screenprints, L.S. Lowry oil paintings – artists that have a developed a collector base and reputation, which means their work is in demand.
MyArtBroker has a network of brokers that authenticate and condition check all artwork before it is bought or sold, so we remove a lot of the risks associated with buying art online.
What time does your day usually start and end?
It depends, we have two offices, one in Marlow near where I live with my wife and daughter, and one in Mayfair, central London. If I’m in Marlow, I will usually start the day around 8am and finish around 6pm, if I’m in Mayfair I will head into London for around 9:30am and get home around 7:30pm. Though, it never really ‘ends’ in the sense that I’m almost always contactable. We’re a small team, four people, so we are always in touch.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
My favourite part of the job is when things work! It’s been crucial for us to get our web platform right, because that is where most of the activity takes place. Buyers and sellers must become members to of MyArtBroker.com (which is free) before they can complete a deal, which means the development of the platform has been at times complicated and arduous. We founded the company in 2010, and in the past couple of years we have been redeveloping our website, I’m finally starting to see the benefits of that, the light at the end of the tunnel and that is very rewarding!
My least favourite part of the job, trying to determine what you don’t know! Running a start-up means you have to be responsible for things, or understand things, way outside of your ‘profession’, so to speak. So, trying to get my head around SEO, UX and CRM has been challenging!
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
My background is in art sales, so before I started MyArtBroker, I had been a consultant in an art gallery for some time. Through my regular interactions with clients, the relationships I formed with them as they built their collections, I’d noticed that there were limited options for them to sell art outside of the auction house.
I was interested in this ‘secondary market’ (aka when art gets resold), its dynamics and how difficult it seemed to be to access. That was when the idea started to take root, I was trying to solve a problem: how could help art buyers and collectors buy from the secondary market, without the risk of eBay for example (issues with authenticity) and without the exclusivity and fees of an auction house.
My brother, Joe, and I considered gallery spaces, following the traditional route – until we realised an online platform which essentially connected buyers with sellers and vice versa could do exactly what we needed. One night, over a couple of glasses of red wine, we decided to go for it – and MyArtBroker was formed.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
As I say, I’d been in the art industry for many years, selling art and managing gallery spaces, so it was something I was very familiar with and passionate about, I noticed a gap (the lack of secondary market access for art buyers) and felt like I could solve that problem.
My brother Joe had studied marketing, but had always been a bit of an art buff, his collection of art is impressive, think Banksy prints, Harland Miller screenprints, Conor Harrington…so I ran the idea past him and the rest is history…
How did you fund your business?
We funded our business entirely with our savings, of less than £5k I think. We knew we just had to get a website built and start communicating with our contacts in the art industry to see if and how this idea could work. We were quite confident in it, but there are always surprises when you put an idea out there. Since then, we’ve just reinvested profits each year to grow.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
I.T. Finding the right tools, platforms and software to run your business, finding the right web developer who understands your vision and who you can trust – these things are crucial. Coming from a sales background I had no respect for the web development process, for example. It’s taken a long time and a lot of mistakes to get this right. I would caution anyone against just jumping in or not taking advice!
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
Uncertainty in the economy is, of course, a concern for all SMEs. We are lucky in some respects as many of our members are long-time collectors – and as such use changes in the economy to invest in pieces or sell to free up funds.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
Oh loads! Mistakes are a necessary part of running any business I think, it’s impossible to get everything right, if it was easy everyone would be doing it!
Generally, the mistakes have been around jumping in too quickly with a supplier, not getting contracts in place with freelancers, assuming people are on the same page as you. When you have an idea the vision is so clear in your head it can be easy sometimes to just assume ‘everyone gets it’, never assume!
What previous experiences have helped you in starting your business?
Well, of course, having a long career in selling art was useful for this venture, the networks I had built over that time and an understanding of what you customer is looking for – we have to attract people who want to buy and those who want to sell – between the two of us, Joe and I know what the motivators are for those people.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
I had an old boss that would always say; “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.” I never quite understood the true value of this until running my own business. It can be easy to get carried away with your numbers, but it’s what’s on the bottom line that matters.
Would you do anything differently if you could start again from scratch?
Haha! Everything! In all seriousness, I’d probably have tried to future-proof the business a little more. There are times we’ve made some short-term decisions that have had negative longer term effects such as our limited understanding of link building in the very early days.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
Spend time with my wife and daughter Grace, who is 2. My in-laws are in Greece, so we like to get out to Athens to spend some time with them when we can. Work is always a little easier in the sunshine!
What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?
Probably working in a gallery wondering why there isn’t a place where collectors can sell their Banksy prints! I suspect I would have continued in the same industry, but I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, so I like to think I might have hit upon another idea!
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
Sometimes? It’s certainly hard to switch off when you’re running a business. Let’s say it’s a work in progress.