Bucketloads of luck and even more determination
Running a startup is not for the faint hearted. Even with the best people, the most genuine purpose and the greatest of ideas, your startup could still fail. It’s a tough, crowded market out there, and customers can be fickle. So on top of everything you can plan, allow for the unexpected, a bit of luck doesn’t go amiss also, and don’t get disheartened by set-backs.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michal Szczesny, CEO of Artfinder.
Michal joined Artfinder as CTO in Jan 2013, taking over as CEO in December 2017. Prior to that, he spent 15 years in software development, previously leading teams at Tangent Labs where he built multi-channel marketing platforms for clients including The Labour Party.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born in Poland and grew up in a small town in the central region. I received my first computer when I was eight years old, which got me interested in games and even programming. My brother and I used to code in ‘Basic’ together, so by the age of 12, I could touch-type. When the internet became a thing, I became interested in building websites.
I set-up my first business at the age of 16, creating websites for companies and individuals in the region. It was an interesting time because no-one knew what the internet would grow into. During university, I worked full-time as a customer service representative selling ceramic tiles. I loved it! It really helped me learn what great customer service should look like and what’s important to people when they buy. I stayed and progressed at the same company for a number of years, and built their very first website, as well as coding some of their more complex systems.
I moved to London in 2006 and landed my first proper job as a programmer at a great agency called Tangent. I met some fantastic people, including coders, designers and business people, some of whom still mentor me today.
I joined Artfinder in January 2013 as CTO when it was going through some major changes to its business model. In a way, our direction was still being defined and it was great to be a part of that process. Since then, I became COO and then took over as CEO in late 2017.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The art world is a weird beast. On the one hand you have the riches of mysterious wealthy buyers and some lucky art dealers and artists who scoop up the proceeds of the multi-million dollar sales. On the other hand, ordinary people who love art can often only enjoy it in museums and galleries, not knowing how or where to buy art, or assuming they cannot afford to. At the same time independent artists all over the world create incredible art that is often truly affordable, yet may be hard to find in the stuffy galleries of Mayfair or Manhattan.
And believe me, those artists, really, really want to be artists. They want to quit their day jobs and make a living doing what they love. The emotional stories we hear from the first time someone sells a piece of art through us are amazing, or if they have indeed been able to quit their day job, or build a studio space through their Artfinder sales. I sometimes think that what we actually do here is allow artists to take ownership of what defines their success. Is success being represented by a gallery? Well, maybe, but also if someone on the other side of the planet wants to buy your art and hang it on their wall, what better affirmation is there than that? So the ‘aha’ moment of Artfinder is really seeing and knowing those two groups of people, artists and people who love art, and being able to bring them together.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Over the years I have been inspired by a number of incredible business leaders. However, moving to London and joining Tangent was a defining moment for me. I met some incredible people there and amongst them one truly inspiring leader, at the time the CEO of Tangent, Greg Jackson. He is currently running the incredibly successful Octopus Energy, UK’s leading energy provider and a double unicorn. He’s been a truly inspirational figure helping me learn to trust people I work with, trust my own instincts and just focus on what’s important.
When Artfinder’s board approached me about taking over as Artfinder’s CEO I had many doubts as the business required major restructuring in order to survive. Greg was there for me when I had to evaluate this opportunity. By sharing his insights and personal stories I was able to make my mind up about taking this challenge on and I haven’t looked back. To this day I am truly inspired by Greg’s charisma, his ability to inspire people to be their best selves and literally change the world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Being the art world’s first B Corp has been really game changing for us. I like to think that we have always lived by those values, of doing good for people and for the planet, but B Corp Certification means that people look twice because they know it’s not just virtue signalling, it’s the legal status of your business.
Discovery of the B Corp movement was a revelation to me, a first time CEO, in my thirties, just over a year into my tenure at Artfinder. The business was hardly thriving at that time. Becoming a B Corp involves a rigorous assessment (called “B Impact Assessment”) in which every aspect of the business is scored against a set of criteria. Completing the process can take months of time and energy from an already overstretched team. I think at the time everyone thought I was crazy, but we all need a reason to come to work, myself included, and our customers and artists need an inspiring reason to choose us.
The positive effect that the status has had on every aspect of the business is truly amazing. From hiring incredible people, to our crowdfunding success raising £1m in 2020 largely from our community and also, hugely importantly, differentiating ourselves from our competitors in an increasingly competitive market. It has reinvigorated the team and our community, as well as reignited my own passion for running the business and working hard towards the vision we’ve set out to achieve.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’ve had an incredible year for the business, with sales up 145%+ year on year in Q1 2021. I’m really proud to say that we’ve used that momentum to be able to increase our positive impact on our community and the planet.
We’ve just released our Annual Impact Report, reporting on our impact on people and planet this year, but one of our biggest achievements is starting to plant a tree for every artwork sold. That’s 56,739 trees now in the Artfinder forest. We’re also founding members of the Million Tree Pledge, aiming for Artfinder to plant 1 million trees by 2030.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Openness, meaning not just being open and honest about how things are, but also bringing my whole self to work and making the human side of me visible to my team. I am not perfect, I do not have answers to all the questions we face, I make mistakes, I do feel vulnerable at times. Being myself amongst the people I work with helps me and them feel safe and secure. Although being gay doesn’t define me as a human being, when I feel free to be myself around those I value I can help others do the same. Only through being open are we able to immerse ourselves in deep meaningful work that changes people’s lives.
Courage, meaning being able to undertake difficult challenges despite odds often being stacked against me. My 8-year long Artfinder journey has been like a rollercoaster and we had to make a lot of difficult decisions along the way. Having the courage to do that was key to achieving the bulk of our progress. Courage also allows us to face the often difficult reality in a sober way, without being overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Decency, meaning trying to be a good human being. At the end of my life I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and feel good about my contribution to the world. That’s why it is important to me that the business I run isn’t there just for profit, but for making a real difference to people’s lives and the planet we live on. It means owning up to my mistakes and admitting to my own limitations.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Pretty much every time I took advice against my “gut feel” this has in some way backfired. I think it is very important not to underestimate the strength of our inner instinct.
Referring to more specific advice, I was “advised” by a number of people not to raise money through crowdfunding with a £0 pre-committed at the start, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. I was told this would mean the campaign would fail. Yet, we did exactly that, trusting our instinct that the community we’ve been building over the years would support us. This was a huge risk, yet it paid off big time. We’ve raised a total of £1m in that round.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
By far the most difficult time at the start of my leadership journey was business restructure. Since the business had no resources to sustain the full workforce when I took over the business, I had to let go of some amazing people, team members I worked with, many of whom I hired. It was a traumatic and a heartbreaking experience not just for them, but for myself too. In hindsight, I know this was the right thing to do, as the business is still here and is now thriving.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
It was during that time that I really learned to look after myself, that you have to look after yourself. It isn’t optional. I think we’ll all know or remember the feeling of being young and invincible, and for so many years I just thought if I worked a bit harder, a bit longer, a bit later, a bit more coffee, it would all be okay. But not everything can be worked out. I started learning about mindfulness and learnt to let go of a lot of things, to find a balance of who and what needs how much input from me, which is still a source of constant adjustment as teams grow and the businesses’ needs change. I did a lot of meditation and more exercise, particularly strength training, including calisthenics which I love. Finding things in life that are rewarding, things that feel like progress, when every day at work does not feel like progress, felt particularly important at that time.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
One thing I do often and have really missed throughout the pandemic is floating in a sensory deprivation tank. I think some of my colleagues think it’s a bit extreme, but all of our day to day lives are a battle against sensory overload and I needed to find a foolproof way to get away from it. I’m usually the guy who is fixing the website any time, anywhere (most memorably during a game of crazy golf with our PPC agency, I didn’t win), so I really do need to physically remove myself from the possibility of using my devices to self-sabotage relaxation. I also think it’s really important to be kind to yourself, which is easier said than done. Plus, connecting with the people whose lives we’re trying to change for the better, i.e, our artists, offers an important reminder of the ‘real’ thing we’re achieving sitting at our desks all day.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
My advice is: it depends! Not everyone has the capital to bootstrap their own venture. If you do have some (and more, in case things do not go according to plan), by all means put that into your business, as it guarantees more ownership later down the road. However, some ideas require more capital than you may have readily available, and if the idea is great, that should not be a limiting factor. There are many amazing investors out there, waiting to invest in passionate entrepreneurs. Many will be understanding of the need for the founder to retain control and be motivated by the long term success of the company.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Clear purpose (ie. not just making money)
You can’t get people on board (stakeholders or employees) if the purpose of your business is unclear, or if it is not followed through in your actions as a business. Running an e-commerce marketplace our sellers are able to list their artworks on several sites at the same time, we don’t demand exclusivity, but we do know that there needs to be a reason for them to choose us above our competitors. We see countless companies making empty promises of changing the world, despite their day to day focus being on profit. If your mission, like Artfinder, is a social one and touches matters of sustainability, you need to put your money where your mouth is. We recently admitted a mistake to our artists and were flooded by replies saying that they always trust us. That trust is hard won and hard to replicate.
2. Good people (ie. those who believe in the purpose)
A great idea is nothing without the right people to execute it. After we became a B Corp, hiring was the area in which we noticed the biggest, quickest difference. Suddenly candidates were talking about us about our purpose at interview, not just talking about it, but showing that this was the reason that this job stood out for them. That was such a mind blowing change for me — I’m used to being the one evangelising for our purpose in interview rooms and instead these people just starting appearing who were saying it all to me first! Of course it’s about skills as well, but for the first time in our history I felt like ‘our people’ were finding us. The early stages of a start up are rarely a 9 to 5 working hours model, so that shared purpose is so important, as well as people who have drive, resourcefulness and can multitask.
3. Values and principles (ie. not just those plastered on an office wall)
Ideally, your whole team will be working towards the same goal. But if they feel the end result is not aligned with their own value, it’s unlikely you will get the best out of them. Find people who share your company values, people who believe in the same end result as you do, they will help you carry your dream to its next destination. And don’t just put a poster on an office wall, live by those values, because employees are very quick to see through disingenuous motives.
4. Enough funding to brew things for long enough
For a long time at Artfinder we were too close to the end of our runway to do any long term thinking. When you only have a matter of months until you need new funding, even if and when that funding is secured, it’s so difficult to get a team into a mindset of doing the big things, the difficult things, that will pay off big rewards, but won’t happen overnight. We hired a new CTO a year ago and he told me we had to rebuild our entire front and backend architecture, for too long the site had been patched up, it was old, it was slow, we had terrible SEO. In the years previously, we would never have attempted a project on this scale, not necessarily for lack of resource, just a lack of long term vision.
5. Bucketloads of luck and even more determination
Running a startup is not for the faint hearted. Even with the best people, the most genuine purpose and the greatest of ideas, your startup could still fail. It’s a tough, crowded market out there, and customers can be fickle. So on top of everything you can plan, allow for the unexpected, a bit of luck doesn’t go amiss also, and don’t get disheartened by set-backs. It’s always better to fail from trying than not have the guts to go forth with your project.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Thinking you know everything and can do everything. You know a lot and you can do a lot, but it’s a strength, not a weakness, to understand where and how to bring in outside skills. There are no awards for doing it alone and burnout is destructive. No good will come from exhaustion, your own or anyone else’s.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
When I first started running Artfinder, I was doing something every night. I thought that because the things I was doing were meant to be relaxing that I was relaxing, but then I realised that sometimes you just have to stop. I think that Covid and lockdowns have had a surprisingly positive effect on this actually, that we all had to stop doing things and sit in a room in our house and think about who we are and how to be, when you can’t go out and do normal things. Of course the opposite is also true, that through Covid, with access to our work environments and technology in our homes, that many of us have felt less able to switch off from work. But a happy CEO is a good CEO. You’ve got to allow yourself to find ways to be happy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I wholeheartedly believe that if more of us were to follow our hearts and not just the desire to make money, the world would be a much better place.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would absolutely love to get the opportunity to speak to Yuval Noah Harari. His books “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” have been a great influence on the world and on my thinking.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!