Artfinder has been through a hell of a lot. In 2013, it saw a major pivot in direction and in late 2016, a complete rebrand. And, at the beginning of 2018, Michal Szczesny stepped up as CEO. While he may have taken on a brand new role, he's been with the company through it all. Here, we chat to Michal about the early days, the changes he's seen within the business and what's next for Artfinder.
Tell us a little about you.
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 also met someone truly great — Artfinder’s current CTO — David Tilleyshort. Working with David was certainly my highlight of the Tangent days and what a privilege it is to now be working with him at Artfinder.
What were the early days of Artfinder like?
I joined Artfinder in January 2013 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. The early days were super exciting and at the same time quite intense, but it was obvious that things had to change.
Back in late 2012, we were selling mostly reproduction prints of artworks by famous artists, fulfilled by some major museums and galleries. The team had great ambitions to make things work, but not everything was going according to plan. This is when we collectively identified a great opportunity of building a marketplace for original art. It became very clear, very quickly that there was a demand, at least from the artist community, for this sort of marketplace. It was our “aha!” moment.
Having found and embraced our new direction, we were faced with some hard realities. By the end of 2013, Artfinder was a team of five, with a big dream and a fantastic leader — Jonas, a Silicon Valley veteran who knew how to steer us into a brighter future.
What changes have you seen over the years?
I strongly believe that if a business stops changing and adapting to the customers’ needs, it may as well shut down. The best changes we’ve seen were the gradual feature releases which turned Artfinder from an ‘e-commerce’ site to a true marketplace. We allow artists and buyers to connect, talk, negotiate and now even commission artworks.
What have you learned since taking over as CEO?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been somewhat eased into this role. After two years as CTO, I moved aside to make way for David, meaning I could work side-by-side with the CEO, Jonas, for a good few years. We worked very closely and he did a fantastic job of teaching me how to run a business.
One main thing I’ve learned is that I’m only as good as my team. Since a CEO isn’t able to do everything, I had to learn to let go and let my colleagues get on with what they do best. As a programmer, I had a full control over the code. When you run a business, you cannot and should not micromanage.
Tell us a little about your team.
They are definitely the brightest people I’ve ever worked with! We would not have achieved this great progress if it wasn’t for the hard work of everyone that’s been with us on this journey.
The best part of working with a smart team is that it helps us stay focused and super efficient in our operation. What I love is that everyone is very passionate about what they do individually (whether it’s customer care or front-end engineering), as well as what we do as a business. We all know how much of a difference our platform makes to the lives of thousands of people and it helps us turn the ‘work’ into ‘passion’. Our office is often buzzing with excitement and I feel we genuinely like being around one another.
What is your ultimate goal for Artfinder?
I would love Artfinder to deliver on its mission of helping everyone live with and be surrounded by art. With hundreds of millions of households buying ‘stuff’ for their walls in the US and EU alone, it’s a wonderful opportunity for artists to fill those spaces with beautiful and soulful artwork, that is truly unique and comes with a story.
Any exciting things coming up?
Loads! We know how important quality is to our customers and artists alike, so we’ll be putting much more emphasis on artwork selection, the way it’s presented on the site and how artists’ profiles accurately tell their stories. We want people to be inspired and to know why it’s better to buy a piece from an Artfinder artist than a print from a high-street retailer.
We know that quality is important and our focus going forward will include more bespoke curation and content on the site, with works hand-picked by our editors, curators and tastemakers.
I want Artfinder to work for the artist community even more, as our success is dependant on their success. Since we want to turn being an artist into a viable career choice, we will be looking more to them to help us steer the company forward.
I wish I could share more, but it would turn this humble interview into a book!