Marek Zabicki, entrepreneur and founder of Arteia in an Interview

by | Nov 5, 2015

At The Artian we frequently write about the intersection between art and entrepreneurship. We already wrote in the past why we believe that entrepreneurs and artists are alike. So interviewing entrepreneurs that operate in the art space is even better. This week we have on the blog Marek Zabicki, a serial entrepreneur who specializes in the art space. His latest venture is Arteia, a smart software for collection management. It is a great opportunity to thank Marek for taking the time to answer our questions.

Foto - Mariusz Makowski

Foto – Mariusz Makowski

The Artian: Marek, can you tell our readers briefly about your background?

Marek Zabicki: I’m a computer scientist with a Ph.D. in combinatorial optimization from Poland and moved to Paris over 30 years ago when the opportunity came to kickstart my career. In other words, I started as a geek who loved to work on networks and search engines, create algorithms & program them. It was in the 80s when personal computers were on the rise and I participated in several ventures like developing some of the world’s first CD-ROMs and creating algorithms for financial institutions. But when I look back, I see myself more as a problem solver than a programmer. I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 25 years having delivered information management systems for the International Herald Tribute, the IAEA, and the Chancellor of Austria just to name a few.

TA: What I found interesting in your profile is that you are a technology entrepreneur in the art world for the last 15 years! This is really not common for tech entrepreneurs. How did you start in the art/cultural world?

MZ: Life takes us on different paths. Getting into the art world was totally by chance. I played bridge with a prestigious museum director in Poland who asked me to build a modern collection management system for him. This is how Mumsnet was born and even though we built it over 15 years ago, I’m still proud of it because it’s widely used across Poland, for example at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum and at Wawel Royal Castle. It still stands out from the competition thanks to its flexibility and search capabilities. So, it was Mumsnet that opened the door for me to the world of culture that is full of passionate people and challenges. Unfortunately, there is less and less money in the public sector, and budgets and increasingly squeezed. On the other hand, I do believe the future is in public-private partnerships. I’ve recently attended a conference, “Going Public” in Sheffield that explored how private art collectors could work together with public institutions. There is also an increasing number of private museums and art foundations worldwide. It’s great to enrich the cultural landscape but it also has some practical financial benefits to collectors because exposing art comes with tax benefits. Not to mention enhancing the provenance of the artworks that increases their value.

TA: Can you mention some of your ventures in the art world?

MZ: My first serious encounter with the art world was in the 80s when we developed a CD-ROM with a personalized virtual guide based on an expert system and over 300 impressionist artworks from the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. It was never commercialized but was demoed at a conference at MIT.  Mumsnet, which I mentioned before became the standard in Polish museums.  It helped us win a tender to build one of the world’s biggest rights management systems for the Paris based ADAGP (Société des Auteurs dans les Arts Graphiques et Plastiques) with over 110,000 artists. 2 years later we started an enormous project with Videomuseum, the Consortium of Contemporary Art State Collections in France with 70 institutions and over half a million artworks. The system, GCOLL/2 has been in production since 2010 and we’re continuously extending it.  I’m very proud that we’ve recently developed the world’s first and only exhibition preparation tool, EXPONO for another prestigious French institution, Jeu de Paume.

TA: You work with Centre  Pompidou, MOCAK,  Videomuseum, Fondation Ullens, Jeu de Paume, Napoleon Foundation, etc. what did you find challenging as a developer who talks to the art world professionals?

MZ: First of all these people are really passionate about their work and that means they often do not accept simplistic solutions unlike in the business world. They are perfectionists and do not easily compromise. Then most of these art professionals are humanists at heart. You have to learn how they think and what is important to them. And it’s often the case that you realize while developing the project that museums’ needs are much higher than even what they expected but you have to deliver what they want under a very very restricted budget…and often this is just not possible.

TA: 15 years ago there weren’t as many art startups as today. It seems that today more and more entrepreneurs are trying to disrupt this market. What has changed in the last 15 years?

MZ: The technology changed and the tech awareness of the art world is much, much higher.  Thanks to the advanced web-based technologies, powerful tools, and services it is possible to quickly mash up fully functional systems. Then art itself also became more accessible, fashionable, and affordable partly due to technology. As a result, tens of thousands of collectors appeared.  Art is also considered an important asset class and many investment experts advise clients to put some of their money into art.  Finally, we have emerging markets – with new artists and new collectors.  The art world is globalizing and it provides new opportunities for start-ups.

TA: The art market is a 60 billion dollar market that almost never changed in the last 400 years. In your opinion how technology is influencing the art market?

MZ: Technology is definitely making a big impact on the art market!  Thanks to technology we know much more about what is happening around and we know it almost immediately. Artists have new means for expression and new platforms to showcase. Social networking provides huge exposure to them while online auctions democratize the market and dramatically lower commission fees so there is more money left for the artists.  Although we still lack transparency about prices it will change with time.

TA: What are the trends that you recognize in the art-tech industry?

MZ: As online sales continue to rise and projected to double in the next 4 years there is a new wave of tech companies that are shaping the market. Collectors and art lovers are becoming more tech-savvy, embracing online technologies from collection management to valuation. I also see consolidation and more money in the sector. It’s seen as a sexy investment in a niche market. Paddle8 has recently raised $34 million backed by star art dealers, entrepreneurs, and artists like Damien Hirst.

TA: Do you think we will see an “iTunes” of the art world [In the way people buy art]? Why the music industry saw a revolution yet we don’t see the same with the art world?

MZ: Definitely not. You cannot really compare music and the art market.  Music can be easily copied and distributed.  Art is quite different because it is more personal and unique.  You don’t care if the same song is bought by a million consumers but you do care about how many copies of a photo you bought circulates on the market.  And you don’t buy music directly from the composers or at an auction as you buy art…

TA: You are a serial entrepreneur and started more than 7 companies. What are the differences between operating in the art industry and in other industries?

MZ: As you know, I have a wide range of experience as an entrepreneur from developing CD-ROMs and financial software to search engines. Frankly, I don’t see too many differences except for one – the arts & culture industry spends much less money on technology, especially in the public sector.

TA: What are the difficulties for entrepreneurs that you find unique to the art world?

MZ: It is definitely much more difficult to get funded and you cannot expect similar valuations like in others industries as it is still considered to be a very niche market.   Then it is quite a challenge to convince top developers to work in the art world. And you also encounter very, very demanding customers. They are better educated and more sophisticated than in many other sectors.  You must do your homework to be able to talk to them not to mention being considered as a partner. But this where all the fun is!

TA: You just started a new venture in art collection management. Can you tell us more about this new venture?

MZ: It’s an exciting time in the art world because it has finally embarked on a digital transformation and we want to contribute to this change by bringing more transparency into the market. As the first step, we’re building a smart collection management system, Arteia for savvy art collectors who want to enjoy, manage and increase the value of their collection. Arteia is the only system that allows users to catalog their artworks professionally, connect with curators to exhibit, and even prepare their own shows on one platform. Our vision is to connect art collectors with each other through the artworks they love and allow for direct sales, provide price predictions and trends analysis to help them make better decisions. People are craving to use art as an investment but it’s difficult because of the lack of transparency and liquidity on the market. We believe technology can help.

TA: What are the tips that a serial entrepreneur like you can give to other entrepreneurs?

MZ: There are many tips and even more articles and books listing them.  You know, in my entrepreneurial life I had both highs and lows.  And I got some lessons.  So, I will just provide 3 tips – the first one is about passion and perseverance for what you do and it was perfectly expressed by Steve Jobs when he said “…It’s really hard and you have to do it over a sustained period of time…and it’s a lot of worrying constantly ….so if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it you’re going to give up.…”.  The second thing is that you must be good with people because to succeed you will need a team acting like a commando.  Finally, the last tip deals with “the ending”. If things don’t work you will need to know when to shut down your start-up. If such a moment comes do not hesitate to stop, do not die with your start-up.  Look for the new opportunity and rebirth!


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