How an Art Gallery Raised Venture Capital

Earlier this year we wrote about online art gallery 20x200 in our series profiling some of America’s Most Promising Startups. Founder Jen Bekman bootstrapped the site, which sells fine art and photography prints at affordable prices, into a profitable business with $1.2 million in revenue in 2008.

Online art retailers aren’t the kind of businesses venture capitalists typically fund. But Bekman just raised $825,000 to build out the business.

Here’s Tony Conrad, partner at True Ventures, in the NY Times:

“I love the idea of taking the friction out of the art world,” said Mr. Conrad. “A lot of people want to buy nice things, but don’t know how. Jen has built a business from that, which is growing very nicely and has a lot of repeat customers.”

“This really feels like a business that can disrupt the staid approach in the art world and make it more broadly accessible.”

Sell fine art prints over the Internet? No VC would seed this idea, most wouldn’t even take a meeting. This is one of those cases where execution made the difference. Bekman made it work from scratch. Now 20x200 has a track record and cash coming in. Now she can raise money to expand.

Cash flow positive. Growing revenue. Disruptive business model. If you’ve got those three things in place, it may not matter whether you’re the kind of business VCs typically fund.

Update, Oct. 27:

A few readers in the comments have asked for more detail about Bekman’s story, so I’m pasting our earlier piece on 20x200 below. You can also check out Tony Conrad’s post on why he invested.

Her Web site is officially called 20x200, but founder Jen Bekman calls her online mart the gateway drug to the art world. The Manhattan gallery owner launched the site in September 2007 to sell limited-edition prints and photography at prices low enough to attract first-time collectors, starting at $20 for a print from a run of 200. Bekman, 39, worked for Internet companies including Meetup before opening Jen Bekman Gallery, where prices range from $1,000 to $20,000. She bootstrapped the now-profitable Net venture for less than $1,000, with the help of contacts who donated time get the site running. She now runs it with a staff of five (plus contractors), who also operate her gallery and a third venture, photo competition Hey, Hot Shot! that leads her to many of the photographers for 20x200. She splits profits 50-50 with the artists, and her art-world cred assuages artists’ fears that their work will be commoditized. “People know that I am not just moving product,” she says. But the product moves nonetheless. The e-gallery has shipped more than 40,000 prints, with $1.2 million in revenue in 2008.
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