Jen Bekman, trailblazer and woman entrepreneur
I have written about Jen Bekmans company 20 x 200 before but since this week was a big art week for NYC I felt it was appropriate to write about someone who has changed the way people buy art. Although I have only known Jen a short time, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to call Jen my friend. She is quite an amazing person and her story is the story of true perseverance.
Jen grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. Attended Stuyvesant High School and then went on to Hunter College. A true city girl. College didn't really agree with her. She much preferred working and had several jobs in retail over the course of high school and college from The Gap, Benetton, Ann Taylor and even to selling shoes at Bergdoff Goodman. It was there that she learned you never know who someone is and make sure you treat everyone with respect. Never considered herself a good student and decided to say good-bye to college life and dropped out. She took a job at the Paramount and Royalton Hotels as a switchboard operator soon moving up to the GM's office. It was there that she first heard about the Internet as the GM left to get involved with a business that had something to do with the very beginnings of how to grow a business on that platform.
Intrigued with the Internet she reconnected with an old friend from high school who and had built a company called New York Online. She went to work there and that was when she fell in love with the Internet and building community. It was 1996, New York Online didn't get enough funding and Jen thought it would make sense to pack her bags and move to San Francisco where the Internet was booming to find a job and get involved with the new frontier.
Her first stop was working for Electric Minds a company funded by Softbank. Electric Minds was an online community of message boards that were moderated around arts, culture and ideas. Jen was the Director of Community. Unfortunately the company ran out of funding and soon closed shop. So she landed a few consulting gigs for a few companies including Tripod and Netscape doing community development. The gig at Netscape turned into a full time job where she helped grow a small business community by moderating this group to create user generated content. She left the day AOL acquired Netscape and moved over to InfoSeek to do the same thing. She liked InfoSeek because they were owned by Disney and was interested in working for a large media company where she would have the ability to plug into the larger communities available. There she was the director of Interactive Programming. Jen tried to get all the internal companies of Disney to sign on to create a studio to do mini-movies for online. Obviously way before its time and trying to get ESPN, Touchstone and ABC News, some of the other companies under the Disney umbrella, was found to be impossible. In many ways this job was the beginnings of her entrepreneurial spirit. She didn't speak their language in regards to powerpoints and spread sheets as well as being a young woman out of InfoSeek which was regarded as an Internet company that nobody really cared about made her task impossible. It was time to move on.
The Internet bubble was looming. Both Pop.com and Earthnoise had interesting jobs available. Earthnoise was attempting to get people to take their videos and put them online to share. Remember this was back in 2000. She took the job at Earthnoise that gave Jen the opportunity to pack her bags and get back to NYC as the Chief Creator Director. This was May 2000 and by January 2001 the company closed its doors.
The next eighteen months Jen found herself unemployed. She was making six figures in SF, driving a new car and no longer living with milk crates but living like an adult and now she was back to square one. Her friend introduced her to Scott Heiferman at Meetup who hired her as the VP of user development. Jen was interested in creating content and Scott was interested in creating a platform so after a short time he fired her. Around this time Scott has also created Photolog and her friend from SF, Caterina Fake was starting Flickr. Jen was starting to feel outside the loop and on the sidelines.
A friend of hers was getting ready to be in a group artist show. She watched how hard her friend worked to get ready for the show and then Jen went to the opening. She was shocked at how all that work went on the walls of a gallery and nobody from the gallery seemed to care. Jen was indignant that this show was literally set up not to succeed. Being in the trenches with her friend Jen started to see the art world differently. Even looking at artwork in the Pottery Barn catalogs for $250 made her she started think that something was off. She started asking herself why shouldn't everyone be able to live with art no matter what your income.
Jen opened up the Jen Bekman Gallery on the lower east side after seeing her friends show with the small amount left in her IRA account. She felt that she could do something different to help the artists grow and create a community around them. The gallery opened in 2003 and one year after she has been open she was behind in her rent by six months and wrote her landlord to give her a 33% discount on her rent. He turned around and gave it to her retroactively and she ended up now 3 months ahead. The lesson learned in that ask was transformative. Basically if you don't ask, you won't get it and trust your instincts. Then in 2005 she launched hot shot, a photo competition where all submissions had to be made online. She was highlighting photo bloggers in her gallery and trying to use the Internet as a larger platform for her gallery with newsletters and a blog and an online site. At that time for a gallery to have an online site was huge. In 2007 she was still barely making it financially. She was subletting her apartment to make cash, living on her mother's couch and friends places. At one point she had to have someone take her dog for a month because she didn't know where she would be sleeping that night. Although successful at having a gallery open after four years that success was not turning into financial independence.
In 2007 she had the idea for 20×200. Jen begged people to do anything she needed for free including building the platform and creating her logo. She had a friend do a question and answer with her that was written up for press, she blogged, she branded and created a buzz around 20X200 before it launched. After all Jen understood community from the very beginning. To watch the idea in her head actually translate to the website was empowering. 20X200 started making money the day it launched. After a year there was enough cash to actually hire people. To get to the next level, Jen raised a round of angel money and grew the business and eventually did a Series A round. She has been a leader in not only selling art online but creating a new community of people who can own art in their home regardless of their income. You can buy a piece for $20 or you can buy a piece for $2000 on the 20X200 site. The gallery still exist and the photo contest is still held every year.
As Jen's business grows, she has grown as an entrepreneur. Going through the process of writing a business plan, being able to hire developers, having to manage a growing company of now 20 people, having to manage your investors, having the ability to meet artists from across the globe who could potentially be represented by her to always thinking about how to push the business one more step is not always a clear road map but it is exciting.
In many ways after hearing about Jen's career it is not surprising that she ended up with her own business. The market was telling her that she had to do something on her own even though it would be a serious boot strap operation. Not sure she would have jumped into the gallery world if she knew how hard it would was going to be but does anyone? Jen was involved with the early stages of the Internet and now she is a pioneer in creating a new kind of art business using the Internet as her platform. She is really an inspiration to all entrepreneurs. Her perseverance to create something she knew would eventually work defines a great entrepreneur.