Interview Foteini Valeonti
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Foteini Valeonti Founder of USEUM “The World’s Art Museum”

How did you get your business idea?

I did my undergraduate studies in Computer Science and then I did an MFA in Interactive Digital Media, where I discovered my passion and focused on the use of emerging technologies for the benefit of museums and cultural heritage. After my MFA, I was accepted at the UCL to do a part time Ph.D. in the same field and when the time came to pick my subject my supervisor said I should be very careful and select something that I am passionate about, because otherwise I will grow tired and fail. Taking his advice, I did a lot of thinking and realised that although there
were many online platforms specialising on various forms of content, e.g. Slideshare for presentations, Goodreads for books, such a platform had yet to emerge for art. Although there was plenty of art information online it was scattered all over the Internet, and you would always end up on Google Search. I did some research into previous ventures that tried to build the Go-To platform for art, and what I discovered was fascinating: all the Go-To platforms, such as the ones mentioned previously, are built upon crowdsourcing; moreover the ventures that tried to build such a platform for Art in the past had out ruled the users in every respect. So I thought I should give it a shot to build The Go-To platform for art through Crowdsourcing.

What’s the main drive that pushed you to start your business?

Given that both of my parents are academics my first exposure to the world of business was through my MFA studies at Ravensbourne College, which belongs to the City University of London. There I had a Business unit, which covered all the basics of setting up a company, putting together a business plan and so on. However what gave me the decision push towards this world was my first ever mentor, a self-made millionaire who was the one who told me this is what I should be doing and that the fact I didn’t have an MBA did not mean a thing, as long as I had the “fire in my belly”.

What is your biggest fear from starting up? How did you overcome it?

I think women by nature we want stability – we need to know some people and some things will always be there and we can fall back on them. When you are running a startup company stability is the last thing you get. After all, as I read somewhere “if you want to make a step forward, you must first lose your balance”. So stability is by far the biggest trade-off. There are a lot of “fears” relating to running a startup company and I believe the best way to
overcome them is by making sure you always make the best you can do on any given instance – because after all that’s all you can do. But the excitement of creating something out of nothing outweights any fear!

How do you describe your core business activities and what’s the key value that you offer to your customer?

Users on USEUM can browse 50,000 paintings spanning from the 1400s until today, send them to their friends as beautiful e-cards, share them on their social networks, and express their opinion through rating and also through comments and hearts. After all the users i.e. the crowd of USEUM is the only art curator of our vast exhibition! For the power users amongst them, they can also contribute in more ways, by tagging and by even adding artworks that don’t yet exist on USEUM.

For artists USEUM is the ideal portfolio platform. Painters and illustrators can promote their work on a platform that specialises on their medium (there’s no photography) and exhibit next to Old Masters. Best of all through USEUM artists can profit from operating their own USEUM Shop. Using our custom made tools they can design and sell prints and gifts world-wide in minutes and earn a commission from every sale!

What’s your perception for business on the web? Is it easier or harder?

I believe its easier, because the barriers to entry are very low – you don’t need a loan from the bank or any large upfront investment in order to start selling stuff through your WordPress blog, as you would do if you wanted to open up an old-school shop. However the competition is immense as you literally compete with the whole world, not just with the other shops on the street where you are located.

What is the strategy you use to expand your business over the web?

Make a great product and service and spread the word about it. So far we use as much as we can the free marketing channels. So in order to approach our initial artists we used direct e-mail, in order to spread the word about what we are doing we are using a lot of social media and now that we have our own platform we have implemented custom e-mail notifications that are automatically being sent out to our users in order to bring them back on our platform. We also use Search Engine Optimisation a lot and we currently receive 100,000 organic impressions on Google every month.

What do you look for when recruiting for your company? How many employees do you currently have?

First we are looking at how much the person is into what we are doing, how much they believe
it and they enjoy it. So if they were a power user of our platform before they applied that matters a lot. Then we look at how good they are in what they are doing by going over their previous work. Last depending on the position, for designers we look for people who have same taste with us whilst for programmers we look for people who are “tidy”. USEUM currently employs 8 people.

How do you describe your management style?

When there’s an important decision to be made I discuss it with the person from the team who’s the expert in the field, e.g. if it’s a technical matter then I discuss it with our programmers and then we together make the decision.

How do you describe yourself in 3 words?

Stressful. Realist-borderline-pessimist. Polite.

What is your favourite part about your business?

Working with incredibly capable people who share the same vision with you and to hear the feeback of the artists and the other people who can do on USEUM so many things they wanted to do, but couldn’t do before.

How do you advertise your business?

So far all our traction is purely organic through word of mouth as we have not invested any budget in marketing. The tools we use mainly are SEO, e-mail marketing and daily campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr and Instagram.

If you have one piece of advice to someone who is just starting out what would it be?

I would tell them you are doing the right thing because if your company does well you are the first to benefit, whilst creating value and job positions for others. Now in case it doesn’t, entrepreneurship is highly appreciated in job interviews as the experience you gain in a startup company is immense.

What is the value of WeHubs for you? How did WeHubs helped you or is expected to help you?

I believe there is value in what WeHubs is doing. All the business books we are reading are
written by men and the vast majority of the role models are men, so it would be great to have a hub that brings to light those rare examples of successful women leaders.