When long-time homeless advocate and serial entrepreneur Liz Powers first told people about her plan to combine her two passions and build the first online art marketplace for homeless, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged people, people continually congratulated her on founding such a noble charity.
And while she appreciated their thanks, there was just one little problem. ArtLifting, the company Liz Powers co-founded with her brother Spencer, isn’t a charity. It is a B Corp., meaning it’s a for-profit company firm that meets certain social and environmental standards. In plain language, it is an online art marketplace — albeit one whose merchandise comes from a somewhat unusual artist class: homeless, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged artists.
“We’re very clear that we’re not a charity, we’re simply a middleman for people earning their own income,” Powers told Bostino.
Before founding ArtLifting, Powers worked with the homeless and disabled communities in the city of Boston — and eventually found herself in charge of an annual art show that was selling out. This left her with two observations. The first was that some of the art was actually quite extraordinary. The second was that there was a greater demand in the market for the products than an annual physical sale of the art could contain.
So Powers, working with her co-founder and brother and the $4,000 they had between them, bootstrapped ArtLifting into existence in late 2013 — serving a handful of local artists in their Boston backyard. Today, the site features about 800 pieces of art from 51 artists across eight markets (Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey), with plans to expand into another seven markets by the end of 2016.
And that rapid ability to scale, Powers noted, was one of the more powerful appeals of bringing ArtLifting to market as a for-profit firm.
“I don’t think we could have moved this fast or this efficiently as a nonprofit as we have today, and I don’t think we would be appropriately classified as one,” Powers noted. “”That’s why we’ve been able to scale so quickly, because of the artists. They have not only unbelievable stories but unbelievable artwork. It’s just customers finally having a bridge to be able to buy it.”
Moreover, she noted, for the homeless and disabled artists who work on the site, selling their art on its merit is a large part of the psychological benefit of working with the marketplace.
“Too often my clients were used to people focusing on the negative,” Powers told TechCrunch. “The fact that they didn’t happen to have housing. Or are in a wheelchair. They didn’t want pity. They didn’t want a handout. They simply wanted the chance to share their talent. Our goal with ArtLifting is to create a movement celebrating strengths. And it works. It is amazing to see the domino effect on individuals’ lives when someone finally focuses on their strengths. It provides energy. And hope.”
It also creates money — in some cases quite a bit of it for artists who otherwise had little-to-no income stream. Original paintings on the site range from $800-$1,200, whereas prints can clock in between $75-$350. The site also offers accessories like phone cases and greeting cards that feature original artist’s designs. At the end of the transaction, 55 percent goes to the artist, while ArtLifting takes 45 percent.
And while human art buyers were the original market for ArtLifting work, recently its buyer base has shifted to corporate art departments. In the last year, ArtLifting has negotiated deals with Microsoft, Staples and Harvard for some big art purchases (though Powers declined to put an exact amount on them).
And it is those corporate buyers, Powers notes, where the business’s potential to become “absolutely huge” can really come into play.
“There are, we are learning everyday, a lot of very large companies [with] corporate social responsibility programs. And we’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn how very sincere these businesses are about wanting to support the homeless and disabled community — but, other than a 5K, they don’t know how to do it. We are one powerful way to give those companies tools to better make those efforts,” Powers said.
“And ArtLifting connects those firms to really amazing artwork and a label with the artist’s story, which works as both an employee and client retention tool.”
And, it seems, the concept of creating an alternative art market for a very different subset of American artists also has the ability to attract the interest of investors.
Two years in, and a few big corporate deals later to prove a concept that few understood at first, ArtLifting has bagged its first funding round.
The Boston-based startup has brought in a $1.1 million seed round backed by Blake Mycoskie (the founder of Toms Shoes), angel investor Joanne Wilson and social impact accelerator Tumml, among others.
“It’s exciting to see entrepreneurs focusing on strengths in our communities to create change,” Mycoskie said in a statement. “This is the perfect intersection of profit and purpose!”
The new funding, Powers noted, will aid in ArtLifting’s upcoming expansion to seven additional cities, which nearly doubles the business’ current footprint.
It’s the great (investment) slumpin’, Charlie Brown!
All kidding aside, headed into the final week of October, where ghouls and goblins rule, IT activity showed barely a murmur. Only one triple-digit transaction flitted across our data deluge — and that came from outside the United States, with insurance company Aegon investing $170 million in auxmoney, which bolsters the former’s presence into the German market for consumer loans.
You’d have to scale down several millions of dollars to find the next entry in our biggest investments by size, with a $30 million deal capital raise by business intelligence firm Pyramid Analytics, led by Viola Private Equity, with a repeat investment from Sequoia Capital. Pyramid, which is based in the Netherlands, said it would use the funding to boost staff and business reach. That company had struck an alliance with Microsoft earlier this year to integrate with the tech behemoth’s Power BI software.
Closely on the heels of that investment was the $28 million raised by Poynt, which makes POS retail terminals, geared toward credit cards and mobile phone wallets. That money has been earmarked to help Poynt start shipping its hardware this quarter. The funding came from Oak HC/FT, a venture fund that focuses on health care technology and financial technology.
Below are the Top 5 investments seen in the week that ended on Oct. 23, ranked by dollar amount (in millions).
And though we are not quite done with the month, a quick glance at the activity limping through October shows that there really was a dearth of significant activity, with only one deal surpassing the billion-dollar mark. The auxmoney investment mentioned above actually takes the second spot on the October ladder. See below for the Top 5 deals, ranked by dollar amount, for the month to date. Regionally speaking, the U.S. has dominated the month, and that is followed by Europe (auxmoney) and then China, through the Rong360 deal. Then we crisscross back to the states to find AppDirect and Kabbage rounding out any deals of size.
With an eye on FinTech, we can see that the deal tallies, excluding large transactions, have been bouncing along a bottom.
Could it be that the end of October brings some activity into the final months of the year as PE and other investors have been keeping their powder dry?
For more Investment updates, click here.