08/19/2014 10:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Gertrude founder, Kenneth Schlenker, and Gertrude Curator, Astrid de Maismont, converse with Parisian Curator, Ariane de Segur

Gertrude is the world's network for art events. It helps people gather to discuss and collect art all over the world. With a hundred and twenty curators and over twelve thousand guests to date, Gertrude is the world's largest in-person network for art.

"Meet Art" proposes Gertrude's inviting and coquettish landing-page. A fast-growing New York City start-up founded in 2012, Gertrude stands out among a plethora of art start-ups, who have shaken up the stodgy art world over the past few years. Whereas the biggest names, Paddle8, Artspace and Artsy, have dragged art auctions and sales into the digital era, Gertrude offers a startling twist on the internet revolution: it leverages technology to offer innovative off-line experiences.

Named after art-doyenne Gertrude Stein -- who routinely gathered artists, writers and collectors in her left-bank Parisian apartment -- Gertrude organizes pop-up salons for young collectors and aficionados to discuss, explore, and (of course) purchase contemporary art. The salons are as much social events as educational workshops, as much commercial ventures as opportunities for dialogue with artists and curators.

If there are two basic species of start-ups, market rationalizers and market innovators, Gertrude belongs to the latter. Market rationalizers seek to streamline inefficient markets, reducing costs and increasing transparency through a mixture of technology and ingenuity. Market innovators, by contrast, invent experiences that we never knew we needed, but secretly craved.

For too long the contemporary art world has been the exclusive redoubt of insiders, tastemakers, and a privileged elite. Gertrude has exploded this paradigm, and fashioned a conversational forum that democratizes and demystifies contemporary art. Met with enthusiastic crowds, and adulatory press (including a recent Sunday piece in the New York Times), Gertrude is one of my favorite start-ups around.

To find out a bit more about the genesis of this young start-up, I interviewed Gertrude's founder: Kenneth Schlenker.

How has it been founding a start-up in New York City? What is the ecosystem like here?

New York is an amazing place to start a business. I can say that because I'm originally from France and I made the conscious decision to start a business here instead.

There are three things that are fundamentally better for an entrepreneur in New York: (1) a "start over" immigrant culture which makes people open to taking risks, (2) access to capital, which makes it much easier to get big ideas funded, and (3) an incredible diversity and breadth of talent, from developers and artists, to marketing specialists and financial gurus. They all come from different backgrounds, speak different languages and bring different visions to the table. It's a wealth of talent you won't find anywhere else.

Is it really that different from Paris or the West Coast?

The difference between what I know, which is Paris and San Francisco, and New York, is that here there is a huge diversity of fields present in this city. San Francisco has amazing engineering and developing talent. Paris has great engineers and lawyers and social scientists. But in New York, there is the best of everything. If you're looking for someone who knows the Mexican art scene, you'll find that person in New York, or that person will come to New York. If you're looking for a great copywriter, who's very dynamic and ambitious, you'll find that in New York.

That makes New York very unique.

Also, there's great coffee.

However, Gertrude is focused on the Art World, which is quite well-developed in Paris.

That's true, and I really hesitated between starting this company here and starting it in Paris. There are two elements I considered. One was analytical: Which city offers the best opportunities? One was very personal: In which city do I have the strongest connections and the deepest understanding of local culture?

From the personal side, Paris was much better. I really hesitated between the two. However, I met tons of other French entrepreneurs who said: Stay here in New York. And I did and I'm glad I did.

In New York you don't have to have the "right" connections to get a business off the ground. You just have to have a great project and be passionate about it. Your passion becomes a magnet that attracts a lot of people who will give you a chance. They'll spend at least five minutes hearing you out. Then, if you're not convincing, you won't hear from them again. But you will always get at least one shot.

In other cities, you don't even get that chance without knowing the right people. There's a more open attitude here towards new ideas and new projects.

So what are the most important lessons you learned over the past couple years?

The first thing I learned is that you can create something with very little. We worked on Gertrude for the first six months and barely survived with $25,000. But once you build something, people start using your service and get excited about it. And ultimately, one of those people who gets excited will be the first person to write a check.

Second Lesson: There are good investors and bad investors and they are completely different. When you are raising money, the money is less important than who is giving you the money. The people who give you the money are the ones who will give you advice and contribute to building your company. So don't just take any money.

In New York there are lots of people who are angel investors and are very engaged in helping start-ups succeed. There's a very large difference between an angel investor and someone who is just buying stock and expecting a return. An angel commits to helping a start-up make it. The investment actually comes with work. In that respect, we've been enormously lucky with our investors.

Third Lesson: If you have a great story to tell, you'll get a lot of people to write about it. New York is an easy place for that because there is an incredible media concentration here. There were a lot of people excited about Gertrude, like the New York Times. I don't think it would have been as easy to get great press in another city.

What do you think young start-ups require to grow?

Early stage start-ups need a lot of guidance. When I was starting out, I needed to figure out a bunch of things: How do I employ people? How do I raise money? What are the best mechanisms for doing that? You really need an experienced lawyer to help you solve these problems. I spent a lot of time on the phone with mine.

How did you attract talent?

Our lead developer, Maxime Germain, is an interesting story. When I was working at Google and he was only 15 years old, he found me on Facebook and sent me a message asking how he could do an internship at Google. I told him to go back to school and write me in a few years. And he did. He's French as well, and had found an internship in New York. When I was starting Gertrude, we sat down for coffee because I was looking for a developer. I told him what I wanted to build and he came into the office and in half a day he built the full infrastructure of the site. I told him to quit his job and come work for us and he did.

We now have a team of 3 experienced engineers and things are much more structured.

How about your curator, Astrid de Maismont?

Astrid and I met through a friend in New York. She was the managing editor at Annual, a contemporary art magazine. We knew that technology would transform the art world -- but when we looked at technology start-ups like Artspace, Paddle8 and Artsy, we thought they were missing out on the social aspect of art. Art is an experience, not an online image. It is about discussing things, and bringing people together. It got me thinking about starting a company.

A couple months later I quit my job at Google and created Gertrude. Another few months down the line, I needed a curator. I called Astrid in Paris and asked if she wanted to come help us. She quit her job and joined the team at Gertrude. She has personally curated over 30 salons and helped bring on board some of the world's most renowned curators.

What has been your proudest accomplishment with Gertrude to date?

Our Salons! They're almost all here.