How to Make Your Business Bigger Than You with Alix Greenberg
Creating a legacy that gives back
Alix Greenberg is the founder & CEO of ArtSugar, a venture inspired after the passing of her beloved grandmother from pancreatic cancer and by her desire to make art more accessible. In today’s show, Alix shares her entrepreneurial journey and why she believes it’s so important to infuse yourself into your company’s vision and give back to those in need.
“You can do whatever you want with your life.”
With an M.A. from Christie’s and a BFA from Cornell, Art Sugar founder & CEO Alix Greenberg pivoted from a traditional art career working at Skarstedt Gallery and with Peter Tunney, to turn her side business Portraits for Good into a full-time effort with ArtSugar, after her grandma passed away of pancreatic cancer. She was very close with her and realized that life was too short; she wanted to do what she loved while scaling her business, so ArtSugar was born. Alix, who is a fine artist herself, first became involved with pancreatic research organization CodePurple Now to implement a socially responsible element into purchasing art. Now, ArtSugar donates proceeds from every purchase to notable charities, with partners including The Trevor Project, Moms for Moms and Gyrl Wonder – so artists and art-lovers can give back.
“No one or nothing should hold you back.”
Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group, an award-winning California-based facility service and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.
Welcome to the BeBetter podcast! Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learned as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to Be Better?
Michael Kurland (00:03):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Alix Greenberg, founder of ArtSugar. Alix, welcome to the show. Tell the audience a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Alix Greenberg (00:20):
Thanks so much for having me today. It’s great to be here on your podcast. What I do is I run ArtSugar. It’s an e-commerce platform, selling curated, eye-catching art at an accessible price point. Basically, I come from the fine art world, about eight years at different galleries, museums in New York City. I just didn’t feel like it was reaching a very wide audience. It’s super limiting, and I wanted to do something that democratized art rather than keeping it something exclusive and isolated from everyone else. ArtSugar came to be in 2017 October, so I’m almost at my four-year anniversary. I can’t even believe it.
Michael Kurland (01:16):
Congratulations on that. That’s awesome. I really liked your story, and what we talked about pre-show, about how you said you wanted to make the art world a more accessible place where work is presented in a cool way. I don’t know if I’m paraphrasing that or not, but I might be. But, from my point of view, I love what you just said. When I was first moving to California, and I was trying to decorate my apartment. I wanted some nice art, and I couldn’t find art unless I went into a gallery. I didn’t have, at that point in time and maybe even still now, the kind of money that I needed to spend on some sort of art. I didn’t know where to find it other than if I went to Home Goods and bought something that’s mass produced. Let’s get a bit more in-depth in that journey. Where did you start? What were you doing along the way? And then let’s really get into ArtSugar because it’s such a great concept.
Alix Greenberg (02:20):
Thank you. I grew up in Manhattan. My mom put me in finger painting class when I was four, so I guess I was hooked on art. It started at a very early age. I’m a very visual person. Visual learner. I think at that time, my “in” in college was using my artwork portfolio. I was very big in studio art in high school. I got into Cornell, which is where I ended up studying. I was a fine art major as a painter. I was in math, science and all that, too. It wasn’t just art. It was everything, which I think is good because it’s sort of a well-rounded education. I graduated, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do yet. I really liked art, and I wanted to do something on the business side, not in the practicing side, because I didn’t really see myself as having a life of an artist. I didn’t think that was feasible for me.
Michael Kurland (03:28):
Can I pause you and ask why isn’t the life of an artist feasible for you?
Alix Greenburg (03:32):
I felt really discouraged. I was graduating 2009. It was a very conceptual program. They may still be really conceptual, but it was all about the meaning behind everything you did. For me, I was just really technically good. I was a really good portrait artist and painter, drawer. That was my one thing, but nothing really had that much meaning to it. I really liked painting celebrities. I liked painting my family. It’s sort of embarrassing the way I’m saying it [laughs]. I was in class with people who were painting majors and then they would be under a sheath of cheesecloth or something and then they would be playing the guitar and be like, “This is what painting is.” I said, “What? I’m not smart enough to understand what you’re trying to say.” [Michael laughs] So, I knew it wasn’t for me because I was missing that sort of message of ‘I really want people to know this. I’m going to express it through my art. People are going to get it.’ To me, I didn’t want to be a starving artist and that’s how I probably would have been if I was just painting portraits of celebrities. I don’t know. It’s been done obviously before. So, that’s sort of why. I think I was really discouraged. The art professors there were like, “This is a difficult life. This isn’t easy.” Everything you need… All the money is like your hands, right? That’s a lot of pressure, I think it’s cool and I love building things. I love using my hands, but I knew it wasn’t for me at least, at the time. I really loved the art business. I thought it was really fascinating. I also knew I didn’t want to go into academia, so I didn’t want to get a PhD. I got a Master’s in Art Business through Christie’s Auction House.
Michael Kurland (05:41):
That’s really cool, too. Let me stop you there for a second. Can we talk a little bit more about that because I didn’t even know that was a thing.
Alix Greenberg (05:48):
Michael Kurland (05:48):
Maybe I’m just not in touch with that art world. Obviously, I know what Christie’s Auction House is. The fact that they offer a program, that’s amazing.
Alix Greenberg (05:57):
I actually don’t think it’s accredited anymore, but it was when I went. I took the GRE and everything. Christie’s has it. Sotheby’s has it, and then there are programs like Georgetown that I was considering. They have an art business program that’s like paired with like museum studies. A lot of universities offer this too, but I really liked the idea of being affiliated with a practical operation where I could potentially get a job, or it could be like a good networking things. That’s where my head was at that point. I was kind of sick of school learning, so I didn’t really want to go back to university. I needed a practical approach to whatever. Although, I love being in school. It’s great.
Michael Kurland (06:43):
I can totally agree with that. I went to school for four years, and I went for sports management, which I wish they also told me that this is going to be a hard life because it didn’t last very long. My point is, my favorite part of school was I did an internship for a minor league baseball team for a season. I learned more there than I did any of the classroom stuff. I’m also really not good at paying attention to a teacher. I can’t sit still for 45 minutes at a time, so that was difficult. Sorry to cut you off.
Alix Greenberg (07:16):
No, I’m the same way. At this point, I used to be good at sitting still and now I’m like there’s too much going on at once. I have a very, very short attention span. My Master’s program was good. I ended up interning at the auction house for a very long time. I then didn’t see a job in the future there at that point. I think I interviewed for, no joke, 20 administrative jobs, and I never got one. I guess HR kept putting me up for interviews like, “You’re a shoe-in! You’re a shoe-in!” And I never got one. I will say, I’m not a great employee. I like to do things my own way. I’m very entrepreneurial. I see a problem, I want to fix it. I don’t want to go through a million channels. I don’t like red tape and corporate structures, and I’m really bad at following rules. It’s a problem because it’s just not my professional life that affects, it’s also my personal life. I just feel like I’ve always liked to do things my own way, and I can’t really change that about myself.
Michael Kurland (08:34):
Alix Greenberg (08:34):
I kind of don’t want to because it’s cooler to be me. I look at people in certain corporate jobs. To what end? You can do whatever you want with your life. I think that’s so exciting, and no one or nothing should hold you back. It took me a long time to realize I need to just be an entrepreneur already. It took me like eight years, but I don’t think I was mature enough or ready to understand until I was ready, which is when I did it.
Michael Kurland (09:12):
You’re definitely ahead of the curve. I felt like you were describing me when you said, “I can’t listen to rules. Can’t get in line. I don’t follow chain of command.” I worked in the corporate world until I was 34.
Alix Greenberg (09:27):
Michael Kurland (09:27):
Alix Greenberg (09:27):
That’s how old I am.
Michael Kurland (09:27):
Well, there you go. But you’ve been doing this for four years. It took me until 34 to even start my company. We’ve been doing this for eight years now. I can tell you, you’re four years in. I got a couple of on you the years wise, but all those skills that you said were bad, obviously they’ve helped you to get to where you’re at. You don’t want to be any different. It’s amazing. I don’t listen to anyone now. I’m my own boss. If I get mad at my boss, it’s me. And then I can deal with my own red tape. Sorry to cut you off. Keep going.
Alix Greenberg (10:06):
It’s funny because my first and only employee is sitting right next to me. I’m trying to unravel everything in my brain from the last four years that it’s just been me. And now I’m trying to teach someone because I would like to share these things with someone so that I don’t have to do everything and then that person can learn and grow and become their own whoever they’re going to be. It’s only the third week, but it’s different.
Michael Kurland (10:38):
Progress. I love it. Now you guys have been opened for four years. Let’s rewind a little bit more, though. You were at Christie’s on your Masters and then you got that and then you were doing a bunch of interviews. You weren’t getting any interviews. So, what did you do in between the time that you left Christie’s and then you started ArtSugar?
Alix Greenberg (11:01):
I was at Christie’s. I was interning in different departments and then I was a floater. I was making an hourly wage kind of thing. I kept being put up for positions to interview and didn’t get them. One day, I was walking around Tribeca, and I don’t remember why, and this artist was sitting in front of a studio, cleaning off a bike. He was not wearing a shirt, and he was smoking a cigar. I was like, “This is so weird. I have to stop.” We started chatting. We ended up ordering from… I forgot the name. It was a really good restaurant down in Soho. Anyway, we started talking and then within four hours he offered me a job and said, “You’re hired. When can you start?” I called my parents. I said, “What do you guys think?” My dad said, “You definitely need to do this. It sounds right up your alley.” There was no limit to what I could do there. When I started, “Oh my God, this place is so disorganized.” I said, “I need to organize this whole thing. I need to create systems.” There were no systems. Any system I tried to create, he would push back. He hated my systems. He wanted to do it his own way. Master marketer. He’s really smart. It was completely the opposite of what I experienced at Christie’s.
Michael Kurland (12:37):
Sounds like chaos almost.
Alix Greenberg (12:39):
It was chaos. I knew I wasn’t going to grow there. I started floating my resume around probably 11 months in or something. I got a job really quickly at a very high-end gallery on the Upper East Side called Skarstedt, which I really, really loved because we sold some of these artists that I had admired for years. Everything was really historical, and it was all contemporary. He would corner the market in some of these like super famous artists and then by buying all their work and then resell them, so it was secondary market. We also worked with some primary market artists who I got to meet and work with as well. I was there for three or four years.
Michael Kurland (13:29):
Can I ask, what is the difference between- for the audience- what is the difference between a primary and secondary market for artists?
Alix Greenberg (13:36):
Primary market is you’re a gallery and you’re representing an artist, and the artist is creating work in the studio and then the gallery is selling the artwork basically on your behalf. No hands have been exchanged before. Secondary market is an artwork that has been purchased and then resold, or it’s an artwork that’s been through the auction process. It’s basically one has a provenance and one doesn’t, which the provenance will have a list of where an artwork has been.
Michael Kurland (14:15):
Got it. That’s awesome. Cool. I did not know that. Thank you. Hopefully, audience, you learned something new, too.
Alix Greenberg (14:22):
So, I was there and then also the writing was on the wall. This isn’t a place where I’m going to grow. It just was not for me, ultimately. I went to a museum where I was working in the gifting office and events. I managed the young collector group, so it was people probably from like 25 to 40 years old, all interested in art, either their families have collected, or they were involved with the museum or they were new to collecting or they just loved art. It was a networking kind of thing. I managed that. I really liked that because I’m very social and I liked all these people, but I was so bored because it’s development. Development’s really necessary and such a good job, but I didn’t feel challenged ever. It was a lot of like very wealthy people bugging me all day, and that’s fine, but there was such a customer service component of that job. It was actually all customer service, and that’s not what I want to do either.
Basically, what I did was I took aspects of every single job that I ever had and I put them together and I created ArtSugar because I’m doing customer service, artist management, working with artists, logistics and registrar work, moving products from one place to another, shipping. And then there’s all the other aspects. Also, the giving back component, which is something I really learned when I was working for the museums as a nonprofit and what that means and how you can use donating as a way to give back and also as a co-marketing opportunity. We market your organization. You market us. All of these kind of interesting ways to build awareness around whatever it is you’re doing. I definitely took all those things that I learned, and I’m using them now. I would say every opportunity was positive in one way or the other.
Michael Kurland (16:56):
You kind of had a crash course over the early part of your career of how to open ArtSugar. You just didn’t even know it until it was time to open ArtSugar. You get to the day where you’re just like, “F it. I’m opening my own thing.” Tell me how that came to be. Did you have the idea?
Alix Greenberg (17:18):
About a year into my working for the museum, I started to draw again because I had time on my hands. I said I wasn’t challenged by the job. I could like do that job, and I learned it in like a few months. I wasn’t growing anymore. I was drawing again. Someone saw one of my drawings and said, “Can I commission you to do a holiday card? I’ll pay you a hundred dollars” or something. It was so weird. I had never accepted money for my own art before. I said, “Sure,” and then I felt uncomfortable with it. I said, “I have to donate to the museum because I met you through the museum.” It was some weird way of thinking. So, I started donating to the museum and then I made an Instagram account for that little business I was doing. I built a little Squarespace account where people could drop in images of themselves or families. I would draw them and send them back as like a big color pencil drawing. I wasn’t using paint because I was in an apartment and didn’t have the proper ventilation. I was doing well with this. It was a little side project. A friend of mine said, “That’s really great you’re drawing. Do you really want to be like a freelancer or do you want to be an entrepreneur? I said, “An entrepreneurship sounds way cooler.”
I started like building things in the backend, reaching out to other artists on Instagram, who I thought may not have the logistics experience or even want to reach out to customers or want to ship artwork and maybe they needed my help. I reached out. I got a few on. I created another website, a very small Shopify. I started to do well. I would get like a few sales a week, which to me was a lot because I didn’t really know what I was doing. This was all new to me. I wasn’t paying for any marketing. They were all marketing on the business’s behalf. Now you can buy my work in this easy way. There’s a payment portal. Before it was through DM or whatever. I was doing that. It was going well, I had thought about scaling because just based on like data that I had cultivated using specific artists to see how this worked.
Then, my grandma passed away in June 2017, and I was not happy. Obviously, I wasn’t happy but it affected everything about me. I was so close to her. I saw her multiple times a week. She lived around the corner from me growing up. This was a huge blow. I’m still not over it. Not that you’re ever over a death, but I’m really not over it. I had so many emotions. One of them was anger. My grandma was really like no rules applied to her. I feel I get that from her a little bit or a lot. I felt I was kind of honoring her spirit or something, or maybe I was subconsciously, by doing what I did next. She died of pancreatic cancer, which is a horrible disease obviously. There’s not a lot of funding that goes into it because it’s so terminal and the mortality rates are high. I went to an organization, and I was introduced to Code Purple Now, which is an advocacy group for increasing the amount of funds that are allocated to pancreatic cancer and other terminal diseases that don’t really have any new findings out. They’ve been doing this Whipple procedure for 40 years. There’s not any new procedure.
Michael Kurland (21:55):
I want to pause you and talk about two things real quick. First of all, sorry for your loss of your grandmother. I had a grandfather who was very near and dear to me who died my senior year, so I can totally understand where you’re coming from. I got a lot from him still to this day. I know that’s hard. I want to say, you saw a hole in an industry.
Alix Greenberg (22:15):
Yeah. I was getting there.
Michael Kurland (22:25):
You infiltrated it. I still want you to get there, but I just want to say you infiltrated it and that’s awesome. I want you to tell the audience, again, you were saying this Whipple procedure and Code Purple. I just really want you to talk about when there’s a disease that is pretty terminal, they don’t fund it because there’s no reason to research it because it’s a death sentence. That’s what you were saying. That’s really important. That’s what Code Purple does. They fund money to diseases that don’t get that.
Alix Greenberg (23:03):
They are trying to change the terms in Washington, so it’s an advocacy thing. It sort of gives people a voice. I found out there are a lot of cancer organizations out there that raise money for research, but I felt like each one was like more depressing than the other. This one is actually doing something. There’s an action there whereas the others were not putting money into the research or maybe they are – I actually don’t know – but they’re actually trying to get laws passed. I think that that’s what is really cool about this organization. When I was introduced, and they were a small enough team, they got like really into what I was doing with my art. They’re like, “We have all these people. We want to pay you some money, their private money from the women who work there, to create portraits for some of our donors, whose parent or whose child has passed away from this horrible disease.” It just gave me this encouragement that I could really do this, and they had my back. It was sort of like therapy, non-therapy kind of thing. This was June, so I was doing that for them and then I had some money in the bank from working for several years.
A friend of mine worked for like a website kind of strategy company strategy thing, and I went to her and I said, “I need a deck and I need a website and I need all these things. Let’s do it.” I invested some of my money into it. I can tell you how much everything costs because at that point I didn’t know to go on Upwork and all these things, I just was like, “Let’s do it.” We were building this thing out for a few months. In the meantime, I was reaching out to every artist I could whose email addresses I could find on Instagram, inviting them to come to the platform. All they had to do was market the platform on behalf and collect commission. They weren’t going to be charged or anything for being on there. In September, I was finally ready to go. Obviously, I gave my notice to my job. They were pissed. It only made me more angry because of how they reacted. I just put my head down and worked really, really hard. I launched in October of 2017. That’s when ArtSugar launched officially. Before that, it had a different name. The whole part of the strategy thing was also renaming the business. We launched, and I remember between October, November, December of 2017, the site made $15,000. I thought that was a lot of money.
Michael Kurland (26:29):
That’s pretty gosh darn good for a launch. That’s awesome.
Alix Greenberg (26:34):
I know. It was something no one had seen before. I was like so new, and I had really, truly no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t paid for an ad. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I still don’t.
Michael Kurland (26:51):
Stop. You definitely have figured it out over the last couple of years. How are you guys doing now? Where is ArtSugar at now?
Alix Greenberg (27:01):
We’re almost four years in and getting ready for a holiday, which is going to be really fun. I have a lot of fun things planned, very different from before. I went through a round of funding. The funding was announced in July, so it’s very new. I’m just trying to spend money and grow the business as fast as I can, within reason, to see where we can really take this thing.
Michael Kurland (27:35):
I’ve been on your site. It’s amazing. I love the art that you have on there. It’s cool. It’s like cool and fresh and stuff that I would want to hang in my home. I’m actually looking to get a couple of pieces. I just got to get my wife to give me the okay, so we agree one. The one thing that really struck me about you, though, was you really, from the beginning, from the inception, you wanted to join forces with other nonprofits. So, you talked about Code Purple. You have a couple others that you’ve done some collabs with. Is that fair to say, or that you donate as a give back? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Alix Greenberg (28:20):
I do have a give back. I have some artists on the site who are wanting ArtSugar to donate to different organizations based on their sales. I have probably five that I donate on a continuous basis, but then there are some that I do more collaborative things with. I did something with Gyrl Wonder. We were both marketing it together to achieve the results we wanted. You can really do that with smaller organizations. You can’t really with big, unless you’re really a big company and you have some sort of like donation amount you’re promising. At this point, I don’t have those benchmarks or know how much a charity is going to make. It’s really fun to work with smaller ones that don’t need that. They can just wing it with me. We’ve had a few smaller ones. I really love working with God’s Love We Deliver. They’re not so small, but they’re just amazing people to work with. They’re in the West Village where I live, so they’re like close by. I like working with them. I just did a launch for a donation to an organization called Resolve, which is a fertility organization, which is another area that I am particularly passionate about.
A lot of it is me. This business is really me. I’m trying to make it so it’s not me. It should be bigger than me. I think it is bigger than me at this point, but a lot of what you see is a reflection of what my interests are and who I am. I do like it when the artist comes to me and they’re like, “Can we do this charity?” I’m like, “Yes, please. Bring me more ideas, please.”
Michael Kurland (30:32):
It is an extension of you and that’s what it has to be in the beginning because otherwise your vision becomes mumbo jumbo, right? Not yours, but anybody’s. And the same thing for us. When we started, it took me a year to figure out. I hated just making money, which sounds crazy, but I wanted to leave more of a legacy on this earth than just how much money was in my bank account. We did similar things, which we started a give back with Habitat for Humanity. And to your point, right off the bat, I said, “Hey, I want to start a collaboration with you, a give back, a one for one program where we donate a minute of service to Habitat for every service call we complete because that’s what we do. They said, “You can just write us a check for $5,000.” I said, “No. You don’t get it. I don’t have $5,000 to give you, but I can donate service to you guys.” They said, “Oh, okay.” We finally worked through the details. Again, to your point, they were great partnership to work with. Now, we’ve grown through a bunch of different nonprofits around our area and across the country that we give back with on a daily basis. It just makes you feel good, right? Branded Group has grown to be bigger than me now as well then I thought it was going to be when I first started. In the beginning, it was definitely a lot of an extension of who I was and that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing that ArtSugar is an extension of you. At some point, even when you grow bigger, it’ll still be an extension of you, just maybe not as much. That’s a good thing. You got your stamp on it. I love everything you’re doing.
Alix, this has been a great conversation. If the audience wants to get a hold of you or wants to check out ArtSugar, how can they do both of those things?
Alix Greenberg (32:22):
You can find ArtSugar online at artsugar.co. I’m very excited and I’ll mention it here even though I haven’t said it to anyone else. I haven’t publicly announced this. I’m going to be doing a mobile art gallery thing in the beginning of November, if you want to learn about that. It’s going to be a very cool experience. We may be coming through your city, so get on our email list. You can do that on the website at the bottom of the homepage. You can enter email that. You can also find us on Instagram @Artsugar.co.
Michael Kurland (33:04):
I love it. You just dropped some fresh new news on the show. Audience, check it out. If you guys want to check it out, it’s artsugar.co. It’s a mobile art learning studio kind of thing. Is that what I hear it as?
Alix Greenberg (33:21):
I really don’t want to say more because I feel like it’s something I shouldn’t have let slip, but it’s basically a mobile art gallery that’s super accessible and fun.
Michael Kurland (33:33):
I love it. Mobile art gallery. Sign up for the newsletter on artsugar.co. Alix, thank you very much for being on the show. Audience, until next time.
Thank you for tuning in! I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There is no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform.
To learn more Branded Group’s “Be Better” experience and how we provide industry-leading on-demand California-based facilities management, construction management, and special project implementation, visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.