Michael Karnjanaprakorn's invested a lot of his career into developing culture.

After successfully growing Skillshare to over 8 million active users, he exited as CEO of the peer-to-peer learning community in 2017. Karnjanaprakorn's company enabled people to take lessons on entrepreneurship, design, and other creative endeavors from the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk, Marc Ecko, and Seth Godin, making good upon his personal mission of democratizing education. Citing not only Skillshare, but his work as an early team member at Behance, Michael views much of his work as democratizating institutional pillars, with Otis hoping to level the playing field for investment.

Otis lets you buy ‘shares’ of cultural artifacts, with their first few offerings including pieces by Kehinde Wiley, KAWS, and Shelby and Sandy, as well as an '85 Jordan and Supreme collection, too. In the finance world, these pieces are considered alternative investments, which comprise a lion's share of family offices and billionaires' wealth. And while the startup community first viewed the idea of fractional investment in a similar vein to other investment tools, the art community pushed back with heavy criticism.

Fearing that companies like Otis would contribute to this sterile approach of looking at art strictly as an asset without any regard to cultural significance or public showing, the idea of profiting from these items as they were traded from storage unit to storage unit seemed hollow and vulture-like. However, Karnjanaprakorn not only assures me that he’s out to challenge that, but also to change the landscape for good.

As the concept of investment has always seemed to be just numbers on a screen, going from something foreign to physical items operating off concrete terms of supply and demand seems much more enticing. As Covid-19 rocked the stock market to new daily lows, StockX’s resell market of “things” like KAWS collectibles, sneakers, and streetwear stayed relatively strong. In times like these, perhaps Michael is right that this is our generation's chance to make culture our investment class.

How did you get into sneakers and streetwear?

I think my whole life has been about culture. I grew up in Newport News around the same time that Pharrell, Timbaland, and Missy Elliott took off, so I was around to see that. I've always been into art, always bought sneakers. But when I started looking at the trends over the past five years, I noticed two things.

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Number one, people are becoming more comfortable with investing, especially with apps like Robinhood or Cash App. Five years ago, people would say that nobody our age invests, right? Now they do, but you had to redefine it and do it in a different way.

The second thing was noticing all these secondary market places popping up around sneakers, streetwear, and luxury items, like StockX and The RealReal. Then in art, I noticed that there were all these communities that were very passionate about culture. So, I started thinking: “What would it look like if I combined those two trends together?”

Who would you say is the Otis audience? Is it artists? Collectors? Or both?

We are a collector, a museum, and a gallery. We create educational content. We're also an auction house and an exchange rolled into one. I think if you had to recreate something for our generation, you have to rethink what that looks like and combine the pieces of what works in the world to create a new thing.

The unique thing about culture as an asset class is there's this financial side, but also the cultural side. A lot of people love an artist, but can't own any of those artworks. We're not trying to replace the art in your house. We're trying to give you access to the art that's really inaccessible because of price or because of the gallery model. It's very hard to get access to a KAWS work from a gallery, so we want to give you access whether it's financially or culturally, and the way we can do that is by putting artists first.

We're trying to build a massive audience online, educate them about the gallery and artists, then allow everyone to co-own these works together. From there, they get displayed publicly in our space — or if there's a museum show, we'll loan it out to them. We always want to make sure this is a public good and it's accessible for anyone.

There's often this sterile, “finance guy” connotation to strictly looking at art as an asset that essentially gets traded between storage units. For artifacts like the KAWS pieces, and vintage Jordans... are people going to be able to see it even if they don’t own a share on Otis?

It’s a little hard right now with coronavirus, but we have a space in the East Village on East 4th Street. It's right down the street from a lot of other art galleries and stores, like KITH and Supreme. The plan is to open it up for five or six days per week where anyone can come and view these things. We'll also do rotating exhibitions and events there, like a secret pop up or curated show of emerging artists. We want these to be cultural destinations in every single city that we're in, starting with New York.\

What would you say is your favorite artifact that Otis owns right now?

The drop that we did this week was with Shelby and Sandy. That one is pretty interesting because that's us working with the artist directly. They built a pretty massive following online and sell directly to their fanbase through Instagram. We worked with them to bring a work to market that allowed anyone that couldn't afford a full piece to own a share.

The sneakers we are getting are very, very rare. And then we're expanding into some new categories this year that I think is really fun. We're looking into royalties, whether it's music or movies. We started off with physical assets and we're always going to do that, but we're considering digital assets as well.

Do you plan on Otis having a role in helping promote up-and-comers in the art world as well?

Yeah, I think at some point we'd love to work with and represent artists directly. I don't think we're there yet. I think we still need to build out our audience and prove that we can create this new model. When we say we want to be a gallery, that's partly these physical spaces that have museum-level exhibitions, events and programming, but also working with artists directly. We think our model is extremely beneficial for artists because they can still retain partial ownership of the works they've created.

If someone was to look back on Otis years from now and say that it made an impact in the art market, what do you think that would be?

That we unlocked access, education, and brought a lot of new people into the art market that weren't participating previously. And then for artists, that we created a model where they can directly connect with their audience in a new and different way. I think if we zoom out in like five to 10 years, and we become one of the big galleries in the world, that would be pretty interesting, too.

  • WordsJoe Genest
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