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Gavi Wolf: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of Indiewalls

Running a company is an emotional rollercoaster. You can land your biggest account on Monday and then deal with major insurance or legal problem on Tuesday. You need to be ready for anything, and be able to stay level-headed through it all.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gavi Wolf, CEO and Co-Founder of Indiewalls — a New York City-based art marketplace and consultancy. With a passion that sits at the intersection of art, design, and technology, Gavi founded Indiewalls in 2011 alongside President Ari Grazi, in response to the growing needs for well-curated, locally sourced artwork for commercial and hospitality spaces. Part curated art marketplace and part corporate art curator, Indiewalls marries local talent with properties undergoing a refresh, or those that will be newly built. Trusted by the world’s top interior design firms, hospitality brands, and Fortune 500 companies, Indiewalls has completed art collections, collaborations, and installations for such global names as Google, LinkedIn, Marriott International, Starbucks, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels, and Verizon, among others.

In 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit close to home, Gavi and Ari felt the need to rethink how to facilitate their network of creatives. The duo then founded Indiesigns, an initiative whereby independent artists produce COVID-19 signage for commercial environments that depicts a positive, design-forward aesthetic. In addition to Indiesigns, Gavi and Ari launched #GiveASign, a not-for-profit initiative whereby independent artists design billboard-sized artwork with positive affirmations for healthcare workers. #GiveASign has been installed outside such New York City hospitals as New York Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, Lenox Hill Hospital, and NYU Langone Hospital.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always been passionate about creativity, operations and entrepreneurship. Starting and evolving Indiewalls and now Indiesigns has always been about bringing together these three interests. Indiewalls focuses on bringing more original and creative artwork to commercial spaces. And now with Indiesigns we are looking to bring that creativity and originality to the commercial signage industry.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

At the beginning we were very focused on getting customers to find and buy art in the way we believed was best. However, we failed to realize that the systems we were putting in place were better for us but not necessarily better for the customer. For example, we really wanted hotels buying all their art online. We thought that’s the way the world was going. But it turns out buyers spending $20,000- $500,000 on art want a more traditional customer experience. We transitioned to giving our team tools for searching online and then presenting artwork to clients in the way they wanted to browse and purchase. Now with Indiesigns, we are squarely focused on customers and how they want to buy. Schools and hotel groups want collections of signs that are geared towards them specifically; they want them to be aesthetically pleasing, affordable, and easy to purchase. So we are making sure to make that happen for them.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

We were open to changing our methods to get customers what they truly wanted. An example of this is determining how customers want to experience the service we are providing. Do they want to talk over email, phone or purchase directly online? Figuring that out has been critical for us. Another really important piece to the puzzle is making sure you are not spending more money than you make. It seems obvious but time does cost money and so making sure we focus on customers that want our services and telling some customers we are not the right fit has made our lives easier. You can’t work with everyone, so you shouldn’t feel bad about excluding those that don’t fit your target customer demographic.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. It’s all about the bottom line (i.e. profit). Having higher revenue is only good if it outpaces growth in expenses. If not, it just means more headaches.

2. Sales growth can be hard to control. But you can always control who you work with. Working with people you respect and enjoy being around is critical to being in a good headspace day to day. I would say this is most important in business partners. I was lucky to start the company with a close friend of mine, and we continue to have a very healthy relationship.

3. Don’t be scared to make quick and significant changes. You’re better off trying new things and failing than staying with the same old things and never finding out what could have worked. When Coronavirus hit we quickly switched to being fully remote. We broke our lease and gave up our office for good. I was always opposed to fully remote, but I figured, let’s give it a shot. There will be no shortage of landlords looking for our rent money if we decide to go back to an office in the future.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of strong relationships. When we first started I just figured if we have a better product people will buy it. But in reality in the B2B world, people don’t want to spend money on things without having a high level of trust and that trust comes with long term relationships. Start developing those early and keep them up.

5. Running a company is an emotional rollercoaster. You can land your biggest account on Monday and then deal with major insurance or legal problem on Tuesday. You need to be ready for anything, and be able to stay level-headed through it all.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This is a tough one. Burnout is a real problem among founders. It is incredibly helpful to have a business partner, or a high-up employee, who can provide emotional balance for you. That could mean one of you is pragmatic and naturally skeptical, and one person who is a dreamer and always sees the glass half full. At Indiewalls, I am more of the pragmatic, operation-minded partner and Ari is the unstoppable positive energy partner. So much of burnout is about a headspace. Having someone to pull you out of that headspace is a lifesaver. And if you can’t find that balance within your team, try to lean on your friends, spouse, etc. for that support and balance.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There is one individual who runs a large web development agency who I often look to for advice. At one point we were spending a lot of money and time building technology that I thought would help us get more customers. This individual stopped me and explained that I needed to focus more on what the customer wanted and needed to focus on profitability. The next day I shut down multiple tech projects we were working on. We saved a ton of money and realized our customers didn’t want or need what we were building. He has given countless pieces of good advice over time. There are some people you just click with that give you the right type of advice. He is one of them.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally, I would like to complete some extensive portion of the Appalachian Trail, as a solo hike (I’ve already done small parts of it with other people). Professionally, I have had a more recent goal of creating a company that functions from all over the world. I would like our company to have a truly multinational team where people can work from wherever they want in a more flexible manner. That’s exciting to me.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

That’s a big question. I have a lot of aspirations and businesses I would like to start. But I don’t think I am at the point yet where I am thinking about a legacy. I’ll start thinking about my legacy in my late 40 or early 50s :-)

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I have had a particular interest in starting a movement of entrepreneurship for underprivileged youth. I have been working with a few schools through VE Enterprise to try to achieve that. While there are lots of barriers in all types of businesses, I think entrepreneurship gives people an opportunity to do something without having to worry about who you are or where you come from. It is about the company you create, the product you produce, the service you offer. And like I said above, so much of business is about relationships. So helping underprivileged youth build those skills is my hope.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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