Robert Norton (Class of 1990)

Robert Norton (Class of 1990) is an entrepreneur working at the cross-section of tech and art. After taking a Masters in Modern History at Oxford University, Robert worked for Reuters news agency and AOL before going on to become MD of mobile gaming company King.Com and to co-found two major online art platforms: Saatchi Art and Sedition Art. Since 2015, Robert has been CEO and co-founder of Verisart, the first company to offer digital blockchain certification for art and collectibles. The company’s platform and tools are now used by over 50,000 creators and brands.

If we met you at a wedding, how would you describe what you do?
Well, sometimes I jokingly say our company is inventing the future! But often I will say I’m at the intersection of art and tech, or maybe that I work in the art world.

Your career has involved three quite different worlds - investors, artists and tech. Do you feel especially at home in one of those communities?
I’ve been at this intersection of art and tech now for, I guess, almost 15 years and I feel that I’m quite at home in that as a general domain. Both my parents did art degrees, oddly enough after my sister and I had graduated and my grandfather was a restorer, so I think that probably somewhere in my psyche I was drawn to that world. And then my wife has a gallery... So we’re very much now firmly in the art world.

I’m also very used to the world of investors and venture capitalists, because I’ve been doing that since I was 27 – my first startup was back in 1999; and I’ve been around the tech world since 1995 too – I’m not an engineer by training but I do have an appreciation for it,

Were you born at exactly the right time - all these technologies have coincided with you being in your business prime?
I do think that probably if you were coming into it right now, it might be an even more amazing time, in terms of AI tools: people in the industry say that what’s coming is an even more significant change than what we’ve been through. We have gone from analogue to digital, but we’re now going from ‘dumb’ digital to - potentially - super-smart, improved-intelligence digital.

You believe Web 3 will find a way to reward artists better than the current gatekeepers, such as Youtube and Spotify – how will that happen?
Web 3 is a really a new term, but ultimately it means the use of blockchain technology on the Internet. The idea is that artists become less vulnerable to intermediaries. The idea is to put more power back into the hands of individuals, by developing a decentralised layer of the Internet that is not in the control of one of the Big Four: Google, Microsoft or Apple or Facebook.

So, for musicians on Spotify, say, they are just one of millions and the platform’s algorithms are working more for the organisation itself less effectively for the individual. Musicians effectively build the value of the network, but the network owns the relationship between the musicians and their audience and can cut that link for any artist at any point. Web 3 is about having a transaction element directly between the creator and the owner, as in the case of an NFT or a non-fungible token.

We’re still very early days and there’s obviously a tendency in human evolution to replace one gatekeeper with another. And I’m not saying that we’re going to be immune to those type of outcomes.

Specifically with your company, what is your niche offering to this whole potential revolution?
We empower creators with blockchain technology and we do that in three ways. Firstly, we provide them with digital certificates: it’s very useful to be able to see remotely that this work that you’re buying actually is authorised by the creator.

We also enable creators to generate and sell digital collectibles. I think the thing that probably interests me most is where you’re placing a digital order but fulfilling a physical product. I think you’re going to just see more blended experiences because the reality is that we live in both worlds, on- and offline.

Visual artists have traditionally made money by selling a small number of original artworks for high prices – does the digital era give them a chance to be more ‘mass market’, like music or TV?
It can do - one of the artists that we worked really closely with is Shepard Fairey, who is maybe best known for the Obama Hope poster. The bread and butter of his business is selling $80-100 prints online. And he’s been doing them on Shopify from day one.

Then again, [like the traditional art market] a Banksy print that you picked up for $100 25 years ago might be worth like half a million today. Street artists are the most followed artists on the Internet, much more so than the more expensive artists selling one-off artworks, like a Hockney or Richter or Koons much. By a factor of ten times, if not more.

Artists can already be successful selling more directly to their audience, bypassing the online shopping mall type of environments like Amazon. [Art platform/marketplace] Art Blocks did $1.5 billion in sales last two years; Sotheby’s, with a 250-year head start, did 8 billion last year. So where Art Blocks goes in the next 100 years we don’t know. There’ll be somebody else that comes along and finds a whole new kind of way. And that’s particularly, I think, what’s exciting about art: creators do tend to look for new audiences because they feel that they get locked out of one place and they want to try something else.

Do you do you think that your involvement with art has maybe coincided with a time when artists of all types are more interested in how to market and monetize their work.
Look, It’s one thing, if you’re a street artist going out there and doing it; building your own community, building your own audience. But there are still some artists that still just want their gallery to do the work for them. It’s not one size fits all.

There are some new, really thorny questions around intellectual property rights around digitally-created art and media - which is good for those of us working in blockchain technology and looking at alternative ways of proving and certificating creative involvement in a work.

What are your personal qualities that have made you successful in these fields?
I like being able to find out the answer to my own questions and not other people’s questions, so that autonomy of basically being able to have a curious mind – to look for opportunities and then see how they work out. The challenge of taking an idea to reality.

I guess the qualities that you need to be an effective entrepreneur are drive, determination as well as being a good communicator. You have to be good at presenting. You need to obviously enrol people in your vision. And I really like working with young people. The majority of my team, by far, is under the age of 25.

Your CV is full of successes – but can you tell us about a business idea that did not work so well for you?  
I mean, famously my first start-up, Click Mango, was kind of an icon of dotcom success and failure. We were the fastest round of seed financing in Europe, we raised $5m in eight days and that was a big deal At the time but less than 20 months later we had to do a voluntary wind down of the company during the 2001 market. Looking back it was interesting to read the headlines in well known publications like The Economist that were all too willing to write off the future of e-commerce as a whole.  It’s a classic case of people over estimating the value of disruptive technology in the short term but underestimating its profound transformation over the long term. 

What were you feeling at that point. Did you feel invincible?
We definitely felt like little celebrities. We were on the TV and in the Wall Street Journal and all this kind of stuff.  At the first board meeting with our backers, we showed them our projected cash burn and all they said was well, shouldn’t the line be steeper? There was this tremendous desire to just rush your growth rate. I was 27 years old; we didn’t know any better. We just said, ‘Well. I guess we should be buying bigger offices and we should be hiring tonnes of people’. So there was this crazy expense, but that was because that’s what the investors seemed to be looking for. The sky seemed to be the limit.

That all then changed very significantly in the spring of 2001 and suddenly I said, ‘Oh wow, that was a bit of a dream. What happened there?’ What that taught me is that there are bubbles. And we’ve just come out of a of a similarly big bubble with Web 3 and NFTs. The amount of people that suddenly swarmed into NFT’s and crypto was a bubble. But like after the initial bubble, often the tech remains and ends up growing and now I see that there is a kind of cycle to it – which I wouldn’t have understood back then.

It’s the madness of crowds and that’s been a thing for a long time! And now we’re maybe going to build AI up into something that it may not be able to entirely deliver. I mean, look at self-driving cars. They’ve had big setbacks recently and a lot of them have been taken off the road in the States.

When you left university, you worked for Reuters…
Well, I did work very briefly in boxing promotion first! I thought I was going to join Reuters graduate training scheme. I’d done a lot of journalism at university. I really set my heart on joining Reuters but it didn’t work out when I applied – although I later did join in a different capacity.

Working for the boxing promoter Frank Maloney wasn’t part of the plan, but sometimes if you’re willing to take a chance it can lead to a very unique experience. A friend of mine sent me a good luck card for my finals. It had a picture of a boxer on it and I randomly thought, ‘Oh yeah - boxing promotion. Maybe I should do that.’

I wrote to the five biggest promoters and Frank Maloney left a voicemail at my mum’s house saying I could go and meet him! It was just a different world. It was really good.

My first day in the office, I did get a chair thrown at me by his brother, who was his head of security. But we never had any problems after that. I was a press officer for Lennox Lewis when he fought Frank Bruno at Cardiff Arms Park back in 1993. I spent four or five months in that world and it was an amazing time.

What was your first work experience?
I had a few weekend jobs - I worked in a shirt shop but the one I remember best was Our Price, the record shop. They had a Sunday shift for 14-year-olds could do from 12 to 6. And I remember going along and I had to get interviewed for my knowledge of music. It was questions about a very broad range of music and I got eight out of 20 questions right. I thought there’s no way they’re going to give me a job in this – but they did! It was quite difficult because it was harder to know about a lot of music, outside of current chart pop.

What subjects did you enjoy at school?
I did English, History and Latin at A-Level. I actually went up to Oxford to read English and then I changed to history. At school, English was my favourite and Jonathan Keates was an incredible teacher. I went to his leaving drinks a few years ago. I think I was very lucky to have great English teachers.

Which extracurricular activities did you enjoy?
I was involved in running the Politics Society, writing letters to cabinet members and inviting them to come and speak to us. Quite a few people came. Maybe the thing that left the biggest impression on me, though, was winning the Hugh Camrass travel scholarship between GCSE’s and A level. I went across Africa on an adventure-truck kind of thing with different people. I was by far the youngest person on it.

How did being at City shape you as a person?
It gave me an incredible appreciation for diversity of culture. The school, I think, has a mandate to bring in different people from different parts of London – it is not aiming to turn out one specific type of person. I think a lot of schools are now trying to find that kind of diversity and equality and inclusion in their culture but City had that when I was there in the 80s. Pupils from different areas and different social backgrounds. And, as a Jew, I felt very comfortable there. And I think the Indian communities did and the Bangladeshis, the Pakistanis or the people coming from East London… there was just a great mix. Maybe I didn’t really appreciate at the time. I just thought it was normal.

The other great thing was just getting into the habit of going to school. Other schools have quite local catchment areas but we were all coming in from all over London, experiencing the city in the rush hour. There was something about being a commuter, of the train with everybody going to work that also kind of had an impact on me.

It was a very nurturing environment. We had exceptional English teachers – Richard Blanche as well as Jonathan Keates - that really helped me and it was a school where you were free to succeed, and free to fail. It doesn’t churn everybody out in the same mould.

You have spent a lot of time in America – what can you say about the business culture there – does it differ to the UK?
They take more risks. I think a failure is something that is worn as a badge of success in America. We haven’t quite got to that non-judgmental position in the UK but it’s not as frowned upon as it used to be, I think.

They don’t pigeonhole you so much there. There’s no ceiling to what you can set out to do. I mean, look at Elon Musk, running four or five different businesses. And there are people who are, at once, actors, producers, directors, screenwriters. You can just do a lot of different things, and as long as you’re doing it well, you are allowed to do it. And I think here you’re still a little bit more put in a box.

What are qualities you would like to see either in a GCSE student or a graduate if you were going to have them working in your company?
I saw Barack Obama answer this question really well: you do the best you can in your job and you always look to do better and you look to solve problems - not to use any kind of problem as an excuse for not being able to get your work done.

I think that people who are successful, don’t just show up - they actively lean in and engage and want to learn and then when they see something that they think they could do better, they just do it: they might go off and work on a new piece of code and test it out or they might create a new process and find an improvement. There’s so many things to be done. Employers want people who can come in and not add to their problems!