Special objects for all: growing an online auction business with Catawiki

Developing an online auction site into the large and still-growing, Frank Pon explains the growth of Catawiki.

Making special objects available for everyone. Founded in 2008, Catawiki was originally designed as a website where collectors could manage and keep track of their collections online. Combining the words ‘catalogue’ and ‘wiki’, Catawiki has grown rapidly, seeing millions of visitors to the site every month. Based in Amsterdam, Frank Pon, UK, general manager and international markets, explains the process.

What does your business do?

Catawiki is an online auction website for special objects. It operates in a space between traditional auction houses (for example, Sothebys and Christies) and online auction websites such as eBay. Most objects on Catawiki have a fascinating story and you won’t be able to find them in an average store. Before being auctioned, each object is screened by an extensive team of experts. They help guarantee a varied and high quality selection of lots in our auctions. Nowadays, for millions of people around the world, Catawiki is the place to go for buying and selling special objects.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Catawiki was originally founded by René Schoenmakers and Marco Jansen. Rene was an avid comic book collector while Marco specialised in website development. The two put together Catawiki as a compendium for collectors catalogues (hence the name Catawiki) and it became a destination where collectors could manage their collections online. In 2011, Catawiki started hosting weekly online auctions in various categories such as art, comics, stamps, antiques, vintage watches and classic cars and has since expanded to other areas.

How did you know there was a market for it?

There has always been a market for rare, unique and collectable items, however purchasing them online has always also contained a sense of risk. Catawiki aimed to open this market up to more people while also maintaining some of the quality control expected from a more traditional auction house. This is why we use the expert system – people can bid on items with greater confidence.

Every week tens of thousands of fascinating objects are available in our auctions. A few examples of objects that have been auctioned on Catawiki in the past include: a complete mammoth skeleton, the most expensive LEGO brick in the world, the pope’s hat, a meteorite from Mars, Napoleon’s hair, the oldest condom in the world and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. These unique objects have proved popular – just last month we sold our three millionth lot!

How did you raise funding, and why?

Catawiki has been through to series C funding with its most recent round raising £52 million in capital from backers including Accel Partners (who have also previously backed Facebook and Spotify). Going through series C funding has allowed us to continue to expand globally – we reach a truly global audience and are website is available in 16 languages. Furthermore, we have almost 200 experts, more than 500 employees and bases in multiple countries across Europe – this backing has allowed us to maintain and grow our global presence while ensuring every object sold on Catawiki remains special!

Describe your business model in brief.

We curate and manage weekly online auctions for special objects with an expected value above 75 pounds. We auction of around 35.000 lots per week that are all curated by our experts. We charge commission on each lot sold (but nothing for those that are unsold) the buyer is charged nine per cent and the seller 12.5 per cent of the sale price. This is in general much lower than what people have to pay to brick and mortar auction houses.

Each of our auctions is looked after by an expert in the field who ensures we have a good variety and high quality offering in each auction every single week. All our auctions are set to begin at 11.00am (GMT) each Friday so it is easy to keep track of when the bidding action begins.

What was your first big milestone and when did you cross it?

One of the most exciting milestones we have ever achieved was being awarded as the fastest growing company in Europe by Deloitte in 2015 – this was following a growth of 45,000% in revenue over 4 years! However, one of the most recent achievements for us was having passed the 3 million mark on lots sold – we’re hugely proud to have helped people sell that many items and to have helped so many people find a special object!

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

Test and learn and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The Catawiki culture is that we constantly try new things. If these things don’t work then, at least we tried! Our biggest successes sometimes come from things we did not expect. If we hadn’t tried, we would never have known!

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

We want to become the biggest website for buying and selling special objects. We are now growing fast in Europe, but there are still a lot of people that don’t know about, so, there is still a lot of potential.

What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?

We strongly believe that everyone should be able to buy and sell special objects every day in an exciting, easy and secure manner.

Owen Gough

Owen Gough

Owen Gough is a reporter for SmallBusiness.co.uk. He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...