Crowdfunding platform Emphas.is goes insolvent amid internal conflicts

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Author: Olivier LaurentI’m currently conducting an investigation to understand why the company has failed,” says Pauline Atkinson, the liquidator appointed to Emphas.is, the crowdfunding for photojournalism launched by photographer Karim Ben Khelifa, photo editor Tina Ahrens and open innovation evangelist Fanuel Dewever.
Emphas.is was born in early 2011 with an ambitious goal: to allow photojournalists to raise funds for their projects by appealing directly to their audiences. Emphas.is offered photographers a place to pitch an idea for a story, present their budget, and – if they received the necessary funds – keep in touch with backers with exclusive updates and early access to the work. A year later, Emphas.is expanded to the book publishing business, appointing Walter Tjantelé as publishing director. Emphas.is Publishing, said Tjantelé, was a “natural evolution” for the platform as the founders found that a lot of photographers “wanted to fund self-published books on our platform.”
In its two years of existence, Emphas.is helped raised $500,000 for photographers’ projects, financing work by Matt Eich, Pep Bonet, Tomas van Houtryve, Robin Hammond and Kadir van Lohuizen among many others. Yet, behind-the-scenes and as early as September 2012, the company’s financial situation was in tatters, and internal divisions were rampant, BJP has learned, leading to Emphas.is being declared insolvent this summer with more than €328,000 of debts on its books.
Speaking to BJP, Ben Khelifa explains that the “running of the platform, as well as tech support, hosting and licenses cost too much in comparison with the income we could raise through the 15% fee [we took] from projects that were successfully funded on the platform.” A fact confirmed by the company’s liquidator. “It would appear that some of the pricing models were wrong and that they didn’t have the volume of work they had anticipated,” Atkinson says.
For Ben Khelifa, the company would have needed a “substantial investment to grow Emphas.is’ reach and staff to get to a sustainable level with a much larger number of projects and books on the platform,” he says. “We were confident that we could find an investor but, unfortunately, after numerous talks none of the potential partners came through.”
BJP understands that up to three investors had expressed interest in the company, with one “willing to put in $250,000 to try and salvage the company,” says Atkinson. “Then, he pulled away. I think he liked the concept but probably realised, when he did his due-diligence, that the company wasn’t going to be turned around. And looking at the books, it seems that $250,000 may not have been enough to sort the company out,” as, when it was declared insolvent this summer, Emphas.is had accumulated €328,661 of debts.
Ben Khelifa is quick to point out that the “lion share of the debt is owed to the founders for their unpaid director fees and development done by one of the co-founders’ companies. The overall debt due to third-party creditors only forms 16% of that figure,” he says. “At all times, us, the directors sought to minimise the exposure of these creditors and did so to our own financial detriment.”
Tjantelé dispute that fact, explaining that Emphas.is was already insolvent in September 2012 and should have been shut down then. “I did realise a year ago that the debts Emphas.is had were too big,” says the former publishing director who had invested €100,000 in the company and resigned in late 2012. “Emphas.is had two types of debts – the real debts, which are what the photographers who raised money on the platform were owed; and the other debts, which are what the shareholders, including myself, were owed. And already last year, I realised that we were living on money that was supposed to be used for other things. I could see that the money we received from funding wasn’t sufficient to pay photographers.”
At that time, Tjantelé and Ben Khelifa were in direct conflict, says the former publishing director. “I simply couldn’t work with him any longer,” he tells BJP. “Karim just wanted to continue because he thought he would be able to find money from investors, but I thought it was too big of a risk to do that. I thought Emphas.is should have been liquidated then. I think they should have been more honest towards the photographers.”
Ben Khelifa confirms that the shareholders met in late 2012 to discuss the company’s financial situation, but, he adds, “we, including Mr Tjantelé, voted unanimously in favour of pursuing ongoing investment opportunities. Perhaps Walter has forgotten this, the minutes of the shareholders meeting are recorded and are proof of this.”
He adds: “It is the nature of a start-up, that you need investments at various points of the business development, so the fact that we needed an investment in itself was clear to everyone involved. In order to make a crowdfunding platform work we needed to reach a critical mass. In order to reach a critical mass we needed investors to grow our reach and our team.”

Read more: http://www.bjp-online.com/british-journal-of-photography/news/2300387/crowdfunding-platform-emphasis-goes-insolvent-amid-internal-conflicts#ixzz2hiYv7ZXc
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