Online crowdfunding has been around since fans of the rock group Marillion banded together to raise money for a 1997 tour, but only recently has it exploded in popularity. Among the major fundraising platforms, Greenpoint, Brooklyn-based Kickstarter alone has helped individuals raise over a billion dollars since 2009.
But while there are ample opportunities to cash in, the process of doing so can be overwhelming. Attempting to make it less so are crowdfunding classes and workshops, which are available both online and off- within New York City. The NYC Department of Small Business Services offers a crowdfunding bootcamp on March 19 in Brooklyn and a “How to Finance Your Business With Crowdfunding” training on March 24 in Queens; the Downtown Community Television Center is presenting a “Crowdfunding + Social Media” workshop targeted to filmmakers on March 26 at its 87 Lafayette Street home; Playcrafting NYC conducts “Crowdfunding for Indie Game Developers” on April 16 at Microsoft’s 11 Times Square office.
The first task for would-be crowdfunders is to identify their existing audience, says Erica Anderson, crowd-funding director for Seed&Spark, a site for filmmakers that offers a free “Crowd-funding to Build Independence” workshop, which it has presented across the country. (Check seedandspark.com for upcoming listings.) Think about “how you’re talking to them, where you’re talking to them, and, really, what it means to build an audience,” says Anderson, “so that you can continue to make the projects that you want to make, and you’re bringing an audience along with you for each project and not having to start over completely.”
Building a crowd before the campaign begins is key, says Lee Schneider, founder of the online Digital Fundraising School, which offers instruction on such topics as image layout and how to work with the media. “If you aren’t famous, or you don’t have a built-in audience before you start, it is likely that your campaign will fail without that social support,” he says.
One trick Schneider teaches involves creating a statement on why you’re conducting your campaign, then searching important keywords from that statement on Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Topsy. “Get a sense of who is speaking about your topic with the loudest voice online,” he suggests. “Follow them, comment on their posts, and that will give you a start to building a community.”
At a recent Seed&Spark workshop at BRIC Arts Media House in Brooklyn, Anderson stressed the importance of devising a pitch video that’s short (about 90 seconds) and will “make us feel something and engage us in your story” — something “as good as the film that you are raising money for.”
But even crowdfunders who aren’t filmmakers have to have a quality video. Jenny Bruce, an Upper West Side–based singer-songwriter, says she decided to re-record a video for the Kickstarter campaign for her EP Fireflyafter she realized it wasn’t capturing the right image. “My hair was back in a bun and I was wearing my glasses,” she says. “I filmed it on my laptop at a funny angle and in poor lighting. I thought it was cool and spontaneous. None of my test audience agreed.”
Another issue that crowdfunders often struggle with is setting a rewards structure. At the BRIC workshop, Anderson advised choosing incentives that are personal to your audience, visual, shareable, and low-cost. They also should not need to be manufactured, if possible, and available for a limited time, because “getting to 30 percent [of your goal] as quickly as possible is super important.” She also recommended that you avoid directly asking for funders’ help; rather, think of your campaign as “a journey that you would like people to join you [on] with a contribution.”
Offering instead of asking can put crowdfunders in a better emotional position as well. Lefferts Garden filmmaker Christopher Jason Bell, who is raising money via Kickstarter for his feature film The Winds That Scatter, says, “I hate the idea of pestering people I know — more so for people I kind of know — so to be pleading for money makes things even more difficult. You just have to close your eyes and make that phone call, send that email.”
Taxes are another thorny issue that’s come up in classes. Seed&Spark and Schneider both suggest consulting tax professionals, while NYC Business Solutions offers the option of speaking with one of its pro bono accountants.
“The purpose of the introductory class is to really demystify the concept of crowdfunding,” says Ricardo Devallon, who teaches the “Introduction to Crowdfunding” and “Jumpstart Your Business” classes for NYC Business Solutions, where he is also a senior finance account manager, “but also at the same time to show that it’s not a walk in the park.”
Anderson agrees: “I would say that crowdfunding presents a particular challenge to creative types because in order to grow an audience and raise funds, you need to begin to think like a businessperson.” The workshop, she says, is designed to make some folks realize just how much there is to learn. “People take this class and they’ll say, ‘You know, I had a failed campaign and I wish that I would have known all of this stuff.'”