Marc Alan Fishman: The Mystery of Crowdfunding

First thing is first: I hope you had a most festive holiday – be it Chanukah, Christmas, Festivus, Kwanza, or the Winter Solstice. Second thing is second (geez, now I sound like a Katie Cook Facebook post…): I’m truly perplexed over crowdfunding these days.

Recently I’ve backed a pair of Michigan-based Kickstarter campaigns that were right up my alley. The first was for a table at the upcoming Detroit Fanfare  comic book and pop culture convention. Unshaven Comics has attended this show several times, and we’re big fans. The show-runners are nice, honest, and bring a solid block of comic-focused attendees every year. But, as it would seem, their show is under some kind of duress. With a shorter runway then I’ve been privy to seeing prior, they launched a campaign seeking $10,000. The rewards range from tickets to the show for attendees (with optional collectible artwork, etc.), tables for creators, and then tables for vendors. As of my writing of this article, they are still about $4,000 shy of reaching their goal, with less than a week to go.

Note: Right prior to Christmas, the managing team behind Fanfare closed down their Kickstarter campaign. With only a few days to go, and thousands away from reaching their goal… they opted to simply end things, sadly.

The second project, The Luminous Firefly is a little indie book being put out some passionate fans-turned-creators. The fact that the creative team behind the book – Rapid Fire Entertainment – are big supporters of Unshaven Comics made my backing a no-brainer. Their concept is pretty straight forward, straight out of the Stan Lee-meets-Milestone playbook. They’ve spent considerable time and effort perfecting a memorable costume for their titular hero. Suffice to say, for what little they were seeking from the campaign – $2,000 – I figured supporting them would be a no-brainer. For such a little amount being sought after, all things considered, I’m apt to join the rank and file of those who support the arts and artists who are trying to succeed and do so modestly. Sadly, they too are not close to completion of their goal. With about two weeks left, they are still shy upwards of $1500.

What has me confused, to a point, is how crowdfunding seems easy-peasy one minute, and dreadfully impossible the next. In the day and age where a person selling potato salad can see over 6,000 backers, and a check upwards of $50,000 – all when the initial project was literally meant as a joke… and legit creators and passionate artisans can’t scratch the surface with actual projects? It’s enough to cross the eyes of any Gen Xer (or am I a millennial?).

As a point of reference, my own brother-from-another-mother, Kyle Gnepper, is set to launch his own campaign for an upcoming project. He was all set to go, and then opted to wait until the new year – citing several sources that proved December crowd-sourced projects are less-likely to succeed due to people using their disposable income on holiday related purchases. Obviously, come January, we’ll see how good that knowledge is. Even more obviously, I’ll be likely to pimp Kyle’s project to see his success. But I digress. Actually kiddos, I don’t!

You see, that to me is exactly where I was headed when this piece began. Crowdfunding in the modern era (as opposed to what era, I don’t know) is really just an ongoing marketing experiment. How one chooses to shape their projects – from the goal amount, to the backer prizes, all the way through to the day-to-day promotion of the campaign – all becomes a massive undertaking that literally makes or breaks a creator’s livelihood.

I did my due-diligence and took Wesley Sun (a multiple Kickstarter funded creator) out to a nice dinner to pick his brain. Over sumptuous Chinese food, Wes was quick to point out all the common sense tactics I myself largely considered must be par for the course these days. Creating a pre-launch marketing plan. Building backer prize packs that are both affordable, and often built to up-sell to the next price point. Setting a goal that isn’t insurmountable, but does absolutely cover the costs necessary to complete the project… and to shamelessly promote it as if your life depended on it.

Of course, when one does all of these things and one still comes up short? That leads to sobering conclusions. Especially when Wes’s biggest successes came in part to being promoted by Kickstarter itself, in “picks of the week” e-mail blasts. How one gets on said blasts? To quote Two-Face from the absurd comedy that was Batman Forever: “Blind, stupid, doo-dah lllllllluck.”

Crowdfunding largely remains a mystery in my mind. How success can be earned versus hitting the lottery is seemingly becoming a business unto itself. A new marketplace of analysts and marketers sprout up weekly boasting their ability to turn your campaign into a success. And my initial reaction to most of their pitches is akin to those attempting to sell me diets and exercise equipment at two or three in the morning: I don’t buy it, even if it sells me in my most desperate of moments. Seeing my Motor City cohorts grasping at air in the dead of December only compounds the feeling. Because at the end of the day, how often do people put aside money they don’t have to launch a successful crowd-funding campaign in the first place? The old adage of spending money to make money seems oddly inappropriate given the very nature of crowd-funding. But I could be wrong.

At the end of the day, the best chance one has at succeeding at crowd-funding is inherently tied to the ability to reach out in every possible direction with as succinct a pitch as possible. Much like selling at a comic-con, I’m apt to believe that creators only have 30 seconds to really grab someone by the brainstem, and make them pay attention. After that, they have minutes at most to then convince the would-be backer that they create a worthy product, can deliver said product on-time, and with proper quality for the price asked.

Beyond that, the project has to feel like it’s something someone won’t get otherwise. In few other cases could I say that part of what must make a crowd-funded campaign successful is the je ne sais quoi of the project itself. And even having to type that confounds me. I’m open to you, my faithful friends and readers… what your take is on all of this.

And in the mean time, I’m going to dump some potato salad down the garbage as a precaution.