This wasn’t a willy nilly move. I have a family I’m passionate about, and a beautiful boy who happens to have Down Syndrome named Gus. We have complexity in our life that adds financial pressures, as many of you do. So, consequently, I started planning a couple years before to my exit, which means I’d managed to save a bit for runway. I had a mission and plan and was bursting with purpose. But after about 6 months of burning cash like coal on a old-timey steam train, an alternative reality dawned. I realized I’d have to consider outside funding. Loans were a no-go, I have an uphill battle already to fight with my business. Taking on more debt seems foolish. So the next logical step seemed like crowdfunding.
Now, in terms of money, I’m in a somewhat unique position. I’m a therapist with a private practice. I can learn on my practice if needed. And also, selfishly, I can maintain my integrity as an independent business owner which is important to me. This seems a popular sentiment with many entrepreneurs. So my profession affords me a luxury every not every startup founder has. Many business hopefuls have to retreat back into the job world when things go sideways. And honestly, employment isn’t an option I can entirely take off the table either. But my position as a service provider grants me leeway. It’s also presented challenges. For one, I’m constantly stuck contemplating a fuzzy line, like how do I know when take my foot off the gas or double down? How far is to far? And how much debt can I take on? Plainly put, there’s an incredible investment of time, energy, and resources that goes into any new business venture. Giving up the tiniest bit of ground to spend time elsewhere seems ludicrous to me. Very early into it a basic truth emerged. You can goes as far as you put it. Progress directly correlates to the amount of the time and energy you put into your business. And also, importantly, the quality of the time you put in. Progress demands serious effort, consistent effort. It’s a beautiful struggle that anybody who chooses to go into business would be wise to prepare for. How you learn to manage time becomes essential. So this fact that I have options to fall back as a professional skill doesn’t help with this reality at all. It’s actually complicates it. It’s also at times it’s created a false sense of security. I find myself pushing in ways I might not push if I was forced to operate with a static bottom line. Perhaps it’s both good and bad, the jury’s still out.
So let’s start from the beginning. When blessed with this bright idea I began consuming books on Audible, like a Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide, and cramming in Youtube videos like ->>THIS on Crowdfunding whenever possible. Lunch-breaks, and on commutes snacking on podcast like Mixergy , Funding The Dream, and EOFire. After a couple months of cramming this stuff down my throat, I decided to opt for what I thought was a healthy approach. I’d go slowly and take 3 months just building relationships in the online crowdfunding worlds. I’d then support others campaigners financially, and then scale. Relationship building is touted by many “experts” as a first step. Now, I get paid to give advice on relationships, so this idea seemed sensible enough to me.
After all, you don’t cannon ball into the pool at a pool party. You work on building relationships on the pool deck first.
The road-map that was laid out seemed to be rooted in the notion that crowd-funders are aware of the crucial importance of relationship-building, and so you can get good traction by starting there first. While this was a very big assumption, especially considering the diversity of campaigners in terms of age and experience, it was one I willing to go with.
Well, I got a surprise. First off, I found most campaigner weren’t open for friendly chats. At all. And why would they be? Most campaigners are hustlers bleeding time, energy, and money out their ears. Most don’t have the time to brush their teeth, let alone respond to the random emails of possible supporters. I was actually surprised to see how many didn’t respond at all. So, already in just the first stage of my plan, I’d was running into walls. And this advice was touted as the easiest and most important step. At this point I’d already dumped weeks of my money and time into relationship building. I’d tried reworking my messaging and introduction strategies. I’d even hired a VA to help with the effort. Essentially, after two months of I was facing a zero. I’d was standing in a crater of assumptions fed by crowdfunding experts, and wondering, “WTF.” After all that, I’d made one connection with potential. It was a 16 year old kid in the UK promoting his first album. I’m a 47 year old professional launching a media company…. So yeah. Not much potential to lay the ground works of a successful funding campaign.
This general air of stuffiness seemed to translate to both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Sadly, my efforts may have done more damage than good. It seemed that campaigners operated well above the platitudes flung around in the books, blogs, and communities I’d run into. Instead, they focused on the relationships that make the most sense. At times it felt like a high school locker room, with the emotional subterfuge to match. There’s a lot of a value judgments that get made without much to go on. I found many campaigners to be reactive when they make an initial assessment about the value you represent. Very little chose to respond and play anything out to discover this. As a relationship strategiest, this was the first of a few red flags. If you’re new to these platforms, and haven’t established a history as a supporter or investor, most tend to shy away. Remember, campaigners, like me, come to raise capital. So investing time at the relationship level had to make sense. And as usual, this meant to a campaigner’s bottom line. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.
Also, the game is played at a much higher intellectual level than times previous. Many campaigns are hired and ran by professional teams. And those that aren’t are getting fed information from top level sources of guidance. Bigger companies are wading into crowdfunding and giving away their strategies these days to promote loyalty, so many smaller campaigners adopt attitudes and approaches to match. It’s a mismatch, of course, but it happens anyway. 15 year old kids with card games are operate like their prepping for an IPO. See this article for examples. It’s way more serious than I expected. While I get that people’s dreams are riding on campaigns, many seem to have taken an extra leap. I didn’t see the time devoted to interpersonal elements, like was suggested. People didn’t take the taking the time to chat when invited. I found it interesting that many campaigners were promoting social agendas and larger global initiatives, but I didn’t see a much higher response rate there. The marketing may looks fuzzier, but it didn’t translate down the wire. But I can’t leave out the possibility my approach and lack of skill in managing online communities was to blame. So, again, feeling this out out it can be tricky.
Probably 95% of the campaigners I reached out to ignored my emails. The 5% who did respond replied with suspicion, perhaps imagining I was trying to hack their funding models?… Who knows. A few were outright hostile. I had one fellow raising money for a biker cookbook belittle me for sending him what he called a spam my message. And honestly, it wasn’t my best. But his re-activeness was an example of a bigger pattern I ran into on Kickstarter and IndieGogo, which in the end made them both huge turnoffs. I saw oodles of false entitlement wrapped up in the clicky codes and operating ethics unique to the online crowdfunding worlds. At one point I got reported, which was funny to me. I wasn’t aware that this could even happen. But apparently it could, and it did. My banishment was executed on Kickstarter. I discovered they have a limit on the amount of messages a person can send. I was reinstated pretty quickly, but this seemed an odd response. I mean here I am on a community building platform, and I get excommunicated for trying to build relationships?… While I’d hoped and worked towards a better outcome, I wasn’t really surprised by what unfolded. Despite the expert advice, I could see the crap as I was stepping into it. The advice I’d got just didn’t prove applicable. It’s a different world of relationships in there with different rules, a mashup of those found in online communities, fundraising and social media circles. So, I had some real learning to do. From an observation level, what I experienced seems to jive with some of the research I’ve come across on the impact of technology and social media on relationship skillsets. The best and worse of human behavior tends to get amplified in the digital worlds. A colleague sent me this article published in the The Atlantic that seems to illustrate this idea pretty clearly. Interestingly, I stand in the middle regarding technology and it’s impact on relational development. I see good and bad, which seems a universal truth. I actually happened to be preparing to speak on a school panel on the issue of technology addiction while writing this.
So back to my adventure in crowdfunding…. So the dilemma became do I keep plugging away at this, or change things up? Perhaps make an effort to raise my public profile and then try to step back into crowdfunding world? Maybe being more visible could help get me cross the stuffiness gap I’d run into. Truth be told, I wasn’t offended by what I found. Frustrated maybe. It’s just humans doing human. If I’ve learned anything as a marriage and family therapist, it’s that there’s a world of hidden rules when we step into any new relationship. I was also reminded that people tend to shy away from people they’re not familiar with. Just review the magazines at the check out line the next time your in the grocery store. This idea scales in crowdfunding communities too. If people see you’ve been featured on a 30 second spotlight on Fox News, for instance, you instantly become a better bet. Ritual investments of time and money stand as proof that you’re willing to do what needs to be done as a campaigner. Being friendly and driven to do wonderful things ain’t enough, in most cases. Again, it’s a cultural capital thing not entirely unique to the crowdfunding world.
So, in the end, I decided to take a temporary leave of absence from Kickstarter and Indigogo. It turned out to be a good thing, as I discovered the value of alternative crowdfunding sources like Patreon. This platform grants more leeway to creator-types like me, and takes away much of the pressures that come with time-sensitive campaigning. I opened an account you can see HERE if you want a look. I have a goal of supporting community projects and larger global initiatives through my brand, so Patreon seemed made sense for this too. I addition, I decided to reach out to other founders in my networks who’ve attached their brands to larger community missions. One of the first conversations I had was with Cameron Brown,the CEO of Thriving Collective. I’d had a good conversation with him when he was a guest on The Pioneers of Insight, which is one of my podcasts. He’s a charismatic eco warrior who’s managed this tightrope of building a business around a larger cause. So, I’ll write about what I learned from him next.
Click here to listen to my interview with Thriving Collective CEO Cameron Brown
And here’s a video where I grapple with the issue of a purpose-driven life