In early June 2012, Chris Cruz, guitar and keyboard player for the San Diego band Through the Roots, locked himself in his room for a weekend to study up on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site for creative projects. He’d heard of Kickstarter in passing but didn’t think much of it until a music-industry mentor told him it was gaining a lot of buzz in creative circles and might be worth looking into.
Cruz, 25, and his band of 20-somethings were on the brink of their fourth national tour, and their green bus (“Betsy”) needed work. They also needed studio time to put together their first full-length album. If they were going to do it all, they’d need more money than their various odd jobs (fast-food service, neighborhood handyman, screen-printing) could generate.
On its website, Kickstarter defines itself as “a funding platform for creative projects.” Users create fundraising campaigns for one-time projects in 13 categories: art, comics, dance, design, fashion, film and video, food, games, music, photography, publishing, technology, and theater. Kickstarter processes pledges through Amazon Payments, which holds the money until a campaign’s funding goal is reached. If the goal is not reached, all funds are returned to those who pledged.
For the uninitiated and others who aren’t familiar with crowdfunding, it’s not a hunt for investors; it’s more like a KPBS pledge drive. Project creators offer incentives for your pledge. These rewards can be anything from your name mentioned on Twitter to a private movie screening in your back yard.
“We realized Kickstarter was probably the best option to keep us on track for meeting all the goals we want to accomplish this year,” Cruz tells me over the phone from somewhere near Cedar City, Utah.
On September 13, Through the Roots began their West Coast tour along with Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, another reggae/rock band out of Hermosa Beach. During our conversation, Cruz informs me that, tomorrow night, they’ll play the 17th show of the tour in Vegas. Then, next week, they’ll head to the East Coast for a tour with Rebelution and Passafire.
For the moment, the band members are resting at the home of bassist Bryan Jackson’s uncle. He’s given them beds, showers, and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.
I can hear a bird in the background.
“I’m in the middle of a field right now,” Cruz says. His voice sounds young, his manner easygoing. “It’s kind of amazing. I’m not gonna lie.”
The weekend Cruz locked himself in his room, the first thing he did was read Kickstarter’s rules and guidelines. He also studied other campaigns (which the site leaves up even after they’ve ended).
“I asked myself every time, Would I donate to this project? Do I believe them? Then I decided to turn the camera on us and asked, ‘If I were to see these guys’ story on the website or see their video or listen to their music, would I care? Would I want to help?’”
In the end, what the band came up with was a one-minute, fifty-second video (including concert and pushing-the-broken-bus footage), a written 1000-word appeal, and prizes for every pledge level.
On September 4, just before they headed out for the tour, they launched a campaign asking for $10,000.
“We put a lot of time into figuring out what to ask for, what’s a good goal,” Cruz says. “I was arguing for a little less. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for a start-up band, an up-and-coming band like us. It’s a little out there. We just had confidence, and we knew that, even if this Kickstarter plan was unsuccessful, we were determined to find plan B.”
After 25 days of what Cruz calls “a roller coaster” of a campaign, Through the Roots met their goal. By the end of the 30th, they had $11,160.
“You should have something better to do than pick on a baby butterfly.”
On the same day I speak to Chris Cruz, Connie Hines sits on the brown chenille loveseat in her small, Rancho Peñasquitos living room, hoping for magic. It’s Day 12 of her 30-day Kickstarter campaign and, so far, she has raised only $55 — out of $20,000.
“I don’t think it’s going so good,” she tells me from her perch. “I’m not sure why.”
A Shih Tzu named Max has squeezed himself under the loveseat. Only his nose and paws show. Sheba, an 11-week-old Rottweiler puppy, lounges in a large kennel against one wall of the living room.
In 2010, Hines, a 46-year-old underemployed registered nurse, conceptualized a children’s character she calls “Whisper the Baby Butterfly.” Her original plan, as stated in her Kickstarter video, was “to market the butterfly on clothes and bedding and towels, everything that is little-girl friendly — school supplies, shoes, hair accessories, glasses, costumes — you know, stuffed toys, everything.”
On the advice of an artist she hired to design the character, Hines eventually decided to write a children’s book. It was, the artist said, the best way to get people interested in Whisper.
Hines searched for a self-publishing company that would allow her to use her chosen illustrator and eventually settled on Tate Publishing. The publishing package she selected cost $4000. The other $16,000 she’s asking for is to create and produce the everything referred to in her campaign video: clothes, bedding, and so on.
“I’m trying to start a business and market it like Hello Kitty is marketed. It’s time for Hello Kitty to have some healthy competition.”
The first of three Kickstarter guidelines reads: “Funding for projects only… A project is not open-ended. Starting a business, for example, does not qualify as a project.”
But Hines’s project survived the application process. Now she’s hoping that something big will happen.
She tries to stay away from checking up on the campaign too much. “If you get any more backers, they’ll send you an email,” she says. “I don’t hover over it. I don’t want to jinx it.”
Earlier in the campaign, she received an email from someone who criticized her for creating a baby butterfly character.
“He said, ‘Have you ever thought that a baby butterfly is a caterpillar, so there’s actually no such thing?’” Hines says, her face distorted with disdain for the emailer. “I said, ‘Why would you even ask me that? You should have something better to do than pick on a baby butterfly.’”
Hines worries about the campaign, but she doesn’t quite know how to drive traffic to her Kickstarter page. Her best idea was to pay $50 for business cards featuring the butterfly and to stick them in car windows in busy parking lots. So far, it hasn’t worked, but she has plenty of cards left for further distribution, and she’s hoping for the best.
To show me the possibilities, she picks up a laptop from the couch and pulls up someone else’s campaign on the Kickstarter site. It’s for a children’s book titled What Makes a Baby, a project that was successfully funded in March of this year.
“Look at this! They got $65,516, which means it was 689 percent funded! They asked for $9500.”
She pulls up another one. This project is also a children’s book, and it, too, exceeded its original goal. By a lot. The Wollstonecraft campaign made 2293 percent of its $4000 goal.
Although the slow start of her campaign has caused Hines to question whether asking for $20,000 was too ambitious, she says, “After I saw [these campaigns], I thought, Maybe I’m not crazy.”
Today, she has her fingers crossed that Kickstarter will provide the magic, putting $20,000 in her pocket.
A week from now, Hines will cancel her campaign, three days short of its deadline, with only $55 pledged. And in three weeks, she’ll write me an email: “I canceled my project on Kickstarter, because I was not getting any backers. I plan to put it up again in the next week or so, lowering the goal to $5000.”
“Kickstarter is not a magical source of money.”
While crowd-funding sites are popping up all over the place, Kickstarter seems to be a favorite among creative types in San Diego. At the time of this writing, there are 269 San Diego projects on the site, although that number changes as projects go up and come down.
Two months ago, the only thing I knew about Kickstarter was that, somehow, it was responsible for the sudden emergence of the San Diego Public Market on National Avenue. I found myself enthralled by their big numbers — $150,000 in 30 days? 158 percent of their $92,244 project goal? It did look like magic. After a bit of research, I realized that my “knowledge” was built on a major misconception: that Kickstarter was responsible for the success of the campaign.
(Another misconception: that the San Diego Public Market’s emergence was sudden. A closer look at the market’s campaign page reveals that “Dale Steele has been chasing public properties and pitching politicians about a public market here for more than ten years.”)
At Kickstarter School, a section on the website that breaks down the how-to for fundraising on their site, one paragraph reads: “Kickstarter is not a magical source of money. Funding comes from a variety of sources — your audience, your friends and family, your broader social networks, and, if your project does well, strangers from around the web. It’s up to you to build that momentum for your project. [italics mine]”
Some project creators nonetheless blame Kickstarter for the failure of their projects.
On September 13, 2012, Mitch Wallis launched a campaign to raise $150,000 to open a vegan co-op on El Cajon Boulevard at the I-15. Although he estimates that the whole project will take about $650,000 to get under way, he chose his Kickstarter funding goal based on the amount that the San Diego Public Market had generated less than a month prior.
In his six-minute video plea, Wallis wears his hair in a floppy, curly ponytail. His black T-shirt reads “VEGAN.” Wallis appeals to potential backers with a hand-drawn map that shows the convenient location of the future co-op, with brief appearances by his green builder and the owner of the alternative-fuel station next door. The video compelled 36 backers to pledge $100 or more, and seven of those pledged upwards of $500. But by the time I catch up with him via email, approximately two and a half weeks after the launch, his campaign has generated only about $10,000.
When I ask why he thinks his campaign hasn’t taken off the way some others do, he responds, “Kickstarter has not supported our campaign. They have not highlighted us to their base of contributors. They seem to be focused mostly on artsy and whimsical products, and not on projects that can directly and drastically improve individual and community well-being.”
Another section of Kickstarter School, dedicated to how to promote projects, does give specific information on how to use social networks to generate interest in your project, but it assumes prior knowledge on how to make that work.
Wallis admits that his social-media plans didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.
“Our plan was to align with organizations that share a common vision and have those organizations announce our campaign to their membership,” he writes. “This has proven to be problematic, and has not worked out very well so far, in terms of finding organizations willing to do this.”
Given the timing of Wallis’s launch and the similarity of the scope and budget of both projects, he’d hoped to find potential backers among those already excited by the success of the San Diego Public Market. That strategy may have backfired.
During their campaign for the public market, Catt White and Dale Steele used every avenue available to drum up backing. They had an advantage in that they didn’t have to build a support network from scratch.
“Dale and I already had well-developed networks, and my farmers’-market management business maintains a very active social-media presence, so we had a head start,” White wrote in another email. “On the nuts-and-bolts side, everyone is overloaded with information nowadays, so to keep any endeavor at the top of people’s minds requires an organized effort to get the word out and keep the updates coming. We updated our message almost daily. That reminded people to support us, and made it easy for them to spread the word about the opportunity to support the project and how the campaign was progressing.”
Wallis updated his message twice.
One of Wallis’s backers, who’d also backed the public market, expressed her disappointment in his campaign via a comment on the project page.
“I am surprised at the lack of excitement, communication and encouragement to support this project from its creators. Why no cheerleading from the sidelines? Please get out there and encourage people to support this worthy project!!! Send us updates, ask us to share with our community! Be proactive!”
Despite a plea for celebrity supporters (“We’re hoping to attract a celebrity — a singer or performer that would appear at a benefit show for us,” writes Wallis. “Jessica Sanchez or Jason Mraz, for example, could easily provide enough ticket sales to push us to the finish line. We just need help reaching out to them”), and an article about his proposed vegan co-op in CityBeat, Wallis ended his campaign on October 13 with $12,519 pledged, roughly 8 percent of his goal.
“We’re the creative types.”
In a quiet, glass-enclosed room at the public library in Rancho San Diego, 25-year-old Devon Duby has set up his invention on a conference table. He calls it the Pendulum Art Machine, and his Kickstarter page describes it as “a graphic art drawing machine which uses a pendulum to create crazy random drawings.” Made from four red anodized aluminum tubes, two polished aluminum connectors, an aluminum plate, and some wires, the design is sleek and simple.
“It’s still in the prototyping stages,” Duby says while he slides a green ultra-fine-point Sharpie through a brass ring suspended above the plate. Two magnets secure sheets of paper onto the plate, which is also suspended from an aluminum tube.
Once it’s all set up and adjusted, Duby swings the plate. We watch as the Sharpie creates designs on the paper.
All across the table, Duby has laid out other sheets of white paper containing drawings he created with the machine. Red, blue, green, or black, some contain testing data lightly penciled in at the top right-hand corner. The whole set-up looks like something one might find at a children’s museum.
Long and lanky at six-feet-four, Duby wears a black T-shirt with “FASTRAX” in red lettering down the length of one of the long sleeves: FASTRAX Sports (not to be confused with the Team Fastrax sky-diving team or the Fastrax RC company that sells radio-controlled race-car accessories) is the name of the company he and his family run out of their El Cajon living room. Previous inventions include the PowerStrap Glove for batting, golf, or tennis, and a Ball-Speed Indicator Batting Tee.
Duby’s father, an engineer and inventor, helped start FASTRAX Sports but eventually went back to being a contract engineer. He now serves as a consultant for his son’s projects.
“Pretty much my whole life, I’ve been helping my father with designs and prototypes,” Duby says. “As of right now, [on my own] I’ve done [the Pendulum Art Machine], but if we fund, we’ll all work on it.”
By all, he means not only his father and mother, who handles the finances, but also his two sisters, Desiree and Denene. Both — young, blonde, and pretty — show up in Duby’s Kickstarter video.
The demonstration over, Duby sits back in what could be mistaken for casual comfort, if not for the bouncing knee and hands folded tightly on his lap. With nervous, fleeting eye contact, he explains that Kickstarter was, in fact, the impetus for this new machine.
“Our other products aren’t suited for the avenue. So we thought, What’s a good product?” He explains that the family often throws ideas around. “This was one idea. We knew the successful ones are creative.”
Duby launched his project on September 26 with a $10,000 goal. It currently costs him approximately $85 to make one machine. He sells them for $179, which includes $60 in labor. Funding would allow him to purchase his materials in volume, which he estimates would bring the cost down by as much as 30 percent. It would also decrease labor costs by allowing him to do the same step on multiple machines at once, which decreases set-up time.
“We’re not trying to make a killing,” he says. At the same time, he hopes to make some profit. While his sisters and his parents have other jobs, he doesn’t. “This is my job.”
On October 18, with ten days to go, his campaign has generated only $1269 in pledges. He has nine backers, zero comments, and zero updates.
“We’re not marketing people. We’re creative types, getting it ready to go. It’s the getting it out there that we don’t know how to do.”
He does know enough about social media to have posted his campaign on Facebook, sent out emails, and put a video on YouTube. These steps may have been what generated early interest, but he didn’t keep it up.
“If one of us would just get a marketing degree, we would do a lot better,” he says.
Divine intervention might have become the driving force of his project’s success. In the middle of his campaign, Duby received an email from the producers of Steve Harvey’s new television talk show, inviting him to the show. That’s the kind of exposure that Mitch Wallis was praying for. But Duby failed to send the sample they’d asked for prior to taping.
“I spend a lot of my time trying to perfect the design instead of doing other things,” he says. “That’s my problem.”
“I’ve been collecting people. They’ve been collecting art.”
Andrea Steorts greets me at the door of her Eastlake home with a hug. The vivacious 65-year-old artist has both the energy and the long, wavy blond hair of a woman 40 years her junior. Her silver wrist bangles clang as she reaches out to embrace me. To the left and right of us, five 4-by-5-foot paintings crowd the living-room walls. Ahead hangs a larger painting, 6-by-7 feet. All are Steorts’s work. All feature images of women and expansive landscapes in bright colors. I recognize two from her Kickstarter campaign page.
Steorts walks me through the living room, past the kitchen, and into another sitting room, where she introduces her elderly mother and her husband, a former lawyer and wood sculptor. The three live in this 1500-square-foot house on their combined Social Security incomes and the occasional sale of one of Steorts’s paintings.
“We live well, we eat well, we laugh, we drink wine,” she says. “Well, cheap wine. But it’s good.”
Steorts began painting around 17 years ago. Aside from a two-year stint as a gallery owner in the Gaslamp, from 2000 to 2002, she hasn’t been much involved with the San Diego art scene. But she has gained a small, loyal following, including a couple of patrons who regularly buy her paintings.
“I’ve been collecting people, great people,” she says. “They’ve been collecting art.”
In 2011, two of those patrons paid for the creation of Steorts’s first website — as a Thanksgiving gift. In mid-May 2012, Agora Gallery in New York City found the website and contacted Steorts with an offer of representation. The site, they said, would substitute for the usual portfolio-submission requirement.
Steorts accepted, though she had no idea how she’d pull off the creation of a new body of work to show at the gallery. She loves to paint on 3-by-4-foot canvases and frames every one of the paintings in large, ornate frames, a hefty expense. Because finances were tight, she’d begun painting on smaller, 16-by-20-inch canvases. If she were going to have a show in New York, however, she wanted to return to the larger paintings. That would cost. So would the framing and the shipping and her travel to New York for the show. The way she was living, she didn’t have the extra money.
“My mom would say, ‘I’ve got $5 in my purse. Do you need it?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s our savings, Mom, you keep it.’” She laughs.
When Steorts spoke with one of her patrons about the situation, he mentioned Kickstarter.
“I’d never heard of it,” she says. “I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to high tech.”
It didn’t matter. A group of friends came over one day in late August. Three hours later, they submitted Steorts’s project to Kickstarter for review. Three or four days after that, they got the go-ahead.
Steorts launched on September 5 with a $6500 goal.
According to statistics on the Kickstarter site, projects without videos succeed at a 30 percent rate, whereas those with videos succeed at a rate of 50 percent. Steorts had no video. Neither did she have a huge Facebook or Twitter following. What she did have was a small, loyal group of friends and one dedicated sister.
In the beginning, Steorts created an email list of about 70 people. She sent them all a link to her Kickstarter page. She believed that approximately 50 would donate. The number ended up closer to 20.
“The idea of asking people for money kind of made me squirrely,” she says. “But then it just started happening.”
After the initial email blast, donations quickly slowed down. Five days later, Steorts’s sister Claudia, 16 years her junior, decided to send a personal appeal out to the people on Andrea’s list, as well as to those she’d forwarded the message to from her own list.
Claudia’s final paragraph read: “If you feel inspired, and I know you will, go online and support not just Andrea’s journey to NYC, but support Art in general. Through all the noise of worthwhile causes that need our support, if we were to look for one that would make us feel surrounded by beauty, Andrea’s fund would be the one we’d choose every time.”
Four days after that, Claudia emailed one of Steorts’s friends to discuss campaign strategies.
“Maybe we put it up on Andrea’s Facebook again with a note that we are $2500 from reaching her goal?” she wrote. “If you think another email push makes sense, I can do that. The other thing I thought about, though I’m still a novice, is Tweeting about it. I don’t have a lot of followers, but Kickstarter does have a presence. It’s a long shot. Any other ideas? I mean, if you look at Andrea’s friend list, if 50 of them put in $50 we’d be there.”
From there, they decided on an email push, offering a new story about Andrea’s artistic journey every few days.
“Claudia says you have to nudge people,” Steorts says of her sister. “They forget in a day or two.”
We’re in her bedroom, where at the foot of her bed, two easels, a chair, and a collection of not-quite-finished paintings define her work area. Other paintings lean against the baseboards and hang on the walls.
“The minute her emails would hit, the money would come,” Steorts says. “We were all pumped. It was so exciting. Everyone would get up and check [the campaign] first thing in the morning.”
On September 29, Claudia sent out a last email, pleading for donors to help close the final gap of $275. At one point, Steorts received a check from an elderly couple who didn’t want to send their banking information to Amazon. Steorts was afraid to make the deposit to the Kickstarter campaign herself.
“If you contribute [to your own campaign], you lose it all,” she explains. “I didn’t want to mess with that.”
That last email was the longest so far, and the most pleading, with a personal story about Andrea being a caregiver for both her mother and her husband.
Steorts was fishing in Eastlake with her granddaughter that same afternoon, when she received the alert that her project had been successfully funded. A patron in Austin, who had already donated $1000, upped the pledge to $1275 and later told Steorts, “I couldn’t take it any longer.”
In the final five days of her campaign, Steorts received another $265, putting her at 104 percent of her goal with $6765. She closed with 46 backers, making her average donation $147, almost twice that of the $75 Kickstarter average.
And this with zero updates, zero comments, and no video on her project page.
A week later, over the phone, she says, “The thing I love about Kickstarter is everything, but the thing I love most is that when you make it, they send an email to congratulate you, and they sign it, ‘Love, Kickstarter.’”