Thursday, January 24, 2013

What Media Companies Can Learn from Crowd-Funding Kickstarter

I frequently mention Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced funding platform, to my publishing associates, not because it represents a formula easily embraced by traditional media companies, but because the platform reaffirms a deep current of creativity in the country and in the world, with much of this energy exploring opportunities in print, digital, and multi-media magazines.  In other words, this is familiar territory for magazine publishers.  The range of activities funded is really quite remarkable.  With Kickstarter, we have a curious and to-date successful market-driven, community-shaped and governed funding formula that provides a collective nose for quality while putting its money, so to speak, where its mouth is.

I have been a fan of Kickstarter for some time but had not fully understood the scale of projects involved, the impressive success rate or the amount of money pledged.  The numbers are impressive.  The platform, launched in April 2009, has recorded over $350 million in pledged funding by more than 2.5 million people who underwrote in excess of 30,000 projects.  Kickstarter reports that 44% of projects have reached their funding goal.  Please consult www.kickstarter,com for specific project-by-project and category stats.

Each project at Kickstarter is independently created and the filmmakers, poets, artists, musicians and authors on the site have complete control and responsibility for their projects.  They share the project with the community, usually through a short video, and discuss funding goals and related details.  The community decides what gets funded and at what level.  An actual, visible clock is ticking during the funding cycle (but there are no barkers in the background).  Backers only pay if the funding goal is met.  Kickstarter draws the line at charity per se, causes or opportunities “to fund my life.”  The project requires a tangible goal, such as publishing a book, magazine, or a multi-media version.  And the site takes 5% of what is collected.

As of this date, there were 392 publishing projects either funded or looking for funding.  I make this point because this is a dynamic site populated with dynamic projects that come and go, depending on crowd-sourced funding.   In terms of successfully funded projects and interest levels, publishing comes in behind music, film and video, and art.  While most efforts raise under $10,000, an increasing number are raising tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  “To Be or Not to Be,” a choosable path version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with jokes, ghosts and a never seen pirate scene, has raised $580,905 from 15,352 backers and is currently the most funded projects on the site.   A plan to collect and publish thirty-five years of retrospective KAL “Economist” cartoons had, to date, raised $76,655.  The cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher explains that he was an independent contractor with the magazine, thus the crowd-sourcing.  At the end of the day, the community decides.  People who might think entrepreneurs might be too well-heeled for such a fund raising effort don’t have to contribute.

And community tastes are eclectic.  A book featuring the work of Brom, the dark fantasy artist, has so-far raised $235,319;  “Howler,” a magazine about soccer: $69,000;  “Invisible,” an award-winning radio show, more than $170,000;  and a book about the connection economy, $287,000.  These projects have all surpassed desired funding levels.  The artists decide what incentives they will provide for individuals willing to fund their projects.  It could be a signed book, a special collection, a signed cartoon print, or an actual party.  It is very clear that the potential reward is not driving this support of creativity.

The preceding examples are exceptions.  As noted, most successful efforts raise less than $10,000.  And there are lots of entreaties that get little or no response.  The numbers might change, but publishing proposals, including “Car Living,” “Making Compost and Compost Tea,” and “The Unemployment Cookbook” have attracted only a few pledges.  A Charles Bronson biography has gained no traction.  “How to Survive in the Navy,” written by a twenty-year veteran, has raised $50.00.   

Have a look.  There’s an abundance of serious and playful energy on the platform, from videos that dramatize the intersection of Christianity and anarchy to a proposal for Ply, a magazine for handspinners that is already fully-funded at more than $30,000.  The video business pitches from by these entrepreneurs would be very familiar to traditional publishers.

At the very least, Kickstarter is telling us what is hot from a crowd-funding point-of-view and provides riveting examples of artists who have the will, passion and daring to bring dreams to fruition.  Up to now, these creatives have lacked a reliable source of funding.  Now they have a crack at it.

Small, independent, special-interest magazines might be on the lookout for competitors coming from this sector.  From Ziff, to Rodale, to Weider, the passion of the founders came before the money.  Nothing here would be surprising to those trailblazers.  And Kickstarter now brings the two together in a public, transparent way.

Also, given the attention to guidebooks, mountain bike trails, and local beers and wines, regional publishers might take notice.  And media companies interested in long-form journalism might consider the generous funding of Project M (Matter) that focuses on the future of science and technology journalism.  It has received more than $140,000 in pledges and is fully funded.

At Kickstarter, there is something for everyone.

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