Their big ideas just need a little boost from you

How innovative local residents are turning to online sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise money for their fledgling businesses and charities

slinn@thetribunenews.comApril 27, 2013 

San Luis Obispo apparel designer Phil Hurst is looking for a little help from his friends.

On Thursday, Hurst launched a 30-day fundraising campaign on the website, in addition to an campaign. The Cal Poly grad is seeking $2,000 to turn his 1984 Grumman Olson stepvan into a mobile boutique.

“It’s going to be vinyl-wrapped to look totally wild and insane,” explained the manufacturing engineer-turned-entrepreneur, who started screen-printing T-shirts in his garage two years ago. He and his fellow designer, Cuesta College architecture student David Spiva, founded Live Local Apparel about nine months ago.

Hurst is among the many Central Coast artists, inventors and innovators who are turning to online supporters for financial help.

Through Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites, creators can raise millions of dollars without taking out a bank loan or securing a corporate sponsorship.

In exchange for their support, investors get special incentives as well as the knowledge they’re helping a cause, product or project come to life.

“It’s fun and it works,” Hurst said. “People are really getting into it. They’re getting stoked.”

Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, the New York City-based company said more than 3.9 million people have pledged upwards of $577 million to fund more than 39,000 projects — from graphic novels and video games to film productions and fashion lines. Similar sites such as Crowd-rise,

Indiegogo, Quirky and RocketHub have likewise helped thousands of fledgling endeavors.

How successful are these sites? Successful enough to allow musician Amanda Palmer and her band,

The Grand Theft Orchestra, to launch a new album, art book and tour ($1.2 million), and “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas to make a feature film based on his cult television show ($5.7 million).

Locals jump in

The first time Central Coast filmmakers Hilary Roberts Grant and Tom Walters heard about crowdfunding was at a November 2010 preview screening of their documentary, “Botso: The Teacher from Tbilisi.” 

“After the screening, someone came up to me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Kickstarter?’ ” recalled Grant, the film’s screenwriter. “I had no clue.”

In February 2011, Grant and Walters launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 in 90 days to finish editing their film about Morro Bay educator, musician and sculptor Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli.

“We wanted a target that was realistic, that we weren’t going to fail,” said Walters, the director.

Although the filmmakers offered perks such as DVDs, T-shirts and autographed copies of Korisheli’s 2010 autobiography, Walters said, “For a lot of donors, (the premiums) were irrelevant. They just really wanted to see the project finished.”

Grant and Walters said the success of that first campaign means they’re considering another Kickstarter campaign to promote “Botso: The Teacher from Tiblisi,” playing at film festivals this summer.

Although the majority of the pledges Grant and Walters received came from locals, supporters from outside the United States contributed 30 to 40 percent of the Kickstarter donations received by San Luis Obispo company Party Robotics.

Together with social media marketing expert Erin Berman, Cal Poly engineering grads Robert Kaye and Pierre Michael raised more than $197,000 in March in support of Bartendro, the cocktail-dispensing robot they designed and built. Each wifi-accessible bot uses peristaltic pumps and computer sensors to precisely pour drinks, easing the burden on busy bartenders, nightclub owners and party hosts.

Kaye and Michael came up with the concept for Bartendro three years ago. The first iteration of the bot debuted in 2010 at San Francisco’s BarBot festival, Michael said, but the project didn’t kick into full gear until four months ago when he lost his engineering job.

“That was the impetus for launching the Kickstarter (campaign) as soon as possible,” Michael said, describing the site as “our way to test the waters of the market.”

Through Kickstarter, Bartendro garnered attention from investors as far away as Chile, China, Japan and Spain. Supporters ultimately chipped in $62,464 more than Party Robotics’ original goal.

“It’s really become this breeding ground for innovation and the development of new companies,” Berman said of Kickstarter. “You don’t need this big corporate backing to make things happen.”
Useful for charities

Although crowdfunding sites are widely used by entrepreneurs, they’re also gaining popularity with charitable causes.

“A Push to Remember — Skateboarding Across America to End Alzheimer’s” is the third crowdfunding campaign undertaken by Jack Smith, the publisher of The Skateboarder’s Journal and owner and curator of the Morro Bay Skatelab Skate Museum in Morro Bay.

Smith, who turned to Kickstarter to launch his magazine and Indiegogo to support his museum, sought out Indiegogo supporters once again to fund a cross-country skateboard trip to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. His father, also named Jack Smith, died of Alzheimer’s in October.

Together with Melanie Castro, Marc Juvinall and Colleen Pelech, Smith and his son, Dylan, plan to skateboard 3,000 miles from Newport, Ore., to New York City this summer. They hope to raise $10,000 by June 11.

“What we’re hoping to do is raise enough money to cover our expenses” and secure sponsorships from skateboarding companies, explained Smith, who took similar skateboarding trips in 1976, 1984 and 2003. The rest will go to the Alzheimer’s Association. 

Through crowdfunding, he said, donors become advocates with an emotional stake in the cause they’re supporting.

“You get people who are truly interested in what you’re doing,” said Smith, marketing director for VS Athletics in San Luis Obispo.

Barry VanderKelen, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation, sees great potential for crowdfunding but cautioned that for-profit and nonprofit organizations sometimes struggle to maintain a relationship with donors. 

“In both cases, the most difficult task is to get the attention of someone and convince him or her to invest in the company or cause,” VanderKelen said, but the so-called “second sale” is equally important. “The key for the future, therefore, is figuring out how to more deeply link someone to your mission or cause after he or she has made a first donation through a crowd(funding) tool.” 

For his part, clothing designer Hurst hopes his campaigns will draw more attention to Live Local Apparel’s T-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops and tote bags, which feature images of San Luis Obispo County landmarks.

“I was against (crowdfunding) forever,” Hurst said, convinced it couldn’t work.  “But the more I look at it, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is not magical. These are people that are actually doing something.’ ”

Four efforts that need your help

Want to help? Check out these local crowdfunding campaigns:

Live Local Apparel: San Luis Obispo's First T-Shirt Truck

A Push To Remember — Skateboarding Across America to End Alzheimer’s

The Puzzle Painting

Wanderlust: Surviving Europe

Five steps to successful crowdfunding

Interested in launching your own crowdfunding campaign? Here are a few tips from experienced fundraisers.

Find the right fit: Choose a website that suits your campaign, company image and fundraising goals. For instance, Kickstarter employs an all-or-nothing approach to fundraising — if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t keep your earnings — while sites such as Indiegogo offer flexible funding options.

Set the stage: Before you launch your campaign, do some research. Whom are you trying to reach? Who might be interested in your product — or likely contribute to your cause?

Make a good first impression: Most successful crowdfunding campaigns start with a short, compelling video and a clear, concise pitch describing your project and your purpose. Snappy, high-quality design goes a long way toward catching the eye of potential donors.

Show some incentive: Want to snare sponsors? Offer fun fundraising perks they can’t find anywhere else, remembering that creativity matters more than cost.

Communication is key: Keep current and potential contributors updated on your progress via your website and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Maintaining that connection makes them feel like they’re part of the team.

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