Lately, celebrities have taken to crowdfunding websites the way paparazzi take to them: Actor James Franco is currently seeking $500,000 on Indiegogo to raise money to make three films based on his book, "Palo Alto." This spring, actor Zach Braff raised more than $3 million on Kickstarter to make a "Garden State" sequel and "Veronica Mars" creators gathered more than $5 million on the crowdfunding site to make a movie based on the popular television show.
Not everyone is happy with this new method of fundraising, however. Critics question whether celebrities are co-opting a fundraising method they say is meant to give non-celebrities a chance to raise cash for their own projects. Celebrities, after all, have other means available, such as their own bank accounts or those of their wealthy friends.
In The New York Times Ethicist column, a reader asked if it was "ethical" for Braff to turn to his fans for money: "Is this a fun way to get common people involved in the movie industry or another way for the 1-percenters to make the expenses 'public' while keeping the profits 'private'?" the reader wrote. Columnist Chuck Klosterman determined that Braff's technique might be "uncool," but it is not "unethical."
Braff eventually addressed the backlash himself and used Twitter to urge fans to support non-celebrities by browsing through other projects on Kickstarter, too. Kickstarter also released a statement last month, reiterating that celebrities and non-celebrities alike are welcome to use the platform for creative projects. In fact, Kickstarter asserts that the Zach Braff and Veronica Mars projects brought "tens of thousands" of new supporters to the site, and many of them funded other projects, in addition to the famous ones that initially attracted them to the website. In other words, the tide of celebrities is lifting all boats.
Most of those boats are captained by non-celebrities, of course, many of whom have found a way to get their own projects funded. According to statistics published by Kickstarter, 44 percent of the 103,741 Kickstarter projects launched have reached their funding goals, which is less than $10,000 most of the time. (Only 35 projects, including the Zach Braff and Veronica Mars projects, have raised more than $1 million.)
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We tracked down some successful, non-famous Kickstarter users and asked them how they found success on the site. Here are their secrets:
1. Have an appealing product. People want to give to projects that they are naturally drawn to, and cake pops - those enticing cake spheres on a stick - are hard to walk away from. "The fact that I sell such a fun, cute, delicious product definitely helped," says Yael Krigman, 32, a former attorney-turned-baker. She recently raised more than $70,000 to open up a brick-and-mortar shop for her cake pops, which she calls Washington, D.C.'s first cakepoppery. (She also took out a Small Business Administration loan and raised private funds.)
2. Draw on your fan base. You might not have the army of supporters of James Franco or Zach Braff, but if you've built up a business of any kind, then you already have a group of people who like what you do. Krigman says her Kickstarter campaign was helped by the fact that her business, Baked by Yael, was already established as an online store. She used listservs, Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about her fundraising campaign. "It was my network of friends and supporters that pushed me to the finish line," she says.
3. Call on old friends. Krigman let former colleagues and her extensive network of friends know what she was up to. Not only did they make pledges, but they helped her spread the word to other people, too. Krigman recommends making it easy for supporters by drafting emails and social media posts that people can then copy and paste.
4. Spend time on the video. Many Kickstarter campaigns feature a video explaining the project; singer and stay-at-home mom Amy Lloyd relied on assistance from her husband and children as she put together clips of her songs and adorable family photos. Lloyd, who sings religious songs and resides in Cheltenham, Md., raised $2,710 and is currently rehearsing her material before she begins recording her album.
5. Support others. Lloyd backed the projects of other musicians on Kickstarter, and while she didn't do it to receive their support, she found that they often ended up supporting her, as well. "It may sound like we just exchanged funds, but we helped each other create momentum and encouragement," she says. That momentum helped more people find her project, she adds.
6. Offer rewards. Ron Garner, chief executive of Silence in Library Publishing, sought funds on Kickstarter to create an anthology of science fiction stories. He raised more than $7,600, and he attributes his success in part to the fact that he offers rewards for even modest contributions. For example, pledges of $5 or more come with an ebook version of the project as well as a personal "thank you" email from one of the authors. "If you're trying to get away with getting money from them without having to return anything of value, you're eventually going to fail," he says.
7. Pursue traditional marketing venues. Garner distributed promotional postcards at science fiction/fantasy conventions and also landed reviews by pitching the project to mainstream and science fiction-focused media outlets. Krigman was featured on CNN and in The Washington Post.
8. Help others. Tina Henry-Barrus, a paper product designer, exceeded her goal of raising $880 to give away 30,000 free bookmarks to schools and public libraries in an effort to promote reading among young people. She thinks part of her success came from the fact that her project is focused on helping other people and the community. As a result, public libraries with strong presences on Facebook were happy to help her. "It helped that my project wasn't about me, I think. It wasn't a selfish endeavor," she says.
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9. Seek a modest amount. When Richard Zarou, a professional composer and music educator, turned to Kickstarter to raise money for his project to create an album, "Thanksgiving: A Family History," based on the poetry of writer Shannon Berry, he chose his goal of $900 based on need. In addition to hiring a cellist and flute player, he needed to pay to print the CDs as well as the Kickstarter and Amazon fees. He recommends keeping the funding level as low as possible, given Kickstarter's "all-or-nothing" policy that means users only keep the funds they raise if they reach their funding goal. Zarou exceeded his goal and is now working on recording his music. He plans to release his album in November 2014.
10. Get personal. Filmmaker Alyssa Michek successfully raised more than $1,000 for her project, "It's All in My Head," which she describes as a "witty, short, dramatic film about a break-up told from the woman's perspective." She recommends sending a personal appeal "to people who already love and support you," even though it can feel difficult to continually ask friends and family for support. But because people often forget or get distracted, she says it's a good idea to remind people and ask them a second time.
Because unless you're already famous, she says, most of your support will likely come from friends and family, not strangers.