Crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter yield a mixed record of success

Chris Pierdomenico (left) and his brother David (center) set out to make a comedy film in 21 days, starring Scott Schiaffo (right) from the cult comedy classic "Clerks." Their Kickstarter effort went well - one donor contributed two-thirds of their $3,000 production budget.
Chris Pierdomenico (left) and his brother David (center) set out to make a comedy film in 21 days, starring Scott Schiaffo (right) from the cult comedy classic "Clerks." Their Kickstarter effort went well - one donor contributed two-thirds of their $3,000 production budget.
Posted: September 13, 2012

A quick trip to fame and fortune seems to be a prevailing story these days: Post a video on YouTube and win a recording contract. Appear on a reality show and become a cookbook author.

Fund-raising is no different. With dozens of "crowd-funding" sites out there, three-year-old being the largest, anyone with an artistic endeavor can raise millions in capital in a minute. Right?

Artists wish. Certainly, there are some amazing success stories, like in February, when designer Casey Hopkins asked for $75,000 to make a luxury iPhone dock out of aluminum and got $1.4 million (the first Kickstarter project to break $1 million pledged) or when this year Philadelphia artist Rich Burlew asked for $57,750 to put his comic books back in print, and ended up with $1.3 million.

But for most people, it's a panic-inducing slog as they make a case for their cause while a clock winds down. Even as they collect seemingly tons of pledges, if the goal isn't reached by the deadline - which fund-raisers choose themselves - no money changes hands and the project is canceled. Donors can cancel their pledges up until the end, as well.

"That's nerve-wracking," said Lynette Shelley, whose Philly-based band Red Masque raised $2,222 in 2012 to make an album. But if the goal is reached - or better, surpassed - "donor credit cards are charged at deadline . . . and given to our Amazon payments site."

So, is there a secret to Kickstarter success? Philadelphians, with 488 funded projects and more than $4 million in pledges, have had their share of success. But there are many locals with tales of woe, too. All reveal lessons learned.

When choreographer Megan Mazarick and director Mason Rosenthal met in 2011, they immediately began collaborating on a performance, Mining the Mine of the Mind for Minderals. Once their participation in the three-week Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe was confirmed, their next step was fund-raising, which Mazarick loathes.

"It's time-consuming and feels like groveling," Mazarick said. "But I felt passionately about wanting to do this work, and if we did not make our goal, I would have found another way to make the piece."

Kickstarter pages list all the cause's information, including a video, an explanation of the project, and a list of what donation levels earn what rewards - for $500 pledged, a signed print from a hope-to-be-published photography book, for instance - but sitting back and waiting will not earn pledges.

In Mazarick and Rosenthal's case, the pair estimated their stage, marketing, and Fringe fees at $3,500 - Amazon and Kickstarter take about 5 percent each of funds raised - then recorded YouTube requests (which they credit as key to their success) and wrote personal "ask letters" - detailed e-mails about the show's content and style and why the show was important. Mazarick's letters to her 200-plus mailing list also apologized for having to ask for money.

"As I've never written to anyone for financial help, this show must be important," she wrote. Incentives were created to be personal, not "cutesy," and while the campaign lasted for 30 says, the pair was planning and conceiving about two months before its Kickstarter start. When the money stalled in its last seven days and they were $600 short of their goal, Mazarick panicked. "I may only have 200 e-mail friends, but I have 750 Facebook friends," she thought. Whether through Facebook or e-mail, Mazarick made certain her notes were created for individuals. "These weren't spam. These were from the heart."

Despite the big effort, Kickstarter was a positive experience for Mazarick, even if no donors spent extra for the top-tier gift of a free yoga session. "Maybe I should've listed 'will massage feet for 60 minutes' as one of the incentives," she said.

Chris Pierdomenico had more luck with his donor rewards: One donor contributed two-thirds of his $3,000 production budget when he launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year. "I believe he paid that not only for what he got as an incentive - a free commercial that I'd make for him - but because he believed strongly in me and the project," Pierdomenico said.

Pierdomenico's project with his brother David was to write and complete a comedy film in 21 days that would star Scott Schiaffo from the cult classic Clerks, the rude comic movie that inspired Chris Pierdomenico to become a filmmaker in the first place. Schiaffo, like the production itself, cost money. So they made a promotional video that alluded to Schiaffo's role in Clerks (a British character with sunglasses) with David Pierdomenico acting the part. After getting their Kickstarter funds, they filmed and edited Black Out and entered it in the local ProjectTwenty1 film festival.

Artists with strong cult fan bases seem to fare well with Kickstarter benefactors. Red Masque, an 11-year-old art-rock ensemble, sought $1,500 to make an album.

"If you work the system and promote yourself at a grassroots level, it's possible to do big things with Kickstarter," Shelley said.

That meant all the band's pleas and information went out on its website, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, message boards, and e-mail lists. It also used Kickstarter widgets, one that can link easily to social media sites and shows how much money has been raised. Its biggest contributor, from Finland, donated more than $1,000. And now the band's album, Mythalogue, is due out in January.

There are downsides - like that anxiety thing.

For their poetic Fringe program City Calm Down, performance duo Melissa Diane (Kristen Shahverdian and Jacelyn Biondo) required $3,000 for their first long work in five years.

"We thought we would reach all of our supporters by using Kickstarter rather than seeking individual support," Shahverdian said.

The team wrote letters seeking help until the very end, but by 11:59 p.m., Aug 12, it was $200 shy of its goal - until literally the last minute, when a final donation brought the tally to $3,011.

"Jacelyn's mom raised money at her work, waiting until the last minute," Shahverdian said, laughing.

There are failures. In August, Kickstarter claimed a success rate of nearly 44 percent, but that means a nonsuccess rate of more than 55 percent.

It makes sense that larger goals face a greater chance of failure, one conclusion reached by Wharton professor Ethan R. Mollick in his July 25 abstract, "The Dynamics of Crowdfunding: Determinants of Success and Failure."

And its prospective donors could experience Kickstarter fatigue, Shahverdian suggested. The more people ask for money, maybe the less likely people are to donate to every cause. "Pestering the same people with '3 days left, last 12 hours, 15 minutes to go' definitely creates anxiety," Shahverdian said.

Scott Johnston would agree. The curator of September's Late Nite Cabaret at Underground Arts is also a cofounding member of Philly's burlesque group Peek-A-Boo Revue. In its quest for glory, Peek-A-Boo sought travel expenses for its troupe (19 dancers, hosts, musicians and their gear) to compete in this year's International Miss Exotic World Burlesque Competition in Las Vegas. With only two months to raise funds, Johnston helped them set up his $9,000 Kickstarter.

"Getting that gang to Vegas on short notice was not cheap or easy, but I'd helped other people produce worthy Kickstarter campaigns," says Johnston. "We bugged everybody we could and felt emboldened by other Kickstarters we saw succeed."

As deadline grew nearer and less financially feasible, Johnston witnessed cast members "sadly resigned to failure" while others begged until the last hour, receiving $4,046.

"I have no regrets," Johnston said. "I tried like the devil likes booze."

In the end, Peek-A-Boo got sympathy money from Kickstarters who felt sorry for the troupe. Underground Arts loaned them space for a benefit, Silk City owner Mark Bee gave them lots of cash (Johnston calls Bee a longtime Peek-A-Boo patron), and Philly's troupe made it to Vegas and won the Best Burlesque Troupe 2012 prize.

"Everyone's a winner, save for those who failed," joked Johnston, who says he would consider using Kickstarter again. "Right now, though, we're seeking a sustainable source of income rather than ongoing funders. Crowd-funding isn't always that much fun."

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