Not-So-Risky Business

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CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

BY MARLA HOLT
PHOTOS BY DAVID J. TURNER

Creative people come up with ideas for projects—cool things to make, do, and perform—all the time. Sure, some ideas stink and deserve to quietly fade away. But artists and innovators spend a lot of time developing the good ideas, and then often struggle to find the financing to complete their projects. Unfortunately, that means some artistic endeavors never move beyond inception—and thus never get shared with the rest of us. That’s where crowd-funding—the idea that people will pay for something they want to see created—comes in. For creative entrepreneurs, Kickstarter.com is the crowd-funding website of choice, connecting them with potential funders and providing the cash their projects need to succeed.

The Kickstarter formula is simple. An artist seeking funding for a project—in one of 13 categories, such as art, fashion, food, and technology—pitches it with an engaging sales video. The artist sets a fundraising goal and a deadline, usually 30 to 60 days. Then you and I—the crowd—pledge to donate money to support the project. It’s all or nothing: If the project meets its goal, it gets funded. If not, no money changes hands.

Backing a project on Kickstarter doesn’t buy you ownership rights or a say in how the project is done, but you do get something in return—a reward from the artist, typically tied to the size of your gift. It might be a copy of the thing they’re proposing to make—such as a magazine or box of artisanal chocolates—a shared experience, or a role in the creative process. At the very least, it’s a thank you on the project’s Facebook page.

Kickstarter started in 2009 and has grown rapidly, with slightly more than $274 million pledged to date. Its first successful project raised just $35 for an artist with a simple idea: Tell me what to draw and I’ll draw it for you. Three years later, Pebble Technology raised more than $10 million for a smart watch using electronic-ink technology. But that large sum is unusual by Kickstarter’s standards. The typical project raises less than $10,000, backed mostly by the project creator’s friends—or friends of friends. The success rate hovers around 45 percent.

“We’re the product of a moment,” says Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler, who spoke about Kickstarter’s impact on the arts last fall at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “We fit a real need for people who like to share creative ideas with people who like to see creative things exist in the world.”

Other crowd-funding sites, such as Indiegogo and RocketHub, have followed Kickstarter’s lead, although both are open to a greater range of projects and allow fundraisers to keep whatever money they raise, regardless of whether they meet their goal.

Although crowd-funding makes the artistic or start-up process personal by encouraging a connection between entrepreneurs and their supporters, contributing to projects on Kickstarter isn’t entirely risk-free.

If you give cash toward a project for which you were promised a copy of the end product and it never materializes, you aren’t guaranteed a refund. Kickstarter doesn’t mediate between creators and investors. But such defaults are rare, says Strickler. “Because so much crowd-funding is done through social media, social forces push artists to be accountable to their backers,” he says.

Giving money to an artist is a risk you have to be willing to take for more art in the world, and Kickstarter is betting there are plenty of us out there willing to do so. Read on to learn how a handful of Macalester alumni are using crowd-funding to keep their creative ideas alive.

Kate Reiling and her Morphology game

Kate Ryan Reiling ’00

Project: Morphology Jr. board game
Amount raised: $15,240

Morphology Jr. is the children’s version of the board game Morphology, also invented by Reiling. Players build words for teammates to guess using quirky objects such as small wooden blocks, glass beads, and string. Reiling and a few friends, bored and stuck inside on a snowy night,stumbled upon the idea for the game when they started combining Jenga® blocks and Pente® pieces to make words out of a Spanish-English dictionary. “There was that moment when I thought, ‘oh my God, this is a cool idea,’ ” Reiling says. “It has a sticky quality to it.” She spent years developing a prototype, did some play testing, took the idea to business school, and launched Morphology in 2009. It was named the #2 Toy of the Year by Time magazine in 2010, and when fans started clamoring for a kids’ version, Reiling turned to Kickstarter to get it done.

HOW CROWD-FUNDING HELPED: Reiling relied on her own money and support from friends and family to launch Morphology. “At one point, I had friends with MBAs putting together games for me,” she says. “It was very smart labor.” She decided to use Kickstarter last spring to fund Morphology Jr. production costs and help spread awareness of the game. “Kickstarter is a new fundraising model,” she says. “It helps me meet my goals for my business, but I can also support different products, companies, and ideas in exchange for goods in a unique marketplace.” The money Reiling raised helped Morphology Jr. move quickly from prototype to market.

FUNDER GIFTS: $25 got funders a Morphology T-shirt; $35 earned them a copy of the game; $500 yielded a Morphology expansion pack.

WHAT’S NEXT? Reiling’s game design company, Morphology Games, is conceptualizing other creative board games for children and adults. “We want to develop games that challenge the imagination and build creativity,” she says.

LEARN MORE: morphologygames.com

 

Erica Rivera ’01Erica Rivera and husband


Project: Food truck called MILF and Cookies.
Amount to be raised: Rivera was seeking $69,000

Rivera bakes delectable sweet treats, including six-inch stuffed cookies—imagine a chocolate-chip cookie stuffed with s’mores or a peanut butter one with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup inside. She hopes her truck will complement the overabundance of pulled-pork, taco, and sliders already available at downtown Minneapolis food trucks. “We thought about a pie truck, but pies are pretty labor intensive and messy to eat on the street,” she says.

HOW CROWD-FUNDING CAN HELP: In early winter Rivera was seeking $69,000 on RocketHub.com to purchase a truck and pay for licensing, permits, equipment, and kitchen rental. As of early December she’s only raised about 1 percent toward her goal. “I like that crowd-funding leaves the artist in complete creative control,” Rivera says. “You can maintain artistic integrity without having to go to the big man for funding. I also like that our customers are the ones supporting us from the start.”

FUNDER GIFTS: Gifts ranged from a cookie for $10 donors to an original cookie recipe following donor-suggested ingredients for $500.

WHAT’S NEXT? Rivera also hopes to use the truck as a “pull right up to the event” dessert-buffet catering business, offering truffles, pies, breads, and other sweets at weddings and corporate events.

LEARN MORE: www.milfandcookiesmn.com

 

Paul Cantrell playing a piano

Paul Cantrell ’98


Project: A CD of Cantrell’s original composition
Amount raised: $3,026

Cantrell wanted to make a CD of his composition for bass clarinet and piano titled “The Broken Mirror of Memory.” Bass clarinetist Pat O’Keefe performs the four-part piece, accompanied by Cantrell on piano. The composition takes advantage of the bass clarinet’s enormous range of expressive possibilities and forces the listener to “slow down, pay closer attention, and truly listen to the music,” Cantrell says. The work won first prize in the 2012 International Clarinet Association’s composition competition, and premiered at its annual ClarinetFest.

HOW CROWD-FUNDING HELPED: “I wanted to make a CD of the piece so that it wasn’t just the festival audience who got to hear it,” Cantrell says. He and O’Keefe recorded, mixed, and mastered the music in Cantrell’s home recording studio, and then raised $3,026 last fall on Kickstarter to cover printing, distribution, and publicity costs. Cantrell appreciates how crowd-funding—beyond its practical aspects—connects him with contemporary music lovers: “With each CD, I send a reminder that it isn’t just something they bought, but something they made happen.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Cantrell continues to compose new music. Also a freelance software designer and programmer, he and brother Andy Cantrell ’02 are collaborating on the development of a free interactive calculus textbook.

FUNDER GIFTS: A mere $8 won funders a CD of Paul’s music. For $512 he’d compose a short piece for the instrument of the funder’s choice.

LEARN MORE: innig.net/music

 

Rachel Garber Cole ’07Rachel Cole


Project: A short experimental fictional film
Amount raised: $4,171

Cole’s film is called Pregnant and Dying. Cole is a New York City–based actress who writes, directs, and performs in her own pieces, both theatrical and on film. Pregnant and Dying is about a young woman who discovers she has cancer while she’s pregnant and how she and her family conflict over her decisions about her body. With the exception of a doctor, Cole plays all seven characters in the film, which was shot with rear screen projection.

HOW CROWD-FUNDING HELPED: Kickstarter helped Cole raise $4,171 last winter for Pregnant and Dying, enabling her to rent a warehouse space needed for filming, as well as a projector and lights. She also was able to pay and feed her crew—“food is really important in the film industry when people are getting paid very little,” she says—and cover costumes, props, and makeup. “Making my little video about the film to inspire backers on Kickstarter also helped me clarify what the film was about,” Cole says. “It’s good to know I have 119 supporters who are excited to see it.” As of press time, the film was in post-production and close to completion.

FUNDER GIFTS: A $10 gift got funders a thank you in the film credits, $50 earned them a DVD of the film plus a personalized thank you video, and with $500 a funder became an associate producer and earned two tickets to the film’s New York screening.

WHAT’S NEXT? In addition to developing a new short film and a solo performance piece, Cole is working on the screenplay for her first feature-length film with producer Sara Kiener ’06.

LEARN MORE: rachelgarbercole.com

Marla Holt is a freelance writer living in Owatonna, Minn.

PUBLISHED: 01/28/2013