ILLUSTRATION: BT Livermore
So you've got this great idea to write a punk-rock math book, make 100 album covers out of beeswax or build a life-sized tractor-trailer out of sheetrock, but no money to make it happen. Who's going to invest in that? Plenty of people, it turns out—these are just some of the projects started by Portlanders that have been successfully funded by people all across America through the "crowdfunding" website Kickstarter.
It works like this: You have an idea for a project—be it a business, film, book or something completely frivolous—but no money to make it happen. You submit your idea to Kickstarter. The site's staff looks over your proposal, accepts or rejects it, and offers advice on how to maximize its appeal. You're encouraged to create a video promoting your idea, and a series of "rewards" to entice people to pledge money toward your project—the greater the pledge, the greater the reward. If you reach your donation goal by deadline, the money is yours, your backers receive their rewards, and Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut. If you fail, your backers keep their money, Kickstarter takes nothing, and you go back to the drawing board.
"It's a bit like altruistic gambling," says Portland resident and former Kickstarter chief technology officer Andy Baio. "This is not charity—it's patronage."
Since the site launched in April 2009, Baio has watched the website take off not only throughout America, but especially in Portland, where locals have raised more money per capita than almost any other major city. There are 16 Kickstarter projects currently going in Portland.
"I think it's partly because we have a really strong creative culture here, a very independent culture," he says. "And also, people really need money! You're not in New York, you're not in L.A.—you're working outside of the traditional publishing industries. So the need for that funding to be able to get your project off the ground is pretty strong here. And because it's also a very social community, we're seeing the projects do pretty well."
Baio himself raised $8,647—meeting his $2,000 goal after only two hours—through the site to rerecord Miles Davis' classic album Kind of Blue on 8-bit video-game consoles. Local bands like 3 Leg Torso, Ezra Carey and Pancake Breakfast have successfully used the site to fund albums, tours and music videos, while established businesses like Reading Frenzy and Floating World Comics and events like the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby have all used Kickstarter to expand projects.
Here are a few of our favorites.
For the past year, farmer Aaron Silverman and chef and curer Morgan Brownlow—a.k.a. Tails and Trotters—have been selling some of the finest fresh pork in the Northwest, made from locally raised, hazelnut-fed pigs, to restaurants and retailers and at farmers markets. But their ultimate goal and passion has always been to turn their pork into prosciutto and other cured meat products, which requires a commercial curing and aging facility. The pair decided to use Kickstarter to help fund a retail space where they can finally produce and sell their prosciutto products before—if all goes according to plan—expanding into a larger commercial operation. They carefully crafted their rewards to steer people toward higher-end pledges: $100 will get you a sample package of prosciutto, a gift certificate, recipes, stickers and an invite to the opening party; for $250, they'll throw in butchery and charcuterie classes.
"If we don't make our entire goal, none of those pledges are charged. It means people are truly only supporting a successful project. They're not just tossing money out there," says Silverman. While the project is still only at 32 percent of its goal with about a month to go, Silverman—who spent six months watching and studying other Kickstarter projects before launching his own—is confident it's on track for success.
What do you know about Portland's Black Panthers? Have you ever actually walked through the Lone Fir Cemetery? Do you remember the X-Ray Cafe? Local nonprofit group the Dill Pickle Club is trying to connect Oregonians with these and other little-known stories from the state's history, through a series of comics written by local journalist Sarah Mirk and drawn by 10 different local artists. Though the club's previous projects have been funded by donations, fundraisers and grants, Dill Pickle Club director Marc Moscato thought the Kickstarter model would lend itself better to this particular endeavor.
"In Portland, Kickstarter…has played an important role in filling the gap in the city's notably small allocation for the arts," says Moscato. "For Oregon History Comics, Kickstarter made perfect sense. It's the type of project [the Regional Arts & Culture Council] would probably not fund due to its research-oriented and print-production nature. Using Kickstarter enabled us to get full investment from all 10 artists, as they wanted to get paid and see the project come to fruition. Having such a decentralized approach helped it succeed."
The project raised enough money to pay the artists and cover printing and distribution costs. The two comics released so far have been so successful, Moscato is planning a second print run.
Michael Felix wanted to create music with his bicycle. He built a synthesizer on an open-source computer that could be controlled by the speed and movement of a bicycle wheel, but needed help to develop the project further. It wasn't money that he needed so much as other people to hack, modify and experiment with the device.
He started a Kickstarter campaign, offering others a chance to donate to the project and buy their own kit to make one of his creations and start playing with it. Felix deliberately set his target low at $500—"If I could get five people to buy a kit, that would be validation enough for me that I had a good idea and I should keep going," he says. "And it blew up in my face!"
News spread through the biking and open-source communities, and he raised 312 percent of his goal, finding supporters all around the world, as well as a local group of developers. "It wasn't that I was trying to say, 'Hey I have this idea, give me money,' it was, 'Hey I have this thing, do you want to be part of it?'"
Portland alt-jazz band Blue Cranes has played seven tours since forming in 2007, but has never made it beyond the West Coast. The five-piece wanted to take its experimental sounds east, but in order to avoid the physically and environmentally taxing method of driving a van from coast to coast, decided to tour the country via train. Realizing the tour itself wouldn't generate enough revenue to pay for train tickets, the band decided to draw on the support it has at home to fund the trip through Kickstarter.
"We tried to add little things in to make it special," says the band's alto-sax player, Reed Wallsmith. They created a three-song EP for Kickstarter donors only, and offered a range of unique personalized rewards, from limited-edition silkscreened tour posters and T-shirts to a bowling lesson with the band's tenor-sax player, Sly Pig, and a Blue Cranes concert at your house.
"There's a strong 'buy local' movement in Portland, and Kickstarter is sort of an extension of that. You can have a direct connection with the group or person you're giving money to," says Wallsmith. The band plans to head off in spring next year.
Filmmaker Kyle Aldrich wanted to turn his friend Phil Duncan's one-act play about a monster named Dennis into a short film. The pair quickly realized the elaborate sets and expensive puppet costume they wanted would require more money than either could provide out of their own pockets.
They set out to raise $3,700, but ended up gaining a ready-made fanbase for the film, well before it has even been finished. "We tried to structure it so the more you give, the more we bring you into the project," explains Aldrich.
The pair created an exclusive behind-the-scenes blog for donors, where they can see stills, scripts and offer their own feedback. A spot in the credits was $75, while $500 earned you the title of "associate producer."
The campaign was so successful they have continued to accept donations on their website in exchange for the same rewards, and now have 80 donors—even from England and Spain—eagerly waiting for the film's release.
"I hope this is the way the medium is going," says Duncan. "People helping [to] afford artists the ability to do what they want to do, instead of being beholden to a huge company.
"I feel like if it starts at Kickstarter, where you can fund a short film for $4,000, then maybe this model will catch on at bigger levels. Maybe crowd-funding will be the way we go in the future."