Why Honesty Beats Flashy in Crowdfunding

Editor’s Note: Normally we don’t publish our testimonials as blogs, but this guest blog by playwright John McKinney is a great story about the transformative effect of crowdfunding. John came to us in distress and left with his dream project funded after 14 years in the making. We hope John’s words help shed some light on the value of crowdfunding beyond funding – about the magic that happens when you put it all on the line to make your dreams a reality with the support of your crowd.

When I first launched my Indiegogo campaign for the production of my play, The Chekhov Dreams, I’m sure I was like many people: full of high hopes and excitement. And not without good reasons, I think. I had researched other campaigns for nearly a year. Talked to other successful campaigners. Built a kick-ass website with tons of depth and made it all pictorially exciting. I created a pitch video with the plotline and production value of an indie film, even flooded the airwaves with my best chops as a former advertising copywriter to promote said video. But within 48 hours the campaign had barely reached the first $1,000 of its $12K fixed goal and after a full court press via emails to every soul I knew contributions had come to a complete halt. It was then that one of my producers mentioned Kathleen and what a great help she was with her own fundraising project. So I called.

At first things went from dark to darker. Kathleen informed me it was unusual to take on clients post-launch and that she would not be able to take me on personally. Instead, she offered to set up a “phone triage” with her partner, Scott Madsen. The term “triage” sounded ominous, evoking images of a blood-soaked battlefield and someone quickly surveying my lifeless fundraising carcass to see if it was worth saving. So my outlook for the phone call looked grim to say the least.

Happily, Scott did not seem at all deterred by my anemic launch and quickly rattled off a to-do list of actions that could be taken to re-invigorate the campaign. Always upbeat, he walked me through some of the principles of social networking, which, being a social media misanthrope, I clearly needed. He also pointed out the many tools available such as video updates (not being the most observant person in the world when it comes to exploring web sites I could have gone the entire campaign without realizing that was even possible).

Most importantly, he identified a fatal flaw in my campaign pitch – the all-too-flashy video. He strongly urged me to make a new video the old fashioned way – with my phone – that appealed to people honestly, from the heart. I agreed with his assessment but found it took way more courage than I could summon to actually do it. Because, much to my own surprise, it turns out I am one of those people who have a deep aversion to asking for help. On reflection this has been true all my life, but it took a crowdfunding campaign that was on the rocks to force me to deal with it.

So the days stretched into a week, then two weeks, before the dead silence of my campaign and the pressure to do the damn “honest” video became too much. So, overcoming one of the greatest psychological obstacles of my life, I proceeded to tell people what I should have said all along, that my play could not be mounted without their help. It felt like live televised self-disembowelment.

But damn, if things didn’t start to turn around! Just a few dribs and drabs at first, but the blood vessels were coursing; the campaign was suddenly showing signs of life! Of course, I didn’t for a minute think we’d ever reach our fixed goal of $12K, but at least it was fun to watch the thermometer rise, and maybe if it got to the halfway point I could borrow some money and rescue the funds myself to meet the fixed amount. Meanwhile, Scott was keeping tabs on it all, providing encouragement almost daily (with no additional charge, by the way. Apparently they have a bizarre business philosophy: they care!)

And that’s when the “champion” phenomenon that Scott had forecast kicked in. One of my young assistant producers was so moved by my plea that she took matters into her own hands and made her own heartfelt pitch on her network, as well as phoned her family and friends from back home. Suddenly pledges were coming in big gobs, doubling, then tripling within a matter of days. This re-inspired me to do another video update, followed by she and I doing a “duet” with the two of us pleading together. Now the thermometer was moving fast. We extended the campaign another two weeks to capitalize on the momentum, and lo and behold… in the end we not only hit our goal, we exceeded it. The final tally was $13,455, or 112% of our asked-for amount. And with more late pledges coming! (We estimate clearing $14K through direct donations.)

The point is, Scott called it from the beginning. Honesty, not flash, is what motivates. That’s not to say my time wasn’t well spent building the website and Indiegogo campaign page as professionally as possible (many said later they were impressed by that side of it) but from all accounts, it was the opening of my heart that moved them to action. In fact, I’m now of the opinion that it was the mistake in choosing to be so slick and then seeking redemption by scrapping it and starting over that was perhaps the most motivating factor of all. But I wouldn’t suggest planning that as a course of action on purpose!

Moral of story: if I ever undergo another one of these campaigns again (ask me again in another five years, I might have recovered from the roller coaster effect by then) I definitely wouldn’t do it without Scott or his colleagues behind me!

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