Begging for money – or soliciting contributions – has been a time honored tradition most commonly identified by organizations such as public radio stations, non profits and even churches. Fast forward to the modern day spin on this and you’ve got crowdfunding. Crowdfunding – in a nutshell – is simply a way to solicit contributions in small amounts via the internet.
But asking for money to help fund your project is so much more involved than you might think, if you want your campaign to be successful. And isn’t that the whole point? When you figure out who your target audience is, and how to best identify with them, that’s when your campaign will gain momentum.
Emily Best is the CEO of Seed and Spark, the most effective crowdfunding platform in the world. Through launching her own crowdfunding campaign, Emily learned valuable lessons – sometimes the hard way – of what works and what doesn’t, and out of this experience Seed and Spark was born.
(This is part one of a two-part interview with Emily as she shares her personal stories and experiences with crowdfunding for her own project.)
Rich: Hey everybody, this is Rich Brooks of The Marketing Agents Podcast, and we have a great guest for you today, Emily Best. Emily is the CEO of Seed and Spark, and she has shepherded the company from an experimental concept to the most effective crowdfunding platform in the world.
Boasting a 70% campaign success rate, nearly double that of the rival, Kickstarter. Best has also made it her mission to ensure that women are well represented in the tech and film words. On top of that, she’s got an open office concept, and we’re going to see how much background noise we can avoid. Emily, welcome to the show.
Emily: Thank you so much for having me.
Rich: This is going to be fun. We had a nice pre-conversation and I’m looking forward to asking you some questions about crowdfunding. Let’s just jump right in. First of all, for those people that are listening to the podcast who maybe are not super familiar with crowdfunding, maybe they’ve heard of Kickstarter, but they don’t really know what it is. How would you define crowdfunding and how exactly did you get started in it?
Emily: So crowdfunding most broadly is a moniker that’s been given to something that public radio and nonprofits have been doing for a number of years, which is soliciting contributions from individuals rather than institutions, in small amounts to add up to a big amount to support usually a particular initiative. It’s sort of funny because crowdfunding has become this thing as if it’s new, but anyone who listens to NPR or anybody who contributes to any nonprofit organization or belongs to a church – which have been crowdfunding literally since the beginning of time – but it now refers to soliciting contributions in the form of small amounts on the internet.
Rich: So we’re digitally passing the hat.
Emily: That’s exactly right. Although, just to be fair, I think crowdfunding has gotten kind of a bad rap because of this notion that we’re passing the hat, as opposed to creating a transactional relationship around something that people find really valuable. Whether that’s their ability to pre-buy a product that really excites them, or to participate in a creative process with an artist that really excites them.
Rich: Well I want to get to that whole idea of creating a transactional relationship like that. But before we even get to that, I want you to share with us your story of how you actually got started with Seed and Spark and the whole crowdfunding movement.
Emily: So I made a movie in 2011, it was my first feature film with a bunch of my women friends, and we were unhappy with how women were represented in the media. But because we had been working as actors and writers and directors and producers it the theater – and some of us in film – we didn’t really feel like we could complain about that and not address it. What better way to address it than just add to the conversation with something that we felt better served it.
So we set about making a movie called, “Like the Water”. It is an independent drama about a women’s sort of second coming of age in her late 20’s, she loses a friend and is kind of brought back to herself in her group of women friends and her community. And it’s a story about grief and loss and growth, the kind of small story that is only able to be told really in independent cinema. We knew it was really valuable, but if you try to go to a film investor to fund an indie drama, they will laugh you off the stage.
So we didn’t know that, our naivety was working really hard for us. But we thought that the story behind the story that we wanted to do to sort of address the lack of positive representations of female friendships in film, for the most part. We thought that story was really important, and we wanted to find a way tell our journey of making this movie as a group of women friends to our community so that they could understand how to get involved materially.
I remember really clearly, Kickstarter had just really started grooving in its first year, and our filmmaker friends had heard of it but our friend’s parents had not and we wanted something that was accessible to everyone. And I suppose it’s not a surprise that a group of 6 women in a room eventually come to realize that a way that we have crowdsourced that everyone is familiar with in this society is a wedding registry. And that’s a way of crowdsourcing goods to contribute to somebody’s life as opposed to crowdsourcing cash.
Also, we had a lot of artist friends and we wanted to make sure that they could feel themselves to be an important part of this undertaking. And when we needed to ask for $20,000, we didn’t want somebody with $5 to feel like they were just a drop in the bucket, because any contribution was really huge to us. We had raised a little bit of equity from – what we like to call – friends, family and fools. We needed $20,00 to fill our production budget or we weren’t going to be able to make the film. So we tried this thing, we made a wedding registry out of the items that we needed to make the film. So everything from bug spray and sunscreen – because we were shooting in Maine in the summer – to the camera rental, the car rentals, the lighting, the hard drives and storage, the food on the set, everything that we could think of that we thought we could tell a little bit of an engaging story about to give people a sense of their participation.
Like, ok, so you don’t have $500 but $5 will buy coffee for a day for someone on set, and that is really a huge contribution if you’ve worked in film. So we made this list and we sent it around to everyone we knew and we raised $23,000 in cash in the 30 days that we ran our campaign. But more importantly, hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and gifts of goods and services, and most importantly, vocation.
And interesting thing that happened was when we made a list of everything that we needed for on camera and off camera, what we didn’t know at the time what we were doing was engaging our audiences imagination well in advance of when we had planned to at the theater about a year later. And they started to look at this list and they started to come up with their own story about what was happening and what they could contribute. And so we got the offer of locations that were so phenomenal that we rewrote the script to incorporate them.
Rich: Oh, that’s interesting.
Emily: And so our audience very quickly became our creative collaborator. And I think it absolutely strengthened the film. So this flies in the face of the auteur working behind the door on his or her own, and really became a community collaboration effort.
Rich: Well thats really interesting, first of all, on a few different things. You mention that you were getting bug spray and sunscreen because you were going to be here in Maine in the summer, and of course Im here in Maine and I’m recording this in the second week of January and certain schools actually closed today because it was so cold. Just to give you a sense of the idea that I would need sunscreen or bug spray right now just fills me with joy and reminds me that is coming again.
But also, the idea that you really have built a community, even before you really had a product here. Which of course this podcast is all about how do we reach and engage your ideal customer. So it feels to me that even though even though you and eed and Spark are focused primarily on filmmakers, that this is something that can definitely be used for any entrepreneur or any small business or nonprofit as a way of creating something that would be a value to the end user.
Emily: Yeah. So we launched the company in December 2012 and then May and June of 2013 we actually ran a crowdfunding campaign for Seed and Spark on Seed and Spark.
Rich: How meta.
Emily: Yes it was. We called it “the inception of crowdfunding campaigns”. When we completed that campaign we had learned so unbelievably much about our customer because of how deeply we had to engage with them for that period of time, that I wrote an article called, “Run Your Business Like You’re Crowdfunding”. Crowdfunding sort of forces a business to apply lean startup methodologies in which you release early and often, meaning you take your not yet fully formed idea out to your crowd and get their feedback and create the engagement around building a product together.
So we emerged from our campaign having learned how to talk to an entirely new set of customers that are messaging had previously ignored. Having really to focus primarily on the value – just as you said – that we’re offering to the end user and why they should care to help us build it. And obviously also deeply articulating the problems that we were hoping to solve, and learning about those problems from our crowd along the way.
So it was such an incredible learning experience that I sort of felt like everyone should do a little bit of this crowdfunding thing along the way. And when filmmakers ask if a film is appropriate to be crowdfunded, the answer is, “no, not all films are appropriate to be crowdfunded.” But certainly even if you’re getting equity investment, crowdfunding is the way you prove that there is market traction. It is your product market fit examination period.
Rich: Well, the title of your article almost makes me think of the e-myth where he says, “You should run your business as if you were going to franchise it. ” In other words, to really kind of perfect it. And so what you’re saying is, run your business like you’re going to crowdfund it. But of course, one of the things that I’m hearing you say is that by crowdfunding it, you also learned a lot about your ideal customer. You may have had a vision for who they were, but it really started to solidify for you and forced you to kind of open your eyes even wider to whom it was that you were ultimately serving. Would you say that’s accurate?
Emily: That’s absolutely right, yeah. We had a really kind of humbling moment, it’s a funny story.
Rich: I’d love to hear it.
Emily: So part way through the crowdfunding campaign I was given a great honor by Indiewire to be included in their “Indiewire influencers of 2013”, and it was sort of an insane thing to be given as the CEO of a 4-month old film startup. And I got invited to a panel at The Los Angeles film festival. this was before I was living in LA and it all felt very glamorous and big. And I was on the panel with people I had profoundly respected and admired over time, so I was very nervous before the panel and I didn’t really eat and then after the panel they had a party with wine and things like that.
People came up to me and said, “Hey that was great, I’m really interested to hear more about your business. Here’s a glass of wine.” So I had the first glass of wine and then that continued. And now I’m hungry and a little bit tipsy and I’m standing in a circle with one of my founding team members, Erica Anderson, who’s our director of crowdfunding. Also, Ann Thompson, who writes a blog, “Thompson On Hollywood”, and she’s been reporting on Hollywood since the 80’s. She just wrote an amazing book called “The $11 Billion Dollar Year”. And Vincent Laforet who is just an incredibly esteemed commercial cinematographer, and then this Warner Brothers executive whose name I don’t remember. And the Warner Brothers executive, over the course of the conversation, said something really insulting about independent filmmakers – as some want to do in Hollywood – like, “Well, nobody really cares about those small stories.”, or something really brash like that. And because my defenses were down, I just pointed a finger and was like, “If you guys hadn’t spent all your time promoting stories about white, middle class people finding themselves, we wouldn’t be in this situation where there’s no audience for anything else.”
Ann Thompson and Vincent Laforet had a very good laugh at this guy’s expense, and also probably a little bit at mine. And Ann said, “I like you kid, you got spunk.” And Vincent said, “We should be friends, let’s get a drink sometime.” And I ended up getting invited to go sailing with him and the founders of the camera company, Red. So all of a sudden I’m having this second glamorous experience. But Vincent and I spent a lot of time talking about where we wanted to see the future of independent filmmaking go and opportunities we wanted to be responsible for creating.
And a couple days later – and I didn’t know he was going to do this – he wrote a blog post for his incredibly well read blog about Seed and Spark and the excitement he felt in learning about us and our place in the future of film. And I didn’t really know he has 65 or 70 thousand twitter followers, all of whom were crew. I’m talking the gaffers and the grips and the cinematographers and the AC’s and the digitechs. Like the guys who run the set and make stuff happen. And when he wrote that article we had thousands of dollars pour into our crowdfunding campaign.
Rich: Oh, that’s very nice.
Emily: Then we realized, we had not been talking to the crew. Which was really embarrassing, because that’s not how I run my set as a producer. I don’t only run my set talking to the “above the line” folks. And yet the language of how we were talking about our company and how we were messaging our customer was very much directed in this sort of “above the line” mentality.
So it’s very humbling to discover that we had left out this incredibly important set of our customer base and our audience, just through this one blog post that he wrote. And then of course I did a bunch of research and I reached out to some other camera folks that I knew and asked them if they might write something and it made all the difference to our crowdfunding campaign, but also to our business in the long run.
Rich: Why is that, why did it make a difference to your business?
Emily: Well honestly, there’s way more crew than any other kind of person, and those people are all filmmakers in their own right as well, and we just weren’t talking to them in the way that they wanted to be talked to. And so it changed the way that we messaged, that we marketed, the way we spoke as a company.
Rich: So I think as someone who enjoys film but certainly isn’t making his own movies, what I could take away from that as an entrepreneur is just that there may be segments of the population that we have not been thinking about as we focus on one audience, and we can discover them perhaps through crowdfunding. That crowdfunding could, in and of itself, be a way to attract a new audience or an ideal customer to what we have to create.
Emily: Well, I’ll tell you that you know, subsequent to that we now teach up and coming crowdfunders how to do this discovery process well in advance of crowdfunding, because I don’t actually recommend you try to do that discovery while you’re crowdfunding. I recommend you try to do it before crowdfunding, so that your crowdfunding campaign can be maximally successful. But this is one of the lessons that taught us that in the first place.