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Marylanders Turn to Kickstarter, not Banks, to Fund Creative Projects

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The County Times Newspaper

The Southern Calvert Gazette Newspaper

Posted on October 25, 2012

By AISHA AZHAR

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When Fred Hicks, a board game developer in Silver Spring, decided to publish a pulp adventure trilogy featuring psychic dinosaurs, flying jet men and talking gorillas, he didn’t go to a bank for the money. Instead, he launched a fundraising campaign that quickly became the highest-earning project from Maryland on Kickstarter, the largest crowdfunding platform for creative projects.

“We hit all of our funding targets for the whole trilogy in the first sixty hours of the campaign,” Hicks said. He raised roughly $40,000 over the remainder of his 30-day Kickstarter campaign - eight times his funding goal of $5,000.

Since debuting in 2009, Kickstarter has revolutionized the way people fund creative projects like movies, video games, dance performances and books. Measured by traffic, it is by far the largest creative crowdfunding portal in the world, according to Quantcast, a Web analysis firm.

So far, people have used the site to fund nearly 30,000 successful projects globally.

But despite Kickstarter’s popularity, more than half of projects listed on the site fail to meet their funding goals. In Maryland, however, the reverse is true, according to data from the company. Success requires a lot of work. It requires project owners to forge personal connections with their supporters and offer tangible incentives to donate -- all of which takes time and effort.

“I hesitate to call any of the things that helped build our success ‘tricks’ -- none of this was a quick fix, or an overnight transition from nothing to awesomeness,” Hicks said.

More people support publishing projects than any other type of project in Maryland, according to data from Kickstarter. Hicks said it could be because nearby Washington, D.C., has a “book-friendly culture.” It could also be because of the relatively low funding goals of such projects, averaging around $3,000.

Hicks said his firm Evil Hat Productions -- which publishes tabletop roleplaying games -- had been looking to expand into other avenues of “geek-friendly entertainment.” The result was a wacky book series that reads like the pulp novels of the 1920s and 30s.

“Crowdfunding was the right fit for that kind of change of gears --a chance to put our new direction out there and test our audience to see if they were interested in following us there,” Hicks said.

Hicks said his strategy was to interact with his supporters and give them gifts in exchange for their pledges. He offered free electronic versions of the books to entry-level backers and signed paperback copies to those who pledged more.

David Botwick-Reis, whose Kickstarter campaign’s success allowed him to buy a truck to distribute his freshly-baked cookies on University of Maryland campuses, agreed that people are looking for a return on their dollars.

“The value of Kickstarter isn’t in the friends and family, who will support you regardless,” Botwick-Reis said. “The value is in the thousands of people who go on the website daily and want something from the cause they’re giving to.”

This is how Kickstarter works: people pitch their ideas to the Kickstarter team; if approved, they get their own page on the website where they can post videos, photos, illustrations, and details about their project.

All projects have fixed funding goals and people can pledge any amount they want.

Here’s the catch: the project owners only get the money if they meet their goal within an allotted time limit, usually between 30 and 40 days.

The site also lets project owners offer rewards to their backers, which range from personal thank yous on the project’s official website to merchandise, novelty items or work samples.

“It isn’t a dormant website. You can constantly update, add videos, show your progress, and just constantly engage your audience,” Botwick-Reis said. “We need to focus on crowd-FUN-ding, rather than crowd-FUND-ing.”

Not everyone follows these rules, which explains why nearly three out of every 10 Maryland projects on Kickstarter fail.

Game developer Andrew Diamantoukos said his project failed because he didn’t have a working prototype to show his audience. He also hardly updated his Kickstarter page.

“The two kind of created a feedback loop where I wasn't working that hard because I was dissatisfied with what I had shown to the public because I wasn't working as hard, and so on and so forth,” he said.

Diamontoukas turned to Kickstarter because it became a “gold rush for independent developers” over the past year. Kickstarter called 2012 “the year of the game” as most of the projects raising more than $1 million were video games.

In Maryland, however, game developers aren’t faring as well as producers of other kinds of projects. More than half of game projects fail to meet their funding goals.

August Bender, whose Kickstarter campaign also failed, said it’s because the region has too many game developers and not enough job opportunities, forcing them to relocate.

“There is a large surplus of people who make video games, as a result of all the tech schools in the area,” Bender said. He named University of Baltimore and University of Maryland Baltimore Campus, both of which offer game development degrees.

Unlike California and Washington state, there are few well-known game development studios in Maryland, he said.

“It’'s fairly easy to imagine those seeking to make it in the game industry would seek to move out there,” Diamantoukos said.

While game projects are struggling in Maryland, music projects are thriving. Maryland-based music projects have made nearly $400,000 since Kickstarter’s launch, more than any other category.

Globally, music and film projects have raised the most money compared to other Kickstarter projects, according to Kickstarter.

Music is at the heart of the crowdfunding platform. Kickstarter Co-founder Perry Chen developed the idea for the website when he wanted to throw a jazz concert, but didn’t because it was too big a “financial risk”.

“Once the dust settled, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a better way to get the audience involved in bringing creative projects to life,” said Justin Kazmark, a spokesperson for Kickstarter.

Jason Mackall, an army veteran living in Baltimore, was on his last tour of duty in Afghanistan when he heard about Kickstarter on a television show. The name stuck, and soon he was pitching his hip-hop album to the Kickstarter team.

Mackall said he didn’t have the money or the experience, but he knew he wanted to get into music. On Kickstarter, he raised enough funds to produce his own album.

“It’s a site for people who just want to help out other people,” Mackall said.

The recession made it doubly difficult for startups and emerging entrepreneurs to obtain capital from traditional sources, like banks. But crowdfunding has changed the rules of the game, said Anthony Millin, a business attorney from Bethesda.

Millin said that bank financing is not an option for those without a track record of revenues and profits. The people on Kickstarter aren’t looking at the numbers, which is why it’s an “exciting alternative” for the startup community.

“This is an opportunity to connect local businesses to local people who will benefit from these activities,” he said. “It has tremendous potential for startups and entrepreneurs.”

Tips for Kickstarter Success

1. Be transparent. People want to know how their money is being used, so keep them in the loop about your project’s progress.

2. Be creative. Give your backers unique rewards and find engaging ways to keep them interested, like a Kickstarter party.

3. Be interactive. Connect with the audience by responding to their questions and comments.

4. Be visual. Videos help people put a face to the project and personalize your campaign. Add photos or illustrations to showcase your work.

5. Be vocal. Starting a campaign on Kickstarter isn’t enough. Use social media to market your project to gain a larger audience.

6. Be specific. Give details about how you will achieve your goal with the money that you raise.

7. Be flexible. People will give their suggestions, and while you might not agree, you should be willing to listen.

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