Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Taking the Leap (With a Bit of Help)

So you’ve been dreaming of launching a creative career? Or, maybe you are already a working artist who has been aching to do that BIG project and doesn’t quite know how to get it rolling? You may want to investigate http://Kickstarter.com This site is becoming increasingly popular with creative projects ranging from big theatre companies using it for fundraising, to individual artists creating things like hand-printed comic books. What sets Kickstarter apart from sites like Fractured Atlas where people can donate money is that it is interactive. It keeps you in touch with your backers, and also gets your project in front of people who are looking to connect with interesting artists and purchase merchandize directly from the creators.

One important thing you should know about Kickstarter funding is that it is all or nothing. If the project does not make its funding goal, it simply expires without the creator or backers exchanging money or goods. There is plenty of information on the Kickstarter site, which I’m not going to rehash here. This is by no means meant to be the definitive guide or a prescription for success, simply my own perspective and experiences from a project called Stand in the Light, a pinhole photography idea that involves creating images of multiple nude models in grand architectural spaces.

My goal was bare bones: $1200, just enough to do the first of what I hope will be a series of shoots in various cities. Since this was the first time doing anything like this. I had no idea if I’d make it, but after adding up everything I thought I’d need, it seemed reasonable—a reach, but not unreachable. I don’t know a ton a people, but I’m not a hermit either. I had seen a number of Kickstarter projects by others fail by setting goals that were too high, often because they incorporated living and travel expenses into the target number. I didn’t want what I was doing to look like a glorified vacation. I tried to imagine myself as an outsider looking in. Would this excite me enough to part with my hard-earned money?

I decided the best tack was to just be myself. I made the video for the funding page simply by talking to the camera as if I were discussing my work with someone I had just met. (It took about eighteen takes to get it right!) Every request for funding I sent over Facebook was an individually written missive. Each time someone pledged I sent a short “Thank you” email telling them perhaps a little bit about recent goings on.

Prior to launch, I spent much time looking around on the Kickstarter site, seeing what worked for me, what didn’t, trying to find comparable projects, and keeping an eye on their progress. I’d often pledge small amounts of five dollars or less if I found something unusually compelling. I quickly became a bit addicted to perusing what other people were doing and found that it was a great way to get a sense of the current creative scene. Additionally, I set a minimum goal of 500 fans for my photography page on Facebook. Pleas to friends and colleagues to spread the word and get people to “Like” my page helped out a lot.

Also, before going on Kickstarter, I created a catalog of eleven test images which took me about ten months to do. I wanted to be sure that the rather technically unusual process I planned to use was viable. The test run allowed me to estimate how much it would cost to do works on a larger scale, and it also let me decide if this was what I really wanted to work on over the long term. (It was!) The tests served as the premiums rather than having people pledge towards future work. This allowed backers to get their goodies shortly after the funding cycle ended and took some of the pressure off me so I could proceed at my usual tortoise-like pace. Most importantly, I believe, it telegraphed that I was serious and was willing to go the distance by doing my homework.

I did just one mass email, sent a number of individual emails, posted on Facebook, and over the 45 days the project was up I came close to individually messaging about 175 friends and contacts I then had on Facebook. I also posted on Craigslist (no hard evidence that it helped in any way). I should have tracked the hours, but they were considerable. On a per-hour basis it would have been more lucrative to have just gone to my part time job and put in some extra time. Still, much came of the project, which can’t be gauged in money.

Surprisingly, individuals, some who I had not been in close contact with, or didn’t even know, pledged generously. Perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that it’s very easy for people to hit the “Like” button on Facebook but that doesn’t mean they really understand what you do or are engaged enough to want to fund your efforts. The most common response to emails and messaging was simply: none.

The least fun part of Kickstarter was fulfillment of the art people were to receive for backing me. I was lucky that most of it was catalogs and small photos. I dealt with it by doing the bulk of it in one fell swoop, taking a day to make prints, go to Staples for packaging materials, and stuffing envelopes. On the next go-round I will definitely be thinking of ways to sidestep having to do things like cutting cardboard and making little custom stiffeners. I will surely be standardizing both the items and the packaging.

Despite sometimes feeling like I was howling at the moon, and one day of grunt work, doing this campaign was very exciting. I got a little shiver up my spine every time someone new pledged. Going through this process has given me a model for future fundraising that I need to do when I take the project to its next stage. Much like writing a grant, it brought things into focus. I believe it created a sense of urgency and legitimacy in the public eye, but unlike a grant, it was up to me and my support base to determine if I got to move ahead. Of the 700 or so people I was aware of having been informed about the project, about eight percent came through with pledges, most for less than $30. The $10 level (a hand-printed postcard) was the most popular. I also received a number of off-line contributions either by check or Paypal from people who did not want to deal with either Kickstarter or Amazon, the entity that takes the cash. Although I continually encouraged people to kick-in at the $1 or $2 level, few did. I’m not completely sure why. It may be that, despite my assurances, they were embarrassed to do so, just as nearly no one said they were simply broke and could not contribute.

Another very positive aspect of doing Kickstarter was it put my work in peoples’ hands. Before the campaign I could easily name all the collectors who had my prints. Now more than thirty people have a photo or catalog as part of their collection, with some of the work going as far as the UK. Two larger pledges were from persons I didn’t know that it turns out live in my immediate neighborhood! The project was featured as “Popular this Week” on the Kickstarter site for a number of weeks, so my surmise is a lot of people I don’t know about saw my work as well.

At this juncture I’m putting down the groundwork for the actual shoot to happen in Philadelphia. I will be planning a second Kickstarter campaign when the first one or two major works are complete so that Stand in the Light can move on to another large US city and work with another group of people willing to go nude for art.

The test images are on YouTube as a video which is jump-linked to http://rafriedman.com (Caution: NSFW!) I welcome questions, comments, and suggestions and of course, inquiries concerning purchasing work and/or backing future projects.