Everyone knows how Kickstarter works. A famous person (Zach Braff, Spike Lee, Amanda Palmer) asks fans to fund his or her latest project. Or a startup company designs a new iPhone dock. The project soars to multimillion-dollar heights. The Internet goes crazy.
But those projects garner most of the attention and represent an exceedingly tiny portion of all crowdfunding campaigns. Of over 64,000 projects funded on Kickstarter alone (to the tune of over a billion dollars), 50,000 raised under $10,000. High-profile campaigns, however, have helped entrench the idea that crowdfunding is a tool to be used once and on a huge scale: hit it big and launch a new career, or fail and do something else. It’s a business plan, Vegas-style.
Elly Blue uses Kickstarter in a different way. Blue is a zine publisher and bicycle activist who lives in Portland, Oregon, and wrote an article about bicycling families and cargo bikes for The Magazine (Issue 19). She got into bike activism after participating in a Critical Mass ride in Portland.
And Blue has carried out 18 Kickstarter campaigns, all successfully.
As of June 2014, according to Kickstarter, that puts her ninth on the list of creators with the highest number of successful projects. (Number one is a recording studio in Detroit, with 94 successful campaigns.) None of Blue’s projects has asked for more than $8,000, and she rarely raises more than 150 percent of her goal.
“The reason I started using Kickstarter is because I made a zine, I wanted to publish it, I was completely broke,” Blue says. The zine was the first issue of Taking the Lane, a feminist bicycling quarterly.
“It was going to cost like $300, and I did not have $300,” Blue says. This was in June 2010. She created a project on Kickstarter and asked for $350. “I was like, there’s no way people will give me that much money. That’s crazy.” She raised $552 from 46 backers.
A karmic cycle
Anyone who has participated in a crowdfunding campaign, as a backer or creator, knows the feeling. Crowdfunding rolls a whole bundle of human psychological quirks into an irresistible package. There’s the “limited-time offer!” phenomenon and the feeling of being in a secret club. And you never feel more invested in a project than when you literally invest cash in it.
For the creator — I’ve launched one so far — there’s the terrifying thrill of watching the total click ever closer toward funding or failure, and knowing that people don’t just say they believe in you: they vote with cash.
So it’s no surprise that Blue got hooked on Kickstarter. What did surprise her, however, was that her fans loved it even more than she did. “I tried to not do it for one of my projects,” she says, “and all these people complained, and they said, ‘Where’s the Kickstarter?’ They didn’t want to buy it. They wanted to support it on the Kickstarter. So people wanted to give me $50 instead of $3 for a zine.”
Now Blue is on a stationary bike of serial campaigns that, for better or worse, she can’t get off. “Kickstarter is my bank in a way,” she explains via email. “If I wasn’t able to use it, I would have to pay for my projects on credit cards instead and hope for the best. More realistically, if there was no Kickstarter I wouldn’t do this stuff at all.”
And it’s working. Every issue of Taking the Lane has funded successfully. Two issues of feminist bicycle science-fiction. Issues about sexuality, childhood, dogs, religion, and the apocalypse. “It’s what every publisher dreams of, to be able to sell enough books in advance to not only fund the production of the book, but also tell you that, yes, the book will be successful because of the market for it.”
Blue also publishes books written by others: A book on bicycle yoga, an illustrated children’s book, a gluten-free cookbook for cyclists. These projects are also funded on Kickstarter. For her zines, Blue says, “I make silly, low-resolution, completely informal videos of myself in my pajamas saying, ‘Hey, buy this zine!’ With the books that I do for other people, I try to do it properly and make sure that the world knows we’re taking it seriously.”
Taking the well-paved lane
Elly Blue’s Kickstarter-as-a-bank approach has let her build a sustainable small business that furthers her interests in advocacy. It suggests that crowdfunding is becoming a mature, even boring, approach to raising capital, because different businesses are using it in different ways. The blockbuster is only one way to do it.
Blue can feel constrained by having to go through the rather arduous and emotional process of a crowdfunding campaign for every issue of Taking the Lane. “Sometimes it feels like these constraints are a problem, but mostly they force me to be more creative,” she writes via email. “And my business couldn’t exist if I didn’t run it in the black, so I am grateful to the process for helping keep me focused.”
She always set a fundraising target that covers all the costs of publishing. But her secondary target is “always to get the most backers giving the smallest amounts,” she says. “To sell the most books.” Kickstarter thus becomes a means to an end, as the goal of Blue’s campaigns is to get people involved in the issues she cares about: feminism, alternative transportation choices, and the way they interrelate.
“People have let me know that my books have changed the way they think and act,” says Blue. “Which is the best value of all.”
Photo by Glenn Fleishman.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His new ebook, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo is now available.