Friday, April 21, 2017

The Wisdom of Crowds, and the Money to Do It

Michael J. Epstein, Crowdfunding Basics in 30 Minutes

The rise of crowdfunding websites has traveled hand-in-glove with spreading social media. Savvy media customers use their web presence to solicit support for their entrepreneurial ventures, artistic experiments, medical bills, and more. A young couple I know is crowdfunding their fertility treatments. But not every crowdfunding venture succeeds. What makes some triumphant, and others sputter on the launch pad?

Los Angeles-based renaissance man Michael J. Epstein has used crowdfunding to support himself as an independent filmmaker and indie musician. His familiarity with crowdfunding shows a mix of academic research and practical experience. As a writer, he shows a careful balance of raconteur and scholar that most working journalists should aspire to emulate. And he explains the crowdfunding principle in ways naifs and part-timers, like me, can really understand.

Novice crowdfunders may mistake the process for the online equivalent of passing the hat. An earnest appeal, backed with some concrete example of your plans, should get at least a few people to crack their wallets, right? Not so, says Epstein. This book, longer than a pamphlet but shorter than, say, a Malcolm Gladwell treatise, delves into crowdfunding without bogging down in details. Because not everything about crowdfunding is obvious.

First, not all crowdfunding platforms are equal. Epstein doesn’t have a thorough list of all crowdfunding websites, since in today’s economy, individual sites come and go; he name-checks a few popular sites, but only as examples. For instance, Kickstarter, targeted at for-profit entrepreneurs, has an all-or-nothing mentality that encourages a certain urgent mindset. GoFundMe aims to buoy struggling individuals, while Patreon subsidizes artists and other creative professionals.

Michael J. Epstein
But even beyond finding the right platform, Epstein says, certain habits of businesslike thinking apply across multiple models. In a media-saturated digital marketplace, simply having an earnest, factual appeal isn’t enough. Serious operators need a professional logo, well-made video, concise but informative text statement, and at least a few good audio or video clips. That’s just for a minimum. This means having a good professional network; guerilla operators get overwhelmed quickly.

Finally, Epstein repeatedly returns to the idea that crowdfunders aren’t merely making a dispassionate business pitch, we’re building relationships. Which makes sense, on consideration. I favor my local grocery for convenience, selection, and value, but also because I know and trust the workers. How much more does that apply online, where we’re bombarded by appeals daily, unmoored from the urgency of needing fresh produce close to where I live?

Epstein’s pitch is detailed enough to inform readers, but brief enough to prevent discouragement. He makes generous use of screen captures, infographics, charts, and other goofballs designed for visual thinkers. Essentially, this book is laid out like a webpage, appropriately enough, since it’s designed for web semi-professionals accustomed to the Internet’s multimedia format. This makes for smooth reading for multiple audiences, without dense, discouraging blocks of text.

This encourages me to say something I don’t believe I’ve ever written in a review: maybe you’re better off getting the Kindle version. Since we read books like this for information rather than pleasure, and since you probably need the data sooner rather than later if you’re drafting a crowdfunding campaign, and since it comes conveniently pre-formatted for online reading, and hey, since it’s four bucks cheaper, having the physical book probably doesn’t help much.

Having the information contained herein, however, helps a great deal. Like many self-starting entrepreneurs, you’re probably throwing yourself against your project with more brute force than professional polish. Having a mentor like Epstein to guide you away from the most common pitfalls can save you long-term heartache, and bring more money into your project. Epstein can’t solve all your problems, but he’ll prevent worse ones.

It may, sometimes, be necessary to separate Epstein’s content from his person. A director of small-budget vampire films, he cultivates a quirky, slightly dangerous image, a sort of off-Sunset John Waters. Many photos, including one inside this book, emphasize his wide, staring eyes and uncultivated beard. Don’t be fooled by his appearance, though. Epstein writes with a cool hand, a mind for thorough detail, and an eye toward diverse audiences.

The title notwithstanding, don’t expect to really understand crowdfunding in thirty minutes. At 73 pages plus back matter, this isn’t lunch break reading. And that’s before the necessary time spent planning and practicing the principles Epstein lays forth here. This book requires readers to think and plan conscientiously. But if it gets us thinking like business professionals, planning with a long horizon, we’re already a step ahead, right?

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