Understanding crowdfunding with “The Crowdsourceress”: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Alex Daly, a Kickstarter expert whose company, Vann Alexandra, has managed 50 campaigns and raised more than $20 million dollars. They discuss her background and earliest introduction to crowdfunding, a number of memorable campaigns she’s run (for Neil Young, NASA, the MTA, and more), and tips and observations about building both an audience and a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Paul Ford [Music ramps down] Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City . . . and I am [music fades out] Paul Ford, the co-founder of Postlight and co-host of Track Changes, and I am joined by my co-founder and co-host . . .
Rich Ziade Rich Ziade. That was really low key today. It’s like Light FM. Are you gonna play “Just the Way You Are” now?
PF I’m gonna do that. I actually—I have got this diet [RZ laughs] coke just started, so as the rest of the podcast—
RZ It’ll—it’ll heat up.
PF Yeah. Yeah.
PF We got uh—give me about 20 minutes here—
PF—when, when the uh—
RZ Okie dokie.
PF A—aspartame kicks in.
RZ Well tell me about Postlight, Paul.
PF Postlight is—if you have something in your hand that uh like in your phone that works, that you like using [RZ yeah], that you love, like a mail app, or a um—what else?
PF Recipes. Things that you like on your phone, we build those sorts of things. [RZ We build—] The ones you don’t like, that you’re embarrassed about, that you wish you didn’t use so much, we don’t build those.
RZ Well we build the ones that also take care of your payroll processing.
PF Oh yeah.
RZ That’s the weird thing about us.
PF That’s true. That’s true. We’ll dig you a ditch. You come on in, you say [RZ chuckles], “I need this ditch dug.”
RZ We are a digital products studio that helps you design, architect, and build stuff.
PF Good for us!
RZ Enough about us! [Guest laughs.]
PF Alright, so we are joined today by Alex Daly. Hi, Alex!
Alex Daly Hi! How are you?
PF We’re doing ok. We’re doing ok. We had a little—I think kind of a rough start, both of us, to the morning.
RZ It was a [sing songy:] little . . . we kinda tumbled in.
PF Alex, what about you?
AD I had a good day. I had some avocado toast this morning.
PF Oh. Where’d you go? Was that at home?
AD It was uh no, it was at Westville and Dumbo for a little breakfast meeting.
PF Ooooh! Ok.
RZ That’s classy, yes.
PF Alright, so we should [AD chuckles]—we should bring people into your world, what do you do?
AD I run a company that basically launches and promotes crowdfunding campaigns.
PF Crowdfunding campaigns [AD yes]. Ok.
RZ What’s the name of the company?
AD Vann Alexandra.
PF Vann Alexandra. Ok. Who calls you up? First of all, I’m assuming, they don’t use the telephone.
AD They don’t! [Laughs.]
RZ Can we—can we rewind?
RZ I’m interested in how you got there.
AD Ok. Ok. So it’s sort of an unconventional journey of how I got there. After I graduated I went—
PF Where’d you—where’d you go to school?
PF Ok. So—
AD In Nashville.
PF Wow you’ve got Vann and Vanderbilt. It’s pretty—
AD Vann D! And my last name’s Daly so I’m a Vann D!
PF Wow [AD laughing] so you’re fully—you’re fully branded—
RZ Do you know how many sweatshirts she has at home?
PF I know.
PF And you’re fully—
AD [Laughs] So many!
PF—you’re fully branded at graduation. You haven’t even made it to New York City yet.
AD [Laughing] Yeah, exactly.
RZ [Laughs] [AD laughs] Ok. What’s the major?
AD Ok. It was . . . many different things. I had philosophy and Spanish and I minored in film.
RZ That’s a well-rounded individual.
PF Well, and that gets you ready for crowdfunding [all laugh].
AD Yeah, yeah. It gets you ready for nothing! [Laughs boisterously.]
PF Literally no one in that—those—um with those majors has a good, clear path to making money.
PF So crowdfunding’s gonna weigh in really quickly [AD and RZ laugh].
AD Yeah. So I thought I wanted to be a writer [PF mm hmm]. So I—naturally when you graduate and you wanna be a journalist, you have the very sexy role of being a fact checker.
AD So I was a fact checker at New York Magazine and then Wall Street Journal Magazine and I realized, “I don’t actually wanna be a writer.” So a friend of mine—
PF That was a very sensible decision.
AD I was like [stammers], you know, “I don’t wanna be doing this on a daily basis.”
PF No, it’s not a fun job.
AD It’s not.
PF It’s not, it’s a pathology.
AD So—so I made that decision very quickly and a friend who was a sort of mentor of mine, she said, “Well, what did you study?” So that—that did come into the—the question and I said, “Film.” And she says, “Ok, well, journalism and film: why don’t you try documentary film?”
AD And um I knew nothing about production. I didn’t even what the word post production meant, actually.
PF What does the word—or the term post production mean?
AD It’s—it’s—it’s basically it’s when the production part, the shooting of the film, for example, is done and you’re in the editing process.
AD So I went into an interview and I just sort of nodded my way and smiled through the interview and I got it. And I was doing a lot of grant writing, raising money for these films, writing grants on a daily basis.
PF Another natural outcome of a humanities degree.
AD [Laughing] Yeah, totally.
PF I have one too and it’s—yes. Ok.
AD It’s [stammers] natural. It’s like: ok, you’re gonna be a fact checker, and then a grant writer [PF right]. And so I was doing that on a daily basis and then a producer came to me and he said, “I am making a movie and I need funding.” And I said, “I can write you a grant.” And he said, “I wanna try Kickstarter.” And I was like, “What’s that?” [Laughs.]
PF Oh this is—ok. So the documentary filmmaker comes to you and says, “Can you help me get this money?”
AD Mm hmm.
PF Ok what—and they like, they heard about Kickstarter?
AD Yes, they came to me about Kickstarter and I knew it was thing like on the internet that you could raise money for something.
PF Sure, like you’re a human in the world.
AD Yes [laughs] [RZ chuckles]. I’ve been on the internet before. And so I um I just sort of nodded through that interview I told you about, I was like—I always say yes to everything, especially I did it more back then. Um and so I said, “Let’s do it.” And we—I had to Google how to do a press release cuz I was like, “We might need some press for this.” Um he did the video, I did the page with my—my great writing skills. Um—
RZ What’s the movie, out of curiosity?
AD Oh yeah. It’s called Sex and Broadcasting, and um [chuckles] it’s about WFMU, uh the radio station in New Jersey.
PF So the—the old school, independent, like as independent [RZ yeah] as can be radio station.
AD Yes, exactly. Free form.
PF Sure. And there was a big um—I mean there was a big community around them.
AD Exactly, exactly.
PF Ok. And they’ve [stammers] raised money successfully in the past [AD yes], so they’re going down this path, trying out Kickstarter, working with you. So did it—did it work?
AD Yes. And you know, actually, talking about the community: I learned so much from that campaign that you need a crowd to have a crowdfunding campaign. And—and WFMU has that. They have this amazing, super loyal, eager, built-in audience of people . . . that are internet savvy and also um believe in WFMU. So it’s a very organic, sort of thing.
PF Alex, that’s a really interesting point, right? Because a lot of the times I think people see Kickstarter and similar crowdsourcing tools as a, you know, a turnkey money—
RZ A recruiting tool.
PF Yeah, it’s a way to get money into your network and then the network will grow from there.
RZ Actually build the network. “My thing is great, that they will come.”
AD Right. But you have to build it for them to come.
RZ You have to build it for them to come.
AD Yeah, exactly and so, you know, I didn’t know that and I think so many people look at all these—cuz all the headlines say, “This campaign just got a bajillion dollars!” [PF Right] And so everybody thinks crowdfunding is magic. That you put your product out there, everybody thinks their product is gold, and that they’ll just come to you. But you actually have to do that preparation and have that crowd of people ready to back your campaign when it goes live.
PF Well that’s an old American fantasy [AD right]: you build the better mousetrap, and the world beats—
RZ They will come.
PF They’ll come to your door. And what you’re learning there, it sounds like you’re saying, is that you can build as many better mousetraps as you want, and they can be better, they can be great, and maybe that’ll work out. But, if you want them to pay attention, you’d better come with that network in place.
AD Exactly, exactly.
PF Ok. So how do you—how are people building these networks without Kickstarter to start? Like how do you—what’s gonna work?
AD Well it’s sort of like I think that the most tangible way is building a mailing list to start. Like you actually gather all of those people that will into this subject matter, this thing, and condense them into one place.
AD And sort of tease the product or the campaign like, “We have something coming very soon. You’re gonna be really stoked about it.”
RZ Ok, so you’re mailing them. You haven’t even put the campaign up yet, you’re saying, “Something’s coming.”
AD Yes, exactly.
PF [In deep voice] “Something good!”
AD “Something good.”
RZ “Something good is coming.”
AD “At 8 am Eastern on Tuesday.”
PF So this is—
RZ So you’ve got—the audience is there!
RZ So they’ve already got 81,000 subscribers of some sort.
AD That’s crazy cuz WFMU had 80,000 to start. [Laughing] It’s almost like you knew that [laughs].
RZ See, Paul, see?
PF Yeah, yeah. A real entrepreneur.
PF So as you’re talking too I’m hearing some real PR chops [AD yes]. Like, was that in there or did you learn that?
AD I learned that [PF ok]. Like I said I had no marketing background but I started seeing what was working and what wasn’t working [PF mm hmm] and a big thing was, ok, if we launch with—you have five social media followers, and two people on your mailing list, we’re gonna fall completely flat, and launch to nobody. You know? [PF Mm hmm] So you’re not just launching to the Kickstarter, like you’ll get some organic followers through the platforms themselves. [PF Sure] Um but you—
PF People are like, “I love dog hats! I’m gonna give them 20 [AD laughs exactly] dollars and see what happens.” Ok.
AD But you also need those people that when you launch, they’re sort of gonna back it immediately because then that’s when crowdfunding starts to do its own thing and spread organically when you’re having traction right out the gate.
RZ You need that catalyst crowd.
RZ That lights it up and then it goes from there.
PF Alright, so you—a documentary has been successfully funded.
PF And then what happens?
AD So, then um that production company I was working at, they were like, “Well you did such a great job with this Kickstarter, we need to raise our money for our—our documentary!” I did it and I raised money for them, we raised—
PF So you’re the Kickstarter person now?
AD Well, then somebody called me and they said, “I need you to raise money for my documentary,” and that’s when I got this piece of press where I was called The Crowdsourceress.
PF Ok. [AD Yes] So that’s—
RZ [In deep voice] Ho ho ho!
PF There you go.
RZ Somebody was feeling good about that phrase! [AD laughs.]
PF It all got—it all got done for you that day.
RZ Somebody was feeling real good!
AD [Continues laughing] They owned that [laughs].
PF I mean if you can drive money to people who are terrible at money which is everyone who makes documentaries [RZ and AD laugh] um [chuckles] you’re—you’ve got a business. Right? Because they don’t know where else to go. [AD Yup] Now how are you making a living from this? What are they paying to get you to do this?
AD Well, back then it was just commission. So it’s like [PF ok], you know, if we’re successful, you can be successful too. But now we have 50 campaigns under our belt, and a very high success rate. Um and so we can charge an upfront fee plus a commission of the raise.
PF Ok so that’s—that’s what—if I call Vann Alexandra today, you’re like, “Here’s the pricing structure. [AD Yes] You’re ready to go. What’s your mailing list look like?”
RZ Now, at that time, you still had a day job. Second documentary, you’re still working.
AD Yeah, exactly.
RZ You’re still going to work, this was sort of a side thing.
AD Yes, it was a side thing. It was like this—I was—I was having a hard time with it cuz I really thought I wanted to be a filmmaker [PF sure] and I—there wasn’t a career—this career, that I was—this thing that I was doing wasn’t—there wasn’t a name for it. I don’t know: Kickstarter Producer?
PF Until Crowdsourceress!
AD Until the—[laughs] yeah!
PF Then it all got—
AD Which I trademarked.
RZ Can you imagine the Photoshop task that was given to the art department?
PF Yeah and then a—
AD A little hat.
PF Long robe.
AD [Laughs] Yeah, a wizard—I had a little wand. Uh [laughs] [PF yeah] [RZ exactly]—Um so I—I was doing this as a side job for about a year um and then in 2014 I got a text saying, “Do you wanna work on what’s gonna be the world’s biggest crowdfunding campaign?” And I was, “Yes!” And they said, “It’s for Neil Young.” And that campaign is still our biggest to date and I was like, “Ok, I need to make this a fulltime job cuz I’m obviously pretty good at it.”
RZ Wow. So this was the same production company?
AD [Smack lips] Um no, actually, I was still—I was freelancing at that point. You know, working as like a producer during the day, and then nights and weekends doing these Kickstarters. And then—
RZ So your rep just took over your life?
RZ Ok. This is the thing, if you can get money from point A to point B, people find out real fast [AD chuckles yeah exactly].
RZ Yeah, but draw me the line to Neil Young.
AD So um I was still producing on—on the side and somebody wrote to me and said, um, “I have a friend that works at a design company, they’re doing the logo and website for Neil Young’s new product,” which was the Pono Player, this audio device that claims to play the highest resolution possible for—for digital music [PF mm hmm]. And Neil Young is obviously like a legend, and a king to me, and so I walked in and they said, “We need to raise 800,000 dollars for this.” And my highest raise at that point was [chuckling] 80,000 dollars.
AD Um but I was—you know, I said, “Yes.”
PF But you’d never worked for someone as famous as Neil Young—
PF—either, like this is an order of magnitude more famous.
AD Oh! Huge.
RZ So this is like an actual music player like—like an iPod or an iPhone [AD yes] at that time you still had iPods I guess?
RZ But the sort of pitch was that was—
PF None of that awkward mp3 compression.
PF Like this was like pure sound fidelity—
RZ This was like FLAC file. Raw.
RZ Pure music.
AD Pied Piper vibes [laughs].
PF Right and it was real um—was it sort of triangular and yellow?
PF Am I remembering correctly?
RZ It was weird shaped, yeah.
PF You don’t see too many of them in the market these days.
RZ Yeah well how much did he raise?
AD He raised—
RZ How much did you raise?
AD We raised 6.2 million dollars.
RZ That’s ridiculous.
PF That’s great. Beats venture fund.
RZ That’s ridiculous.
AD That’s the amazing thing about crowdfunding is that you get to sort of skip that VC funding [PF yeah] and you own everything.
AD You know?
PF So you get all the guilt for yourself but there was no one just sort of looking over you, telling you you did it wrong.
AD How to do it [PF yeah], or they don’t own a piece of your product [PF yeah] cuz these people are all donating to you. They’re not even buying your product, they’re donating to this idea that you have for a product.
PF Well and that one too, to tremendous credit, did ship.
PF Like the market wasn’t huge for it but it went out into the marketplace. It was a real thing that worked and people liked it and it sounded—
RZ Well, let’s—let’s call it for what it is: it was—it failed.
PF Yeah but that’s not the fault of the Kickstarter and the people who invested got—
RZ Oh absolutely not!
PF But wait. Also it’s worth nothing: like the people who put the money into the Kickstarter, who donated, got what they asked for.
RZ Alright so we should explain—
AD Which means—which means success.
RZ—this, by the way, so depending on how much you donate, you get different sort of packages [AD yes] of—
PF A lot of the time it’s a tote bag, it’s actually a tricky thing about Kickstarter [AD laughs] cuz you’ll be like—
AD Or a tshirt!
PF Yeah, you’re like, “Ah! I’ll give 50 dollars to this, my friend’s asking me.” But then they’re like, “No, it’s a hundred dollars for the first issue of the magazine but for 50 dollars you get a tote bag.” You’re just like, “You just really put me in a situation in which a) I have to get another tote bag; and b) I’m gonna have to spend a hundred dollars on something [RZ to get the actual thing] that I don’t—that I just feel guilty about.” [RZ Yeah yeah] Anyway, but that’s the—that’s the dark side of kickstarter.
RZ But regardless, he did raise enough money [AD yes]. Production, design, and production of a piece of hardware like that is not a small deal [PF no]. He probably had a whole team, I’m guessing.
AD Yes, he did have a team and I mean I think that just delivering something, and delivering it on time is a huge success for a crowdfunding campaign.
PF I mean Rich and I wanna now talk about why Pono failed for the next two or three hours but let’s not do that to Alex because that wasn’t her job.
RZ That’s not—yes, yes.
RZ Also I will point out that I am a huge Neil Young fan. I think he’s amazing.
PF Not huge enough to buy a Pono.
RZ Not huge enough to buy a Pono—
RZ But his 1971 live recordings are just uh—
PF Are they? Because—
AD He’s a genius.
PF—what if you heard them uncompressed in really good audio quality? [AD chuckles and snickers.]
RZ Well, that’s the thing: [stammers] I listen to them on Spotify and there’s an awful hiss in the background but that’s the price you pay.
PF That’s actually “Crazy Horse.” That’s what that is [AD laughs]. Alright so now—
RZ Well that—that puts you on the map. Now you’re the real deal.
AD Yes. That was the thing.
PF Yeah cuz I mean even as we make fun of it and—and make it awkward in this room like Pono was a global news story.
AD Oh yeah.
AD It was a massive success and even like Time Magazine said that it was one of the most artfully managed campaigns because they really leveraged Neil Young’s community in this really amazing way. I don’t if you guys saw that video but it was an 11 minute video . . . which is just bonkers.
RZ It’s like a mini documentary.
PF That’s the longest he’s been awake in 25 years.
AD Oh god [snickers].
RZ Oh no. [PF laughs] Oh I wanna see Neil Young before he dies.
PF Oh yeah me too. We have like 30 years for that.
AD He’s amazing!
RZ You think he’s gonna keep goin’?
PF I think he’s just sort of pickled on weed at this point. Like he’s gonna just keep going.
PF Yeah. He’s gonna be a Willie Nelson, that’s my—that’s my—
RZ [Chuckles] It slowly settles in.
AD He’s doing a lot of activist work.
PF Yeah, that’s right.
AD Um so he’s really focused on, you know, everything from what’s happening with climate change, and the environment, and I think he’s really focusing a lot of his efforts with that.
RZ Do you have his phone number on your phone?
AD Um . . . maybe [snickers].
RZ Wow! That’s cool.
PF That is cool.
RZ That’s really cool.
PF That’s cool.
RZ We’ll just end the podcast right here [AD laughs].
PF Yeah, well, we could end it with a phone call [RZ laughs], if we could ever figure out how to do phone calls on this podcast.
RZ You’re on the map now [AD yes]. You just did—I mean I’m assuming the biggest, far and away the biggest Kickstarter ever.
AD Yeah, it was—
RZ At the time?
AD—it was at the time the third most funded—actually Pebble beat it at ten million.
RZ Wow. Ok. But still—I mean. You’re killing it at this point.
AD Yeah, it was—it was huge.
PF So now is this, was it 2012?
PF 2014 ok. Ok so we’re three years ago [AD yes]—Pono, god Pono feels like it was—
RZ Feels like longer than that!
PF No, time just travels so fast.
RZ Yes [AD chuckles].
PF Um ok so what happens after Pono? Now you’ve got a business!
RZ Now the phone’s ringing!
AD Now the phone’s ringing, the emails are comin’ in—
PF How many are really sketchy?
AD Oh I get some weird ones. I definitely do. Um we’ve had a few people like show up at the office which was a little weird.
PF Is the office here in New York City?
AD Um I’m not saying my address [laughs].
PF No, it’s fine. That’s fine. What neighborhood?
AD In Tribeca.
PF Ok so you’re here in Manhattan [AD yes]. I mean that’s pretty serious.
AD Uh huh and we were—when we first started, after the Neil Young campaign, I was like, “Ok, I’m gonna make a company out of this. I’m gonna call it Vann Alexandra cuz that’s the first two names of my full name and it sounds cool. I was sort of just like winging it. I got a bank account, I got a freelancer, and I just started taking in projects cuz I was getting so many emails. I have this idea Kickstarter was sending some referrals. Um so I was having like too much business coming my way um and so I just kept on growing um—
PF Right, cuz you’re great for Kickstarter.
PF You’re like—they’re very happy you exist, I’m assuming.
RZ I gotta imagine—I have to imagine you have a relationship with Kickstarter.
AD I do. We have a great relationship. It’s just in terms of like they trust that the work that we do for their creators and so, you know, they recommend us to projects that they think will be a fit. I mean they recommended us—
PF Well and you reduce risk, you reduce their risk that large, high profile projects will not be seen.
RZ Scams and—
PF Which there was a point a couple years ago where they really—they were in trouble everyday. Like there was something going wrong, or something that shouldn’t have been funded getting funded, and it took a long time to get that [inaudible] [RZ well, they tipped, right?] Yeah.
RZ And now everybody was kinda fiddlin’ with it.
PF So you become a kind of a good filter on the other side, where it’s like, “Hey you—we want you to succeed, go talk to this person. [AD Right] Alex will help you out and she’ll keep this from being a debacle,” which I’m assuming they didn’t say out loud [AD chuckles] but there’s always a risk when you’re going out in public and asking for money [AD yes] that you’re gonna get in big trouble.
AD Totally and I mean I think that now there’s all these little agencies that have popped up cuz they’ve seen, “Oh my gosh. I can really capitalize on these campaigns.” [PF Sure] And like if you launch a campaign, you’ll get several of these companies emailing you through Kickstarter, [in deep, mocking tone] “We can get you 500,000 in two days!”
RZ It’s a thing now.
AD Yeah! It’s a huge thing. And so I think that they’re obviously very wary of these people taking advantage of their community. So they really trust the work that we do. Um—
PF Wait so who—I walk in, I walk in the door and I have a great idea, I think it’s a great idea, and I tell you about. I’m gonna—what’s a great idea? What’s something that people wanna Kickstart?
RZ [Exhales deeply.]
PF Not a product [stammers] [RZ oh] a new documentary! I’m making a new documentary about [AB ok] a high school, let’s say.
PF And I’ve very excited about it. I don’t have a lot of money, maybe I don’t fully know what I’m doing. But I know to come to you because I wanna Kickstart this thing. What advice do you have for me?
AD I would first say um, “Do you have an audience of people?” I mean I can’t emphasize that enough. Um people come to me and they say, “No mailing list, we have no social media presence, we have a great idea.” I say, “Go out and go build up in the next six months and then we can talk.”
RZ You’re not there to help them to do.
RZ That’s not your business.
AD Exactly. Our is just preparing a campaign that’s in a, you know, good place. We have two months working on getting them press, helping out with the video, it’s actually building a campaign . . . is the worth that we do.
PF What does a good audience look like? So what—how—if I’m—if I’m starting from scratch, what do I need to build? Do I need a million people in my world? What do I need?
AD No. Cuz, you know, something that we learned over time too that we didn’t know early on is that social media followers doesn’t equal dollars. It has to be—you have—it has to be the audience that’s loyal, they know the internet. For example, we worked on this theater project early on and the demographic was a lot older, they didn’t even know what Kickstarter was. So half of the campaign we were educating them. They were like, “Can we send checks to the platform?” You know so it’s like having a really engaged audience, that knows Kickstarter, and loves this subject matter, and you engage with them on a consistent basis.
PF Interesting. So the answer is not: “Go out and get Facebook likes”?
AD Exactly. [PF Ok] It’s like find the people that will like this, and believe in this. A lot of people have started doing Facebook advertising um to build a list, and that’s’ very targeted. So that—you can—you can count on—they’ll be a good amount of people on that segmented list.
RZ It’s actually effective.
AD Yes, exactly.
PF Who gives money? In your like—for a project—like if I have this list, I send an email out, like what percentage? What profile of human being is actually going to get their credit card out?
AD I think that’s um obviously a younger demographic that lives on the internet, that uses it on a daily basis, but it’s also people that um, you know, there’s so many, so many different traits for, you know, success. I think the design projects and tech projects, those people pull out their credit card. Because, you know, for a documentary you’re sort of backing something that you probably won’t get a copy of the film for several years [PF mm hmm], right? Um and you’re basically backing it because you believe in it.
PF This is the change you want in the world.
AD Exactly. While design and tech products, you actually—it’s almost like you’re ordering the product [PF sure]. So it’s like a preorder versus like, “Donate to my art project.”
RZ Right it’s not years away, it’s real. It’s—it’s gonna show up.
PF I think—
RZ There’s also probably a tipping point, right? Once they’ve achieved their goal, it’s definitely gonna get made [AD exactly] and then it can really kick in. Like that iPhone case that’s made out of wood.
PF That’s the thing: there’s an element of risk reduction too where you’re like, “Well this person’s gonna make a poster of the platonic solids that looks a certain way [RZ yeah]. I’m gonna give [AD yes] them 45 dollars which is a reasonable amount of money for a poster and posters go into a tube and go in the mail.” So—yeah.
RZ “I’m gonna get the poster.”
AD “And I’m gonna get the poster.”
RZ It’s a 45 dollar poster, that’s really what it translates into.
AD “That I’m buying.”
PF Right, essentially buying. Right? Yeah.
AD Exactly, exactly.
PF And maybe a tote bag [AD chuckles].
RZ Ok now, Paul, you’ve written notes for this episode and I think the next project that we’re gonna talk about is Subway Manuel.
PF Oh yeah [AD laughs]. Uh so Subway Manuel is a little typo, Rich, thank you for [RZ oh ok] [inaudible].
RZ Oh I thought it was like a R&B artist that we were about to [inaudible].
AD Subway Manuel!
PF So you’ve done a couple of manuals, right?
PF So the subway manual and the NASA manual.
PF What—tell us what those are.
AD So um actually the design company that was working with Neil Young um I met a designer there. Um—
PF What’s the name of that company?
AD It was Pentagram.
PF Oh Pentagram! Our good friends actually.
AD Oh cool.
AD Awesome! So um—
RZ You know I’m gonna pull punches here!
PF Uh Neil Young knows how to get it done right at this point.
PF I mean there’s just—
AD He was like, “Cream of the crop, ok?!”
RZ Yeah, seriously.
PF I mean that’s the thing I think this: people make fun of like Kid Rock but he can—he can organize a cruise [others laugh]
RZ Exactly, exactly.
PF It’s not—I love that Neil Young called Pentagram, he’s like, “Put down all the work you’re doing on Mastercard this week.”
RZ [Laughs with AD] And FedEx!
AD That’s amazing. That’s amazing.
PF Exactly. Alright so uh so your friend’s at Pentagram.
AD Yes. You know he saw the success of this Pono campaign, of course, and we were talking um at a party or something about this—this standards manual that they had found, he and his friend had found, in the basement of Pentagram. And I had no idea what that was. And it’s basically when—back in the day when people used to make logos they would make a style guide [PF sure] and give it to the company and say, “This is how you put the logo on the letterhead, this is the color that you use—”
PF Oh they still do it.
PF Absolutely, yeah.
AD But now it’s online. Right?
PF Much of it, yes.
AD You actually get a style guide online.
RZ You get a book.
PF Well, if you spend enough you get a book [AD laughs].
RZ Yeah that’s true.
PF Pentagram might still make you a book.
AD You might have a book [laughs].
RZ And the binding is exceptional.
PF You call Michael Bierut, you’re gonna get that book.
RZ Yeah, it’s true.
AD So Michael Bierut was this designer’s boss at the time.
AD Yeah um and so he said, “We found the original manual for the subway, the New York City subway.”
PF The designer is Massimo Vignelli , is that the right name?
AD Yes, it was Massimo Vignelli who did that style guide and so he said, “We found this manual, we put it online in 2012 and we just photographed all of it. We sent it to our friends. It got like a quarter of a million views in three days.” And I was like, “Oh my god! There’s your audience right there!” And they got press around it, all organic. And I said, “Why don’t you make it into a book?”
PF Ok. So you see the list. You’re like, “Oh [AD yes] your list is right there. If you extract the list from there, you’re gonna have the ability to—to create a following.”
RZ What’s interesting here is the Pentagram people didn’t come to her and say, “We wanna make a book and you’re the—you’re the Kickstarter person.”
PF I mean this is a fascinating multi-step form of marketing, right? Where you’re like—
RZ Yeah. I mean you—you put this forward, right?
AD Right. I—
RZ You’d think the idea guys at Pentagram would pull that off but it didn’t happen in that way.
PF No, they’re good at sort of like: “This is cool, let’s put it out there. Let’s get the audience.” But—[AD yes] it’s true it’s not an organic next step to go, “Oh, we’ve achieved an audience, therefore we should—”
AD “Let’s do a Kickstarter!”
RZ Translate it into a—
PF I mean, “We wanna commoditize this a little bit,” [AD right right] and—and make this into, you know, we’re gonna take this form of communication and turn it into some cash [RZ very cool] and then do something with it.
AD Exactly. And so they were like, “Oh we’ve thought about making it a book. But we have like a full-time job. So—and how would we even do that?” [PF Sure] And so they said, “And I think MTA owns it.” And then he was like, “Actually though, MTA is a client.” And I was like, “Hello?!? You need to ask MTA for permission, you need to do a Kickstarter.”
RZ See we got a deal maker on our hands here.
AD Yeah [laughs].
PF No, this is the thing—
RZ She’s a get ‘em in the room—when you say, “Get ‘em in the room”, you’re thinking about the deal. [PF Mm hmm] Right?
AD [Airy laugh] I was like, “Let’s do this!” And so I—we made a video. We got the MTA’s permission. They were like, “Who the hell is gonna get a book about subway signs? That’s like—” They didn’t understand the appeal of it.
RZ The creative energy at the MTA—
PF It’s probably—
RZ It’s not strong.
PF Yeah. No, it’s turned down a little bit [others laugh]. You know what you gotta do? The thing with the MTA, you gotta pace yourself [RZ laughs boisterously]. You’re gonna like—you go in that room, you know you get too excited about this standards manual then you might get too excited about something like in the next six months.
RZ Yeah. Sloooow dooown here.
PF And that’s all your excitement for the year just gets burned down out.
RZ Yeah, exactly.
PF Ok so what I like about this is you clearly keep going, “Well, why not?!”
AD [Laughs] “Let’s do it!”
PF And they’re like, “Oh I guess we could just talk to that guy over there. Ok.”
RZ This is gonna end up in the mayor’s office! [AD laughs] They’re just standing there [PF yeah], [chuckling] getting the sign off [AD continues laughing].
PF Alright so—so this gets unlocked and out goes the book to the world, I guess, right?
AD We had no idea it would blow up in the way that it did.
RZ What was the goal?
AD The way—the goal was 100,000 dollars [PF and RZ ok] because we wanted to make a high quality, it was an eight pound book [PF right], it’s uh the best paper, I mean this is what they do well. The Pentagram guys know how to make a great book.
PF Yeah! They’re not gonna put it on crappy newsprint.
AD They’re not gonna mess—mess that up so—
RZ They’re not going to Staples to get—
PF No, that’s true.
AD [Laughing] Yeah, exactly. So I did all the marketing side, helped with the video, we got some press around it, we hit the goal by lunch time.
RZ Oh my goodness!
AD Ended up raising over 800,000 dollars—
RZ That’s unreal.
AD—for this book about subway signs.
PF Well and I mean everybody gets their book.
PF I mean the nice thing here too is that Pentagram actually does have some sense of what a book costs to make.
AD Right. They knew all this stuff!
PF So they didn’t get in the hole. I’ve seen this happen: where it’s like, “Oh! It won’t—it can never be that expensive [AD exactly] to make a beautiful object [RZ right],” and then it’s like someone, you know—
RZ How much did it take to get the book?
AD It was—it was a hundred and eight dollars.
RZ That’s not insignificant for a book.
PF It’s not but it’s not a—for like a—
AD But you know designers pay for that [stammers] for books.
RZ Yeah, you’re right.
PF Like think about like your big Taschen photo coffee table books, and those are a little more mass market, and they’re like 60, 70 bucks.
RZ Yeah that’s true.
PF Or more [RZ yeah]. And so this is an event.
AD Yes, and it was really expensive to make. I mean if you see this thing [PF yeah], it’s massive. But the MTA, you know, there was an agreement with them that it would only be available through the Kickstarter campaign.
PF See, so now you’ve generated scarcity.
AD So much urgency and that’s another thing I learned [PF oh so good]. Like with every campaign I learned something and that was like, “Oh, limited edition kills on Kickstarter.”
AD You know, “Only 30 days to get this thing,” is like a flash sale.
RZ So, wait, there’s no way to get it today?
AD Now they have a smaller version, a compact version, um which the MTA, of course, gets a cut of cuz they were like, “What—” [Laughs.]
PF Oh yeah cuz they saw that 800,000 dollars.
AD Yeah they were like, “What were—yeah—yeah we’re gonna do a deal with this.” [Laughs.]
PF That’s funny. That’s what you learn. So now you did something similar with NASA standards manual, right?
AD Yes, so we um basically we worked with the designer of the original NASA logo, that worm logo [PF mm hmm], the um the red one um that actually was rescinded.
PF Oh where like NASA’s all one big line.
AD Yes, [PF ok] and it was rescinded in, I think, 1990, but graphic designers are like obsessed with this logo [PF right] cuz it’s super modern, very clean.
PF Well, the overall history of NASA branding is it gets steadily less cool, [AD Well there’s that—] from year to year.
AD You know what the one is called now? That big blue one? It’s called the meatball.
AD It’s like this messy ball.
AD Yeah [chuckles].
PF Yeah, [listlessly], “Let’s go to space.”
RZ [Laughs] How did we end up there?
AD [Laughing] “Let’s go to space.”
PF [Listlessly] “Come on, let’s go to space.”
AD [Laughs] Um so they did um a reissue, a hardcover book again, of that manual. We got the original manual from the designer himself. We did an interview with him for the documentary and that one raised over a million dollars.
PF But there’s—but there’s more going on now: there’s the full reproduction which you know how to do.
PF And there’s the—the documentary and—
AD Yes. And they tru—the community that we built from the first one, they trust the work that these designers do because they delivered a beautiful book. And so people were like, “I’m gonna get that second book.”
PF Of course.
AD You know? And then you have the space nerds, obviously, all the space geeks were like—
RZ Space nerds [AD laughs].
PF Right cuz there’s only a certain—subway [RZ oh no]—subway nerds is a definitely a smaller demo.
PF Space nerds is actually like three percent of the country.
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF Yeah, you can—you can—
RZ There are—there are non-nerds who are into the subway.
PF That’s right.
RZ That’s like a nostalgic thing—
AD Yes, yes—
RZ There’s more going on there.
PF And also like the subway is a very particular point—like subway maps in general are a very particular kind of design thing [AB yeah]. Like it’s very—cuz they just boil down cartography [RZ yeah] to its essence. And so once you’re in the world of NASA, it’s a big tent.
AD It’s kinda crazy.
PF So they all came out—everybody came out and was like, [AD yes!], “I want this.”
AD Exactly. And I think they got 10,000 backers for that campaign . . . which was incredible.
PF So how many clients are you rolling with right now?
AD We have a few clients right now. The same designers that I was just telling you about, we released um the manual for the EPA, which we obviously—[PF yeah] it’s very relevant right now.
PF Good timing.
AD Um obviously it doesn’t have the same audience as the subway or NASA but um we’ll—we’re gonna get to the goal very soon. It’s 150,000 for the goal [PF ok] um and we got the original manual from the um design firm that is based in New York. So we have the original EPA [PK ok] manual. Um and then we’re launching another one next week, which I can’t talk about, but it involves space also. I’m like, “People like space stuff.”
PF They do like space.
RZ People do—yeah, sure.
AD So but we’ve—we’ve stayed a small team. Right now we’re a team of three, we bring in freelancers as we need but um I didn’t ever really want to scale or get very big [PF sure] cuz I like to be involved in all of our projects [PF mm hmm]. So—
PF How many peop—Over the course of the year, say, how many Kickstarters would you set up?
AD I would say that we probably do, we probably do about a couple a month. So—
AD 20, 25.
RZ So you’re doing a lot of the production. You’re not just giving advice and making, you know, wearing a PR firm hat.
PF Well cuz you gotta make that video and it’s gotta look—
RZ Well that’s the thing.
PF—look a certain way. Is the video the most important thing?
AD I think the video—I think that audience I just said. And the video is huge and it just blows my mind that people still, sometimes don’t have a video on their campaign launch.
AD You know, cuz if I see that, I’m like, “They don’t really care enough to make a video, why would they care enough to make a good product?” Right?
PF Mm hmm.
AD So I don’t even back any of those campaigns. Um but yeah the video is huge. And, you know, back in the early days, you could look into your laptop camera and be like, “Hi, I’m Alex, I need some money . . . bye.”
AD But now people actually have to hire professionals. They need actually a video team to help them make a great video.
PF Ok so they come in and coordinate that with you.
AD Exactly, exactly.
PF Ok. This is interesting, right? Because you’re talking about relatively large numbers for the goal. It’s pretty expensive to get set up, and to get the video made, and put your stuff in [AD totally]. Like you’re—so to start your Kickstarter process—
RZ Yeah, there’s a budget.
AD Huge. Yeah.
PF Well, if you have a big—if you have a big goal there needs to be a relatively large budget.
AD Yes, yes.
PF Like if I need 2,000 dollars to finish my indie comic book, it feels like the standard goes down a lot [AD yes]. And it can just—it kinda can be me talking to a laptop [AD right] and holding some stuff up, and—
AD Yeah, yeah.
PF Ok. When does it get serious? Is it like 100,000 dollars?
AD I think so.
AD I think like right around that range and above, um I think that probably 20 percent of that goal goes into getting a designer, getting a company like me, maybe getting a separate PR firm, video people, but there’s way, you know, I’ve told clients like there’s ways to get creative. The reason we still do half commission is because a lot of these people don’t have any money upfront. So we get creative with people.
PF Oh that’s interesting. Ok. So you’re—you’re taking a little risk with them.
AD Yes, exactly.
PF Ok so who do you turn away?
AD [Smack lips] We turn away several inbound inquiries and some weird stuff, [PF sure] as we were [chuckling] talking about.
PF Well, this is the thing, right? Like you are—people are gonna look at you and there’s a certain group of people who are gonna be like, “Oh good that will help me meet my goal,” and there’s another group that’ll be like, “I wanna get rich.”
PF “And I wanna—you know, I have some big idea.”
RZ Or, “This is to launch my startup. Like I’ll get more money later [AD right]. This is just to get going.”
PF Who comes in like that? I mean what is it—when you reply and say, “This is probably not right for us”?
AD Well we’ve actually, you know, at the beginning we were taking on everything.
AD Uh so film, theater project, music project, design project, you know everything but now we’ve really honed in. We like working on creative projects [PF ok] and we really like the design world. I think that after these manuals launched, the first one in 2014, we really started getting great contacts in that space.
PF I think there’s a real—I mean there’s an appetite there too, right?
PF Because of companies like Taschen, the big photo book market [AD right] like there is a proven, understood market and a consumer base that likes like high, premium quality print books.
AD Beautiful stuff, yeah, exactly.
PF Yeah, and the fact that it’s sort of historically accurate is also really interesting.
AD Totally! So like if a not—like basically if a non-creative project comes to us, we now just say, “We really work on design and tech.” Like we’ve really just honed in on that because I think that those campaigns really do find the most success [PF sure] because you do get a sort of product in return [PF mm hmm]. So we’ve just had to start saying no to all the other projects that come to us. But, you know, what’s really great now is that Kickstarter has a list of companies that do this sort of thing that we do, um so people can go and find other people. It’s not—in the beginning, it was like very rare. Not many people were doing what I was doing [PF sure]. You know? So there’s more people like that.
PF Are there big companies that do what you’re doing?
AD I think that PR firms are catching on and are starting to offer like, “We’ll do the PR for your campaign.” But then they don’t have any idea of like a strategy. Or like when’s the best time to launch.
PF Well this is—
AD You know what I mean?
PF—a very inorganic thing for them to do, right?
PF Like I mean you—Kickstarter, you need a little bit of knack to get in a sense of the culture of it [AD right] in order to make it—make the video work and make the—the communication work.
AD I think that there are a couple bigger companies like 20, 30 person teams but they’ve actually just honed in one piece of a—like a service. And it’s usually Facebook advertising [PF ok] cuz that thing you can just push out. You don’t really need to have a lot of strategy or story driven ideas for it. But it’s hard to scale otherwise [PF sure] you know? It’s like I’m the only person of my team that’s worked on 50 campaigns so I can look at something and say like, “That’s not gonna work. How can you really scale that?”
PF Do you see yourself doing this for a long time?
AD You know, I don’t know where crowdfunding is gonna be in like four years, four or five years. It’s crazy that Kickstarter launched in 2009 which is [PF sure] it started as sort of mom and pop indie creatives raising a thousand dollars. Now there’s Fortune 500 companies using it, celebrities. So, you know, I don’t know if at one point it’s gonna have like—the bubble’s gonna burst for crowdfunding um but I do think I’ve really found a way to help products launch online. So I think I’ll be always doing something like that.
PF And do you think it will always be Kickstarter or do you use the other platforms too?
AD I’ve used Indiegogo uh [PF ok] but we started on Kickstarter and most of our projects are really creative projects and that’s—
PF Kind of align well with Kickstarter.
RZ Indiegogo’s kinda weird [AD laughs].
PF Yeah, I mean it’s not—
RZ Like you get stuff like, “I need another four grand so I can . . . go to California.”
PF Now when you get—when you get the Kickstarter email and it’s like, “Hey, everybody,” sometimes I roll my eyes when I see that email [AD right]. But sometimes I don’t because I’m like, “Ok. Fine.” Like I never—I’m never upset that somebody sent me their Kickstarter email.
RZ Yeah, agreed.
PF You’re just like, “Alright, here we go.”
RZ Sometimes it’s like, “I need a little more money so I can do this thing in my life.”
AD Oh yeah, the personal projects. Yeah.
PF Sure, sure. But that’s fine too. Like I just—but there’s a—
RZ Well sometimes, yeah, you’re just—you’re actually trying to just connect with your friends.
PF But there is an ethos with Kickstarter where they’re making something.
PF And that’s cool.
PF Like I’m good with that.
RZ That’s right, there’s a maker aspect to it.
AD Yeah, completely.
PF It’s amazing to see Kickstarter used a kind of entrepreneurial boot up tool—boot camp. It’s just like people are forced out of their comfort zones so hard.
RZ There’s an aspect of it that gets on my nerves. I’ll [stammers] I’m not gonna lie.
PF I think that we all—well, first of all—
AD I get that.
PF—pretty long [chuckles] list of.
RZ No, as an entrepreneur I never understood the, “Ok, listen, I have a great idea but I don’t wanna take on the risk. So why don’t you give me some money and if it comes through, then you’re gonna get the thing.”
PF So, so—
AD So is that—are you talking about Kickstarter or Indiegogo?
RZ Well anything!
AD Cuz I think that there is a—
RZ Because my risk for the idea—like lemme just follow [AD yeah yeah] this thought through: like I’m gonna make a new sort of digital watch or something [AD mm hmm]. I need five million dollars to do it [AD yeah]. Like I’d have to go and pitch, and either borrow or use my own money to do it. But instead I could spend 50,000 dollars, make a cool video, hire you, and then ask everybody else to give me the money which kind of, to me, that’s the antithesis of the sort of entrepreneurial spirit which is take risk, empty your bank account, and go try the thing.
AD But you know—
PF First of all—
PF I’m sorry.
AD Yeah I mean.
PF You go first. Sorry, excuse me.
AD [Chuckles] I think that like for a lot of people that 50,000 dollars is emptying their bank account.
RZ Is emptying their bank account, that’s true.
AD And I also think it’s a huge risk because the thing with Kickstarter, if you fail, you fail hard. Like everybody sees that you’ve failed.
PF It’s true. The larger the—the raise too.
RZ What is the sequence when you—if you fail and some others have put money in, they get it back?
AD They basically their credit cards aren’t charged.
RZ Oh! So the charge doesn’t happen until—
AD Until it’s successful. You know [RZ got it]. Or not on day 30, if it’s a 30 day campaign.
RZ Got it.
AD I actually think Kickstarter’s is super entrepreneurial because you’re going out there and you’re appealing to the general public who actually matters. Like you can go to an investor, this is one person believing in your idea, while crowdfunding, you have to actually get a ton of people to believe in your idea which I think is very scary and risky. But then Indiegogo, if you do flexible funding, you get whatever you raise, you know?
AD Which I’m also like, that’s not how the world works. You need all the money [chuckling] to, you know, if you need 50,000 dollars, you gotta get the whole thing. So I think that that sort of all or nothing model on Kickstarter is . . . is one of the biggest risks.
RZ It’s aggressive. Right.
PF I think that it’s incredibly hard to fund weird creative work and it’s a great tool when the niche community finds the niche thing.
RZ I think that’s the angle: it’s creative work, right?
PF And it really, really works there. Like there’s no way around it: there are an enormous range of things that would never have come into existence because they would’ve been too costly [AD yup] to get off the ground [RZ right] but the amount of money overall like on the reprinting the subway manual and so on is relatively low.
PF Right? So—
RZ I’m not gonna use Kickstarter to crowdfund my HR admin software idea.
PF Probably not. Right?
RZ Like it’s just not the vibe, right?
AD No, right, exactly.
PF That crowdsourcing tool would actually be fascinating though [RZ laughs] the b to b crowdsourcing world.
AD Yeah, yeah.
PF Yeah cuz there are things that we need whereas if somebody was like, “I’ll get that for you.” I’d be like, “Here’s 500 dollars [AD laughs] [RZ right], build me that—”
RZ Excenture gets the tote bag [laughs].
PF “I’m ready. Build me—build me the software,” right? So how do people get in touch with you if they wanna do something with your company?
AD They basically email our [email protected] and we respond to every—every request that comes in.
PF We try to do that too. It’s important.
AD It’s important! And I actually just wrote a book.
RZ Oh! Cool.
AD Um yeah I just wrote a book and it came out on March 28th, just got back from my book tour on Sunday actually. And, you know, honestly this book it’s not like every other how to book which I can’t really stand how to books cuz they say like three tips in the first chapter and then they reiterate them like ten more times throughout all the other chapters.
RZ [Laughs] It could’ve been an article.
AD Yeah exactly! A blog post! Um but my book like I really share all my secrets and I really pour everything into this book.
PF Ok so one secret to share would be the title of the book?
AD Oh the—oh yes!
RZ I was about to ask.
AD It’s a mystery! Um no it’s called The Crowdsourceress: How to get sm—
RZ You went with it!
AD I went with it!
PF The Crowdsourcer—ok good.
AD Um How to Get Smart, Get Funded, and Kickstart Your Next Big Idea. So that, you know, that’s a really—it’s 16 dollars, a lot cheaper than what we charge, and really people have read it and they’re like, “This is so much information. [RZ That’s great] I can Kickstart my idea now.”
RZ Did you crowdfund the book?
AD No, I didn’t actually. Um I did a traditional publisher because somebody approached me about it and I would—I never thought about writing a book.
PF Who’s the publisher?
AD Um Public Affairs which is now [PF ok] owned by Hachette.
PF Great, so if you want a nice Public Affairs slash Hachette published book about—
RZ Paul loves to mention the publisher.
PF I just feel, no one ever mentions [AD that’s good chuckles] the publisher. I like to mention the publisher.
RZ That’s very nice of you.
PF Um what would your sophomore else at Vanderbilt make of this career?
AD I would’ve tho—like, “What’s crowdfunding? First of all,” [PF mm hmm] but I think I would’ve been—I would be proud of myself because uh I did take a lot of risks, I jumped around, I experimented, and now I’m helping a lot of people like bring their projects to life which is pretty cool.
PF It’s true. You have manifested something truly out of raw, pure hustle.
AD Yeah. Workin’ hard.
RZ Yeah and you seem—you seem happy and well adjusted unlike Paul and me [AD laughs].
PF No, and uh it’s a good living.
AD Yes. We’re done well.
PF Great, well, congratulations!
AD Thank you!
RZ Well, there you go.
PF Thank you so much for coming in.
AD Thank you, guys!
RZ This was a lot of fun.
AD This was fun!
PF Alright, so people know how to reach you and they know how to read your book.
PF And uh that’s it. That’s all anyone needs to know.
PF Alright, everybody go make their Kickstarter stuff now.
AD Yeah! [Laughs]
PF Thank you, Alex.
AD Thank you!
PF Well, Rich . . .
RZ That was fun.
PF [Sighs] I kinda wanna just wanna stop all this and go do a little Kickstarter [I—] project.
RZ I wanna make an iPhone case out of seashells.
PF Let’s do it!
PF Alright. So look: if anybody needs us, you can send us an email to [email protected] Uh you can also go on iTunes and rate us five stars.
PF That seems like a good number of stars.
RZ Only! [Music fades in.]
PF I’ve haven’t—I gotta go look at those rankings. I kinda stay out of it.
RZ I think we’re still at five, dude!
PF We’re doin’ alright.
RZ I think we’re still right there.
PF We’re doin’ alright. We can always do better. Always do better. And we’re glad to listen—
PF Oh my god it is a crazy world.
RZ That’s called branding strategy right there.
PF I am—my name is Paul Ford, I am the co-founder of Postlight and the co-host of Track Changes.
RZ I am Rich Ziade, also. Both. Things.
PF [Chuckles] That’s all we got.
PF We’re going back to work.
RZ Have a lovely week!
PF Bye, everybody!
RZ Thank you. Bye! [Music ramps up, plays for ten seconds, then fades out to end.]