The trade show and conference business used to be far more entrepreneurial than it is today. Back in the day, almost anyone with a great idea and a few friends could launch an event. Today, most of the new launches come from corporations, media companies and trade associations. The number of entrepreneurs in the b-to-b event industry has dwindled not because there are no more great ideas, but because the cash is harder to come by or the risk is too great for just one or a handful of friends to give it a go. That could change if the crowdfunding tactics being pioneered by artists and techies catch on in the conference world.
Crowdfunding is a system of investment that pools the financial resources of friends and strangers together to finance specific projects. Most of the online crowdfunding platforms employ an all or nothing approach—projects don’t receive the funding unless the financial goals are met within a specific time frame. In exchange for their pledges, supporters receive rewards (designed by those asking for funds) when the projects are funded. The leading platform is Kickstarter.
XOXO gets crowdfunding love
Earlier this year, Andy Baio (Kickstarter’s former CTO) and Andy McMillan used Kickstarter to raise $175,911 (the original goal was $125,000) to launch their XOXO Festival—a combination conference, exhibition (Market) and citywide funfest (Fringe) taking place September 14-16 in Portland. The festival is designed to bring together artists and technologists. After the 400 tickets to attend the festival ($400 each) sold out in 50 hours, they raked in another $15,000 selling “goodies” from local merchants, T-shirts and access to digital content. It’s not surprising that Baio and McMillan, who both have insight into using the Kickstarter platform, were successful. But, what about mere mortals?
Tiny Kitchen raises too tiny a sum
Not all projects are ripe for crowdfunding. Just because the idea gets traction on social media channels or the event organizer has existing über-successful events doesn’t mean the followers and friends of said organizer will actually pony up for something new. That’s what Denise Medved of The Tiny Kitchen discovered. The Houston and Washington, DC installments of her Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show are successful with a huge following. But, when she turned to Kickstarter to launch a new event in Dallas, the crowd went cold.
Medved set a goal of $15,000, but only raised $1,000. She estimates that it took at least 20 man-hours just to create the pitch video—an essential component of the Kickstarter regimen—plus the time it took to fill out the forms and pour through the rules. She attributes the failure to two factors. Her existing crowd was formed around events in other cities. “Most attendees were from Houston or DC. I’m not sure they cared about launching a show in Dallas,” she says. Another reason is that Kickstarter does very little to help. “The [Kickstarter] project requirements didn’t tell the whole story. I thought they would reach into their database to help market,” she adds.
Chicago writers write (and video) their own future
Mare Swallow selected Kickstarter to launch the Chicago Writers Conference—an opportunity to place writers in the same room with publishers and literary agents. “It was a process much like starting a business. We put together a plan, did a lot of planning and talked to people that had a lot of experience on Kickstarter or had supported other Kickstarter campaigns,” she says. Her idea worked. The event will take place September 14-16 at the Tribune Tower in Chicago. The project was fully funded in 30 days by backers who pledged $7,725 (103% of their original goal).
Swallow used Kickstarter as a crowdfunding tool, but also as a community platform. “It was a constantly ongoing process that included networking every day. We were constantly adding rewards and I keep it updated for Kickstarter supporters,” she explains. Although her investment in time and effort paid off, Swallow admits it was hard work. “You need to be present with it every single day. You are doing just as much work in person [as online]. It’s not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Even Denise Medved agrees that crowdfunding could be a viable fundraising mechanism for events. Those who have been successful no doubt support that optimism. Wired magazine summed it up nicely when referring to Baio and McMillan’s efforts on Kickstarter. “They also believe that there’s a real underutilized potential for launching more events on Kickstarter. Baio, who helped build Kickstarter and who launched the event-coordinating startup Upcoming.com (acquired by Yahoo), points out that many event organizers have to lose money fronting venue deposits and planning for unknown attendee numbers. Kickstarter secures that audience ahead of time.” Who knew rewards like tickets, cupcakes, books and T-shirts could fuel an event-funding revolution?