Crowdfunding without Kickstarter — How I raised $5,000 for my documentary in 2 weeks

For the last few years, I’ve interviewed traveling freelancers, remote workers and founders of distributed startups. I feel a revolution is happening with many people replacing the “template” life at home and instead flying out into the world, to live and work from anywhere. They call themselves digital nomads. Their movement is growing fast and lots of interesting things are happening now. I thought this moment should be documented. So I decided to make a documentary.

Ok, what about $ then?

Just a few months ago, I had  an awesome full-time job at a Bitcoin startup which allowed me to travel with a brilliant team around the world while working. But I realized I’m not going to able to make a documentary with my main job. I decided to work for this company until 2014, so that I can start my own project in a new year.

I could have stayed with the company until I saved more money to do this project by myself. But I’ve seen so many people who are waiting for the “perfect moment” to start something, which doesn’t exist. I believed I should start right now instead of just thinking and talking without action.

Briefly, the money I need as the lowest estimate is as below:

  • Basic equipment
    (Camera, lens, wireless mic, tripod, reflective board, hard drive) – $3,000
  • Flights (South East Asia/Europe/USA/South America) – $2,500
  • Food, travel expenses for 10 months –  $5,000~$7,000
  • Post production – $$$ ? (You will get what you pay for)

Luckily, I got offered a book deal in Korea to write about digital nomads and I’m contributing articles to several Korean media regularly. But still it looked almost impossible to make this project happen. I started doubting that this was actually nothing more than a ridiculous dream.

People around me suggested to go the route of crowdfunding with Kickstarter. After looking up hundreds of ongoing projects in the film category and stats, I found out this is not the best option for me. Less than a half of all film projects on Kickstarter actually get funded:

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First, Kickstarter is “all or nothing”. If I can’t reach the goal, well, there is nothing I can get after spending so much time on it. How is the odd like then? The number of total launched projects in film category is 43,891, the number of projects that failed in funding is 26,089, so 59% of projects failed in getting funding. More than half of them funded only 1% to 20%, and 20% of them couldn’t even reach 1% of the goal what they set. Definitely, raising money with Kickstarter is different what people say;

“Oh, sounds cool. Why don’t you just start crowdfunding with Kickstarter? I’ve heard lots of people got funded, some of them even got over funded!”

I made a conclusion that Kickstarter is not for me, at least right now. Because at this moment, I’m an individual (almost every funded project is made by a team with more than 4 people), who doesn’t have a nice filmography (if you have a professional portfolio what you’ve done in the film industry, or even you are working with your film studio, the chance getting funded is significantly higher. It’s all about credibility which is really hard to show as a newbie!), and I’m trying to make a documentary with a pretty new theme that not that many people are aware of (I’m not sure how many people understand what digital nomads are except who are actually living as one of them).

Apparently, I didn’t want to wait until I set everything to be a “likable” project on Kickstarter and I should ship everything fast. If you wait until you’re perfectly prepared about everything, you are not going to leave the couch where you are sitting on.

F*** it, I will just do it by myself

I decided to crowdfund by myself from my own website. And it wasn’t easy at all. I spend the first month of this year to code this documentary’s website. This attempt was a completely new thing for me, as I’ve never done coding before. Literally, I googled every time when I wrote each line.

I added rewards based on each amount for my “backers”. I built it with raw html, css, and a little javascript for the payment function.

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How I can let people know

I launched my website on the first day of February and started crowdfunding right after. I announced it on #nomads, the online community with 2,000+ digital nomads, digital nomad Reddit, and my social network media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Actually, asking for donations was the hardest part, more than all the technical problems I experienced. I was born and grew up in South Korea for about 20 years, and asking people something related to money on public is shameful in my culture. I know this is such an unpractical old tradition, but still, it’s really hard for me to ask for money straight forward, to anyone, without me getting awkward. I couldn’t make it without my dear friends’ help and continuous feedback; “Youjin, you should be much more aggressive than this, if you really want to make it happen!”. And so I did.

PayPal kept bugging me

PayPal kept sending me emails from all different departments. Amy from PayPal Merchant Risk Operations kept asking me a bunch of questions and requirements for their review process (I even got a phone call from her, from Shanghai!) such as:

– When will the donation complete on your website?
– When will you finish the film and give perks/rewards to those contributors?
– A disclaimer on the website which can clearly advise the contributor that there is no guarantee regarding fulfillment of a reward

On the other hand, the PayPal Compliance Department kept asking me to upload documents about the organization and payment information, even a utility bill with my address on it. And even though I finished everything what they required more than a week ago, my PayPal account is still limited and the only thing I can do is waiting answer from them. (I can accept donations, but I can’t withdraw them at this moment)

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Stripe kept bugging me

I wanted to make a payment option with credit card besides on PayPal. Stripe doesn’t support most Asian countries including South Korea. Luckily, I have a bank account in Australia and Stripe supports AUD. Stripe is amazing and looks beautiful! Also, you can do a survey and accept a donation at the same time as Typeform provides a payment feature with it.

It looked very easy to integrate Stripe to my website, and also they didn’t ask me any endless reviewing process like PayPal did. But it turns out, there is no such thing as “easy”. I used Stripe Checkout and was able to implement it in Javascript on my site. In my first attempt, it looked payments accepted successfully from the contributor’s side, but not even a single payment went through and I didn’t get any notification on it. The problem was that it wasn’t very clear that I also had to have a server script to make the actual charge. While no payment went through for more than 2 days, I was wondering why everyone donates only with PayPal.

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I keep asking people for advice

As I said, I don’t know anything about coding, and I’m not an expert in filming. I kept asking about coding to people around me and Google. I got lots of help for making a trailer from my dear friends Rob, AmyDarren and Jordan (Meet them in the trailer here!). And Marina helps me to get sponsors and to contact conferences. I’m not perfect, but all my friends help me to be a better person to make this happen.

Typeform is an amazing tool to ask people’s feedback and hear their advice. It helps me to make such a beautiful survey. I can add videos or pictures on a survey, but also payment function using Stripe.

I’ve learned that you don’t need to know everything. You will learn by doing and you can always ask people for help and advice.

Bookkeeping

If you use Kickstarter, you will get a well-organized backers’ list. You will be able to manage their contacts, messages, rewards for them and any other things on the fancy dashboard.

When you do your own crowdfunding, everything is DIY.  I can’t imagine doing this without Zapier by all means. I set my customized Zaps, and now everything is being processed automatically.

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So far so good

Even though I had to go through a lot in only 2 weeks, I’ve raised $5,000 so far. Well begun is half done, and I reached half of my funding goal, which is $10,000 within a month.

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So many exciting things have happened since I started this project. I’ve got lots of kind words with encouragements and donations from somewhere on the earth. It means a lot to me.

For example, I got invited DNX global in Berlin, the first global digital nomad conference for a little premier show, a part of this film will be screened as a preview. It means I need to move even faster than what I planned, excited!

I keep looking for official sponsors as well since it would be a big help in a financial way, but also distributed teams and remote startups’s help would add more value to this film.

Conclusion

These are lessons I’ve learned from doing crowdfunding without a well-known platform such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo:

  • If you choose to crowdfund yourself, you need to create your own crowdfunding “platform”, and it’s not easy.
  • You might face all kinds of problems related to payment systems, and that’s fatal.
  • You need to be aware of the fees (Stripe: 2.9% + 30¢ per successful charge, PayPal: 3.9% + fixed fee based on the currency received)
  • Still, it’s cheaper than using Kickstarter (Kickstarter fee: 5% of total funds raised + payment processing fees: 3% + $0.20 per pledge)
  • Kickstarter automates a lot of stuff for you. You have to do that yourself otherwise.

 

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