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Columbia entrepreneurs kick start projects thanks to crowd funding website

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 23, 2013
Nathan Fleischmann raised money through Kickstarter, a popular online crowd funding platform, for Stadium Shoes, his business. A number of Columbia projects have become successful through Kickstarter.

COLUMBIA — Nathan Fleischmann spends a lot of time in a Columbia storage center, revamping a truck he calls "Dawn."

Once he replaces the floors, adds shelves and installs air conditioning, Fleischmann will stuff Dawn with men's, women's and children's shoes and tour Columbia selling them.

Before Fleischmann owned the box truck, he spent nearly two years planning his business strategy: He studied market research, maintained a blog, shipped out 275 emails to solicit support and launched a campaign on Kickstarter.

On March 31, after six nerve-wracking weeks of promotion on the crowd funding site, Fleischmann was able to raise $7,286 from 63 backers to make his mobile shoe store, Stadium Shoes, a reality. He hopes to be on the road in late October.

"Running a Kickstarter campaign is kind of like running a 5K," he said. "There's a lot of preparation, or practice, then during it's all about pacing."

Kickstarter, the online crowd funding platform, began four years ago, largely to give artists seed money to create films, games, books and music.

Since then, it has funded more than 48,000 projects, raising $789 million to encourage ventures as small as a $95 for an A to Z monster sketchbook and as big as a $5 million globally distributed feature film. 

According to Kickstarter's rules, projects must fit within one of 13 creative categories  that cover a broad spectrum. A group of Kentucky sixth-grade girls received enough funding to send a camera into space, and Philadelphia became home to the world's first pizza museum through the platform.

Last year, Kickstarter's popularity drew backers from 177 countries to pledge more than $319 million, according to Kickstarter.com. This year, film director Spike Lee, actor Zach Braff from "Scrubs" and screenwriter Rob Thomas, creator of "Veronica Mars," enlisted Kickstarter campaigns to finance their own movies. A total of $10.2 million was raised for just those three projects.

In Columbia, 46 projects relating to music, film, comics and business have  launched with Kickstarter campaigns.

Andrew Squitiro raised $339 for a block party on Lyon Street. Lydia Melton got $20,556 to start Gunter Hans, a European-style cafe on Hitt Street. 

The Missouri Contemporary Ballet was given $25,309 for a trip to South Korea in April, and Ragtag Cinema raised $84,762 for projection equipment in November. 

Graphic by Caitlin Kerfin

Producing a film

Janel Mirendah's documentary, "The Other Side of the Glass," is another one of Columbia's successful projects.

When Mirendah decided she wanted to make a short film comparing at-home births to hospital deliveries, she had never used professional camera gear. She did not know how to edit film clips or even use an Apple computer.

In 2007, she volunteered at Columbia Access Television weekly to learn how to operate the equipment and shoot interviews. In 2008, she spent five hours nearly every day at CATV figuring out how to edit.

Her film project began to take shape. An uncle gave her a camera, and she acquired a desktop iMac. Then she spent two years trekking from California to South Carolina collecting footage about the birthing experience. 

After raising $10,000 through a blog and Facebook, she still needed money to complete the film. In 2012, Mirendah created a Kickstarter campaign, and with pledges from 190 backers, she raised $7,498 to pre-screen her film in Vancouver,  Denver, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

"I couldn't have raised so much money without the credibility that Kickstarter gives," she said.

Her 165-minute documentary was designed to challenge medical practices in hospitals during birth and emphasize the importance of  fathers. Mirendah is now  completing the documentary's second part, which addresses health care for mothers and babies. Eventually, she wants to build it into a curriculum about birth educators.

Graphic by Mollie Barnes

When projects succeed

Fewer than half of the project campaigns on Kickstarter are successfully  funded. The platform relies on an all-or-nothing funding philosophy, and if a campaign does not meet a pre-set goal, it gets no money at all.

Yet MU professor and filmmaker Brian Maurer has managed to fund multiple film projects through Kickstarter.

When Maurer stumbled across the crowd funding platform four years ago, he blew it off. Then, after digging into the crowd funding source a bit more, he changed his mind. On a whim, he created a campaign for "Session 2601," a film about a man who undergoes a procedure to relive a difficult memory. He set a modest goal to help with production costs.

"I was obviously very timid," Mauer said. "I only asked for $300."

He said he was shocked when he raised three times that amount in 30 days.

"I was overwhelmed by the amount of friends who had come out of the woodwork that I had not spoken to in such a long time who donated to the project," he said.

Since then, Maurer has used Kickstarter to fund two more short films and two feature films about relationships. His success with Kickstarter has brought in more than $12,000 for his five projects.

Funding channels

Donations to a Kickstarter campaign are channeled through an Amazon payment account. Kickstarter takes 5 percent out of each project creator's project reserve, and Amazon charges a 3 percent to 5 percent processing fee.

Project creators are also required to send rewards to backers for their support, such as a copy of the book, film or album they produce.

Between the costs of fees and rewards, Maurer said, a project creator can lose up to 25 percent of the proceeds. Fleischmann and Maurer  both made rewards intangible to limit costs.

As a way to say thank you, Fleischmann is placing some of his backers' names on the outside of his truck.

"People like to feel like they're part of something," he said.

According to its rules, Kickstarter cannot be used to raise money for charitable causes, real estate or self-help materials.

Those limitations nearly prevented Fleischmann from embarking on a campaign. Kickstarter denied his initial pitch, he said, after he proposed donations to nonprofit organizations as the reward. Fleischmann had to revise his plan and send an appeal to Kickstarter to ultimately float the project.

Mirendah said some of her backers became impatient — even angry — after waiting a year for the documentary to be released.

"One woman said, 'I would not have bought that if I knew it would have taken so long,'" she said.

Mirendah has yet to release the second part of her documentary. To adapt the films to education curriculum will require additional funding, but she doesn't intend to funnel it through Kickstarter.

Although Maurer believes Kickstarter is a great tool, he isn't sure if he'll use it again because of the amount he must relinquish.

"It's a weird game, and people are eager to play it right away," he said. "You have to be aware of the tricks."

Now that Fleischmann has funded his campaign, he said, he has realized starting his business is just as challenging as the campaign.

"Just when I think I can catch my breath, I find new challenges," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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