— The following originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of Canoe & Kayak.
By Zand B. Martin
Until recently, adventurers trying to fund big expeditions took a few select paths: Empty a bank account, max out a credit line, find a rich uncle, or get a corporate sponsor. Today, Web-based crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have added a powerful new option, and paddlers are cashing in. Crowdfunding is a beautifully simple concept: Make a compelling online pitch and small donations, usually about $25 each, pour in through the website's secure portal. When the project is completed, backers receive perks based on how much they donated. Over the last five years, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have helped inventors, entrepreneurs, artists and adventurers raise more than $1 billion from hundreds of thousands of contributors.
Paddlers have not missed the boat. Recent successes like Nobody's River, a source-to-sea attempt on the Amur River ($32,295), the Trans-Territorial Canoe Expedition, a crossing from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay ($4,658), and Paddle to the Ocean, a route from Ottawa to Halifax ($4,268), point to a growing trend. From low-budget college students to big-name adventurers, many proponents see crowdfunding as an easy way to raise cash and engage people in their expedition. But it doesn't always work out: Kickstarter has a success rate of 44 percent, and IndieGoGo's is closer to 9 percent. That's important, because with Kickstarter, you don't get to use the money unless you meet your goal. The website also takes a 5 percent cut and payment services garner another 3 to 5 percent. IndieGoGo charges a 4 percent premium to those who meet their goal, and also offers a "Flexible Funding" option that allows you to keep any money raised, for a 9 percent piece of the action, plus an additional 3 percent credit card transaction fee.
David and Michael Hanson's dream to tell the story of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin had all the right ingredients—interesting route, local interest, environmental angle, and solid storytelling—but the brothers failed to reach their goal. Because they were using Kickstarter, they did not receive any of the money supporters had pledged.
"My naive idea was, well, we'll use Kickstarter to go beyond the low-hanging fruit of our friends and get support from people that believe in the project," David Hanson says. "That's not what happened. It stayed within our friend group." The Hanson brothers ended up securing a Patagonia Environmental Grant to fund their project. (Read about their trip in "The Water Wars," beginning on p TK).
So what makes a successful campaign? It's complicated. Assuming you have the expedition skills and vision to run the nuts and bolts of a big trip, the four ingredients in a good sell are: concept, communication, personal touch, and marketing. Your pitch might succeed with just three or even two of these, but hitting all four is best.
Crowdfunding might look like a major departure in how expeditions are funded, but the elements of a good pitch have not changed. Jeff Blumenfeld, publisher of Expedition News, says crowdfunding is an "incredibly valuable tool," but less than a paradigm shift. "Crowdfunding is just another tool. It still has to resonate with people," he says. "You have to answer the 'So what?' question, the 'Why do we care?'
"I can't tell you what that is," he adds. "It has to come from deep within you."
This concept, or hook, is still the key, says Blumenfeld. Paddle to the Ocean wasn't just about sea kayaking; it was about helping Zac Crouse make peace with the death of his friend Corey Morris through paddling and music. Nobody's River was no vacation; it was an all-female team telling the story of a distant and forgotten river, and gathering real scientific data.
Breaking through the 'friends and family barrier' is incredibly difficult. Connecting with people beyond your home team requires high-level photography, with video skills a significant force-multiplier, and good writing suited to social media and blog formats. "To be an explorer today, it is not enough just to paddle or climb a mountain. You have to be a good communicator as well," Blumenfeld says. As the quality and quantity of online stories continues to grow, just getting noticed is an increasingly difficult task. And don't expect anyone to pay your way if you can't communicate before, during, and after the expedition. Your dream of "going viral" is not going to come true unless you have a compelling answer to the 'So what?' question, along with relentless marketing and self-promotion.
Natalie Warren and her teammates with Paddle Forward (paddle4ward.com) chose a different strategy. They focused on their individual social networks. Warren, founder of Wild River Academy, used traditional methods to fund her 2011 Hudson Bay Bound, an all-female canoe expedition from Minnesota to Hudson Bay. This year, Warren and the 11-person Paddle Forward team embraced crowdfunding to raise the $12,000 they needed in order to paddle the length of the Mississippi and make a documentary about the communities along the river. Each member of the team launched his or her own project on IndieGoGo. "We all had to fundraise at least a $1,000 to participate in the trip," Warren says. The crowdsourcing effort is about raising money, but it also forces every member of the team to learn how to communicate the Paddle Forward story. "You're getting people pumped about the project while you raise money," Warren says.
The result? Each team member hit their goals by engaging their own social network—what we used to call 'friends and family'—and strengthen their commitment to the project while developing their ability to communicate its goals. An IndieGoGo spokesman happens to agree with Warren on people vs. concept: "People want to fund people, not just ideas, so it's important for campaign owners to explain why their project is important and about the impact that funds they receive will make."
Who's right, Blumenfeld or Warren? They both are. Without a personal touch or a grand, resonating idea (Paddle Forward has both), you may have trouble getting off the ground. But even with strong communication skills and an excellent concept, funding doesn't just materialize. The Ikkatsu Project, a marine education and advocacy project that has fielded a series of sea kayaking expeditions, has used both IndieGoGo and Kickstarter to raise funds for expeditions and films, but has failed to meet its goals in both cases.
In the sea of media, marketing is key in keeping afloat. For most adventurers, this is the most distasteful ingredient, but it is a key part of the game. "You can't have any expectation of raising money unless you fully embrace social media," Blumenfeld says. Without aggressive, thoughtful marketing, those backers will never find your story in the sea.
Do what you say you are going to do. Period. Edit that movie, and mail those DVDs. Write thank you notes. Blog. Post photos. You've entered into a contract with your backers, and it is up to you to follow through. If something doesn't go according to plan, if you have to change your route or turn back, congratulations: You were actually on an expedition with real adversity. But because of that contract, you have to let people know why. There is no such thing as over-communicating.
Take the 77Zero expedition as a warning. Andrew Badenoch raised $10,437 through Kickstarter to cycle and packraft from Bellingham, Wash., to the north coast of Alaska and back—a remarkable 7,000 mile journey—and make a movie about it emphasizing the zero fossil fuel aspect. He was a strong communicator with an excellent concept, and he seemed to be a thoroughly likable character. Those qualities, helped him garner strong support from the off-road fat-biking and packrafting communities, and he breazed past his goal of $7,700. But Badenoch had never been on an expedition before. He quit after 830 miles, and didn't tell anyone. His backers became worried, then confused and finally enraged. Badenoch left a series of bridges in smoldering ruins, not only for himself but also for those who would follow.
— Zand Martin paddled across Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East this summer, funded in part by an IndieGoGo campaign and a Polartec Challenge Grant.
Crowdfunding: The Basics
Crowdfunding is not new. Joseph Pulitzer famously crowdfunded the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and hundreds of years before that, crowd donations drove the work of everyone from book publishers to Mozart. Today, the best platforms and projects deftly integrate social media, spreading their story far and wide at the grassroots level.
Kickstarter and IndieGoGo aren't the only games in town, but they are the biggest, and name recognition matters. Auntie Em won't want to enter her credit card info into a website she's never heard of. Kickstarter focuses on artistic projects that have a tangible output, and works well for designers, artists, photographers, and videographers. The website will reject projects that don't meet this model. If you aren't going to produce a film or create other significant art or products, Kickstarter isn't your best option.
With IndieGoGo, on the other hand, your project goes live the moment you press go, making it a better option for people just trying to raise money for a trip. Built into the structure of both platforms is the idea that the money isn't really a donation, but rather an exchange of cash for perks. The design team behind Oru Kayak raised nearly $450,000 through Kickstarter to produce and market a 25-pound folding plastic kayak, and the perk that gained the most traction was a first-edition of the kayak itself. If you can swing it, one route is to do the trip, film and shoot like there is no tomorrow, and crowdfund after the trip now that you have fodder for professional-level teasers and pitch videos, not to mention the possibility of a backer getting a copy of the DVD or an invitation to the premier.
Besides the big two, GoFundMe and Rockethub are other slick, reliable, up-and-coming sites adventurers are using, but there are more than 450 others in every imaginable niche. Do your homework.