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With Kickstarter, it's click or miss

Locals crowdsource the world, with mixed results

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Philip Marruffo/pmarruffo@saukvalley.com)
Edward Ford, of Dixon, raised $11,078 from 125 backers in 2011 on the website Kickstarter for his invention, ShapeOKo, which is an open source CNC machine. A computer numerical control (CNC) machine is a computer controlled, high-precision tool that uses programmed commands instead of being manually operated. It's capable of producing nearly anything. "I launched the project with, really, the expectation that it was going to be unfunded," Ford said.
Caption
(Philip Marruffo/pmarruffo@saukvalley.com)
Ford now sells his CNC machine, ShapeOKo, through Inventables, a Chicago-based online hardware store for designers.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Adam Johnson of Rock Falls is working with a business partner to promote and fund through a Kickstarter campaign an invention they call JasperBox. It's a remote vehicle starter that can be controlled from any phone. Their goal is to draw $32,000 from backers, though as of Wednesday night only $623 had been raised. "It's very nerve-wracking," Johnson said of monitoring the Kickstarter campaign.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Adam Johnson of Rock Falls shows prototypes of the box that would allow users to remotely start their car from a smartphone.

What do Dixon, a self-proclaimed "full-time tinkerer" from Norway, $11,078, and a CNC machine have in common? A website called Kickstarter.

Since 2009, Kickstarter has raised more than $771 million from more than 4.7 million people to fund more than 47,000 projects, according to its website. And a few of those projects have been started by people in the Sauk Valley, including Edward Ford, a 33-year-old Dixon resident who started his Kickstarter campaign on June 26, 2011.

Ford is an extreme example of the website's crowd-sourcing reach. In just 30 days, he raised $11,078 from 125 people, referred to on the site as backers, which was 739 percent of the $1,500 he was asking for to buy new materials, pay for laser-cutting time, and test some new designs to complete his CNC machine project, he said on his campaign's page.

A computer numerical control – CNC – machine is a computer controlled, high-precision tool that uses programmed commands instead of being manually operated. It's capable of producing nearly anything.

Ford's campaign was for a do-it-yourself CNC machine that could be made for about $300 and come with the electronics to run the machine. He said he wasn't expecting his Kickstarter campaign to have the success that it did and later allow him to sell more than 2,000 machines.

"I launched the project with, really, the expectation that it was going to be unfunded," he said.

His campaign "blew up, in a good way," on its second day, after a magazine mentioned his campaign in a small article, Ford said.

"I was getting email alerts every time I had a new backer," he said. "The battery on my BlackBerry died."

The campaign went from $200 to $2,000 overnight, he said.

Among Ford's 125 backers were people who listed themselves as from Oslo, Norway; Brunswick, Australia; Bielefeld, Germany; and Chicago, among many places near and far.

Kickstarter has created a digital, social environment for entrepreneurs, artists and tinkerers that, Ford said, is similar to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when technology businesses were springing up in garages and a community developed to fund them.

But with Kickstarter, Ford was able get the same funding support without being in San Francisco or Austin, Texas, he said. He could do it from his garage in Dixon, just like 31-year-old Adam Johnson is trying to do from his home office in Rock Falls.

Johnson and his business partner are working to get JasperBox, a remote vehicle starter controlled from any phone, ready to be mass produced and sold.

Johnson's Kickstarter campaign started Aug. 28 and has 19 days remaining. As of Wednesday night, $623 had been raised from 10 backers, less than 2 percent of the $32,000 goal to finish the box's casing, installation and production plan.

"It’s very nerve-wracking," Johnson said of tracking the campaign's progress. "[I'm] just very nervous. I don't think I've been this nervous about something for a while – just how much I've put into it.”

For Johnson, Kickstarter seemed like a better alternative to getting funds from traditional investors. There have been offers, but they usually came with demands and a stake in the company that they didn't want to give up, he said.

But Kickstarter isn't a set-it-and-forget-it tool for these campaigns. Johnson said just because the campaign is launched and people can back it, doesn't mean they'll find it and send money.

The video on his campaign's page has been viewed more than 6,000 times, he said.

"It’s a good sign that people looked at it, but it also means that 6,000 or so people have looked at it and not decided to back it," he said.

He has spent time trying to publicize his project, and has found that while doing that he often has to explain what Kickstarter is, and then what JasperBox is.

If Johnson's campaign doesn't reach its funding goal, the money pledged by the backers will be returned, and JasperBox will be re-evaluated, Johnson said, which is another aspect of Kickstarter he found appealing.

The website allows for a product to be reviewed and judged by potential customers. If it receives the funding, people must like it. But if it doesn't, some aspects, like the marketing, name or logo, for example, may have to be altered, he said.

There have been unsuccessful campaigns originating in the Sauk Valley. An example was the campaign to raise $40,000 for Midway Drive-In, to help its owners buy a digital projector and make modifications to the projector building.

Mia Kerz, one of the owners, said they tried Kickstarter because it seemed like a simple option, which she said it was. However, Midway's campaign raised only $7,536 from 155 backers.

The drive-in also collects funds on location, which has been somewhat successful, Kerz said.

"When you go to the drive-in, you get the feel for it and get a sense of how great it is," she said. "Online, maybe you don't get a sense of it."

And not all Sauk Valley campaigns have set such high funding goals.

Mike Corey, 35, of Polo, set his campaign's funding goal at $200. His campaign ended Aug. 8 with $230 from 10 backers. He reached his funding goal on Day 11 of 15 and used the money to make copies of his book and album and have extended distribution at Barnes & Noble, he said in a Facebook message.

"It felt great," Corey said. "Not just because I got the money raised, but that there were people out there that believed in me."

Corey, who said he suffers from borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, wrote the book and recorded the album to help others with mental illnesses.

John Meeks, 45, of Dixon, relaunched a Kickstarter campaign Sept. 4, after having canceled it because it wasn't getting the traction he wanted. He sells horror-, fantasy- and science fiction-inspired chess pieces.

This current campaign will be his fifth. He set the goal at $5,000 and will have until Oct. 4 to reach 100 percent funding.

"Some stuff just takes off like a rocket," Meeks said, “and some stuff stalls."

Both Meeks and Johnson will keep close eyes on their campaigns during the coming weeks, because for every project like Ford's and Corey's, there are more like Kerz's. According to Kickstarter, 55.99 percent of projects go unfunded.

"We felt we exhausted all the traditional methods," Johnson said. "Without Kickstarter, I would’ve stopped and moved on to another project – installed [JasperBox] in my car and moved on."

How does it work?

Kickstarter is a website where artists, inventors and entrepreneurs can set up campaigns to solicit funds for various aspects of a project.

People can use the site to search for campaigns by category, location, popularity or keywords. Once they find a campaign's page, they can read about the project and how their money would be used.

People who decide to give to a campaign are referred to as backers.

Depending on the level of funding, backers receive a campaign's products, exclusives or even signed art for their support. If a campaign doesn't reach its funding goal by the deadline, all pledged money is returned to the backers.

For more information, go to www.Kickstarter.com.

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