Start Your Company Like You're Running a Crowdfunding Campaign

Let's just say it: Reaching your customers is hard. It takes more time than you allotted, and the strategy you concocted at the outset is rarely the one that succeeds. And it's difficult to stay focused on your customer when you're writing your business plan, raising money, opening bank accounts, applying for permits, raising more money, buying equipment, building out your workspace, hiring employees, contracting vendors, launching social media accounts, raising still more money. Who has time to ask: why am I doing this, and why should anyone care?

We launched Seed&Spark - a tool to connect audiences to filmmakers to crowdfund, promote and watch films - in December 2012, and by April had managed to build a base of 3,000 users. Our "plan" to reach customers was one-on-one outreach to filmmakers and film fans, earned media, and, yes, word of mouth. (Cut to: Kevin Costner standing in a field, a voice whispering, "If you build it, they will come!")

We were getting films funded. It was working! And the folks who were using our platform thought it was really valuable. Yet our adoption rate was still slower-than-expected, and that told us something: not enough people were getting our message. We weren't delivering on the stated promise of growing audiences for independent film as fast as we'd hoped.

As a small startup, we don't always have the cash on hand to make the small, non-critical user interface (UI) improvements we believed could streamline the user experience. But we worried we would lose the good will gifted to a company in "beta" if we didn't get them done promptly. So, we decided to use our own platform to crowdfund enough money to pay for the upgrades, and use that crowdfunding campaign to reach our small, but engaged, community for input on exactly what those improvements should be. This meant we had to shoot a pitch video, distill our idea into a few minutes, and get the word to as many people as humanly possible. In other words, we had to put our dogma to the test. If we couldn't meet our own fundraising goal, how could we purport to be crowdfunding experts?

What ensued turned out to be the best 30-day outreach campaign we could've hoped for. I'm not here to suggest that every small business should crowdfund, but instead that every business should operate as if they were crowdfunding. Why? Because rather than trying to raise money from investors who (you think) want to hear about your plans for returns, a crowdfunding campaign reaches out directly to your customers--who simply want to know if what you're doing is valuable to them. You're forced to think simply: what are you offering? How badly you want to bring your ideas market? How will anyone find out?

After our month-long campaign, here are three principles our crowdfunding campaign has really instilled in us as daily practices:

1. Believe in your idea. It's a practice! If you want to convince people that what you're doing is valuable to them, then you have to be able to tell a compelling story about why your idea matters to you. What are you trying to do in the world? Why? In our case, we want to get a greater variety of stories told so that more audiences find content that matters to them. We want to build a community that feels like our platform belongs to them, and we used our campaign to let them know how we felt, and to give them a chance to take ownership. Knowing "why" helps us focus decisions big and small: more than a "mission," does this fit with our core beliefs or not?

2. Embrace desperation. Okay, maybe you'd rather call it "persistence," but only a real, driving need to launch, improve and grow will get you to set aside your ego and just reach out for help. If you really believe in your idea, it's way less embarrassing to implore the world for support. "Hey, I'm doing something I think is really important and useful. Could you take five minutes to help me make it happen?" Not embarrassing at all. I sent thousands of versions of that email to everyone I know (and my partners did the same). We asked supporters and users to spread our message across their social networks. We gave them specific language they could use to share our campaign with their networks.

We reached out to bloggers and media outlets through social media relentlessly. We answered Every. Single. Tweet. With this desperation, we added more than 1,000 new users to Seed&Spark in fewer than 30 days. (That was 30% growth in 30 days.) Over the next month, at least ten new crowd-funding campaigns for film projects will launch because creators learned about our community while we were crowdfunding. Perhaps most valuable lesson we learned is that the amount of energy we needed to devote to social media outreach was much, much greater than we'd anticipated, and that we--and our community of fundraisers by extension--need to adjust our priorities to reflect that.

3. Be transparent. Bare your company's soul and reveal your plan. That may sound dangerous, but you are the best advocate for your product. Your customers want to know who you are and what you're doing. Crowdfunding has been a successful way to launch so many business ventures because it creates a transparent relationship between creators and consumers. Consumers learn how products and services are made. The more details you give them, the more detailed feedback they can give you. Your customers aren't just your consumers; they're participants. They want to know what they're getting into. They will want to help you (see #2) on the journey to creating and delivering the product you're promising will improve their lives in some way (see #1).

Be bold. Tell the world why you need to open this restaurant, start this clothing store, or build this app. Let your future customers observe your process from the start. Asking the customers you hope to serve for their insights, input, and feedback before you launch will teach you about where to spend your energy, and where not to waste it. Together, we are smarter than any of us.