Thursday, November 15, 2012

St. Louis for the crowd funding [Don't say no one ever gave you a chance]

Earlier this year my friend Sabrina, Doer at Brown Paper Tickets, contacted me because her friend, Nathaniel, was traveling the country studying new forms of giving and was going to be near St. Louis.

"Is there anything exciting in grass roots funding going on in St. Louis?" she asked.

Little did I know just how ahead of the curve her question was. Since the end of July (when she and Nathan came through and I gathered a small group of community doers for a discussion), three separate crowd funding initiatives have launched and one has re-launched. All very distinct and different in their structure and purpose.

*clears throat* Is this mic on? St. Louis: you have no excuse to not get a bunch of stuff done.

St. Louis is one of the most charitable cities in the country. The past few years has seen a notable focus, from multiple directions, on making the region more supportive of entrepreneurs and innovation. So it's not really a surprise that there's an abundance of creative grass roots funding initiatives popping up. It was only a matter of time.

The most traditionally grass roots, and oldest (and by "old" I mean approaching 3 years) initiative is Sloup. In person (at local establishments), monthly events where people pay $10 to have soup (provided by local chefs) and listen to pre-submitted proposals. Attendees vote on the proposal that excites them the most, and the take from the door is handed over to the winning project on the spot. Projects tend to be artistic or communications-based and awards tend to be in the hundreds of dollars, depending on attendance.

In the space of "community meets technology," OverFundit is the most innovative. While it runs on a digital platform, the platform is designed as a tool for Doers - people in real communities with real networks who have a track record of accomplishments and impact in their community - and Catalysts - people who support those Doers and bring along their networks to do so as well.

OverFundit will launch in Frenso and St. Louis.

InveSTL is innovative from a community development angle and because it intersects crowd funding and institutional giving. Focused on granting to community development or community focused organizations, they raise money in small (though they will take large) donations. Anyone giving $100 or more in a giving cycle becomes eligible to vote on the grant recipients. So, if you know your neighborhood association is applying for a grant to fix some potholes, you can rally your neighbors to put into the fund and you all get a say - but so do all the other neighborhoods. The money goes into a fund that lives at the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation.  So while a good deal of the small donations are raised at happy hours (throughout the region, in order to help everyone branch out and get to know other neighborhoods), the Community Foundation gives institutional street cred for traditional philanthropists, corporations or foundations to feel comfortable taking part.

InveSTL from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

The most traditional and splashiest effort is the recently launched Rally Saint Louis. Both crowd sourcing and crowd funding, Rally is a digital platform that invites St. Louisans to submit their ideas for making St. Louis more awesome. Ideas are voted on publicly and the top five go to their board (see column on the right) for a resource and funding plan. Then back out to the public for crowd funding. Ideas that are funded go into implementation. Funded, organized, supported and run by the same institutions that were called out in the article that inspired it a year ago, it's struck a nice balance between bottom-up thinking and institutional buy in. Gotta build a bridge, y'all.

If anyone knows of a local crowd funding effort I've missed, please let me know. But with these four efforts alone, St. Louis should once and for all rid itself of the Eeyore-like attitude that nothing gets done.

Because, really - with options like these, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Now get out there and DO!

Monday, November 12, 2012

How Humans of New York raised $70k in 12 hours [It really is that simple]

It's amazing to me how consistently human we humans are. Our active avoidance of what we know to be true. Our ability to create entire industries in search of answers that are as plain as day - if we can just accept them as so. It's amazing to me how this seeps into every aspect of our lives - not just the squishy feely ones but the ones involving hard cold cash. We are so predictable.

Last night, a little after 8pm CST, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York announced a Hurricane Sandy relief project he put together with tumblr and Indiegogo.

As of 7:30am CST, it's up to $73,500 and counting. They will certainly blow past their $100,000 goal before lunch. The lesson here? Real communities and real relationships have immeasurable value. They are built, not bought, and consistently delivering an honest, interesting and genuine product is a surefire way to build them. And if you've built them honestly, they will gladly and swiftly activate on issues in line with the health and survival of the community. 

I have been following Humans of New York on Facebook since May when someone pointed me toward it via a project I work on called St. Louis for the Love. In short, Humans of New York is a photoblog - "the photographic census of NYC. One street portrait at a time" - as the photographer  describes it. But the stories he captures via his lens have attracted a community, and the community's interaction with the photos and the subjects has become an inextricable part of the project. Routinely, he will post a photo on Facebook and within seconds it will have 1,000+ likes. It's. Fascinating. His formula? Being human. Well, his strategy is a little bit more thought out than that, but at its core, it's that simple. 

While the photographer stays on mission, there have been a number of stories that have grown out of that focus. In  October, an NYU student with a personal tumblr on self-image ended up on the Today Show because of the discussion that erupted on Humans of New York. 

Stella entra on HONY FB

I'll be honest, Humans of New York was one of the places I regularly checked before, during and after Hurricane Sandy. It was a trusted storytelling source dedicated to one of the physical communities of impact with a committed and mostly relevant virtual community (424,000 followers on Facebook) surrounding it. When the fundraising campaign was announced, it was no surprise that Indiegogo and tumblr were on as sponsors and that the charity chosen is a grass roots, family run (but 10-yr old and government endorsed) foundation located in the heart of one of the hardest hit areas (Staten Island). The total is up to $81,000 since two hours ago when I started writing this post. 

When these sort of "organic community becomes behemoth and moves mountains" things happen we all tend to be surprised, and agencies everywhere add it to their file of "social media helps humanize your brand!" stories for the next pitch. But there is nothing magic here. No new tools in play, no major partnership, no fancy agency or expensive ad campaign made this happen. 

The not-so-secret sauce is that the "brand" (Brandon Stanton) started and grew genuinely and organically, with its community, asking of it little and only when it rose up on its own or when circumstance (natural disaster in the physical location of the project) aligned with community values. 

In an age of decentralized and direct-to-consumer media, these are the new table stakes. Brands/products/projects/causes that seek to engage and build relationships have to have the self-awareness and the guts to put themselves somewhat in the hands of the communities they serve. To stop only seeing themselves in their own mirror and open up to how their community is truly interested in them - or maybe not interested in them. And to be open to having a true conversation (read: exchange of ideas - not just "I listened") about how they might grow. 

Because, really - $83,000 in 14 hours. That's math, y'all. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

It's all about the story [Say "social media" one more time and I'll puke]

Earlier this year on a random Tuesday (I think) I decided to go to the season announcement event for The Hettenhouse Performing Arts Center, hosted by their director and my new friend, Peter. Besides getting a taste of the depth of programming offered at the Hett, tucked away (in St. Louis Metro terms) on the campus of McKendree University in Lebanon, IL, Peter wanted me to hear the scheduled entertainment for the evening, Brian Owens. The rest, as they say, is history (in progress).

After the event and his performance (during which his cover of "People Get Ready" made me cry), Brian and I quickly discovered that we had a number of things in common - a bunch of musician friends, a wide and varied taste in music and the opinion that the best form of marketing is to simply tell your story.

With his album release approaching in September he had marketing and "social media" firms approaching about doubling followers and likes. But we talked a good deal about the true focus being content. Platforms are about distribution and engagement opportunities. The differentiator is about what you are distributing and giving people to engage with. Brian's story is ripe with opportunity and a necessity for engagement. As a black soul artist without an "urban" bone in his body (ok, there might be a few) in a business of categories and genres, Brian faces the challenge of repeatedly articulating what specifically he brings to the table - as opposed to what it is assumed that he brings to the table. Brian had the vision to understand that investing in telling his story was the best investment he could make.

After some big picture conversations with Ben Kaplan of Act3 (to whom I refer to as The Story Boss), we sat down with Jarred Gastreich, photographer and storyteller in-the-making (as well as the father of Show Me Shows, the one-take music video series). Since that conversation in late August, Jarred has been essentially embedded with Brian at every gig or appearance. This week they are off to New York and Philly together as Brian does press for his label and a show in each city.

We talk a lot in terms of Brian's "digital profile" - not on any single platform, but generally, what do we want people to find and engage with when they encounter Brian digitally? That encounter can happen on a number of platforms, but the opportunity to engage, to peak interest, to gain a "fan" comes because of the content they find - not where they find it.

In the six weeks since Jarred officially started following Brian around I think they've produced some beautiful, interesting, engaging and most importantly, very Brian-like content. We are just starting to focus on the best ways to deliberately and actively distribute it, but Brian's already received attention and exposure that he wouldn't have otherwise. Direct feedback on the quality and personal nature of the content, allowing him to start conversations with people with some already established - and accurate - footing.  As advanced as we get technologically, everything always comes back to real people and relationships.

My favorite thing about working this way has been that we very rarely decide what we're after ahead of time. Generally, yes. A feel or a message or a thought-strand to explore or to convey. But how we get there - what form it takes (video, photography, writing), which platform it ends up on, the specific arc of the story - comes later. As we go. It's rare you get the trust of the "client" together with a team on the same wavelength enough to work that organically, but getting this chance to do it regularly has me more sold than ever that it is The Way and The Truth and in the end provides far more value.

Because, really.

"Nothing's Real But Love" from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

"Real Facts Of Life" from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

"I'm Not A Genre" from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

Brian Owens Trailer from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

Experience Brian Owens from Jarred Gastreich on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

That uncomfortable place where all the best stuff happens

I am so proud of this night. The process of putting this together is something I hope I never recover from. I've been working at staying in the place I talk about here ever since - and while hard, it's been so full of amazing. Thank you to everyone who helped in all aspects of me walking up to the mic that night, to everyone who has been a part of the journey since and everyone who will be part of the journey to come.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Humanity's Whitney Houston problem [Things that make so little sense they make my head hurt]

So, here's the thing that keeps going through my head:

Whitney Houston clearly had a serious serious problem or series of serious problems all stacked on top of each other.  We put her on TV and the cover of magazines, making millions of dollars off of her series of problems. Which, don't be mistaken, is not my main point and is what it is, because "we" wouldn't have exploited her problems if "we" weren't watching/buying said exploitation - supply and demand.

The knot in my brain is around these questions:

1) Was as much energy spent on trying to get her help as was spent on her problems? [Not something any of us not in Whitney's inner circle can answer]

2) How far gone do you have to be to have all the resources/attention/support that she had and not have the help matter?

3) If this is how it played out for an uber talented super star, what does that have to say about how it plays out for millions of everyday people everywhere?

Millions of everyday people everywhere.

4) And how does/should/could a happening like this change how it plays out for millions of everyday people everywhere?

Because, really.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What am I missing? [Things we have seen before]

Last Friday, Apple announced, among other things, iBooks Author.

Essentially, as Microsoft Word is to Documents, iBooks Author is to highly interactive iPad iBooks.

I say iPad iBooks because a book created using the iBooks Author software can only be read on an iPad. And can only be sold via the Apple App Store.

There is a great deal of hubbub and ire over this, and as I look into it more and more, I become convinced that I must be missing something.

Because, really.

As far as I can tell, and as highlighted in the HuffPo article above, the restrictions are applied to "work you create using this software." iBooks Author is a sophisticated piece of software that puts the equivalent of hours and hours of highly skilled programming in the hands of anyone who can understand the "Drag and drop" concept. I'mma bet you a good deal of money that the product you create for FREE, unless you are one of the developers of - no, even if you are one of the developers of iBooks Author is going to look NOTHING like what you can create using the (also FREE) software in the same amount of time. On an iPad, interactivity, easy of use, flow - essentially HOW it leverages the medium - could be argued as essential to the value of the product.

So, what I'm missing, is why is this awful? Also, why is this not simply awesome? Also, if you don't agree with is why wouldn't you just go on your merry way?

And perhaps most importantly, this isn't about content. Well, it is, secondarily. It's about DISTRIBUTION. Remember that thing back in the day that popped up and could only be played in certain software on certain hardware and people were like "no way, I'm against that, I'm not going to participate in that."

Right. iTunes.

Because, really.

[and I really am wondering if I'm missing something. So please, lay it out for me if I am.]