Crowdfunding

The Guy Who Kickstarted Potato Salad Wasn’t Just Trolling Us All

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Gillmor Gang Live 08.15.14

It’s come to our attention that PotatoStock is a go. Zack “Danger” Brown, a Columbus, Ohio native, previously confirmed that he will put the proceeds raised from his potato salad Kickstarter to good use, namely founding PotatoStock, a philanthropic music festival featuring “gallons” of potato salad. The festival, which will be held on September 27 in Columbus, sounds like a hoot if you’re in Cowtown, but what’s really interesting is how Brown turned a joke into something real and truly noble. I thought I’d look at the campaign for the ongoing Mytro Project, my series on crowdfunding.

First, it’s great to see that he’s garnered the support of the Columbus Clippers, C-Town’s local baseball team, as well as a number of high-profile sponsors. To wit:

And he’s rubbing shoulders with the stars:

As a fellow Columbus native, it looks from my vantage like Brown is trying to give back to a community that gave him so much, namely a taste for good potato salad. Brown announced that he’s holding the event at Columbus Commons, an excellent spot. “It’s in Downtown Columbus, and this has been a Columbus thing from the beginning,” he told the Dispatch.

Columbus’ downtown area is thriving and has changed considerably since I lived there 20 years ago. Whereas it once emptied out at night and over the weekend, it has become a vibrant scene, especially around the North Market and the convention center. Like most midwestern cities that avoided the rust-belt blight (Pittsburgh is another), Downtown Columbus has built itself up into a vibrant arts and entertainment scene in an environment that was sterile at best and forbidding at worst.

PotatoStock itself will feature music and, naturally, potato salad (which costs money) but Brown is donating most of the proceeds to create a fund at the Columbus Foundation. “This will create a permanent fund to help Central Ohio’s non-profits end hunger and homelessness,” he wrote. “These types of funds gain interest every year and grow over time, so, while our little internet joke will one day be forgotten, the impact will be felt forever.”

What can we learn from the Potato Salad King of the Midwest? And, more importantly, what can we learn as crowdfunders?

First, we learn that crowdfunders reward genuine enthusiasm. I, personally, think we’re about to hit peak crowdfunding, a dead zone caused by funding fatigue. The first to be hit by this will be the 3D printer racket and then it will slowly spread to other efforts, namely books, movies, and music. I think we’ve already reached maximum fatigue, for example, in the realm of fitness bands and bespoke clothing campaigns. The only thing for a crowdfunder to do is be genuine and hope things work out. Crowdfunding anything is a bet. It’s a bet that you, the creator, will gather enough funders and it’s a bet by the funders on you, the creator. This relationship is unique and the only good comparison I’ve found is in the relationships between patrons and artists of yore.

Next, we learn that crowdfunders have to be funny or at least personable. By making yourself approachable to your audience, you encourage donations for even the silliest projects. Brown’s project was, arguably, a fluke. But he engendered friendship in his followers. Too many tech crowdfunding projects err on the side of speeds and feeds and offer very little in the way of real personality. For excellent examples of this sort of friendliness, take a look at Pressy and Spark Core. Personality goes a long way.

Finally, we learn that we have to deliver. If you intend to build your crowdfunding project into a business, there has to be a great deal of follow-up and communication. It helps to think of a crowdfunding campaign as a sort of acqui-hire. Most backers aren’t backing a product, per se, but they are betting on you as a producer.

Trust, in that case, is paramount. Follow-up communication via updates and email is key and doing something odd and wonderful with your product after funding is over is also important.

Consider Pebble, for example. Instead of just making one watch and calling it a day, the company was successful and stayed “indie.” Then think of Ouya and Oculus Rift. Ouya seemed to do well but then sputtered out. Backers were not updated and the sense was that the company, and not the product, was to blame. Finally, consider the outcry when Oculus Rift “sold out.” This move, while important for the fledgling company, made the mass of backers feel as if they had lost the product after putting in so much attention and money. While this sense of entitlement is obviously flawed, it’s a real human reaction to what amounts to a business decision.

While Brown originally seemed to be trolling all of us with his delicious potato salad, a lot of good has come from his project. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor and neither have his backers and, more importantly, he’s giving things back to the community.