Donors help kickstart Sonoma County ventures
Published: Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 4:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 8:29 a.m.
Launching a new, high-end frozen food line brought chef Jen Johnson and partner Serafina Palandech to the point of needing to raise $3,497 in 19 hours.
Not from their bank accounts or from a traditional small business lender. The Sebastopol couple had to get the money from friends, supporters and anyone else who would make a financial pledge toward their project at the online crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com.
Johnson, the executive private chef for Ann and Gordon Getty in San Francisco, and Palandech already had received more than $21,500 in pledges on Kickstarter to help produce tasty chicken fingers, wings and meatballs from pasture-raised poultry. But their new company, Hip Chick Farms, wouldn't get a dime unless the pledges topped the announced goal of $25,000 by 6:54 a.m. Thursday.
“It's nerve-racking,” Palandech said Wednesday morning.
By Wednesday evening the couple had hit the mark — aided by one final $3,000 pledge — and joined the growing ranks of Sonoma County business owners and artists who are using Kickstarter to help finance their dreams.
The 3-year-old website made news last month when 87,000 backers pledged $3.3 million for San Francisco's Double Fine Productions to launch a new video game.
The uninitiated might now be asking: Why in the world would people give money to a business?
The answer seems to be that pledgers back the projects and people they believe in. In so doing, they get to play a small role in helping bring forth new music, art, entertainment and food products.
And depending on the level of their pledges, backers can receive rewards ranging from T-shirts to albums to personal concerts or gatherings with artists.
“It's somewhere at the intersection of commerce and patronage,” said Kickstarter spokesman Justin Kazmark. In the process, he said, artists and business people are brought closer to their audiences and customers.
One local Kickstarter project belongs to Sondra Bernstein, owner of the Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma.
Bernstein has until May 18 to raise $30,000 to help convert a warehouse on Schellville Road into “suite d,” a space for classes, winetastings and other events. By noon Friday she had received $6,400 from 35 backers.
Those who pledge to her project can receive such rewards as private cooking classes, an invitation to a preview party or, for a $1,000 pledge, a multi-course dinner with wine for 10.
“You're going to be a first-in-line friend of our restaurant forever,” she said.
Other companies offer microfinancing or crowdsourcing opportunities for both charities and businesses. But Kickstarter claims to offer the largest funding program for creative projects in the world.
Based in New York City, the privately held company has received $185 million in pledges and posted more than 20,000 projects.
Those seeking funding get their own web page where they put up a video to give their pitch to potential backers. Projects don't qualify if they fail to fit in one of the allowed creative categories. As such, a proposal to start a bank would be a “no go,” Kazmark said.
A key rule is that no money changes hands unless enough pledges come in on deadline to meet the announced goal. The project's creator sets both the financial goal and the deadline.
About 44 percent of the projects reach their goals, Kazmark said. But about 85 percent of the total pledges — or nearly $160 million — have gone to successful projects.
For its services, Kickstarter receives 5 percent from the successful projects. Amazon Payments, which handles the pledges, takes another 3-5 percent.
Those who create projects say the backers' involvement at times is reminiscent of an old-fashioned barn raising. Kickstarter, they said, has become a way for the masses to engage in patronage for as little as $1.
“It's fun helping the artist you like make their art. You're getting caught up in someone else's journey,” said Nathan Strong of Santa Rosa, a member of the folk acoustic band After the Chase. Strong and his wife Jenna raised $20,000 on Kickstarter last year to allow them to produce their third album in Nashville.
Kickstarter is becoming a place that business people and artists turn to when they can't get small business loans or grants.
Sebastopol photographer Penny Wolin has received funding for past exhibitions from the National Endowment for the Arts and from various museums.
But in a struggling economy, she was stumped while searching for financing for her next book and exhibition: “Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry.” The work will feature the stories, art and images of 70 photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank and Arnold Newman.
Now Wolin is seeking to raise $27,000 by May 2 to help finance her work preparing the book and exhibition. By noon Friday she had raised $8,500 from 82 backers.
Wolin, whose past subjects have included comedian George Burns, actor Charlton Heston, actress Winona Ryder and Oakland Raiders defensive lineman John Matuszak, laughed that she had “fallen down the rabbit hole” in her Kickstarter project.
The experience reminded her of people coming to the aid of someone who's dropped a parcel on the street. But it also brought to mind the salons she has conducted with potential donors who gathered to hear directly from her about a new project they might back.
“It's putting a salon out there to everybody at once,” she said.
Bridget Hayes, owner of Language Truck educational company in Santa Rosa, used Kickstarter to raise $8,451 in December to purchase a small school bus and turn it into a mobile classroom. She plans to travel to neighborhoods, businesses, churches and elsewhere to offer classes in English, Spanish and eventually computers.
“There's a social network that I've created through this process,” Hayes said of Kickstarter.
The projects can be small and unique.
Dr. Rachel Friedman and Dr. Allison Bacon, two family physicians who did their residency program in Santa Rosa, raised $3,601 in December to videotape their educational ‘80s rock opera: “Diabetes: The Musical.” They plan to post the final version on the web for health care workers, diabetes patients and others.
“We didn't know of any grants for doctors who are performing medical musicals,” said Friedman, who is on staff at the Vista Family Health Center in Santa Rosa.
For Hip Chick Farms, success on Kickstarter means moving forward with the final preparations of package design and production of the finger-licking chicken treats. Johnson and Palandech hope within months to have their first frozen products in stores.
Kickstarter offered them a way to raise money for their venture and spread the word simultaneously, Johnson said,
“I thought it was a great way to tell people our story,” she said.
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