Why a kickstarter campaign is a lot like hitchhiking

The first two weeks of our thirty day Kickstarter Campaign has been a fast and furious introduction to crowdfunding. A big thanks to all the folks who’ve given us a lift so far! Reflecting on our experience so far, Tenny explores the highs and lows of crowdfunding as a parallel to hitchhiking across the USA.

Photo via haiketorget.no

Photo via haiketorget.no

Creating and promoting a Kickstarter campaign has been as challenging and as inspiring as the Kickstarter folks said it would be.  Growing an online presence from scratch, promoting our project, and explaining our research, has required pulling long days.  At times, it’s been intimidating, daunting, and, yes, discouraging.  But it’s also been invigorating, affirming and uplifting; sometimes in surprising ways.  Actually, running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot like hitchhiking.  This merits a little explanation, but first I’ll introduce some context into these seemingly disparate activities.

I tend to think of hitchhiking as one of those random skills that doesn’t directly translate into a successful career or even an accolade on a resume.  But ‘thumbing’ is a skill that I happen to possess.  And the specific hitchhiking trip that I am about to relate to our Kickstarter campaign was my capstone achievement.  In 2006, I was in Seattle, WA, and I needed to get to my family reunion in Waynesboro, PN.  And I needed to do it in six days or less.

On a considerably higher brow, Kathleen and I would like to analyze and create a report of the research we’ve been conducting on Neighborhood Book Exchanges over the last two years.  It will be our capstone achievement of our Library and Information Studies education.  It is a project we have spilled blood, sweat, and tears over.   Whether you’re mildly interested or heavily invested in Neighborhood Book Exchanges, we believe there is something you can learn from our research.  It is a project worth completing.  And since Neighborhood Book Exchanges require many individuals to participate, we began this crowdfunding campaign in parallel.  What better way to fund research about a grassroots activity than from the roots!

*     *     *     *     *

Crowdfunding and hitchhiking have striking similarities, which I think for no other reason, is worth sharing for the sheer levity of it.  Here are seven common characteristics worth pondering.

1.  We rely on complete strangers (and family and friends) to get us to where we need to go.

It’s generally acknowledged that complete strangers will make or break a crowdfunding campaign.  The nuance, here, is that others will inevitably help—the life-long friends, your brothers and sisters, parents, the friends of your friends, the odd Facebook friend whose connection to you is tangential at best, that guy you met that one time at that one place….  But I emphasize the complete strangers because we’re socialized to believe that they are the least likely candidates to help you on whatever journey you’re on.  As a result, their help, when it does come, is especially noteworthy.  And here are two activities—crowdfunding and hitchhiking—that depend on them.

My hitchhiking trip across the US had a definite beginning and end.  Left coast to East coast.  Ocean to ocean.  From Seattle, WA, to Waynesboro, PN, by way of Hagerstown, MD, in six days or less. Normally, I try not to make a habit of hitchhiking under a time constraint, but I felt I was up for the challenge; remember, I’m skilled at hitchhiking.  The role of complete strangers in getting me east cannot be understated—I recall roughly 20 people who I did not previously know helping me.  However, I would be remiss to not acknowledge my dear friend, Chris, who got me outside the gravitational pull of Seattle and my sister, in Chicagoland, who gave me a lift across Indiana.  I am a purist and these opportunities did not tarnish my art and science of hitchhiking.  I was grateful for them.    As a hitchhiker you take just about anything that comes your way.  But the majority of the people who gave me rides were people who did not know me and did not have any obligation to help me.  They just did.

Our Kickstarter campaign also has a beginning and an end.  Right now, Kathleen and I need to get to our funding goal of $9500, which feels about as far away as Waynesboro from Seattle.  We’ve received some good pushes from friends and family.  More remarkably, perhaps, we’ve received pledges from complete strangers.  And I can tell you, getting picked up from the side of the road after waiting two minutes or all day is magical every time.  Likewise, getting pledges, no matter how little, is magical.  Like hitchhiking, crowdfunding is built on the expectation that there are people out there that are interested in helping us—in fact, why would we start without that glimmer of hope–yet it’s a happy, happy surprise every time it happens, whether it translates to $10 dollars or a lift to the next town.

2.  It will not bring the benefactors wealth in investment interest.

Not one person who picked me up on my trip across America did it for monetary gain.  There was no incentive that could translate into money.  They gave me a lift because they were lonely; because they were ‘paying it forward;’ because they remember what it was like to solicit rides in their youth; and because they were bored and wanted to hear someone spin some yarn.  Occasionally they wanted to proselytize, though that was rare.  They did it because it brought value to their lives, in a small, but meaningful way.  They did it because it helped me on my way.

Kickstarter is a reward-based crowdfunding model—no one who pledges money will receive interest on that investment.  They’re in it to support the people, an idea or product that they believe to be useful and meaningful to people.  They believe they can help us get somewhere.  And in return, we give them tokens of our appreciation and produce our deliverable for them—the findings of our research in a tight little deliverable.

3.  Potential ‘rides’ make split decisions about giving us a ‘lift.’

This aspect of hitchhiking fascinated me.  When people were driving by at 75 miles per hour, they didn’t have much time to size me up on the side of the road—but they managed it.  They gauged my character, whether or not I looked threatening, and they squared that with how much or little they wanted to share their personal space.

Occasionally, people passed me by only to circle back around to give me a lift.  On one occasion on my trip—still west of the continental divide—I had written on my little white board ‘New York’ as my end destination when a car with NY plates drove by.  I gave the occupants, who were two young women, a look of astonishment as I looked back and forth between my sign and their plates.  This moment passed in the span of a few seconds.  They merged onto the highway and disappeared as quickly as they arrived.  To my amazement, they turned around at the next exit and came back to give me a lift…to Chicago.  They just needed a little time to debate between themselves the merits and risks of picking me up.

The folks at Kickstarter say that in the first 20 seconds a potential backer looks at our project page and video and decide whether they’re interested enough to read on or not interested at all.  That makes intuitive sense. Most of us are driving a little over the speed limit in our own lives.   When potential backers look at our Kickstarter project page, our website, and our blog they’re sousing out our characters, possibly our credentials, and the project.  They square that with how much they want to part with their money.

Kathleen and I have to remind ourselves that occasionally people pass by and think about our project before circling back around to give us a ‘lift.’  This happens in hitchhiking and it happens on Kickstarter, too.  These moments are especially touching.

4.  The unhappy surprise of getting ignored by people you know!

It’s always a little bit befuddling to get passed up by someone you thought would give you a push.  On my hitchhiking trip this happened once in Montana, when an ex-girlfriend accelerated passed me on an onramp to I-90 outside of Livingston.  It was one of those ‘WTF’ moments.  We saw each other and both experienced a single moment of surprised recognition.  And she was gone, baby, gone.  Two years later, at a mutual friend’s wedding she asked me if I was hitchhiking in Montana two years prior.  Yup.

Then there are those people who we think are a sure fire benefactors of our Kickstarter project who just pass us by.  And like thumbing on the superslab *read, highway*, you just can’t know their reasons for doing so—they may have excellent reasons not to back our project.  Or they may just circle back around and give us a lift after all.

5.  It can be a deeply humbling experience.

While hitchhiking, I was humbled by the, literally, thousands of people who passed me by—not caring one iota about my grand trip.  And I felt humbled by the kindness of strangers who offered me rides, food, and camaraderie.

Kathleen and I started the campaign because we thought we had the best thing going since Melvil invented the Dewey Decimal system.  Two weeks into the campaign and we are humbled by the thought that many people probably don’t think much of our project.  We’re also humbled by the kindness of strangers who see value in our work and pitch in a few bucks.

6.  Ups and downs abound.

Hitchhiking across the country is a study in emotional stability.  I catch a ride and I’m on top of the world.  Then the world, the universe, it turns on me.  It’s not getting dropped off at the dirt road that no one drives—that is a little bad luck and a long walk with nice views.  It’s on the shoulder where fifty, seventy-five, one hundred people pass me by, some of them with a sneer, many of them looking right through me.  And then it starts to rain.  That’s pretty close to the bottom of the trough.  Then the 101st person stops and picks me up.  And we’re friends for life, or at least a great deal of time.  More importantly, I’m that much closer to my destination and I’m back on top.

The Kickstarter campaign feels much the same—at least this one does.  Someone sends an encouraging message, maybe twenty bucks, too.  And yes, we’re over the moon.  Then nothing happens for five, twelve, maybe 24 hours.  Enter self-doubt.  We start to question the wisdom of the campaign itself, of whether this project is a worthy one.  It’s a pretty low place to go when you helped bring it to life.  We wake up the next morning and…nothing.  No change.  Then ten minutes later someone pledges a Benjamin.  Whooeee!

I guess what I’m saying is hitchhiking is not for the faint of heart; neither is campaigning on the Kickstarter trail.

7.  Sometimes you have to just take a walk (or sleep in a culvert).

Putting the ‘hike’ back in hitchhiking is something I fondly remember doing in eastern Washington.  I waited and waited.  Smiled.  Rewrote the message on my whiteboard a few times.  And after debating the merits of staying put or going, I began to just walk.  And I walked until the light grew dusky and finally folded my hand.  I found a road culvert, checked for critters, unfurled my fartsack *read, sleeping bag* and slept fitfully.  The next morning I walked some more, until finally, a musician from western Montana, and now my good friend, Amy, decided to give me a lift.  Out of the 6 ½ days I spent thumbing across the country, it took me 1 ½ to get through Washington state.

How does this translate to a Kickstarter campaign?  During the droughts—those times devoid of messages or pledges of any amount—we just have to continue knocking on doors.  We have to believe that someone like Amy is going to give us that fateful push.  But until then, we continue promoting an idea that we think will make a world of difference.  We just walk.

*     *     *     *     *

I was half a day late when I arrived at my family reunion.  I remember pulling up into the gravel parking lot of the old limestone stone house.  I remember my entire family on my mom’s side gathered on the lawn.  I remember the looks on their faces as I got out of an unknown car and thanked the three high schoolers for the lift from Hagerstown, MD.  Apparently my family generated a cash pot for whoever guessed the closest time of my arrival.  One of my cousins won the pot by guessing my arrival to within 6 hours!

Have we reach our Kickstarter goal yet?  Nope.  But we’ve got two weeks left and a lot of optimism. We’ve been humbled by the kindness of strangers and family alike, who have contributed to our campaign already.  Our journey continues…

So imagine you’re driving down a two lane road and you see two young people on the shoulder with big smiles and a cardboard sign that reads, “Kickstarter Goal or Bust!”  You could give them a push and get them that much closer to their destination.  Or you could pass them by leaving them to spend the night in corrugated metal culvert!

So what do you say, give us a lift!  Because if our Kickstarter goal is New York City, and we started in Seattle, we’d be located in western Montana right now; it’s a pretty nice place to be, but it ain’t the Big Apple!


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