Reward-based Crowdfunding for Sustainable Entrepreneurs: A Practitioner’s Guide

By Kristian Roed Nielsen.

 In my last blog post, I offered some initial insights and ideas into how crowdfunding could be employed to support sustainable innovation. This time, having just finished my Ph.D. dissertation, I provide some hands-on advice for (sustainable) entrepreneurs wishing to succeed with reward-based crowdfunding based on mine and others’ latest research.

 Reward-based crowdfunding represents a rapidly growing source of innovation funding for a diversity of entrepreneurs, start-ups and even established firms. Crowdfunding success depends on the ability to mobilize strangers to support other strangers for causes, products or services that have not yet been realized and of which they have little direct oversight or control. This trust between and in strangers is fascinating for a host of reasons – how do individuals project trust so that others believe it, why do people trust and not least how is trust maintained? Also, what happens when innovation financiers are no longer professional investors, but rather ‘normal’ citizens like you and me? This is what my dissertation tried to uncover and below are a series of Q&As with regard to the question of how entrepreneurs can successfully achieve funding.

Q&As for Sustainable Entrepreneurs Planning to Pursue Reward-based Crowdfunding

1. What is your target?
The amounts typically raised by successful crowdfunding campaigns vary greatly. However, the average funding level of fully funded campaigns is approximately $8,000. Campaigns seeking significantly greater sums should also consider alternatives

2. Have you budgeted for failure (and success)?
A large majority of campaigns fail to meet their funding goals, but the costs relating to preparation are rarely accounted for (Gerber & Hui 2013; Mollick 2014). Even when successful, campaign founders often fail to account accurately for costs associated with implementing their project plan. These include higher than expected development costs or even mailing and return costs (Blaseg & Skiera 2016). Blaseg & Skiera (2016) note that one-in-ten fully funded campaigns fail to deliver on the promised product or service.

3. Have you succeeded or failed in the past?
Past success and failure are strongly associated with the likelihood of funding success. A prior successful campaign is associated with a 173% increase in expected funding receipts, while past failure is associated with a 17,7% reduction in expected funding receipts. Therefore, at the very least consider asking successful campaigns’ founders for advice.

4. Have you prepared a dissemination strategy?
The scale, connectedness, and “quality” of your team are significant predictors of crowdfunding success (Zheng et al. 2014; Nielsen et al. 2017). A large majority of campaigns receive only small amounts of support, while a small minority of campaigns receives the bulk of funds raised. For example, in the case of IndieGoGo “the top 10% of campaigns receive nearly 80 % of funds pledged to campaigns in our sample” (Nielsen et al. 2017: 16). Most campaigns fail early and significantly below their target. In addition, the ability to mobilize female support appears to lead to higher pledging levels (Nielsen 2017).

5. Where are you located?
A campaign located in an urban setting with high median income and social capital is significantly more likely to receive funding as compared to ones located in poorer rural areas.

6. What type of product are you pursuing?
Consumer goods that are out of sight or not directly related to personal style appear to attract significant higher levels of pledges, based on altruistic and/or environmental values. Conversely, visible consumer-goods related to personal style (e.g. new headphones or fashion items) appear to attract investments based on egocentric (or hedonistic) characteristics. The product you are pursuing affects what message works and which doesn’t.

7. Finally, how easy is your product to copy?
Be aware that there are copy-cats that use platforms like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter to trawl for easy to copy ideas and products (Smith 2013). Hence before announcing your campaign try to have your supply chain as ready as possible.

Reward-based Crowdfunding: Multifaceted Challenges and Untapped Potentials for Sustainable Entrepreneurs
Aside from these areas that sustainable entrepreneurs (and others) should be aware of when pursuing reward-based crowdfunding: is reward-based crowdfunding is a good match for sustainable entrepreneurs at all? As academic as it sounds, it depends. It depends on the purpose of the endeavor that sustainable entrepreneurs pursue, the sum of money they seek, where they are located, their social capital and network, their prior experience, and to a not insignificant extend on the product they are pursuing.

Furthermore, for all these attributes outlined, numerous of others are unaccounted for. As with any other human activity, there is a complexity that cannot simply be unspun in the span of a single dissertation. Nor can we detangle consumption in crowdfunding from the larger driving forces of consumer behavior. The fact that innovation finance can now be driven by consumers rather than professional investors does not in itself change consumer demands – demands which more often than not fail to correlate well with sustainable consumption behavior (Jackson & Michaelis 2003).

However, this does not imply a lack of significant potential within reward-based crowdfunding; especially because of the increasing recognition that individual behavior is strongly affected by, for example, the choice architecture inhabited by the individual (Thaler & Sunstein 2008; Sunstein & Reisch 2014). There is thus an evident potential for utilizing these insights in online crowdfunding platforms as well. Individual behavior is neither linear nor is it written in stone. It is rather shaped by a multitude of factors as illustrated in the dissertation; hence it is a matter of constructing a context that encourages the better angels of our nature.

The message, which the dissertation then seeks to instill in the reader, is that reward-based crowdfunding is not a silver-bullet to solving the funding concerns of sustainable entrepreneurship. Yet,  at the heart of what we call “the crowd” there lies a potential that remains – at least at the moment – largely untapped.

Kristian is a PhD-Fellow studying the potential of crowdfunding in driving sustainable innovation. He is home to the Department of Management, Society and Communication (MSC) at Copenhagen Business School. Follow him on Twitter.

Pic by Torsten Maue, edited by BOS.