Oh Fer Help: Kickstarter Campaigns

What happens when Minnesotans go crowdfunding?

Kloecker and Matteson’s 1976 Minnie Winnie RV. Photo by Colin Kloecker.

In May 2014, Colin Kloecker and his wife, Shanai Matteson, opened an account on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, seeking $1,600. Their Subaru had broken down and they were struggling, as young entrepreneurs in Minneapolis, to work and get their son to daycare. “We were just desperate,” Kloecker says. “We didn’t know what else to do.”

Minnesotans, by reputation, are self-reliant, reluctant to ask for help. But we’re also generous—Minnesota is regularly ranked among the top 10 states for charity and volunteerism. We have a hard time saying goodbye, much less no. So what happens when we pass the hat on crowdfunding sites, which raised an estimated $34 billion around the world last year and are predicted to surpass venture capital and angel investing this year as a source of startup investment?

Minnesota’s first Kickstarter project came less than a month after the site opened for business in spring 2009: a filmmaker named Dean Peterson raised $1,497 to make a movie called Incredibly Small, which, incredibly, starred indie royalty Amy Seimetz (Tiny Furniture, The Girlfriend Experience) and Alex Karpovsky (Girls, Inside Llewyn Davis). As of this writing, Minnesotans have sought funding for 3,915 projects on Kickstarter, fewer than Seattle (4,107) but more than Houston or Phoenix, much larger if less tech-savvy places.

The real difference is what we fund. Seattle’s most successful Kickstarter is a telescope for asteroid mining—backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, filmmaker James Cameron, and Star Trek actor Brent Spiner—and slated to launch into orbit later this year. Minnesota’s is a revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the locally launched TV comedy that made it big in the ’90s. Among our other big winners are local restaurants Travail and the Birchwood, local rockers the Suburbs, and local feel-good ventures such as a north Minneapolis farming program. Seattle has nothing so provincial or altruistic among its most-funded projects, and neither do comparable cities like Portland, Austin, or San Francisco.

Most places fund inventions, gizmos, and games. We support the community, for love more than anything. Mystery Science Theater, after all, was rewarding benefactors with T-shirts and a signed poster. Travail offered a “sexy” chef calendar. For backing that space telescope? A “space selfie,” with your image uploaded to a satellite and snapped with Earth in the background.

This suggests that Robert D. Putnam, the Bowling Alone author, was right when he hailed the Twin Cities more than 20 years ago as uniquely rich in social capital, the strong networks and mutual trust that grease the wheels of cooperation and shared benefit. But there is a dark side to abundant social capital.

James Norton, founder of the foodie website Heavy Table, has raised money on Kickstarter several times and is critical of Minnesota projects that presume beneficence in lieu of substantial rewards. “The thought is that Kickstarter is some kind of community-building exercise,” he says. “To me it’s a bridge too far to expect people to support your sometimes distant dream and also forgo any kind of real exchange for backing it.” 

Kloecker and Matteson didn’t want to be those guys, even though plenty of friends were offering to help. They sought a reasonable exchange, “not simply paying it forward or karma,” Kloecker says. “We had this abundance of something that we could offer for this other resource that we didn’t have at the moment.” The reward: a getaway in their 1976 Minnie Winnie RV, stocked with “a handpicked library of DVDs and Minnesota-themed books.” A week later, they had the money.

Kickstarter Stats

How We Compare (Cities ranked by number of Kickstarter projects)

1) New York 

5) Seattle

6) Portland

11) Twin Cities

13) Philadelphia

16) Houston

Minnesota Kickstarter projects that reach their fundraising goal

No. 1
Rank of Mystery Science Theater 3000 among the most-funded film projects on Kickstarter, after raising $5.8 million last December to break the record held by Veronica Mars.

Amount raised on GoFundMe in 2012 to help Rochester resident Igor Vovkovinskiy, America’s tallest man, buy custom shoes.

Amount raised last year by Don Ness, then mayor of Duluth, for a book about his political journey and Duluth’s renewal. Donors got escalating signs of affection: firm handshake, bro hug, and two-arm hug, with the disclaimer “Sorry, I really can’t upgrade beyond a two-armed hug, that would start getting weird and inappropriate.”

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