Playing to the crowd: How to raise money online for your next big project

Jonathan Weinberg

Starting a new venture is always a gamble, especially when using your own funds. But in recent months, the internet and social media has fuelled a whole new approach for entrepreneurs and creative types to raise cash to get their ideas off the ground.

A recent surge in popularity of crowd-funding has seen technology used to match projects with those who are happy to inject even the smallest amount of money to bring them to life.

As banks cut lending due to the recession, many business plans have been replaced by callouts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a bid to inspire fans to log on to a crowd-funding site. There they can peruse a project profile from the creator and ultimately invest. Funding platforms include US giants Kickstarter and smaller outfits such as BloomVC, Seedrs, Megafounder, PleaseFundUs and Indiegogo.

In crowd-funding, pitches live or die from the instant reaction they receive from those who would be their customers, consumers and audience in the real world.

Mic Wright used BloomVC to raise £2,000 to produce an internet chat show called The Breadcrumb Trail. Those contributing were rewarded with perks that could include a producer credit, a T-shirt or dinner with the creators.

He said: "Crowd-funding allowed us to get a relatively small investment quickly and instantly gave us a group of fans who are invested in helping us promote the show."

Already crowd-funds have led to movies, books, computer consoles, gadgets, TV shows and even non-profit community projects alongside traditional companies desperate to create and sell the "next big thing".

These include the likes of innovative brewery Brewdog, which managed to raise finance through crowd-funding to open its bar division. It now has 6,000 investors who get discounts and tastes of new beers before they go on sale.

Dan Maher used Indiegogo after being made redundant from Microsoft. He wanted to fund community-based gaming content on the web, something he knew there was an appetite for from his previous role.

He said: "Our closure prompted a significant enough outcry from our fans and peers to suggest they'd be willing to help fund our efforts to get back on the video-making wagon."

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In return for their stake, usually as little as £10, crowd-funders can be offered a diverse range of "perks" rather than traditional equity.

This allows the creator to retain 100% of the rights - and perks for the investor can range from merchandise to seeing a product or service first. The better the perk, the more enticing the investment opportunity often is.

Each successfully funded project then pays a small commission to the site which got them off the ground.

Tens of thousands of people are now getting involved, often for the perks and the kudos of supporting something they love or believe in than for the financial gain.

And with Kickstarter set to launch in Britain this autumn, crowd-funding's popularity is only set to grow further.

It's also been boosted by sites aimed at specific niches and interests - including one recent controversial launch for creating adult movies.

Two smaller companies hoping to fill a specific niche are Unbound for books and Gambitious for gaming.

Unbound matches potential authors with new readers and is backed by well-known writers such as Monty Python's Terry Jones.

Authors pitch book ideas and users pledge financial support to the ones they'd like to read. When the amount is raised, the book gets written and the writer receives 50% of all profits. Those giving at least £50 get a First Edition with their name on it.

Gambitious helps game developers bring their ideas to life. Andy Payne, who is heading up its UK arm, explained: "Since the dawn of time, banks and other investors just don't get what game makers do as much as their fans. This allows fans to donate or invest in the games they want to see made. It is a game changer. I believe this will democratise the creative and consumptive process more than ever."

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But while offering equity rather than treats is possible, this side of crowd-funding has resulted in the  Financial Services Authority issuing a warning. Its website now displays guidelines to point out there is no guarantee of a financial return, although on most crowd-funding sites if the project doesn't hit the required target to enable it to get off the ground the backers retain their cash and the project owner doesn't receive a penny.

An FSA spokesman said: "We want it to be clear that investors in a crowd-fund have little or no protection if the business or project fails, and that they will probably lose all their investment if it does."

Seedrs' spokesman Martin Campbell says their site provides investors with the chance to take advantage of tax breaks from the government, but admits the equity model is a high-risk, albeit one with plenty of advantages.

He explained: "Seedrs welcomes the FSA's actions with regard to crowdfunding. We agree that investing in startups is a high risk investment alternative, while we also believe that done sensibly and with the necessary protections in place, it presents an attractive opportunity for potentially high rewards for appropriately cognisant investors."

But Michelle Rodger, of BloomVC, believes the pitfalls should not overshadow the rewards and fun associated with a perks-based offer.

She said: "It's much simpler and means that crowd-funding isn't just for business - it's open to everyone with an idea or a need, including charities, community groups and social enterprises."

Anthony Caufield funded his documentary From Bedrooms To Billions using Indiegogo. It tells the story of the UK video games industry from its humble start in the 1970s to the heyday of the 80s until it fell away in the mid-90s.

Thought to be too "niche" by many TV commissioners, it raised nearly £25,000 in 10 weeks and Anthony now has interest from cinemas wanting to screen it when it's released in April next year.

He said: "If there is a fan base out there for something and you can get your idea to them using social media, and you can excite them about the project, you can get it funded.

"I'd certainly do it again. You know from the start that everyone who puts in, even if it is just a pound, is - like you - invested in the success and wants to help make it happen.""