Baratunde Thurston is former director of digital for The Onion and the author of How to Be Black. Brian Janosch is currently writer-at-large at The Onion. Slate spoke with them about their new web series, Funded, which tells the stories of small businesses that have used crowdfunding to get off the ground.
Slate: What’s the idea behind Funded?
Baratunde Thurston: We—meaning Cultivated Wit, a company I helped start after leaving The Onion last year, along with Brian and Craig Cannon—are working with AOL Studios to do this 10-episode series about crowdfunding small businesses across the country. I’ll be hosting it, interviewing people and figuring out why they chose this path and who the people are that supported them. We want to put a new face on where businesses are coming, and get at the power of the story that these founders and entrepreneurs have to tell.
Brian Janosch: This is definitely a business story, but it is very much the storytelling angle to it that excites us. We’re excited to meet some of these people and hear what they have to say.
Slate: Will each episode feature a “before” sequence when the businesses are starting out, or will these be “after” stories of those who have already used crowdfunding?
Janosch: The plan is to highlight success stories, for a variety of reasons—one of which is that it’s harder to suss out people who are in their earliest stages of planning. With each one of these, you see the thing, the product, the business, the whatever—it’s tangible. They were funded and, look, here it is. The world can enjoy this thing that they’ve been able to make.
Thurston: There is an element of the disruption we’ve seen from the Web in media, in politics, in the power of a community to rally around and create the thing they want to see, rather than asking for official permission or authority to have that thing exist in the world. And it’s something that I certainly feel on the media side with blogging, and my work in the past with Jack and Jill Politics. A lot of the blogosphere exists because people didn’t see the thing they wanted and you could sit on the outside and complain about it or you could just build it. From an entrepreneurial perspective, there’s a similar spirit. You can go ask for permission to do this thing, to serve this need you see—or you can just do it, or sort of pre-test the idea by seeing who else agrees with you. And they’re going to vote with some of their dollars and some of their support, and some of their marketing support to tell other people, “This is exciting.”
One other fun element of the show is the range of cities that we’re going to be looking at. We’re definitely looking at stories from the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, the broad Los Angeles area, San Francisco. But we’re also looking forward to getting a story out of Detroit, say. We haven’t nailed down all of the segments yet, but there is an element of rebirth associated with the show. There’s an element of “Hey, my community is hurting, and we need jobs and innovation and something positive in this space.” There may not even be the financing infrastructure to support that, or the history of the area may not have a lot of examples of that path being supported. You look at these post-industrial areas, and there’s exciting stuff going on, whether it’s a food-truck business or rooftop gardening or some story like that. That’s an element of the broad picture that we’re hoping to capture.
Slate: Have you guys yourselves used crowdfunding in order to get a project off the ground?
Thurston: We’ve supported these efforts before. We have a lot of friends who have done this for book projects, comedic purposes, manufactured goods. One of my good friends used crowdfunding for a spoon designed specifically for babies. It’s manufactured with a lot of feedback, a lot of medical input, healthcare-grade plastics and things like that.
Slate: Are the people on the series primarily using Kickstarter and Indiegogo, or are there other avenues that they’re taking?
Thurston: Definitely other avenues. Kickstarter is starting to become synonymous with crowdfunding in the way that Xerox is with photocopying, but there’s a ton of activity elsewhere, so we want to nod to that. Detroit does a monthly series called Detroit Soup. It’s a dinner series, and everybody who shows up to the dinner ends up putting money into a pot to support someone who pitches in front of a live room. It’s sort of a stripped-down Kickstarter—there’s no Web interface whatsoever—but the process is very similar. Someone actually gets on stage, tells a story, and afterwards people say, “Yeah, I like that!” and a church collection plate goes around and people fund it. A literal crowd puts funds in a bag.
So, the technology is a part of it, but the story’s always at the heart of it. And I did not mean for that to rhyme, I am so sorry.
Janosch: That’s happening in a lot of different cities. There are smaller platforms that are hyper-specific to one sort of field. More people can try and get crowdfunding for whatever sort of cause they’re trying to fix in the world. And so we want to make sure that with this series we’re pulling from all these different walks of life, and, as Baratunde said, not making it strictly specific to one or two of the most commonly heard-of platforms.
I think it would be a disservice if you got the feeling that crowdfunding is synonymous with tech. It’s funding food trucks, it’s funding albums, it’s funding films, it’s funding efforts to put shoes on kids in third-world countries. It’s funding all sorts of things.
Slate: There have been cases made against crowd funding, namely that—at least for smaller businesses—if you have a great idea and you try to get it up on Kickstarter and it fails, someone else can take that idea and then capitalize on it.
Thurston: It’s called “crowdfunding.” It’s not called “crowd idea-securing.” The point is the follow-through. What we are especially interested in is are you able to A) have an interesting enough idea, and B) tell the story of that idea in a convincing enough way that people are attached to it, financially and rhetorically, and want to share that with their friends. I don’t know if, in the series, we’ll end up looking at people who didn’t make it across the finish line and what they’ve chosen and what happened to them, just due to time constraints. That may be good for Season 2, if there is such a thing, or some parallel series.
Slate: There’s also the idea out there that only “unsophisticated” business people turn to crowdfunding. Do you think that your series can make a strong case for crowdfunding as a smart approach for everyone involved, including the people who are investing in it?
Thurston: That’s not entirely false. All of these new avenues, whether it’s YouTube for comedians or SoundCloud for podcasts or ActBlue for fundraising in a political context, it’s kind of the point that, yeah, we’ve had gatekeepers guarding narrow doorways to official pods of authority for a long time in many parts of our society. And there are certainly people out there doing things that are worthy. The fact that someone couldn’t get something funded through a traditional capital-raising technique—from a venture capitalist or from a Small Business Association loan or from a bank officer—doesn’t invalidate the idea at all. It may be too weird, it may be too incomprehensible, it may be serving too niche of a community. Or it may be from some historically discriminated against or ignored group that a bank would just never even acknowledge. So, I don’t see the failure of the idea to get traditional funds as any sort of indictment against crowdfunding. There should be multiple paths to seeing your idea turn into something real.
Janosch: And I think that will really be the scene that Baratunde and I keep coming back to. These people will all sort of be bound together by some level of frustration, beating their head against the wall, seeking other options, and this was their last best place to turn—and it worked for them. We’re not trying to put a blanket over the entire phenomenon and say, “This is intrinsically good,” or intrinsically whatever. We will be profiling a few individual cases of people who were able to find a way.
Interview has been condensed and edited.