In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Five years ago, filmmaker Emily Best found that she and her peers kept hitting the same wall.
“Everyone I knew who was making interesting, diverse stories was having a really difficult [time]getting distributors to take them seriously,” Best recalls. “But we were all going to festivals and audiences were standing up and applauding our work. So there was a disconnect between what the industry seemed to think audiences wanted and what audiences seemed to be hungry for.”
If the more traditional route of getting films made and seen wasn’t going to work, then Best decided that she would create an ecosystem of her very own. In 2012, she bootstrapped and launched Seed&Spark, a crowdfunding and streaming platform with a mission of creating “an entertainment landscape that reflects what we actually look like.”
Today, the company has a global success rate of 75 percent and has funded more than 800 campaigns. But Best and her team — a staff that is 75 percent female, 25 percent people of color and 25 percent members of the LGBTQ community — are just getting started.
In November of 2016, the company launched an initiative called 100 Days of Diversity, which required the creators behind the projects to make a public facing statement about how their work increases diversity and inclusion.
“We define that really broadly. [Of course there is] race and gender and sexual orientation, but there’s also class and ability and age and geography,” Best explains. “A lot of what we do is really try to reach out, not just into the arteries and veins, but the capillaries of the filmmaking community in the small towns across America.”
In 2016, films with female protagonists grossed $126 million, while male-led films grossed $80.6 million — but only 29 percent of protagonists in the top 100 films of the year were women.
For the Seed&Spark initiative, in six months 106 projects were funded. Eighty-two percent of those films and shows had women as the writer, director or producer, and half of those projects were produced by all female teams. In front of the camera, nearly 70 percent of the projects had a women as the star or co-star, and 48 percent starred or co-starred people of color. With the initiative, the company exceeded its quarterly subscriber target by 10 percent and its crowdfunding target by 20 percent.
Entrepreneur spoke with Best to get her insights about what people don’t realize about crowdfunding and her best advice for first-time entrepreneurs.
What were some of the challenges of getting the company off the ground?
Every day is a challenge. I started talking about this [company]in the same year that Netflix went all digital. There was a proliferation of digital distribution platforms, except nobody really knew how that was going to work, when a movie price all of a sudden basically became the price of a single on iTunes. It felt really scary for people. And there was a lot of confusion but there was also a lot of opportunity. It was sort of the very beginning of crowdfunding as well.
People didn’t really understand how powerful a tool it was going to be and there was a proliferation of all of these digital platforms. There was a whole bunch of people talking about audience building and a bunch of independent film crowdfunding platforms had also launched at the same time [we did]. I was told we were unfocused because we wanted to synthesize crowdfunding and at that time transactional distribution into one platform. And I said, well you can’t conceivably address the supply side without addressing the demand side and vice versa.
Getting funding was really hard — it took me two years to raise a million dollars. And you know, I raised it on the fly. We had huge technical challenges in the beginning. I was a non-technical founder and the first version of the website just didn’t really [work]. It was one of those outsourcing total nightmares. And then I hired an amazing developer who rebuilt the website from the ground up and then in late 2015 we relaunched with a soup to nuts rebuild of the site and that’s when we could really actually start to scale. And so those were were some of the early challenges.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to crowdfund their idea? What are the misconceptions?
Everybody hears the word funding a lot louder than they hear the word crowd. And the crowd is the key and it’s the first word in that compound word for a very important reason. You have to spend time building or cultivating a relationship with your crowd before you can ask them for funding.
People seem to think that the crowdfunding campaign does that thing for you and that’s not necessarily the case. It can — a really well-executed crowdfunding campaign that starts with a very active, well-seeded crowd can definitely grow your profile, your audience [and]your customer base to give you really great data set. But it doesn’t start at zero.
How have you grown and changed as a leader since the launch of the company?
[I remember a conversation I had with my mentor] Jim Pitkow. I was on the phone with Jim, and he said, “What do you think your problem is?” And I said, “I think it might be my own resistance.” And he said yes, “To scale your company is to scale yourself,” and it has been the simplest, most important adage [to me]. That’s not even a piece of advice really, just a truism. I think everything has changed. At every stage, I have to learn something new, expand my empathy, reckon with my own demons. And I think it’s an incredibly, powerfully humbling process. And you have to meet it with pathological optimism at every turn.
I’ve had to become a better listener and facilitator. I’ve had to become a better friend. I don’t believe in the sort of standard professionalism of an office space. We spend so much time together and we work so hard that we have to also be a loving, supportive community. [It’s important to me to set an example and] lead with the heart and not with the head all the time, to really invest in the power of “yes and.” And I think the hardest one for me is also to be able to admit when things really aren’t working and make changes quickly. When it comes to personnel that’s the hardest thing for startups, especially when your companies are small.
A recent report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers about crowdfunding found that around the world, women were 32 percent more successful than men in achieving their funding goals. Based on what you’ve observed, how does that statistic hit you?
Seed&Spark has the highest campaign success rate in the world. Our global success rate is 75 percent. And in 2017 it’s hovering around 85 percent. And part of that is probably because the vast majority of our projects, 60 to 70 percent of them are led or at least co-led by women. In a landscape where we have been disadvantaged in the sort of traditional system, we tend to build communities in order to sustain ourselves. And so generally speaking we find that women walk into their projects with greater social media presences, email lists and things that they’ve been cultivating because they have to cultivate outside the system so much more often. And that’s why crowdfunding is such an important tool.
I do think that the layers of privilege still really apply even in crowdfunding and that’s something we’re really interested in addressing. It’s still true that if your target audience has more disposable income, it’s easier to raise money than if your target audience does not have a lot of disposable income. If that’s the case, we look at lots of things that we can do to really help filmmakers level up. And one of those is making sure to build as wide and broad an audience before you launch a crowdfunding campaign as possible. The upfront work really matters.
And the second is we have a matching fund. We allocate half of our subscriber revenue to new crowdfunding projects based on audience engagement. And that’s one of the ways that we can help projects that have high audience engagement, but maybe not necessarily all the cash, raise a little more money.
Seed&Spark is your first business. What is your best advice for someone about to take the leap and start their own company?
I think I would say it’s the thing that my father always said to me, which was just do the next right thing right. I think all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and build a great base of mentors you deeply trust and listen to them — except when your gut tells you not to.