Crowdfunding NHT and ECOA in 2017

In the past I have used crowdfunding as a way to fund the No Highways Tour book trips through pre-selling the books.  It’s a bit of a gamble on both ends.  For starters, the reader has to take a gamble that I’m going to follow-through on the trip.  They also have to take a gamble that the end product is actually going to be worthwhile.  On my end it’s a gamble that I’ll receive enough funds through pre-sales that I can actually pull off the trip as planned.

Missed out on getting a limited edition hardcover copy of last year’s No Highways Tour book?
Would you like to find out how you can get hardcover copies of the 2017 NHT books?
If you’ve answered yes then this is the article for you!

Now that the NHT book series has been established with the 2015 book currently in print and the 2016 book going to print very soon I can turn my attention to my 2017 crowdfunding campaign.  Given the growth of both the NHT series and ECOA, crowdfunding and pre-sales for this year will look a little different that it has in the past.  Read on for details…

Why Crowdfunding?

My last job was working in the education field with student entrepreneurs.  Part of what I did was helping them find the resources they needed to establish and manage their own businesses.  The other part of what I did was coordinate a business plan competition for student entrepreneurs.  When the grant funding that position ran out and wasn’t renewed with my institution I was left high and dry.  After sending out a few resumes to get back into the education field I came to a realization, I had just spent all this time helping other people realize their dreams of owning and managing their own business all the while neglecting my own.  After some long thought and deliberation I decided to reinvest my time, money, and energy back into my own business.

The book making process can get a little intense sometimes.
Knowing there are already people waiting for the book is a great motivator to slog my way through the process.

At the time I knew reviving 4Low Digital Labs from it’s dormant state wasn’t going to be easy.  I had set it up as an off-road events photography business and limited it to weekends and summers with no real designs on it being a full-time lifestyle sustaining business.  With a narrow niche focus on off-road events it just wasn’t possible (at least not in this area). On top of that, the competitive rock crawling and off-road racing scene on the east coast had been slowly dissolving over the last few years (one of the main reasons 4LDL had become dormant).  Coupled with the fact that everyone and their brother has a digital camera these days it was becoming increasingly harder to turn a profit as a professional photographer when so many people were unable or unwilling to see the value in paying a professional to do the work.  Not to mention so many amateurs were giving their photos out for free.  I can’t compete with free.

It is worth it though.
Finally seeing a dream become reality is a great feeling.
Sharing that dream with others is an even better feeling.

If I was going to make a go at things I knew 4LDL would need to be reinvented, and frankly I would need to reinvent myself on a personal level too.  Thus began my slow evolution from 4LDL to ECOA with the NHT book series serving as the catalyst for the transition.  Seeing as I’m not made of money, and was unemployed at the time, I knew I’d either have to win the lottery or break down and use crowdfunding to make the first book happen.  I had seen it work effectively in similar situations with the students I had worked with and I knew I had a wide network of friends, family, and former clients to tap into.  In fact, the very first bit of cash toward the 2015 book came from a friend with the comment, “shut up and go” as they slapped a hundred dollar bill on the table.

GoFundMe

For both the 2015 and 2016 NHT book trips I used the crowfunding site GoFundMe.  It’s a decent site and features a pretty basic straightforward interface.  It ties in with social media and makes it easy to track supporters and interact with them in multiple ways.  From a management standpoint it allowed me to set up various reward tiers at different value levels based on a few different metrics.  The only downside is one of perception.

The goal for the 2015 No Highways Tour Book Trip was $3,000
Although I was a little over-budget by the end of the trip I was still able to pull it off
Since then I have refined my budget process and added a “Z-factor” to account for unexpected fuel expenses

I’ve been asked a few times why I used GoFundMe rather than KickStater.  In actuality there are dozens of different crowdfunding sites out there.  Some more niche focused than others.  From my observations KickStarter seemed to work well for large exciting ideas with mass appeal.  Being a bit on the humble side I didn’t think the NHT book series would have enough appeal to strangers to work as a KickStarter campaign.  In contrast GoFundMe seemed to be geared toward crowdfunding with friends and family which I knew would be the foundation from which I’d be drawing from.  There were also some logistical and back end things with how funds are managed between KickStarter and GoFundMe that made me lean toward GoFundMe.  Also, being new to crowdfunding, GoFundMe seemed to be the least intimidating option given its overall simplicity.

A stack of 2015 books ready to be mailed out to those that preordered a copy.
Looking forward to this process again in a few weeks when I mail out copies of the 2016 book.

That said, I’ve made the decision to not use GoFundMe for 2017 and beyond.  After using it for two years I became aware of a few things.  First, GoFundMe isn’t viewed as a serious platform for professionals.  It’s great for raising funds for causes like cancer walks, surgeries, etc.  As far as using it as a creative person, in my case as a photographer and author, it’s just not a good fit – or more aptly put not an appropriate fit.  Aside from the perception factor GoFundMe doesn’t bode well for longterm sustainability.  It worked well for the two individual books but as ECOA and the NHT series have evolved I feel like I’ve outgrown the GoFundMe platform.  That has brought me to using a new site.

Patreon

In the vast web of internet based crowdfunding, Patreon has established itself as the niche crowdfunding site for creative professionals.  Over the years KickStarter has become more about products and GoFundMe has become more about causes.  Artists, musicians, authors, videographers, and photographers have been successfully using the site Patreon as a way to build a network of patrons.  What makes Patreon nice is the site is flexible and can be set up on a per-project or per-month basis, and in some cases both.  It’s also well respected as the go-to site for creative professionals unlike other crowdfunding sites that have a different niche focus for raising capital.

Aww, this one is ruined.  Someone scribbled in it.

Or is it…

In my case I’ll be setting up Patreon on a per-month basis.  I’ll also be setting it up as something for ECOA rather than just the book trips.  The main focus will still be on pre-sales of the No Highways Tour book series but I feel a pre-month structure best reflects who I am as a creative professional with not only the NHT series but also the ECOA blog, Facebook, and Instagram.  I’d also like to start doing some video work.  Given the complexity and range of those projects the per-month structure seemed to fit best.

As far as reward tiers go, they be based on the NHT books (either digital or print) as well as ECOA/NHT swag (patches and stickers).  The patron reward tiers will range from as little as $1 a month up to $20 a month.  This will mirror the reward tier amounts I previously used with GoFundMe which ranged from as little as $10 all the way up to $200.  I tried to keep things reasonable in terms of “bang for the buck” as well as some incentives in the form of patron-exclusive items (like a hardcover copy of the NHT books which are only available through pre-ordering, as well as an exclusive ECOA patch only available to patrons).

Does this mean ECOA is going pay-to-view?

If you’re worried about ECOA becoming a pay-to-view site, fear not.  I will not be changing how the ECOA blog, Facebook, or Instagram is managed.  Same goes for the NHT Facebook page.  Nothing in that regard is going to change.  Crowdfunding is a tricky thing (I’ll elaborate on that in a second) but my mission is still the same.  The goal is ECOA is to educate, encourage, and inspire.  It’s not to get rich nor exploit (or extort) my followers.  I also cannot claim exclusive ownership over the information I’ve gathered over the years.  Sure some of it comes from personal experience, but trying to monetize something like that would be nearly impossible.  I’d also go crazy trying to monetize every photo and article I post online.  Crowdfunding, especially through a site like Patreon, is the easiest way for me to say, “if you like what I’m doing and would like to keep seeing it, considering supporting me.”  Ultimately in the end the choice likes with you the reader.  You can keep reading the blog for free and, if interested, buy a copy of the NHT book after the fact.  Or, if you like, you can jump on the bandwagon early as a supporter.  Either way I’m happy you’re here.

What does it mean to be a “patron”?

Patronage isn’t a new concept.  In the past creative people like artists and musicians were supported by the wealthy.  These people were referred to as “patrons of the arts.”  This allowed artists and musicians to make a living doing their thing. The patrons, in term, would reap the rewards of those they supported.  Musicians would often give private concerts and in-home performances.  Artists would create paintings that they would give to their supporters.  For a long time this type of relationship kept the creative arts the domain of the upper class.  As time went on things like the printing press, record player, and most recently the internet revolutionized the creative arts.  With each new industrial and technological revolution it became easier and easier for creative people to reach a larger, wider, and more diverse audience.  At the same time things changed for how creative professionals made a living.

Most recently the internet has been a blessing and a curse to creative professionals.  On one hand it’s opened a seemingly endless world of possibilities.  Things like YouTube, blogs, forums, and social media have allowed creative people – both amateurs and professionals – new and exciting ways to reach their audience.  On the other hand the proliferation of digital technology has lowered the bar so much that it’s very hard to identify and establish oneself as a professional.  In turn this has made it difficult to support oneself financially.  They don’t call us “starving artists” for nothing.

Limited edition trip stickers are available to supporters first.

Luckily crowdfunding sites like Patreon have revived the idea of patronage and supporting independent creative professionals (and even a few amateurs).  Whether it’s someone making cool YouTube videos, performing music, or authoring blog articles it’s now possibly for creative professionals to generate income through their craft in a relatively straight forward manner.  In the past creative people would either be forced to work for an establishing corporation (musicians signing with record labels, video people working for a studio, authors writing for magazines or newspapers, or artists working for things like marketing firms) or accept the fact that their creative talents would forever remain relegated to hobby status while they earned their income via a day job.  That is honestly how I started.

For a long time I viewed my photography has a hobby and relegated it to weekends and summers.  I only started 4Low Digital Labs as a way to earn some income to turn around and buy more camera gear.  More of a self-supporting-hobby than a lifestyle sustaining business.  My writing was limited to mostly academic topics and a few fun creative writing things I did on the site that never saw the light of day.  When I did blog it was usually in a non-serious manner with no hope of publication.  There were a few times I was able to combine a serious article with photos for publication in a magazine but, as I said, it wasn’t anything sustainable.  Patreon is a move toward sustainability.

What’s in it for you

Right now you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s in it for me?”  I don’t blame you.  There is a lot of skepticism surrounding crowdfunding.  On a personal level, over the last few years I’ve been accused of trying to fund my own personal vacations.  I’ve been berated and belittled for “expecting people to throw money at me for doing nothing.”  People have told me to “grow up and get a real job” more than once.  Some have even accused me of using other people’s money to build my dream Jeep.  Yet here I am.  That doesn’t mean I’m sitting here begging you for your money.  I’m not desperate.  I’m not greedy.  Anything but actually.  As I said above, I’m also not going to move ECOA to a pay-to-view site and expect people to value everything I do the same way I do.  Nor are you throwing money at me and getting nothing in return.

This will be a limited edition patron exclusive.
Available as sticker and as a patch.

On a conceptual level becoming a patron is about showing your support in a real and tangible manner.  In many ways people are patrons without even thinking about it.  Having spent some time in the music industry I’m all to familiar with how things work in that realm.  You go to the bar, pay a cover charge, and see a local band.  As they grow and develop the cover charge becomes a ticket.  Soon CD’s are made.  There are also stickers, shirts, and hats with the band name and logo on them.  I’ve watched one friend of mine evolve from a teenager playing one or two songs at a local open mic night to being signed by a major record label.  Over the course of a few years I supported him by helping him at shows, buying his self-made album, rocking his shirt, and even viewing videos on his YouTube channel.  My patronage, and many others like me, helped him succeed.  We just don’t think of it as patronage nor do we think of ourselves as patrons.  We just think of ourselves as fans.  We buy the record because we like the songs.  We buy the shirt because we want to represent.  In the end it’s all financial support.  It’s all patronage.

The other common form of patronage that most people don’t think of themselves as being patrons is viewing movies.  When you go to the movies you are, in effect, a patron of the arts.  You buy your ticket and that ticket goes back to the movie studio to cover things like actor and crew salaries, production costs, and marketing and distribution.  It’s crowdfunding on a massive scale.  Same goes for magazines.  Up until recently magazines were a mainstay in households across the country.  That monthly subscription was in fact a form of patronage that said to the editorial staff, “Hey, I like what you’re doing. I enjoy reading it. Keep making this magazine and I’ll keep buying it.”  Things are a little different now.  The internet has opened the floodgates for content almost to the point of critical over-saturation.  There are many free videos on YouTube, many more free articles floating around various websites, and more than enough free music out there to be found.  Not all content is created equal though.

Being a patron is about being a part of the process.  It’s also a pride factor to say, indirectly at least, I helped that happen.  The No Highways Tour series would not happen without the financial support of people willing to take the risk and pre-order the book (although hopefully the risk is lower now that I have two such book trips under my belt and more than a year and a half of blog articles online).  Each person who helped support the trip whether it was for $10 or $100 helped make that trip a possibility and in turn helped the book come to fruition.  Looking ahead, patrons of ECOA will be able to say that not only about future NHT books bust also the ECOA blog.  Part of it will be the product.  Exclusive hardcover copies of the books.  Exclusive patron-only patches and stickers.  Sure they are little things, but pre-ordering as a patron will be the only way to get them.  The other part of it will be the pride.  Being able to say, “I’m a fan of ECOA and the NHT series” and just like paying a cover charge to see your friends band helps to keep them playing, your financial support will help continue the production of ECOA content.

What will the crowdfunded money be used for?

One thing I have always been clear about is that any money procured through crowdfunding will only be used for trip related expenses like food, fuel, or access fees.  I am not using pre-order money to build or maintain my Jeep nor am I running out to the bar drinking on someone else’s dime that was put toward the book.  This same approach will continue with Patreon just as it was with GoFundMe.  Patron money will go toward food, fuel, and fees associated directly with creating ECOA and NHT content.  The bulk of this of course will go toward the No Highways Tour trips.  However between trips patron money will be used toward creating articles similar to the “One Lap of Michaux” and travel costs associated with attending events like Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival and Overland Expo.

One project that is going to take a lot of resources is the interactive map of the east coast.
This is the end-game for ECOA. The ultimate goal.
An online repository of knowledge of overland adventure destinations.
By supporting ECOA and the NHT through Patreon you’ll be supporting this project.

Beyond Patreon I will still pursue other revenue streams such as writing articles for magazines, selling swag, and getting paid to be an instructor and guide at events.  That (and other money I make doing odd jobs) is the money that will go toward bills, repair costs, and upgrades to the Jeep.  This distinction will hopefully clear up any confusion as to where the money procured through Patreon goes.  This does complicate things a little bit on my end from a bookkeeping standpoint, but as you can see I am making every effort to be as transport and as honest as I can.

Drawbacks, criticism, and haters

The advice of the wise is to never acknowledge the negativity in your life.  Don’t focus on the drawbacks, don’t dwell on criticism, and don’t give any attention to the haters.  I would do well to heed that advice but, as I said, I like to be as transparent and as honest as I can be.  This endeavor to reinvent myself has come with with a few sacrifices and a few lost friendships.  From the start I’ve viewed the NHT series and ECOA as something larger than myself.  That’s why the mission statement was one for first things I hammered out.  I wanted a very clear picture for what ECOA was about and what it was not.  Contrary to the opinion of some ECOA and the NHT books aren’t about me (I’m not a narcissist, I swear. What, that’s something a narcissist would say? Damn).  I’m not doing this to become rich and famous.  I’m coming at this from my background in education.  I’m here to teach.  To pass on what I’ve learned and prepare the next generation of adventurers.  In short, to pay it forward.

I’ve never sought the spotlight and am more than content to pay my dues behind the scenes.  Despite that, I have found that people will still find ways to criticize what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.  I do my best to write it off with the old adage, “haters gunna hate.”  That is probably the biggest drawback of crowdfunding.  There’s still a negative aura around the process and if you’re trying to make a go and making a living at it full-time there is a lot of “hate” and even more ridicule.  Psychologically I’d like to write off the critics and haters as being jealous.  I still take it to heart though.  My goal is to acknowledge, accept, and own the criticism in hopes that it in the long run it makes me a better person and in turn make ECOA the best it can be.  It still sucks though.

Two boxes of “shut the f*** up” addressed to my haters.
I said I’d do it and I did.
(FYI – These two boxes contain the first edition hardcover prints of the 2015 No Highways Tour  book)

I don’t say any of this to guilt you into becoming a patron.  Far from it.  I just say this as a way to demonstrate how much much I value those that support me.  It doesn’t matter if it’s verbal, emotional, or financial support either.  Those that stand by me are these most important people in my life.  For every supposed friend I’ve lost in the past few years I’ve gained a bunch of new ones.  I have met some of the coolest people through this thing called ‘overlanding.’  Events like Overland Expo, the Appalachian Rendezvous, and the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival are populated with some of the coolest and most genuine people I’ve ever met.  They come from all walks of life with diverse backgrounds, professions, and life experiences.   It’s so nice to be part of a community of like minded people who focus on what we have in common.  It’s refreshing.

This blog, the ECOA and NHT Facebook pages, and the ECOA Instagram feed have also connected me with many cool people.  People have commented how much they enjoy the articles and photos I share.  I’ve gotten private messages and emails asking for advice on travel locations and on vehicle upgrades.  That is why I do this.  It’s not about the money.  It’s about helping people.  I do have bills to pay and gas to buy, so sadly I need money.  Can’t fuel a Jeep on good vibes and happy thoughts.  That’s why this crowdfunding thing is so complicated.  There is a lot of give and take.  However, it does give me the ability to not focus on the drawbacks.  It gives me the ability to ignore the criticism as best I can.  It also gives me the ability to say, “F*** the haters.”  I don’t miss them.  It’s you, my readers, the ones that support me, I care about most.

Looking ahead by looking back

As much as I’d love it to happen, I don’t expect Patreon to be an immediate success.  Early last month I made a post about some of the traffic metrics this blog receives.  I’m fascinated by data.  As much as I hated my statistics classes in college, I love the visual side of data.  I love making simple graphs and charts.  It helps put things in perspective for me (I’m a photographer after all;  I love images).  Most recently I took the time to calculate the average daily views this blog receives.  In 2015 it averaged out at 24 views per day.  That was up from a very humble 5.7 views per day in its first month in June of ’15.  Knowing it was a shortened year I wasn’t too worried.  In 2016 the average daily views jumped to 70.4.  That’s almost 200% growth.  For September the average daily views was almost 180 views per day.  That’s insane (to me at least – I’m sure I’ll look back at this in a few years and laugh).  Now, only a little bit into 2017, the average daily views is up over 80.  If my projections hold out I suspect this year is going to be a good year.

2017 No Highways Tour Volume #1 – The Old Spanish Trail
How would you like your copy?
Digital?
Limited edition hardcover?
Softcover?
Would you like it autographed?

Views aren’t everything though.  As I pointed out in that post last month there are plenty of other metrics such as impressions, reach, and the raw number of followers.  Obviously the metrics between the blog, Instagram, and Facebook will have a lot of overlap, but I’m learning there are advantages to each platform and some of my fans are unique to just one platform.  What does any of that have to do with crowdfunding and the future of ECOA and the NHT series?  Well, let’s break it down by the numbers.

2017 No Highways Tour Volume #2 – The Bourbon Trail
I bet you want this one too, don’t you.

I’ve set a modest goal of generating $500 a month through Patreon for the 2017 season.  It’s a modest figure, especially considering it’d be my primary source of income and funding for this whole thing.  However, it should be enough to make both NHT book trips happen.  If 100 of my fans (which would be 1/10 of the people that visit this blog which is also equal to 1/10 of my followers on Instagram) signed up to be Silver Patrons at $5 a month I’d hit that goal easily.  That said, that might be a bit much to ask.  The bulk of prior NTH pre-orders were at the Gold Level which was around $100 or via Patreon would be $10 a month.  That means I’d need even less people.  Only 50.  Seems doable.  That’s the beauty of crowdfunding.  That’s how multi-million dollar movies get made.  Movie tickets at a national average of $8 a pop add up when you have hundreds of thousands of people watching a given movie.  I’d love it if a few hundred thousand people decided to read my little blog but, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.  That’s why I figure a strong core of a few dozen patron split between the Silver and Gold patron tiers is a more reasonable goal.

Reward Tiers

One of the key motivating factors behind crowdfunding is that people get something in return for their financial support.  Past supporters of the NHT series through GoFundMe received hardcover copies of the books as well as limited edition stickers commemorating each trip.  You can’t buy those stickers from me.  If you buy a copy of the 2015 or 2016 book right now you can only buy a digital or softcover copy.  That’s the leverage, on my end, to get people to buy into pre-ordering the book.  They get something that is only available for a limited time.  It’s also a way for people to save a bit of money when something is bundled as part of a perk package rather than buying everything individually (which will be an option).

These reward tiers are spelled out on the Patreon site
However this view allows you to see how the perk stack up compared to each other

Another reason for the different reward tiers is it allows people to choose a system that fits with that ability and willingness to show their support as well as fits with their expectations on their return on their fiscal commitment.  The range of $1 a month to $20 a month covers a broad range for a broad range of people.  I’m also going to give people the option to do a one-time payment through PayPal if they choose.  For some people it’s easier to budget a smaller monthly amount.  For others it’s easier to get it done and over with.

The Link

If you’ve made it this far then chances are you’re hopefully able and willing to support ECOA and the NHT series.  Either that or you’re at least seriously considering it.  Without any further delay or tangents here’s the link:



http://www.patreon.com/ecoa

If you would like to contact me about the one time PayPal option just shoot me an email and I’ll set you up (dean@4lowdigital.com).  Until then, I hope you’ll seriously consider becoming a part of the ECOA Support Team and ensure the ongoing success of ECOA and the NHT series.