By Patrick Burgoyne

Alex Daly's latest Kickstarter with Pentagram

When Neil Young wanted to raise funds for the Pono, his high-end music player, his team eventually found its way to Alex Daly. Young wanted to raise $800,000: with Daly’s help, he got over $6 million.

Creative Review readers may be more familiar with two projects from Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth which Daly also helped to smash the targets for – the reissued graphic identity manuals for the New York City Transit Authority and NASA. In fact, Pentagram has played a key role in Daly’s transition from journalist to crowdfunding guru.

She studied journalism but eventually found her way into the world of documentary filmmaking. Applying for grants or other funding is a key part of producing such films and Daly soon found herself spending most of her days at a production company putting these submissions together. In summer 2012, a producer approached her to help with a documentary he was planning about the US radio station WFMU. “I said ‘do you want me to write you some grant applications?’,” Daly remembers. “And he said, ‘Actually I want to try Kickstarter’. I was like ‘what’s Kickstarter?’”

They went ahead with what became Freeform or Death, by director Tim Smith. Its $50k target was comfortably exceeded with over $80k eventually raised. Daly worked on another film campaign, which was also successful and was then called out of the blue by “a Sundance award-winning filmmaker. She was like ‘I heard you’re that person who knows how to raise money for films through Kickstarter’ and I was like ‘I guess I am!’”

Daly’s most recent Kickstarter with Pentagram is for London partner Marina Willer’s film, Red Trees. Willer’s was one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during the Second World War. Red Trees tells the story of how they survived and eventually journeyed to Brazil. At the time of going to press, the campaign had raised over £42k: the target was £40k. Daly emphasises the importance of offering compelling rewards to backers: for this campaign, Willer offered to design a logo for two people pledging £5k

Daly was still harbouring ambitions to be a filmmaker but, in evenings and at weekends, took on regular Kickstarter campaigns. After a blog christened her The Crowdsourceress, more and more requests came in until, in April 2014, she finally admitted to herself that she wasn’t going to make it as a filmmaker and that, “I’d found something I was really good at”. Her crowdsourcing management company, Vann Alexandra in New York, officially opened for business in April 2014, which is where Pentagram comes in.

The design firm’s New York office had been talking to Neil Young and his team about Pono. His team explained that they wanted to use Kickstarter to raise funds and asked if Pentagram could manage the campaign. Pentagram explained that they didn’t do that sort of thing but sent an email round to their contacts, which eventually found its way to Daly. “I had an interview on the Friday and we launched the campaign ten days later,” Daly says.

Through the Pentagram connection, Daly met Reed and Smyth who both work on Michael Bierut’s team at the firm. “I really love working with designers,” she says. “There is something about good design and crowdfunding which goes a long way. Through Hamish and Jesse I learned so much about how good design and putting a good page together raises your level of success – from the pictures on your page, the way you present the work, to the way you communicate your story and create your video. It all has to be really well-produced.”

Daly says her firm gets around 100 requests each month from people looking for help with crowdfunding projects. Out of that, they might take on two or three, charging either a retainer or a combination of upfront fee and a percentage of the money raised.

Pages from the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual Reissue. Photo by Brian Kelly.

When deciding which projects to take on (Vann Alexandra currently boasts a 100% success rate when it comes to hitting funding targets), Daly says she first asks whether the project is a strong idea but also if it has a passionate, ready-made audience. “If you look at our projects, “she says, “they all have a following.” For the NYCTA manual, the fact that it was originally designed by a legend of the business in Massimo Vignelli helped. Then, as well as graphic designers, “subway nerds, people that love transport and transportation” and anyone fascinated by New York City and its history created a strong constituency for the product. Likewise, the NASA manual found favour with not only designers but also anyone interested in space. Having a community like this on board means that the project benefits hugely from their enthusiasm and propensity to talk about the project and share details of the offer being made to backers.

Daly also emphasises the importance of preparation to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Setting up social media feeds in advance and emailing your contacts all helps but having a high quality, compelling video ready to go up when the campaign launches is essential. “I would allow six to eight weeks to make an excellent video,” she says. “Make sure to hire someone, get a filmmaker involved and tell a compelling story: don’t just sit in front of a camera and say ‘I need your money’.”

Pages from the NASA Graphics Standard Manual, which was the product of a kickstarter campaign for Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth. Photo by Brian KellyPages from the NASA Graphics Standard Manual, which was the product of a kickstarter campaign for Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth. Photo by Brian Kelly

Even if the campaign is coming from a company or brand rather than an individual, Daly recommends that videos should emphasise a personal connection with the project. “Use the founder of the company rather than having the video come from the company itself,” she recommends. “A human connection goes a long way.”

Kickstarter campaigns offer backers a choice of reward depending on how much they want to pledge. Daly’s advice is to “have something really compelling at $25 as that’s one of the most popular tiers. And have as many digital awards as possible. It costs a lot of money to produce postcards and T-shirts. I’ve learned to be really wary of the fulfilment side of things. My biggest nightmare is when people don’t properly budget how much it is going to cost to make something and then there’s no money left to actually make the thing you’re trying to raise money for. You have to budget to the cent and make sure you are not losing money through delivering the project. There are horror stories out there.”

She also warns about the sheer amount of work and commitment involved in running a campaign. “It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears, even if you hire a consultant, a project manager and a filmmaker. It’s a lot of work on a daily basis. You’ll be doing a lot of emailing – be prepared for that.”

Vann Alexandra consists of four people including Daly: a head of projects and two project managers. The sweet spot in terms of the best length for a Kickstarter campaign is 30 days, Daly says, during which, “we are hands-on, we don’t just launch and let it go. Every day we connect with clients, think about strategy – whether we are going to be editing the page, adding more rewards, communicating with backers and so on.”

Daly has carved out a niche for herself as the go-to crowdfunding manager for creative types. In that time, she has noticed considerable changes in the crowdfunding scene. “It’s not just for the starving artist or the indie filmmaker anymore,” she says, “It’s for everybody and that is as it should be. Crowdfunding is all about democratising the financial landscape. It should include the big-time movie producers and organisations but, in the end, it’s not just about the money, it’s about the crowd. If you want to raise money for your film, you can go to investors but they will want equity and you will lose creative control. Or you can open it up to the crowd and get donations from people who believe in your project and who you know will be your audience once the film comes out and be evangelists for it, which is huge.”

“Crowdfunding in general, is an extraordinary thing that has really impacted our financial landscape and how we buy things online,” she says. “But it’s a lot more saturated now and that’s the reason why you have to have the best products, the best presentation of your page, the best video and get amazing press because there are so many campaigns now that yours will get lost unless it’s top notch.”

For more on Alex Daly and Vann Alexandra, see Alex Daly portrait shown top by Meredith Jenks

This is an article from the May 2016 issue of Creative Review, out now. Order The Social Media issue here. 

Read more about the NASA Graphics Standards Manual reissue here. 

Read more about the NYCTA Graphics Standard Manual reissue here.

Read more here:: Want Kickstarter success? You need Alex Daly