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Online platforms open up alternative way to fund creative projects

By Tommy Lee

David Wong had always dreamed of producing a spy movie on his smartphone but he thought it would be a hard slog saving up the money to make it. He never imagined he would be able to release the finished 10-minute movie this month, let alone that his project would be funded by internet users he has never met.

The amateur filmmaker used a local crowdfunding platform, FringeBacker to raise the funds. Crowdfunding is a way to collect money from individuals online to support projects or works. Creators post their ideas on crowdfunding platforms and set a funding goal for a specified period. In return, backers are given rewards which can range from a sample of the product they backed, a credit, a share in the profits or a souvenir. In recent years, online crowdfunding has become increasingly popular in the United States and Europe, although it is less well known in Hong Kong.

Wong tried crowdfunding following a friend’s suggestion. He checked out the platforms and saw there were innovative art projects online that were similar to his proposal, so he gave it a go last year.
He set a goal of raising HK$ 25,000 in two months and offered backers a range of rewards according to their contribution – from a DVD of the film, to T-shirts, a cameo appearance and even an executive producer credit.

The target sum was achieved after just three weeks and Wong ended up raising HK$85,400. Wong says he feels lucky that he raised so much money. “I’d never tried crowdfunding before, so I wasn’t too confident about getting a lot of money from a crowdfunding platform, especially as artistic creations don’t always guarantee monetary rewards. That’s why I went for a small amount.”

Wong’s initial plan was to supplement what he raised with his own savings, but he ended up being able to pay for the whole production, including location shooting in Japan, from the crowdfunding payments.

Wong thinks his success could inspire others. “It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t want to do anything or doesn’t like to create.” Wong says. “It’s just that there isn’t a way to get started.”

Maryann Hwee Teng-teng, executive director of FringeBacker, one of several crowdfunding platforms in Hong Kong, says art and cultural projects are more likely to succeed on crowdfunding platforms.

Hwee explains that in crowdfunding, there are many creative ways to interact with backers and inject fun elements when presenting a person or enterprise’s image.

In the real world, most investors only focus on the monetary return of a project. As they offer little or no monetary reward, it is hard for creative projects to get financial backing. It was with this in mind that Hwee set up FringeBacker to support artists.

“Many people have the talent but they may not have the luck,” she says. However, this does not mean that submitting proposals to the platform will guarantee “luck”. Hwee says many proposals are rejected or need to be resubmitted because they are not specific or concrete enough. The platform also charges a commission fee if a target sum is achieved. Hwee says project creators have to take the initiative to run the projects themselves, with the guidance of the platform staff. She tries to be as hands-off as she can.

“The best support is to let them try to do it themselves,” she says. “Then, they will appreciate what they did. It is not helping if we just find a backer to back you $500 or $1,000.”

Besides art and cultural projects, Hwee adds that products with good ideas are likely to succeed too, but there are no guarantees.

Dixon Cheung Man-tak develops electronic games at an independent local games company, Fingerprint Studio Ltd. Traditional investors turned him down for the two previous games the studio produced, either saying the format was too avant-garde or that the content was too political.

Cheung’s latest project is a game called Dr. Mixinstein. Cheung says an innovative component of the project is that backers are invited to take part in the game’s development, to provide their input and feedback. The company wants to involve players themselves in developing the game.

Unfortunately, with just four days till the end of the funding period, the project had only raised 40 per cent of the target funding. In the end, Cheung and his team found enough backers, including  friends and relatives, to support them and reached the target before the deadline.

Cheung says Hong Kong is not ready for crowdfunding. “Crowdfunding is too new to Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are suspicious of online purchasing. Also, they don’t know much about the game sector. They don’t know what crowdfunding is. There are too many question marks.”

Nicholas Ng, a Hong Kong student studying Economics in the United Kingdom agrees. He has twice backed projects for innovative smartphone chargers through the overseas crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and believes shoppers in Hong Kong have different habits to those in the West.

“In the UK, we buy books online. We buy electronics online. Online shopping is a habit; crowd fundraising is then a derivative. That explains why it doesn’t work in Hong Kong.”

Ng says he would not back any projects in Hong Kong as he does not think there are any websites that he would be willing to use. “If Yahoo! Hong Kong sets up one, I think it will be better. At least they have brand reputation.”

Despite the pessimistic forecasts, local crowdfunding platforms have found a direction. Hwee of FringeBacker says she is receiving more and more charitable projects. Another crowdfunding platform, Dreamna, supports only charitable projects instead of reward-based ones, although the platform itself is a profit-making business.

“Indeed, we think that [reward-based projects] don’t work,” says Nigel Yip Wing-kei, one of the founders of Dreamna. To focus on charitable projects, Dreamna has changed the way it operates. If a project is successfully funded, the platform charges a fee of five per cent. Volunteer recruitment projects are free and if projects failed to get funding, users are not charged anything.

From his experience, Yip says a successful project should be innovative. The project owner has to be able to appeal to backers on a personal level, so that they can understand the cause. Also, the plan has to be solid and credible to gain trust from potential backers.

One successful project was 7 Days, 6 Marathons in Desert – Gobi March. The project was created by four amateur runners who ran 250 km in seven days, the equivalent of six marathons, in the Gobi desert to raise money for orphans in Nepal. Jay Wong Ka-wai, says the project was inspired by a trip he made to Nepal where he stayed in an orphanage for two days. One of the orphans told him that education was the only thing that could change her life. Wong was determined to help improve the orphans’ living conditions and provide them with education opportunities.

At first, Wong tried to raise funds by making appeals on Facebook but he discovered supporters did not know how to pay him, so he switched to Dreamna where donors can pay through PayPal or credit card.

Wong promised rewards for backers of signed postcards and photographs of the children as well as the children’s own paintings. After setting a target of HK$10,000, he raised HK$18,830 by the end of the 30-day funding period.

Jay Wong Ka-wai (third from right) with his teammates, the director (second from left) and staff of Nepal Orphans Home
Jay Wong Ka-wai (third from right) with his teammates, the director (second from left) and staff of Nepal Orphans Home

But apart from providing a convenient platform to collect money for the orphans, Wong believes crowdfunding is a good way to raise public awareness of the orphans’ plight.

“If the four of us take out $5,000 each, why don’t we ask 200 people to donate $100 each? Then more people can be aware of the problems [of Nepali orphans],” he explains, “We need to have the multiplying factor.”

Whether it is a killer product, a work of art or a charitable project, crowdfunding can be an alternative to traditional methods of fundraising. “If you have a dream and you post it online, you will be able to find someone who will appreciate it,” says Wong.

Edited by Sandy Ho