The In Crowd
Sites like Kickstarter are redefining the fundraising process for entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. Detroit's Jerry Paffendorf is among its first wave of visionaries
Published: July 20, 2011
Interpreting the city based on its Kickstarting habits, Strickler, who's visited a half-dozen times or so, says "Detroit tends to be very self-determined."
"When I look at the Lawn Mower Gang [an eccentric and somewhat renegade group of Detroit folks with riding mowers who meet up at overgrown parks and landscape on their own time and dime], the Soup dinners [a seasonal hyper-local and democratic micro-finance dinner party in Mexicantown], and pretty much everything that Jerry's doing, I see wild community energy," Strickler says.
The spirit, he seems to believe, is shared by a crop of digitally savvy, community oriented creative freaks in Detroit, and Kickstarter is an active participant in the search for better ways forward.
"That kind of thinking that we're seeing out of Detroit shows the potential of what's possible with crowdfunding," Strickler says. "By the force of his own will and imagination, Jerry's been able to Kickstart his own spectacular little world in Detroit."
Tunde Wey, 27, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, home of late Afrobeat pioneer and cultural revolutionary Fela Kuti, whom Wey says he admires: "He was the real thing. It's very hard to be a revolutionary today, man. You need a sheen of antiquity."
You could say Wey has a way about him. He puts it all out there. Athletic and self-assured, his vibrant posture breaks only when takes pot shots at himself. And when he's very serious, like if talking about the time he crashed at a homeless shelter, his chest expands with calm, defiant pride.
When Wey was 17, his father presented him and his older brother Seyi with the opportunity to attend college in the United States. "I thought beautiful women would be crawling out of the sewers and falling out of trees," he says. "Growing up in Lagos, my Western experience was basically Tupac, Biggie and Winnie Cooper," he adds with a huge smile. "I watched The Wonder Years a lot, man. I remember the episode when Kevin has his first kiss, and he's thinking to himself, 'Am I supposed to hold my breath or do I breathe?' That's how I felt about heading to America!"
Tunde and Seyi were off to Detroit, where they had an aunt, uncle and some cousins. Soon after, the family moved from the city to the suburbs. Wey was also transitioning outside the home — from one college to the next. "I might be the worst student ever," he says. "One semester my parents sent me money for tuition, maybe three or four thousand dollars, and I spent everything except $300 just so I could take to take a scuba diving class. And I failed that!"
That's not what was expected of him from his family in Nigeria. He was supposed to have finished school and studied either medicine or engineering. It was his choice which one. "That's the trajectory of what my parents still want from me," he says. "For whatever reason, I am not capable of giving them that. My ideas concerning money, what it represents, are very strong, but I think I'm coming to realize they might be very different."
After college failed to materialize, Tunde and his brother moved into a high-rise in Troy. At some point, in an effort to spark the entrepreneurial spirit in their sons, their parents loaned the brothers enough money to open a small convenience store on the ground floor. "I thought it was a great idea," Wey says. "The most convenient of convenience stores — it's actually in the building. But, man, we could not get it going."
Defeated, broke and feeling as though they'd overstayed their welcome at their aunt and uncle's place, the brothers parted ways and sought out their own living arrangements. Tunde had a hard time finding a steady place to rest his head at night.
Last April, a friend let him rent a room in an apartment in Detroit's Cass Corridor neighborhood. When Wey's roommate kicked him out, he packed what he could and walked a few blocks to the Detroit Rescue Mission for Men.
"I was surrounded by smelly, noisy and ugly. I had made a promise to myself that if I had to be a bum, I was going to be the cleanest, coolest, most good-looking bum Detroit's ever seen," he says.
The men at the shelter, including Tunde, were roused and ousted at six the next morning.
"It was early. I didn't sleep much. I was tired, just slowly walking down the street, wondering what my next move was going to be," Tunde says. "I stopped and realized I was alone. I looked down the empty street and realized I'd reached a point where I was either or going to go crazy or get it together."
He decided to get it together and to think seriously about a crowdfunding idea that had come to him some time earlier.
Wey started introducing himself to people he heard were "it." Midtown business women such as Jess Daniels (Neighborhood Noodle), Rachel Lutz (the Peacock Room) and Claire Nelson (Bureau of Urban Living); creative entrepreneurs the likes of Philip Lauri (Detroit Lives!), Amy Kaherl (Detroit Soup) and Bethany Beltzer (Detroit Creative Corridor); and Toby Barlow (Team Detroit, Public Pool).
"I used to feel like I was on the outside looking in," Wey says. "I'm not part of any scene, but I love the people in my community. They're cool and all do cool stuff. I just want to help connect all these dots that collectively make Detroit a better city to live in."
To connect those dots, and himself, to the community, Wey recently launched a hybrid Groupon-Kickstarter crowdfunding website called Detroit Big F Deal. "Detroit is a big deal — and it could use some deals," he says.
As it's structured right now, Detroit Big F Deal visitors can read about and watch videos featuring the current not-for-profit project. So far, there've been two funding efforts, both independent urban agricultural projects. If you want to support the project, you can choose to give $10 to $50 at a time. For doing so, you get coupons good mainly for discounts at hip Detroit eateries.
Unlike Kickstarter, the project gets the money whether or not a threshold is reached. All of the money. Right now coupons are being donated by business proprietors. Wey says that maybe in the future he can host ads on the site to create revenue, but right now he's more focused on sourcing the crowd's interest more than he is their cash. Instead of setting financial benchmarks, Wey has installed participatory thresholds to gauge success.
"Don't get me wrong. I still want to make money. I need to. But money won't make Detroit Big F Deal a success. I now have a different idea of what success looks like," Wey says. "Where I come from, you're supposed to make as much money as you possibly can. I make about $600 a month — on a good month. I've invested in fun with interesting friends, supporting small, independent business, and buying locally grown food. Every two weeks I might treat myself to a really good beer. Maybe that's the life I want to live right now. Can I enact some good here? That's my only concern right now."
Wey says that as Detroit Big F Deal evolves, he wants to explore new ways to connect downtown's resurgent energy to the rest of Detroit. "How do we transfer that energy and all of that intellectual, financial and resourceful wealth to the neighborhoods outside downtown?" he asks. "That's the big question."
Last week, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) announced the pilot for its Creative Ventures Accelerator Program. With $500,000 and the support of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and the U.S. Small Business Administration, the program offers work space inside the College for Creative Studies, specialized mentorship, and business guidance for 17 creative enterprises.
Included in the pilot program are an urban-organic fashion line called Home Slice, coG-studio, an architectural design and service firm, Left Bank Creative, which specializes in identity management, digital animation, Web development and branding services, and Detroit Big F Deal.
"But if the site's going work, if it's going to make a real difference," Wey says, "I'm going to need the help of Jerry Paffendorf. Do you know him? I've been to his apartment — it's incredibly sparse. And this is a guy with at least $60,000 in an account somewhere from Robocop. Looking at him, you see money doesn't equate success. That concept used to boggle my mind. Now I understand it. Jerry — he still boggles my mind."
On Jerry Paffendorf's Kicktarter profile, he calls himself an "artist, futurist, entrepreneur and swell guy." Artist first. Way before he was dinning in Brooklyn with the future founders of Kickstarter, boggling their minds with his micro-real estate crowdfunding experiment, Paffendorf was an art school kid. And it's the artistic, sometimes absurdist approach to technology that make his projects so engaging and fun, which is what he was after all along.
In the mid-'00s, Paffendorf received his MS in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston. It was there he met foresight scholar and systems theorist John Smart.
In 2004, Smart founded the Acceleration Studies Foundation, a meta-technology think tank that "helps people better understand, selectively predict, and guide accelerating developments in science and technology, and improve their impact on business and society."
In that inaugural year, as ASF's research and community director, Paffendorf helped curate, and participated in, the first Accelerating Change Conference hosted at Stanford University.
The themes that year were Physical Space, Virtual Space and Interface — and the list of participants was an all-star lineup of hi-tech innovation: Doug Engelbart , the inventor of the mouse was there, as was one of Facebook's earliest investors, Pay-Pal co-founder and former CEO Peter Theil. Google's director of search quality spoke, as did Second Life's co-founders, and Sony's special projects manager. Sim City's Will Wright debated Jaron Lanier, a leading pioneer and popularizer of "virtual reality."
The next year, Paffendorf delivered a presentation on Brave New Virtual Worlds. He spoke about Google Earth and the forthcoming tag-able world, which has since become omnipresent on the Web via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare, where you not only have the ability to tag and share what you're looking at online, but where exactly you are in the real world. He also spoke about virtual collaboration in Second Life and the rise of the avatar.
Between conferences, Paffendorf assisted Smart in mapping the metaverse:
What happens when video games meet Web 2.0? When virtual worlds meet geospatial maps of the planet? When simulations get real and life and business go virtual? When you use a virtual Earth to navigate the physical Earth, and your avatar becomes your online agent? What happens is the metaverse.
He was also busy studying how people collaboratively interacted on Second Life via a project called Destroy TV. And from 2005 to 2007, he served as futurist-in-residence at the Electric Sheep Company, an Emmy award-winning creative tech outfit that creates virtual worlds and social games for major corporations.
Then came the aforementioned Wello Horld start-up, the venture capital takeover, the firing of the originators and its demise. (It evolved into Hark.com, a glorified soundbite and ringtone site.)
"One day, my little sister asked me how I got fired from my own company," Paffendorf says. "It's a really good question." He started investigating the structures of funding and ownership. "After the dream of becoming some young dot-com millionaire faded, I started answering some of questions," he says.
To teach himself the basics of business, Paffendorf legally founded his first business, Crazy Company 555. "I started thinking about registering more companies. Is it possible to register Red Company and another company called Blue Company and have them sue each other just to go through that process?"
He was fascinated by limitations and possibilities. "Did you know there's no limit to how long a company name can be?" he asks. "You could essentially register the entire Bible, word for word, as a company. I mean, you could legally incorporate God's word, sell it for shares, use it to build the power to hire, fire, buy and sell."
But even the intricacies and absurdities of business couldn't compete with those Paffendorf wanted to uncover in Detroit.
"I knew the next thing I was going to do was going to be very different in that it'd be motivated by a different place, funded by incredibly different means. I thought Detroit could be that place," he says.
"When we were out in San Francisco, Detroit always seemed to be in the news for the abundance of land. We'd say things like, 'If only we hadn't spent $2 million on offices and bullshit in California — we should've built this thing in Detroit. That whole community-based boot-strap approach for getting things done reputation was also attractive."
He'd found his location. And after dinner with Kickstarter's Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, he had his new funding method.
"To be honest, I needed a new way to make money, and here's what the scale looked like to me: Either one incredibly wealthy entity buys you or a whole bunch invest in the success of your project without the legal sense of ownership and controls. The latter option is all about spiritual equity."
In 2009, with such equity on his mind, Paffendorf moved to Detroit and bought a parcel of land that he named Plymouth. He created a virtual grid, separating Plymouth into 10,000 inches, which he planned to sell — both the physical micro-plots and the virtual space — on Kickstarter for $1 per inch. Those who bought in would be his "inchvestors."
Paffendorf's creative and romantic partner Mary Lorene Carter came into his life right about the time he was getting ready to launch his crazed micro-real estate venture, Loveland, with the help of Westbrook, his longtime programming buddy. A nuanced if not challenging project, it was among the first dozen or so campaigns Kickstarter approved.
"I put up the first Kickstarter to fund the first 2,000 inches of Loveland and — partly because it was a good idea and partly because it was the first time I went to the well of all my friends and family — we got funded very quickly," Paffendorf says. "The next week, we tweaked the website a little put up a campaign to sell another 2,000 inches."
Albeit a bit slower than Week 1, it was a success. Loveland was soon launching Kickstarter campaigns every week or two, for all sorts of amounts. One time, just as users had started to overfund projects, they launched a campaign with a 1 cent funding goal. Each campaign had a video featuring cute, cartoon characters, such as Loveland's mascot, Inchy. And each campaign video relayed an imaginative narrative, with titles such as "The Legend of the Ghost Inches" and "The Case of the Pickled Inches."
"From like 11 to 14, I played Dungeons and Dragons," Paffendorf says. "I gravitated toward the role of Dungeon Master pretty quickly. But I still feel like I'm playing that role. Instead of being in some medieval world where it's like, 'To the west, a town burns; in the east, a woman cries. There's a rustling in the woods ahead. What do you do?' It's more like, 'You're in Detroit, you own a ridiculously tiny plot of land and people are looking at you funny. What the fuck do you do?'"
Six months and a few dozen successful campaigns later, Loveland had drummed up press and sold all 10,000 inches. Plymouth had reached capacity. Shortly thereafter, Loveland announced a second, much larger parcel of land ready to be virtually inhabited. He named the 50,000 square-inch expanse Wello Horld. With 1,099 inchvestors, Wello Horld has 27,485 inches occupied.
Money collected from Loveland's inchvestors were pooled into microgrants to fund public art projects such as the Hygenic Dress League's "No Vacancy" piece affixed to the dilapidated Roosevelt Hotel, and artist Jerome Ferretti's highway overpass piece "Monumental Kitty." Loveland has also financially supported the structural rehabilitation of the Spaulding Court Apartments, urban agriculture at the Georgia Street Community Garden, and the independent city improvement collective Motor City Blight Busters.
Paffendorf and company collected income from the early Detroit efforts, while funds for the more recent ones go entirely to projects. "Maybe that's dumb, but we try to keep the purity of the idea," he says.
In February of this year, a man from Massachusetts used the social media platform Twitter to ask Detroit Mayor Dave Bing whether the city would consider commissioning a RoboCop statue. Bing responded with a tweet of his own, saying the city had no plans for such a tribute. Not officially, anyway.
Paffendorf and a couple of his creative friends immediately started throwing around "why nots" and "what ifs" and, by day's end, Detroit-based artist John Leonard, a lifelong RoboCop nut, created a Facebook page for a Detroit RoboCop statute to gauge and galvanize public interest. To estimate the cost of such a thing, calls were made to metal workers and statue makers. On Feb. 9, they launched the website detroitneedsrobocop.com and the next day, under the umbrella of Imagination Station — a nonprofit public art space and community media center Paffendorf co-founded last summer — they launched a Kickstarter campaign to commission a statue with a funding goal of $50,000.
More than 900 people pledged more than $22,000 in the first four days. The punch lines were heard around the globe. But unlike any other campaign Paffendorf had launched, this Kickstarter project caused division. Backers donated from around the world, with noticeable support coming from New York, but locals were split.
"Detroiters like to take anything and think of it as some greater comment about Detroit," Paffendorf says. "You can't even make a comment about a sandwich without people throwing a fit. You say something about tuna fish sandwiches and someone's going to say, 'Tuna fish? This here's a ham sandwich town, sonny.'"
Actually, Paffendorf and his collaborators learned that people were capable of much worse. There were a few experiences when Jerry, now widely recognizable to a degree, would walk into a bar, causing others to leave. And Facebook walls became a place for people to spew vitriol. All for transparency, he'd even published his phone number with most if not all his Kickstarter campaigns as well as his Facebook page.
"My phone number was out there and texts got super-harsh, violent, creepy even," he says. "We weren't trying to make a statement about Detroit. We just wanted to flex the muscles of public art and crowdfunding in Detroit."
Pete Hottelet runs a Los Angeles-based company called OCP, the name of the evil corporation from RoboCop. He's dubbed himself a professional "defictionalizer," taking fake products from movies and TV — Sex Panther cologne, for instance, after the brand favored by Will Ferrell's character in Anchor Man — and producing them as real, purchasable products. During a weeklong trip in which he was attempting to visit all seven continents, Hottelet was in Antarctica when he got wind of the RoboCop statue campaign.
"He called us right away and said that if we could raise $25,000, which we had in just a few days, he'd match it," Jerry says. Not only was Hottelet a man of his word, but he brought along in a few friends to help the push the campaign toward its inevitable tipping point.
Fred Barton, a professional robot re-creator who works in Hollywood and owns the rights to build an authorized statue, had signed on to create an intricate, life-sized mold. And Peter Weller, the actor who played RoboCop in the movies, starred in a few delightfully weird RoboCop statue publicity videos, addressing the people of Detroit, on Will Ferrell's viral comedy site Funny or Die.
By the end of their campaign, Paffendorf and his crew raised more than $67,000. The 7-foot-tall statue, engineered in California and bronzed in Detroit, will live in a sculpture park at Wayne State University's science and business incubator, Tech Town.
Seems Paffendorf was taken by the idea of bringing superheroes to life. And if people thought a statue of RoboCop was weird, who can predict what they're going to think of his latest campaign: Detroit Vs. Painting.
Launched on Kickstarter not even a month ago, Paffendorf's latest campaign will ideally fund a large oil painting, an online video game, and a website that essentially functions as its crowdfunding platform.
It all starts with Brooklyn-based painter Ryan Ford's 6-foot-by-4-foot oil painting featuring the "Spirit of Detroit" statue fighting a blight monster, as if the painting were a screen capture of a one-on-one side-scrolling video game, such as Tekken or Mortal Kombat.
"Essentially the 'Spirit of Detroit' and Blight are both titans, huge in proportion to the city, like Godzilla," says Paffendorf. "Huddled around each of them are characters from the city's past and present, anyone from Bruce Campbell as Ash, the guy with the chainsaw for an arm from Evil Dead, and civil rights icon Rosa Parks."
When the painting is complete, another Brooklyn creative, video game designer Brad Henderson, will scan and fully animate Ford's painting. And unlike conventional fighting videogames — where rounds last about a minute, someone dies — and you restart, Paffendorf says the Detroit Vs. Painting game will function as "an epic multiplayer battle that could last a month."
When players log onto visit detroitvspainting.com, they'll see a time meter ticking down from 30 days. The blight monster is programmed to automatically attack the Spirit of Detroit every 30 seconds or so. Users hit back by clicking on the Blight, but you can also purchase special attacks.
"For $1, you'll be able to buy specially animated attack moves performed by those fringe characters who have the Spirit of Detroit's back," Paffendorf says. "Your attack will come with a sharable link so you can boast about your fight with Blight on Facebook. Those dollars will be pooled at the end of each month and donated to the Blight Busters foundation. Through the purchases of the special moves on the site, we'll hopefully raise enough money to tear down a blighted building in real life," Paffendorf says.
"Or, by the end of the month, if not enough hits have been clicked and not enough attacks are bought, it'll be totally feasible that the Spirit of Detroit will be defeated. Blight could win. It's up to us."
As wild as it sounds — an animated oil painting-fighting video game-crowdsourcing platform — Paffendorf's Detroit Vs. Painting Kickstarter is the realization of his quest to not only make the Internet more fun, but to create a platform that meshes virtual activity with real world positive consequence.
"Not to put myself up there with the giants yet, because we haven't had super breakthrough success — though I do feel we're getting there — I like to think what we're doing now is part Disney, part Google," the futurist says. "I like a big story, weird characters, and tech things that aren't only functional but fun to use and somehow artistic. Unlike what I saw in Silicon Valley's technological ecosystem, Detroit leaves room for the artistic side of technology."
Which brings us back to crowdfunding. Guys like Tunde Wey and Jerry Paffendorf are innovating crowdsourcing technology by creating the opportunity for more artful and communal engagements with it.
"Even though I joke that we're helping to create the first digital welfare state, a highly skilled hoard of cyberbeggars, roaming the Web, asking the world to drop coin into the digital hat," Paffendorf says, "Detroit is going to become the mecca of crowdfunding."
On July 30, the Detroit Internet Club, with which both Jerry Paffendorf and Tunde Wey are affiliated, will host an official Kickstarter meet-up with Kickstarter's CEO Perry Chen. It will take place at the Detroit Big F Deal office, located in the Taubman Center for Design Education. There'll be an afterglow of sorts at Northern Lights Lounge, followed by a Detroit Big F Deal bicycle-based pub crawl to raise money for the Fourth Street Community Farm. For more info, facebook.com/detroitinternetclub.
See metrotimes.com for our first MT.TV segment in conjunction with this story. Also for videos of Painting Vs. Blight, the Robocop campaign, the Imagination Station and more.
> Email Travis R. Wright