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Interview with +Pool

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Archie (middle) and Dong-Ping (right). Source: pluspool.org

On a sunny Manhattan morning I met Archie Lee Coates IV and Dong-Ping Wong to discuss +Pool, their attempt to crowdfund a public pool in the East River that we’ve previously discussed on this site.

Two years into the project, Archie and Dong-Ping are still energized by the work on a daily basis. Archie describes this particular mode of self-initiated project creation, promotion, and development as a kind of “unknown darkness” that they are exploring together. As the team negotiate with public officials, discuss business models, and wade through legal questions, they are learning as they go how to navigate the dark matter. Although the team are artists and architects, in conversation one would be forgiven for mistaking them for startup entrepreneurs.

Source: pluspool.org

Source: pluspool.org

I was keen to meet the +Pool team because it’s the first example of a capital project that we could find evidence of on Kickstarter. As Archie and Dong-Ping tell it, the +Pool would have been “almost impossible to imagine” without a platform like Kickstarter. After introducing the concept to the world during the summer of 2010, and the ensuing media buzz, the team was able to attract the attention and pro-bono effort of engineering giant Arup. This collaboration allowed them to complete a feasibility study, but getting through technical testing that required building mockups was beyond the limits of their ability to self-fund. The team also needed to offset their operating costs to be able to continue working on the project. That’s where the Kickstarter campaign came in.

The most visible result of the campaign is the $41,000 raised in 30 days, but the good will and expression of public support are also important outcomes. The team cite a new willingness from public officials and potential corporate sponsors to discuss the project after their Kickstarter deadline ended and the momentum of the public was visualized.

As testing progresses positively, further steps include making decisions about the business model and fundraising for the next big milestone, which will be the development of final design and engineering that is ready for municipal permitting. The team’s positive experiences with Kickstarter have been instrumental to getting them this far, but the work left to be done will require funding that is an order of magnitude greater than what they’ve already raised.

Depending on how the team decide to move forward, the project might begin to look and act more like a traditional nonprofit, or for that matter a profitable company. Regardless of the business model that they choose, it’s evident that the initial use of self-funding and Kickstarter allowed the team to bootstrap itself to a point of fragile but optimistic accomplishment, giving them access to a category of public and private entities that otherwise could have easily required months or years of continual effort through traditional business development and lobbying tactics. As we develop the Brickstarter platform we will need to address this ‘uncanny valley’ of funding that exists between the initial concept development and investment into the actual capital project. In the meantime, we’re happy to be able to learn from others, like the +Pool, who have waded into these waters first.

Here’s what we learned from the team:

  • Don’t start from scratch if you can help it: By the time the +Pool was posted to Kickstarter they had already launched the concept in public a year earlier and attracted support from media, citizens, and companies that offered pro-bono work to develop the ideas. This made the proposal more believable and enabled the team to be specific about what they needed to do as next steps and how much it would cost.
  • Video helps the pitch, but great video is better: To make the most effective pitch possible, the +Pool team invested a bit of their own money into a video describing the project. Unable to afford market rates for the video production, they offered a small percentage of the Kickstarter proceeds to the videographer, effectively giving away a stake in the campaign so that everyone’s interests were aligned towards producing the best video possible.
  • Timing matters: To capture the broadest support for the project, the team decided to delay their fundraising drive until summer time when the hot weather would more easily encourage people to be excited about a pool.
  • Managing public expectations: In all of their promotional material the team are very clear that the funds are going towards technical mockups. There’s still a long way to go between proving the idea will work and actually building the thing, so it’s important to share this information in an open and clear manner. Doing otherwise will risk damaging the initial goodwill towards the project.
  • Communications infrastructure is important: Beyond the fundraising, Kickstarter is also useful for communicating with the community of funders. The project page does not replace the need for a project website (and the +Pool has a great one) but its updates and mail features are functional and useful for staying in touch with funders. It remains an open question how long the attention span of funders will be.
  • Manage team expectations too: +Pool were in contact with Kickstarter before their campaign and this exchange was useful for the team to learn about what works and what doesn’t on the platform. Although this might have been possible only because the site was still young and not flooded with as many projects as it is today, it brings up the fact that there is an important and active role for the administrators of a platform not only for technical issues but also to establish and transmit the desired culture of the community.
  • Be in it for the long haul: a capital project is a big effort. The flurry of excitement afforded by a site like Kickstarter can be energizing, but it’s only the beginning of something that will probably last multiple years.

Why do I blog this?

Of the things that Brickstater will have to do, a big one is helping make space for teams to nurture ideas into proposals that are perceived as serious by funding sources and authorities. This will inevitably involve some mix of money, capabilities/services, and access to relevant groups (especially in city government) . +Pool’s thoughts are useful for their insight into the experience of a team who is trying to develop a project and how a platform can support that team as best as possible.

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2 comments on ‘Interview with +Pool’

  1. namhenderson says:

    Really appreciate the “Why Do I blog this?” reoccurring framing device that you all have been using.

  2. Bryan says:

    We borrowed the Why Do I Blog This? habit from our friends at the Near Future Laboratory. Shout out to Nicolas and Fabien!

    http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/
    http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/pasta-and-vinegar/
    http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/seventh-and-half/

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