Last April, Thanh Phong, one of the best-known cartoonists and illustrators in Vietnam, launched an online campaign for funding. Working with his friend Khanh Duong, he was hoping to get public support to make a new cartoon series. The appeal went viral.
People were curious. What did the creative brains behind the popular collection of comics, Sat thu dau mung mu (The Murderer with a Pus-Filled Head) have in mind?
But they were also curious about something else. What was this new form of ‘investment’ called crowdfunding? At the time they had little idea. But so attractive was the prospect of seeing Thanh Phong’s new cartoon series, Long Than Tuong (The Dragon General) developed, that a large number of people put in funding.
The reaction was no surprise to Phong and Duong. But whether the project was successful, and the audience trusted them enough to contribute to their target of VND300 million (US$14,300) for the first volume of the series was something they couldn’t predict.
“There have been very few successful crowdfunding projects in Vietnam,” says Duong, who initiated the idea and set up the platform for the project. “And VND300 million is quite a big amount of money — in fact it was the largest valued project in the country at the time.”
He adds: “At the beginning my main challenge was talking Phong into the idea.” The cartoonist was concerned that if the project failed then it would affect his reputation.
There are many reasons for a group of artists to use crowdfunding to help them turn ideas into reality. For Phong and Duong, it’s the freedom and the authority that they would have over their products — in this case, the comic series. Traditionally publishing in Vietnam has always gone through an authorised publisher — the authors have little control over their products. As a trade-off for this freedom, the success of the project depends on the crowdfunding — if they don’t raise enough money, the project will die.
In the case of the Echoes project, formally known as Hanoi Soundwalk, musician Josh Kocepek and his team initially received funding from the Danish Embassy. But they needed more money to continue the project into its second phase and expand it to another country.
Limited funding from international foundations was also the reason that the team behind Zone 9 — A Documentary decided last August to run a crowdfunding campaign. The money they received from the Goethe Institut wasn’t enough to finish the documentary. The team needed an extra US$5,000 (VND105 million) for post-production.
Crowdfunding through platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Gofundme and Rockethub has become a very popular online vehicle for people with ideas to finance their project through product development and market research. In Vietnam, though, this is still a fairly new approach. In 2013, a group of young enthusiasts started the first crowdfunding platform in Vietnam called IG9 and successfully raised money for a few projects, but the site stopped running after about a year. To secure the success of a crowdfunding project in a new ‘market’ like Vietnam, you need more than just luck.
The Right Initiative
Compared to other types of ventures, artistic crowdfunding projects have advantages. Because they are creative, interesting and unique, they have the ability to attract attention. They stand out amongst all the good causes campaigning for your dollars — a lot of them charities, dealing with overwhelming issues — by being more hope-based than problem-based.
The Zone 9 — A Documentary project triggered people’s interest because of its unique subject matter. The film tells of the life of Zone 9, from its establishment to its early closure at the end of 2013. Zone 9 was a unique arts and entertainment complex which emerged in early 2013 on the site of an abandoned pharmaceutical factory. It soon attracted a host of characters from around the world, all hoping to share their ideas and showcase their talents. The space kept growing until December, when its water and power were abruptly cut off and eviction notices served, forcing all establishments to shut down or relocate. Zone 9 was short lived, but its legacy survives to this day. The campaign for the documentary successfully raised US$5,800 (VND122 million) in 30 days.
In the case of Echoes, which was recently awarded the Tech in Asia prize, English musician Josh and his team developed a smartphone app and a map of sounds, based on a mixture of historical sounds from the past and contemporary music. As participants walk around a pre-designed route, they can hear the respective sound for each particular location through their headphones. After the pilot scheme in 2013, the team wanted to expand the project to both Hanoi and Copenhagen. The project raised US$5,175 (VND109 million) in 30 days.
Long Than Tuong offers its potential backers a chance to read interesting comics, drawn by the talented artist Thanh Phong and his team. They ran their campaign for 60 days and received a total of VND330 million. After that success, Phong and Duong started an additional campaign to make the second volume. They aimed to raise VND200 million. By Dec. 31, 2014, the last day of the campaign, they had received over VND250 million.
“In the West, people often start ideas spontaneously,” says Duong. “A potato salad-making campaign [by Zack Danger Brown] received over US$55,000. But in Vietnam, as people are generally not used to crowdfunding, you need to have a ‘better’ idea.”
In the Long Than Tuong campaign, both Duong and Phong didn’t have a bank account in the US, which is required to use international platforms such as kickstarter.com. So Duong had to build his own website with the same functions, which took about a month. The website provided Vietnamese backers with a variety of payment options.
“Not everybody in Vietnam has a Mastercard or Visa to pay online,” says Duong. “So in my system, we included every possible payment option you can think of: from transferring money through Vietnamese bank systems to ATM machine payments and Mobiphone credits, which can be converted back into cash. With people who didn’t feel like going out, we provided them with a phone number to call and we sent someone over to collect the money.” As only Duong and Phong were running the project at the time, they hired a service called giaohangnhanh.vn to collect the money for them.
Even if a team decides to use a pre-existing international platform for their campaign — Echoes used Indiegogo — Josh says there are still plenty of other things to be taken care of.
“It requires a lot of preparation,” he explains. “We worked really hard to make sure our crowdfunding looked really good and that we had interesting stuff to say all the time.”
Once the campaign started, the team behind Echoes had to constantly ‘sell’ the product to through emails, face-to-face conversations, or Facebook. His group also prepared a live concert where people could listen to the music and donate directly to the project.
In most crowdfunding projects, there are no products to sell yet. Therefore, preparing a professional website, a Facebook page and a clip that shows what the project is about is a must.
“In that two minute-clip, you really need to show people who you are,” days Duong. “If you don’t do it right, you’ll just fail.”
His team paid VND10 million for their clips and to prepare their materials.
Don’t Give Up
Once the project is up and running, you can adjust as necessary. Duong and Phong’s target ‘customers’ were 25 years old and up, middle to high-income people living in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But to reach them they found themselves spending VND50 million on advertising through Facebook. This helped them filter and approach those potential customers as well as increase publicity.
The Long Than Tuong project also gave its backers a variety of awards according to the amount of money they contributed: from a miniature of a character in the series to becoming one of the characters in the book.
Yet, if at the beginning the project is slow, you still need to stay positive. “I’ve seen people getting upset or frustrated. But that really doesn’t help,” says Josh.
The nature of a crowdfunding project is that many people follow it and watch its progress, only deciding to give money towards the end of the campaign.
“You need to get over the fear of losing,” says Duong. “We were even prepared to return all the money we had raised to the backers. Fortunately we made it.”