How Losing My House in a Fire and Being on Oprah Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Crowdfunding

06/02/2017 02:05 pm ET
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By: Ariel Hyatt

This post is an excerpt from Ariel Hyatt's new book CROWDSTART

A few years ago, I lost almost all of my worldly possessions when my apartment caught on fire. I came home from work one day and my home was burned beyond recognition; I saved only my clothes and a few items. I had to start re-assembling the contents of my life one item at a time.

But what was truly interesting to me was what happened after the fire. People I considered my best friends barely came to help, and many other “close” friends came up with excuses for why they couldn’t. However, people I never expected to see came over and were incredibly generous. A passing college acquaintance arrived at my apartment with bleach, gloves and a mask, and helped me scrub the soot and smoke off of every single salvageable item in my kitchen. I had barely spoken to this man in over 10 years, yet there he was.

This was my personal introduction to crowdsourcing — meaning, putting out requests to others for their help and assistance, and seeing what shows up. People crowdsource all kinds of things these days, from books to websites to products to disaster relief. The Chicken Soup for the Soul books are crowdsourced. If you’ve ever filled out a survey or tried out a product and given your opinion, you’ve been part of a crowdsourcing effort. Barn raisings in pioneer days or Habitat for Humanity construction today; telethons, charity fundraisers, bake sales at your local school — all of these are examples of using the power of the crowd to create something bigger than anyone could on their own.

I put a lot of faith in crowds — so much, in fact, that they are the basis of my business. My firm, Cyber PR®, integrates digital marketing with social media strategies to attract and engage crowds for our clients, many of whom are musicians and other creative entrepreneurs. But the origin of my faith in crowds comes from, of all places, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

In 2002, I had been running my boutique PR firm for six years, and I loved it. I spent all of my time getting coverage for my clients on traditional media outlets (magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, etc.). Then one day I got a call from a producer at The Oprah Winfrey Show. The producer had read an article where my mother (a self-help author) had mentioned her entrepreneurial daughter. Could they interview me (and my mom) for a show focusing on generational differences in the workplace?

It would combine live studio and taped interviews with women like Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Faye Wattleton, Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter), and other guests. I, of course, said yes — who wouldn’t say yes to Oprah?

It was the biggest mistake of my life.

Within a week, an Oprah film crew had descended to tape the interview. I sat for hours beneath hot lights in pancake makeup while the producers manipulated the story they wanted out of me. I tried my hardest to paint a rosy picture of my relationship with my mother (which had always been challenging), but without formal media training, I was no match for the highest-rated daytime television producers in America.

On the airdate, Oprah opened the show by promising “a revealing look at what younger women think about older women.” I wish that were true. Instead, the show was really about pitting daughters from my generation against their mothers — ambitious women who had been at the front lines in the battle for women’s equality. These women had sacrificed being mothers for being working women, leaving their daughters in pain.

The interview I taped revealed my personal struggle in front of 40 million viewers. It took years for me to repair the damage that it caused. But I took from that experience an incredibly valuable lesson:

In mass media, you have NO control over how you are represented. I had seen this every day working as a publicist. My clients would be interviewed for hours for a newspaper or TV piece and then one tiny snippet (sometimes taken out of context) would make it onto the news or into the paper.

In mass media, the story is all about their truth. I lost my faith in mass media the day that The Oprah Winfrey Show aired.

But today, things have changed. You can reach and build your crowd without Oprah or TV news or any other form of old-fashioned PR. Today, you can use the multiple streams of social media to find and talk directly to your ideal crowd: the people who know you, like you and trust you enough to buy your stuff and pay attention when you talk.

Seth Godin calls them your “tribe.”

Musicians and celebrities call them “fans.” But whatever you call them, when you find them and interact with them regularly, they will support you.

And that’s when you can start to crowdsource or crowdfund: when you have a really great, responsive crowd.

I had been coaching creative entrepreneurs in building their own crowds through social media for years. Around that time, crowdfunding had started to get a lot of buzz so I decided to try it, both to raise money for my next project, and to learn how to do it so that I could teach it to others.

My crowdfunding campaign, like the fire in my apartment, and being on Oprah taught me that crowdsourcing is a personal journey. You learn a lot about the people who surround you. It’s completely unpredictable: you ask your best friends, your mom, whoever for money, and then it comes from people you wouldn’t expect. I know a few of the 294 people who contributed to my crowdfunding campaign very well, but many were casual newsletter subscribers or friends of friends who shared my campaign and decided to contribute. I was humbled and grateful for each pledge. It means a lot when other people believe enough in your dream to contribute to making it come true.

Crowdsourcers need to stir up interest, passion, and desire in potential buyers before that product or project even exists.

They are asking people to buy into a dream. And they’re asking from a place of vulnerability. Crowdsourcers stand in front of people and say, “I need your help to make my dream come true. Join me.” That takes enormous courage.

When you, as a crowdsourcer, succeed in persuading others to believe in these as-yet-unrealized dreams, you create a built-in audience for your products or services, an audience that has already demonstrated its interest and willingness to invest. More than that, you have cheerleaders.

You aren’t alone. You have an entire crowd backing you up.

And that can feel pretty darn good.

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Ariel Hyatt Has been a fierce entrepreneur for 20 years. She runs Cyber PR, a dynamic social media & content strategy company based in New York City. Her agency places artists on blogs & podcasts, establishes their online brands, and helps them build their fan bases. She has spoken in 12 countries and is the author of four books on social media for musicians, including Music Success in 9 Weeks, which hit number one on Amazon. Her newest book Crowdstart is put now. Free Crowdstart Chapter Download: http://arielhyatt.com/all-about-crowdstart/

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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