Online Dreamers: Can Crowd-Funded Small Businesses, Artists, and Pie-Makers Improve Our Quality of Life?

Adam Crawford has a whale-sized obsession parked in his front yard. It's a 31-foot Airstream trailer built in 1974, a gleaming jewel of American enterprise that inspired generations of wanderers to hit the road and explore. These days, the silver-skinned craft needs some work—he's gutted the interior, put in new plumbing, and is about ready to start the electrical work. But Crawford isn't planning on taking vacations to the Grand Canyon once he's restored the artifact. Instead, the 39-year-old Halls resident has an entirely different quarry haunting his dreams:

It will become his workplace—a mobile kitchen from which to serve hungry Knoxvillians his own take on Asian/Southern fusion cuisine. And he's going to call it the Guerilla (only one "r" intended) Grill.

"I've always longed to work for myself," says Crawford, who has made a living as something of a jack-of-all-trades, bouncing between restaurant, photo, audio, and design work. "With a mobile business, the opportunities are pretty well limited only by how imaginative one is. I recently visited Seattle, Folly Beach, and Savannah. And what I witnessed of the mobile vendors there was a revelation for me. Once I saw what they were doing, I was like, ‘Damn, that's genius. It's perfect.'"

But is Guerilla Grill the sort of perfect idea that will succeed?

Used to be, there was only one way to find out: Withdraw all your savings, get a loan, or ask your family for money—and then put everything on the line to see if your business plan works. Generally speaking, finding investors was not a big option for first-time entrepreneurs. But with the rise of crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, that's changed—a business background is not necessarily the determining factor for financial backing. With a good idea and a personal story well told, someone who's never owned a business venture before can enlist enough small supporters to launch that dream. And the supporters don't expect a financial return for their money—they simply want the product you've promised to make or the service you plan on providing.

"People are helping you because they believe in what you're doing," Crawford says. "And that's something you simply cannot put a price tag on."

But, of course, you must—that's how crowd-funding sites work. In Crawford's case, he ran a campaign at Indiegogo in November asking for $10,000 to fund the Airstream's conversion to a mobile kitchen—for items such as propane lines, an exhaust hood, a generator, etc.—not to mention a truck with enough torque to pull it all. Despite an adorable video featuring his daughter Robin as host, and the lure of T-shirts, the campaign only netted $805 from 17 contributors. But this has not deterred him from his goal: "I'm gonna try to make it happen one way or another," he declares, though he admits, "I may have to slim down to a smaller size Airstream."

While there are certainly many ill-fated local campaigns that fall short, other Knoxville crowd-funding projects have had remarkable success. Two of the biggest Knox campaigns on Indiegogo involved building renovations: The Banks House 2.0, which converted a decrepit warehouse on Banks Avenue into a Christian community/music center, raised almost $110,000; and the Mary Boyce Temple House, the historic residence that greets travelers crossing the Henley Bridge into downtown, gathered just under $22,500. Among the morass of local bands with recording-budget pleas, the Dirty Guv'nahs stand out with their 2012 effort that garnered over $36,000—and just last month, they raised more than $40,000 for another CD. Knoxville-based fantasy RPG game company Studio 2 Publishing raised over $50,000 at Kickstarter in 2012—twice. Then there are the smaller projects—comedians who want to go on tour, filmmakers who aim to finish their documentaries, artists who need time away from rent payments to make their art.

In one form or another, these projects lure in supporters with the promise of creating something that will somehow make life here just a little bit better. It could be a product offering a new convenience, an artistic endeavor to help open minds, or a Korean pork barbecue tostado that you can't get anywhere else. Consider it a form of community investment on a micro scale. But what happens after the money is collected and the dreams must be forced into reality? How tangible are the results? Here are some Knoxville stories of crowd-funded hopes and the obstacles they face along the way to completion.

The Delightful Niche Product

Gregory Spaw believes in clean design. The adjunct assistant professor at the University of Tennessee teaches undergrad and grad students in the College of Architecture and Design, with a specific emphasis on digital visualization, digital design, and digital fabrication—which includes an Airstream project that's "really letting students look at the nature of materials and fabrication techniques, and push that in ways are typically not necessarily common." He also enjoys craft beers. Which brings us to Leverage.

Gregory and his brother Michael had been talking for years about starting their own company to make things—artistic objects with useful purposes. Michael has been employed in the video games and special effects industries in California while Gregory had been working in the United Arab Emirates ("where you're basically making a city from scratch") before landing at UT. Whenever they crossed paths, their conversations would turn to: "Wouldn't it be cool if we started making smaller pieces?" Inspiration struck in the summer of 2012 as they pondered what to do with a sheet of carbon fiber that Michael had in his Sacramento home.

"We were just amazed by the material and the strength of it," Spaw says. "It's still kind of an expensive material, but at the same time it's becoming more prevalent, so we're at that cusp where it can be employed in things that are not just aerospace or high-end racing or things like that."

How about something rather, well, prosaic? As it happens, Michael likes craft beers, too. So the brothers decided to develop a high-tech bottle opener, utilizing Michael's handy CNC (computer numerical control) mill. The finished item is a smooth, sleek rectangle of black, twilled carbon fiber, with a small rectangular hole set on one side. And that's it. But Leverage, as they named it, makes perfect sense. It looks cool and it fits in your wallet. And it opens bottles. The brothers carried their mock-ups around for about a year—starting conversations and seeing how well the devices held up—before they decided to give production a shot.

"We originally weren't necessarily thinking about going the crowd-funding route," Spaw says. "But part of the thing that excited us was that you could see that products could develop a real following and it might actually be a be really good way to get it out to a bunch of people who might not see it through other means."

They launched their campaign on Kickstarter on Sept. 13, 2012, charging $20 per bottle opener, and offering laser-engraving incentives for larger donors. Spaw was taking a group of grad students to New York for a three-day study tour via a Megabus, and they were just pulling into Manhattan as the Leverage page went live. Within 10 minutes, the Spaws' new company, Kumquat, had its first orders.

"By the time we had gotten near 34th Street, I was already getting e-mails saying sales were coming in for the first 12 special offers," Spaw says. "It was super exciting to be walking through Times Square and just seeing stuff come in—it was incredible."

Write-ups on blogs like Gizmodo, the Awesomer, and Cool Material certainly helped spread the word, and the brothers blew past their $2,400 goal in two days, eventually amassing $29,203 from over 800 backers by the campaign's Oct. 13 end date. They had set up their production plan ahead of time in order to make deliveries by Christmas, but the unexpected flood of orders did cause a few worries.

"That was really important to us—that we could deliver," Spaw says. "And that's one of the things we saw as a real negative with crowd-sourcing: folks that don't take it seriously, or can't deliver because of unforeseen circumstance. But we worked through a lot of the logistics ahead of time to make sure it would be a good experience for everyone. That's the flip side of doing things online: Your reputation is really the only thing that you have."

Kumquat has produced some 3,000 Leverage bottle openers thus far, with online sales to over 30 countries and even brick-and-mortar sales in places like the SF MOMA shop and Nothing Too Fancy in downtown Knoxville. It has also inspired imitators.

"Since we put it out there, there have been other Kickstarter campaigns where certain things were changed or tweaked slightly that make you go, ‘Really, guys?' But there were wallet openers before us. The thing that we felt we were bringing to the equation was the material nature, the light weight—that was the interesting thing about it."

The brothers are pondering new products they might bring to market that could involve "ceramic mechanisms," like spice grinders. "And I don't think we're totally tapped out on the carbon fiber thing," Spaw says. "So we've done some initial testing, but we won't talk about that much."

Knoxville's Ongoing Drama

Here's what the Knoxville performing-arts scene could really use: a venue with around 200 seats for small (but not too small) theater and music productions. Right now, the options vault from, say, Theatre Knoxville's 40-50-seat space on North Gay to the Bijou Theatre's 700 seats on South Gay, with little (or nothing) in between. So if your performance group can only afford to produce a mid-sized show, you're pretty much out of luck. At least for now.

Just such a venue sort of exists—and was utilized in a crowd-funded theater production—but its future as a performance space remains in flux.

The non-profit Flying Anvil Theatre, founded in 2011 by friends Jayne Morgan and Staci Swedeen, seeks to bring an edgier kind of theater to Knoxville—off-Broadway-style productions that take creative risks. So far, the group has performed in spaces as disparate as the Knoxville Museum of Art and Big Fatty's restaurant in Bearden. But, according to Morgan, what they need is a home base.

"When you look around for Knoxville for some place to rent and you run the numbers, it's awfully hard for you to survive or have one production pay for the next one without a space you control," Morgan says. "If it's too small, you don't generate enough money to be able to pay people. If it's too big, it's too costly."

Likewise, renting a space like the Bijou means only having it for one or two nights—which makes it nearly impossible to build word of mouth, a necessity for successful theater in Knoxville, Morgan says. "So we didn't necessarily want to have our own space. It was sort of, how else do we do this? It's a conundrum that every theater company in town has—where do we produce? We thought, instead of giving a lot of money to somebody else, why don't we try to pull it off ourselves? It's a tough, tough thing to pull off."

So, for the past few years, Morgan kept her eyes peeled as she drove around town, imagining the possibilities at empty retail spaces, industrial buildings, even an old church. However, a theater's list of needs is long: unobstructed views, high ceilings, sound-proofing, parking, dressing rooms, and sufficient electricity. The possibilities quickly became limited. But 525 North Gay St. looked promising. A former Willys car dealership built in 1924, the ramshackle building in the so-called Mission District actually contains a large, open space inside, featuring a long concrete ramp leading to what was once the dealership's showroom. Morgan says she "could immediately see the possibilities."

Owned by Hatcher-Hill Properties, the 20,000-square-foot building needed a complete rehab before becoming a usable public space. Fortunately, that's what developer Tim Hill had in mind, and he proceeded to give the property a rather fabulous makeover, featuring a large art deco chandelier and wall sconces in the lobby, new bathrooms, even a new movie-palace-style sign outside: JEWEL. But, in order to make this their new home, Flying Anvil would need to make the space more theater-friendly—such as the lighting and sound-proofing—and sign a year-long lease. And that's when they turned to crowd-funding. The troupe's board of directors gave Morgan and "chief instigator" David Dwyer 30 days to raise $100,000. "A very quixotic venture," Morgan admits.

Earlier in the year, Flying Anvil had run a successful campaign on Indiegogo to send Swedeen to the 2013 Piccolo Spoleto Theatre Festival in Charleston to perform her one-woman show Pardon Me For Living: A Biting Comedy. But that was for just $3,500. They turned to Indiegogo again—utilizing a video tour of the space to help donors imagine what it could be like as a performance space—and were able to raise about $13,000, including offline donations. (Indiegogo charges up to 9 percent of the raised funds for its services, so some donors give directly.)

"Which is a drop in the bucket, but I was really pleased," Morgan says. "We raised it from people all over the country. I think we would've been shocked if we had raised $100,000, but we are optimists, and we were willing to put it out there and see what happens."

And what eventually happened was that the proceeds funded their production of Venus in Fur by David Ives, which they were able to perform in the newly renovated space at 525 N. Gay. Word of mouth spread with each performance, and by the last show of the backstage comedy, the run was a success. For Dwyer, a longtime character actor most recently seen in Anchorman 2, the troupe proved that their concept worked—that there is indeed a community of theatergoers in Knoxville who will support more daring fare, particularly at that daring location. And the crowd-funding campaign, despite its relatively low turnout, was certainly part of the buzz.

"It's a thrill—not necessarily for the money, but that there's other people out there that feel like I do," Dwyer says. "You create a community at large. We're saying, ‘Hey, we think this is a great idea.' Then other people agree—by sending you money. What a great concept!"

Morgan had dreams of using the theater space to serve more than just the paying community; with its location near the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and the Volunteer Ministry Center, she envisioned making Flying Anvil truly part of its neighborhood by reaching out to tell the stories of Knoxville's homeless.

"Theater can be part of a conversation about what happens in neighborhoods like this, and part of our mission is not just to shock or surprise you, but also to connect you with stories you don't normally hear," she says. "And that would be a really great opportunity for us to work with a community you may interact with but you may not understand their stories at all. And I'd think there's got to be some pretty interesting stories there."

But, while the much-needed mid-sized theater space was mostly ready, and the Flying Anvil troupe wanted to use it, there was still one factor missing: enough money for an extended lease, which Morgan feels is necessary to plan a complete season of shows. Flying Anvil and Hatcher-Hill were unable to agree on numbers that would work for both parties, so the freshly opulent space remains empty as it awaits a new tenant. (Hill reports he's currently working with a "higher education institution" to lease the entire building and the adjacent parking lot.)

"The good news is we learned a lot," Morgan says. "We know how to create a cool theater in raw space, we're in good financial shape, we have a slate of killer shows we're ready to produce, and an audience anxious to see what we do next. We even have a couple of people who have come forward to sponsor shows.

"If we can find a damn space, we'll be ready to rock and roll. That's the missing piece of the puzzle, and it's a considerable challenge in this town for some reason, but we'll continue to try to solve it. So I'm optimistic in spite of this setback."

For the Love of Pie

On any given Saturday morning at the Market Square Farmers' Market, among the beehive of smoky food trucks, serene crafters, and produce purveyors, there sits an inviting pale-blue beacon to the virtues of deep-fried pastry dough: Dale's Fried Pies.

Previously, fried pies were the sort of thing you typically found sitting on the counter at your local convenience store, wrapped in wax and mysteriously labeled by hand. They promise flavorful intrigue, but most often deliver a stale crust and a withered filling. But proprietor Dale Mackey has re-envisioned the fried pie as a culinary treat that rises above its gritty origins to attain new levels of sweet and savory awesomeness: from traditional apple or peach to green chile chicken, the Elvis (banana, peanut butter and Benton's bacon) and the mac and three cheese.

Mackey's stand has been a popular destination since it joined the Farmers' Market in September of 2012. At first, it was something of a side project for Mackey, who'd always wanted to open a food business but knew she lacked the experience to take on a full restaurant. So she decided to focus on doing one thing well: perfecting the fried pie. Customers liked them immediately.

"I knew they were good, you know, because I made them and knew what went into them," she says, "but I've gotten a lot of attention for them, which has been sort of surprising to me. It's been a very warm reception from the Knoxville community. If you have something that's good, people will really root for you."

But so far, Mackey hasn't been able to actually make the pies on site—she has to dash over to Dazzo's Pizzeria on Gay Street, which lets her use their deep fryers as she shuttles pies back and forth. That means she has to guess how many pies to fry in batches, inevitably resulting in too many or too few pies as demand ebbs and flows. So what she really needs is a food trailer equipped with a kitchen so she can cook them to order.

Thus, Mackey turned to Kickstarter last March to fund the work to create her mobile kitchen. Would Knoxvillians be amenable to paying someone to expand their pie-production business? As it turned out, yes—Mackey exceeded her $3,500 goal by raising almost $5,500 from 147 backers. While some supporters lived outside of the area and probably would never personally benefit from a fried-pie trailer in Knoxville, most of them were people Mackey knew or had sold pies to.

"People like to feel invested in the places that they frequent and where they spend their money, and this is kind of a way to feel like you're a little bit of a part of it," Mackey says. "I definitely have people come up and they'll buy a pie and then they'll say, ‘Hey, I donated to your Kickstarter project.'"

Although Mackey has delivered on all of her incentive packages (fried-pie gift cards, T-shirts, stickers), the actual trailer is still not completed. Her financial life took a turn soon after the campaign ended when she left her job at Community Television of Knoxville. So now much of her income is derived from Dale's Fried Pies—income that was originally intended to complete the trailer renovation.

"When I first opened it, I thought this would be a tiny little hobby of mine that may teach me lessons as I move forward and try to do something bigger—but I didn't really think this would be my full-time job a year later," she says.

But Mackey still plans on finishing the trailer. Some of her backers have been asking about the project—"Not in an aggressive or an accusatory way, but definitely people are invested in it happening and are interested in it, but no one seems impatient," she says—and it's their participation that's keeping her on task, she says.

"If I had just bought the trailer on my own, even if I had gotten a bank loan, at this point now I might say, ‘Forget it. I'm not going to finish this trailer right now. It is just too much,'" Mackey says. "But, having taken money from all different kinds of people, friends and family and people I don't even know, it's actually putting me on the hook to finish it even though financially I'm in a financially different place than I was when I did the Kickstarter project."

Mackey currently plans to have the Dale's Fried Pies trailer ready by this spring.

***

Meanwhile, back in Halls, Adam Crawford continues to work on his giant Airstream.

"I've got about a third of the equipment that I'm gonna need, and once I get the paneling up all I've got to do is move the equipment in and it'll be good to go," he says. "I'm actually going to end up selling my car in order to get a truck large enough to pull it. That's how dedicated I am to the project."

If there's one unifying principal among crowd-funded would-be business owners, it's the desire to control their own destinies. Which most people can identify with, even if they can't make that break themselves.

"I was doing audit work for physicians at Summit Medical Group, and, oh, it was just depressing," Crawford says. "That was really the impetus for me to leave, and if I don't do it now… I don't want to be laying on my deathbed looking back and thinking, ‘I woulda, shoulda, coulda.'"