Danae Ringelmann has seen many sides of the finance world--as a Wall Street analyst, as an MBA student, and as a producer trying to raise money for off-Broadway plays. It was that last experience that led her to co-found Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site whose goal is no less than the democratization of finance. Ringelmann came to our offices recently to talk about diversity within tech companies, Indiegogo's experiment with 'forever funding,' and entrepreneurs' biggest crowdfunding mistakes. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
There's been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of women and people of color at tech companies. Indiegogo's employees are nearly half female, and about 45 percent of your leadership is female. Why do you think that is?
We started with a diverse base, me being a co-founder and being a woman. We all have biases, and we all have limited perspectives, so the more diverse you are from the beginning, the easier it is to stay diverse. Many young women who have joined Indiegogo have said one of the reasons they got excited to join us is because they saw so much female leadership at the top. They saw that as an indication that the company would be supportive of them.
As founders, whenever we had to reach out and hire people, one of our first instincts was to reach out to our friends. Most of my friends are women.
The reason we exist is to remove gatekeepers and any biases they might have. We're here to democratize funding for all people. Because that mission is equal-opportunity in nature, it attracts all kinds of people.
You offer campaign owners plenty of advice through your Website and blogs. But what is the one thing that founders are still doing wrong, time and time again?
They need to not ask for money.
What? Isn't crowdfunding all about raising money?
Because of the way fundraising has evolved, people think of fundraising as akin to charity. People have adopted that language for everything. It's the inertia of experience.
An Indiegogo campaign is not just a funding exercise. It's an engagement exercise. It's an invitation exercise. When you're raising money you need to speak like that. You need to say, "This idea is going to exist. Let's do it together. Let's be part of this." As opposed to, "Please give five dollars. Any little bit helps." It's that beggy language that plays on people's guilt. And guilt is not nearly as strong as the desire to make a difference.
You've started a pilot program called Forever Funding to enable companies to continue to raise money after a campaign ends. What led to this?
We got a lot of feedback, mostly from our nonprofit and community project campaign owners, on this one. They'll have a campaign that's launching a product or project. They'll do the work to get the campaign going, set up the backend to optimize analytics, the campaign will do great, and then it ends. The founders have all this interest, and no place for their supporters to go. And then we see them scramble to set up their own Websites.
We're trying to figure out what our customers need and want, and empower people to fund what matters. There might be stages of funding we play with. It's an experiment.
What do you think about big companies using crowdfunding to raise money? It's not as if they have no other way to get the money.
We think it's better for everybody [if big companies use Indiegogo.] I would call Indiegogo a system of collaborative funding. We're not dominated by a zero-sum mentality. Campaigns that have a bigger name attached to them bring more interest in, and that serves everybody.
How do you think the ability to raise equity will change crowdfunding?
I think the ability to invest locally will have a big impact. People know what they know. They know what their neighbors are like and what they need. Equity crowdfunding will allow you to invest what you know. Right now Main Street investors aren't allowed to invest in what they know.
For a business owner, equity crowdfunding is going to be the best loyalty program you could ever have. If you invest in a local restaurant, guess which one you're going to when friends are in town?
What's your favorite Indiegogo campaign so far?
I don't know if I have one. But I love the Miss Possible campaign for so many reasons. It's started by two young entrepreneurs who are passionate about getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math. But they realize the culture celebrates dolls. So they're making dolls that emulate famous women in technology. The first will be Marie Curie. Then they'll use customer feedback to decide who the next doll is. They're offering a much more empowering experience to customers. I love seeing people use business as a tool for social change.
How many Indiegogo campaigns have you personally helped fund?
A hundred? Two hundred? I don't know. There's always cool stuff to make happen.