THESE DAYS IT MIGHT SEEM as if everybody is running crowd-funding campaigns on GoFundMe or Kickstarter, particularly entrepreneurs with business ideas they’d like to get off the ground. But what makes a crowdfunding campaign successful? And how can students learn to use this tool as an alternative to seeking startup funding from angel investors? A new course at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, was created to help students navigate these questions as they oversee their own crowdfunding campaigns—and start their own ventures with the money they raise.
Offered for the first time last fall, the course required students to carry out crowdfunding campaigns for their startup ideas on the popular websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The 12 undergraduates who enrolled decided whether to pursue their own ventures or join other students’ startup teams. In the end, two teams of two, one team of three, and four individuals each built separate ventures. One more experienced student served as an internal consultant for the others.
During the course, which met twice a week, students heard several traditional lectures on topics such as entrepreneurial finance and law, and they completed readings from the book Step-by-Step Crowdfunding by Joseph Hogue. The bulk of students’ time, however, was spent on experiential and independent work as they laid the groundwork for their businesses—building prototypes, securing suppliers, working through contract and liability issues, and preparing for launch. Each crowdfunding campaign kicked off on November 14, during National Entrepreneurship Month, and lasted until December 14.
The course was the brainchild of Jennifer Dinger and Chaim Letwin, assistant professors of management and entrepreneurship. Both professors study how the components of crowdfunding campaigns influence people’s decisions to contribute money to a particular project.
Allowing students to decide whether to be founders who led teams, team members who supported others’ ventures, or consultants to all the teams was a deliberate choice, explains Dinger. The course’s model “relies on the ideas of individual students, so we could not have provided the same level of learning if we had formed set teams or assigned project topics,” she says. She adds that this setup created an interesting class dynamic, in which students who had ideas for businesses brought other students on board as non-equity team members.
The six campaigns in the class collectively raised more than US$23,400 (a seventh campaign had yet to launch at course’s end, due to the need for additional preparation). Two student ventures were particularly successful. The campaign that raised the most money belonged to WarmUp Coffee, founded by senior James Testa, which offered a high-protein coffee for fitness-focused athletes; Testa raised nearly $8,600 from 200 backers. Another venture, The Wicked Fisha, founded by senior Chuck Gibson, promised to produce a line of multitasking fishing equipment, starting with a combination cooler-tackle box; Gibson raised more than $6,600 from 171 backers.
In both instances, says Dinger, the founders took advantage of their connections in the Boston metro area to achieve two important elements of successful crowdfunding—raising awareness and telling a compelling story. “They were willing to talk to anyone about their businesses and really went above and beyond to get the word out.”
Other ventures included Buddha Bus Yoga, a mobile yoga studio; Vegitano, a health food brand for those following vegan or gluten-free diets; Goliath Gallon, a supplier of reusable BPA-free gallon bottles; and NEO Miners, a space-travel-themed card game focused on resource management and economics. Another venture, The Upward
Bound Project, was a social enterprise that planned to raise funding for high school seniors who wanted to take part in the university’s entrepreneurial summer camp, Startup Suffolk.
Once the fall semester course ended, three of the students replaced their capstone courses with independent study, in which they continued pursuing their ventures in partnership with professors specializing in entrepreneurship.
Dinger and Chaim are running the course again this spring, with 16 students enrolled. These students will work with outside service providers, including graphic design students in the university’s New England School of Art and Design and law students at Suffolk Law School. In the future, says Dinger, the professors would like to see students from disciplines such as graphic design, law, and even film enroll in the course as subject matter experts, so they can gain a better understanding of how their talents might support venture creation.
“The biggest surprise to us was how much students were able to do in just a few months,” says Dinger. She adds that she and Chaim were especially pleased at how quickly students developed truly entrepreneurial outlooks. “While we created this as a crowdfunding course, it was more like an incubator. As several students began saying over the course of the semester, ‘This isn’t a class. It’s a lifestyle.’”
To read about students’ crowdfunding campaigns, visit entrepreneurship.suffolk.edu/crowdfunding.php.