Conversations: Lucy Sparrow
After having spoken to Jess, (and later having had a lovely hair cut off Jess), she very kindly sent a group message around a couple of people on Facebook and included me in it. The message briefly outlined what I was up to and that I was needing people to speak to, and I think that it helped that I wasn't a journalist. A couple of the people in the message were artists I had already attempted to contact, but were probably not using their Kickstarter accounts or not very hot on checking their emails. After intermittent Facebook messages I finally skyped Lucy over a black coffee, sat at my desk in my bedroom, with only one brief technology failure.
Skyping Lucy Sparrow, Friday 13th March, 2015
Zara Worth The most striking aspect of your project is how over-funded you were, you were over funded by 537%, which is amazing, how do you think think this project was so successful? Had you anticipated this level of success?!
Lucy Sparrow It certainly wasn’t expected in anyway, whatsoever, I was worried that I wouldn’t even get £2000, because on Kickstarter you don’t get the money unless you reach the full amount. So I was just thinking, ‘Please! Please!’, and it got featured on Kickstarter, which helped a lot., and then it just kind of went viral from there, it just BOOMED! So that definitely helped things, and it just seemed to go all over the world. I think people identified with it because it was a really fun project, a really mad project, and I think the community aspect of it was quite interesting as well: Corner shops are something that people are always familiar with, regardless of what country they are in.
ZW It is interesting that you mention this community aspect of the project. Would you say that through Kickstarter a new community formed around your project?
LS Yes, definitely. I don’t know how much contact they had with each other, but Kickstarter is like a community in itself. I had no idea of this. I had only heard of it when somebody suggested I tried crowd funding. I had no idea, they’ve got forums, there are people that pledge on projects all the time; it’s like a Facebook for crowd funding. And, I had no idea this all existed, it has much more of a community than I had thought, I had thought it was just random.
ZW The project itself was socially minded as well, so although it is this fun project, it does have that socially aware side to it, do you think that helped the project? As opposed to trying to fund an other artwork where you might have been just asking for funds to make one thing without that social dimension.
LS Quite possibly, I think all artworks should have different layers, different facets to their functionality. If you are just making something essentially self-pleasing it is a bit selfish, it doesn’t help anyone or involve anyone – and I’m not keen on art like that. So yes I think it did help, and I think that people saw that it was, not a selfless project because I obviously loved it; it was fun, but it definitely helped the crowd funding. Neighbourhoods aren’t what they used to be like, and increasingly people are living in neighbourhoods where no one speaks to their neighbours anymore!
ZW So why did you start crowd funding?
LS Well I have always self-funded my own exhibitions, but this was the first that was this ambitious, I had never done anything so huge. It is reasonably ok to just try and raise five grand by saving up your wages to put on a solo show, but Cornershop was so, so demanding. I mean compared with bigger budgets it was probably cheap, everything is always done on a shoe string. I was after Arts Council Funding, because obviously it looks good to have that support, but also it makes the money side a little bit easier; you can give up full-time work whilst you are working up to it. I would never have been able to do this if I was working eight, nine hours a day. It only just got done when I was working all the hours!
ZW Had you started looking at other sources of funding before embarking on the Kickstarter project? Obviously you received match-funding from the Arts Council, but had you considered other routes previously? Like funding it entirely through the Arts Council or another body?
LS Yeah. That was the original idea. I got turned down once by the Arts Council; I’d never applied before and had no idea how to do it, it is really horrendous! I have heard from a lot of people that they generally reject you about three times before thy even start looking at you.
ZW A test of commitment!
LS Yeah, see how hardy you are! It was originally the plan to try and get all the funding from the Arts Council, and then they told me to try and get funding from somewhere else. So someone said to me, ‘Have you tried crowd funding?’, and I thought, well I don’t know what that is! I’d sort of heard about it, but it didn’t really know a lot. I set out to raise £2000, because that was 10% of what I was asking from the Arts Council: which was originally £20,000. Obviously didn’t get that! Then went back, got turned down again! And it was only the third time, when I asked for £8000 that I actually got it.
ZW And was that on the basis that you also got some money through Kickstarter?
LS Yeah, though I had got the money through Kickstarter before, and I got the money from the Arts Council two weeks into Cornershop being open!
ZW Oh god! That must have been stressful!
LS I was so hard up! I was destitute! There was no money, there was zero money it was very much a position of waiting to be paid back. The Arts Council seems to assume that you’ve got this buffer of money that you can just pay out ten grand to put on this thing and then they’ll just pay you back, and people don’t have that! I was lucky because I had some in savings and I had earnt a lot more from Kickstarter than I had thought I would, and I had been saving in the months prior, I had sold a bit of artwork, so that helped a bit. They say that it is really good for artists to pay themselves, the Arts Council rate is £150 per day apparently – I don’t think I have ever earnt £150 a day. I certainly have never paid myself that much, and I’m certainly not doing it now. Even thought Cornershop was really successful it just doesn’t work like that. The amount they make you work for that funding – which is fine, I’m not expecting to be given money for nothing – that’s insane, but you certainly don’t get rich or actually make any money off the Arts Council.
ZW So how did you find the process of crowd funding?
LS The only downside that I had, is that I wasn’t prepared for it going well. I think you always assume the worst, but no one ever tells you to prepare for something to go very well. So I was just wildly unprepared and it meant that I was actually making the rewards for Kickstarter for four months! Before I could actually start the stuff for the shop. So I essentially had to make two shops before it was done.
ZW I noticed that you had very generous rewards, I thought they were very good!
LS As much as anyone says, ‘If you donate ten pounds you get a nice fuzzy feeling’, its like, NO. That’s not how it works. I certainly wouldn’t donate to something on the basis of a warm fuzzy feeling. I’m just not that misguided that I would think that someone would want to help just for the hell of it. Kickstarter has this sense of it being a little bit like a shop. But, there you go. I’m quite happy to do that. And what you do get out of Kickstarter, which you wouldn’t out of something else, is this massive audience that you would never ever get, probably for even the Arts Council actually, because they didn’t do a lot of press. I mean I didn’t need it in the end, but with Kickstarter it just goes crazy!
ZW Yeah, because you are forming a guaranteed audience for your work whilst you are funding raising.
LS Absolutely, you are forming an audience of people from all over the world, there is no sort of regional aspect to it, it is everywhere!
ZW Were you very surprised by this international response to your project? Did you have much of an idea about where the money was coming from?
LS Yeah, pretty much 60% of the money came from outside of the UK.
ZW So people that really would very likely never visit the exhibition!?
LS Yes, exactly. It was really, really crazy. I think Kickstarter has more momentum in the U.S. than in the U.K. The U.K. Kickstarter only started about three years ago, whereas it’s been in the States for quite a while. So people in the UK aren’t necessarily as wise to it as they are abroad.
ZW Before you started the project had you sought out support from people who’d also gone through the process of crowd funding?
LS Not really, well I spoke to one person and just asked what their experience has been, but I spoke to them about a day in to my project, and by then it had already gone crazy, so it probably looked like I was taking the piss to be honest.
ZW Was it like a tidal wave, or was it gradual?
LS Total initial tidal wave. I went to bed on the first night, with it being £600, and when I woke up it was five grand., and it just kept going up and up and up.
ZW So were friends and family quick to support it, or was it mainly this overseas group of backers that got the project going?
LS I had friends and family support it, but it was only like 1%, or 2%! I mean, I’ve got wonderful friends, but they didn’t need to. They did it for moral support, maybe I knew 5% of the people that donated; through Facebook and general people…
ZW Like you said, I think it must have just really captured people’s imagination. Was there any unexpected ‘in-kind’ support?
LS Yeah, there was a girl who first of all donated on Kickstarter and then got in touch, and she then went on to help me with the Arts Council application, and I got a little bit of money from Tower Hamlets council as well, and we’ve become really good friends through community work. She has taught me a lot about not being a selfish artist, and being a lot more giving and being in the community, and less about my personal dream.
ZW So have you formed many new networks that have lasted? Like you said only 5% or so were people you already knew, have you formed many new relationships as a result of Kickstarter?
LS Yes, I’ve definitely got people that are now following my career quit closely that I wouldn’t have had without Kickstarter, that are now friends on Facebook, or follow my website, they email now and again.
ZW So you are making an effort to maintain these relationships as well?
LS Absolutely, I think it is important that, as they are abroad and I am taking more exhibitions abroad, I can take it to places that they are, and then they can come and see the work without having to fly five thousand miles!
ZW So, when you spoke to Jess before she started her campaign, what was the advice that you gave her? Having reflected on your experience, what were the key things that you had taken away?
LS Probably to have good rewards, be very organised, get it out there. I am not a massive fan of sort of begging people for money. But, it is easy to say that when I didn’t have to, so I don’t know if I have a right to say that.
ZW So when you were doing any self-publicising, did you not contact any people directly?
LS No, I never contacted anyone. Because I think that I wouldn’t want somebody to do that to me. If someone wants to give then they will, so if someone doesn’t reply to your email the first time when you are asking for money, chances are they never will and they don’t want to, and you should respect that. People have all sorts of different financial situations, and just because they are your friends, doesn’t mean that they have to give you money. It is a tricky one, it really is, but I think that energy can be better spent in other places, doing interviews and making it a project that people want to support without you asking them.
ZW So your publicity strategy wasn’t so much about appealing to people directly as much as just throwing your project out there and building a network around the project?
LS Yep, 100%, I made a Facebook page, I had a little crowd funding party. I just went and bought a box of beers and was like, ‘Come to my crowd funding party!’ Maybe forty people came, it was just in London, it was basically just my friends so I don’t know how successful that was to be honest. I did quite a lot of stuff on Facebook, but Kickstarter did a lot of the work for me and a lot of people did that work for me because it went crazy online.
ZW I noticed that the descriptions for your reward bands are very conversational, and I think that ties in with the approach you took as a whole. Rather than asking for money with nothing in return, you seemed to be more explicitly selling your project. There was also a sense of trying to form a dialogue with backers.
LS Yes, 100%, I don’t think that was intentional, it was just sort of the way it came out. One thing I did before I made the video was look on the Kickstarter page on ‘How to make a successful campaign’, and I remember it just saying, ‘Make your video really fun, and make your rewards good, put yourself in their shoes, who would you want to back, someone fun? Someone who made an effort’. You don’t get something for nothing.
ZW It’s funny that you say that, you say in your video, ‘We all know you don’t get something for nothing. There was a very established sense of it being an exchange between yourself and your backers, there was no reward band in your campaign without some actual form of reward.
LS No, absolutely, and I wouldn’t expect anything less. I think some people see Kickstarter and rubbish it as a shop and say its not a ‘real crowd funding thing’ because you are still essentially selling something, and not pledging for nothing, and I don’t know why that is a bad thing at all. Why not just make it completely transparent. Why is there any kind of weird hierarchy to donating money, rather than selling stuff to raise bigger sums, I don’t know. It’s probably not the best financial approach, because you end up spending more money, however, in the long run it works out fine. I work crazy hours anyway, it’s not like I was losing anything.
ZW Do you think that in the end, you ended up spending more money than you anticipated?
LS Oh 100%! There was stuff that I didn’t even think of. I never had a location until two weeks before we opened! I basically had to get a huge chunk of money and wave it in front of this landlords face and say, ‘Have this money, I’m moving in regardless, if you don’t let me, I’m going to break in anyway!’
ZW You had the highest number of backers of any of the projects that I surveyed, as we discussed it obviously went viral, do you think a lot of that was down to people then sharing your project for you? So your backers became your audience, your fans and your publicists?
LS Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons why Kickstarter works so well. I sound really cynical, but, people want to be seen as cool, a nice person, someone who supports projects. Social media is very vain. And if they do something good, of course they want the credit for it. So they will share, ‘I donated to this project!’, so it looks good on them, it looks good to their friends.
ZW I know what you mean. To some extent, part of the reward for the backer is actually the illusion of altruism!
LS Very much so.
ZW There was a very clear grouping of donations, with the majority of them below £50, was this as you had expected? Because you had got those higher reward bands, but people hadn’t tapped into them particularly, not that it did you any detriment.
LS Kickstarter generally say, that you should aim that the average donation is going to be £20 to £25, so you should have something very desirable for that band, something that people are really going to want. For someone who has a full-time job, £20 is generally the maximum that you can dispose of without necessarily missing.
ZW Would you use crowd funding again?
LS I would if I needed to, but at the moment I’m fine. I was really lucky, Cornershop was so successful that I actually feel like I don’t have the right to use it again. I have now set up a Limited company because of the shop being such a big success and I am quite happy to sell fun stuff through the company. I would rather other people Kickstart their projects and I don’t take away their potential donations. I think I’ve got an audience now and hopefully I don’t need their backing again, I of course will still stay in contact with people but I just don’t need to. And it would feel very selfish, just in the same way that I wouldn’t go for Arts Council funding again, because I’m alright. It just would be a bit cheeky. It was great, I made some great money and it has Kickstarted my career in a way that I never could of imagined and I don’t want to take the piss, I don’t want to be greedy. There are lots of other worthwhile projects out there which need funding, rather than mine, which I am quite happy to fund myself.
ZW Do you have any final thoughts or comments that you think you’d like to make about your experience?
LS I think I’ve covered it. I would definitely advise anyone else who hasn’t tried it to go for it and use crowd funding, I am definitely glad someone suggested I use it. And also for anyone going for it, prepare yourself for it to go well! Don’t count on it, but don’t be surprised if it does, just be prepared!
Summary of Lucy's Project
- Project Title: The Cornershop
- Crowd funding platform: Kickstarter
- Initiator: Lucy Sparrow
- About the Initiator: An independent, professional artist
- Associated with other institutions: Yes
- Arts Council Support: Yes
- Goal: £2000
- Actual: £10,744
- Date successfully funded: 22nd February 2014
- Total number of backers: 361
- Number of Reward Bands: 8
For more information on Lucy's work please follow the links below:
Research conducted by Zara Worth
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