Let’s Get This Party Started

Sometimes a great idea just needs a good kick-start.
Written by Lindsey Lowe

Sometimes, it starts with a problem. Sometimes, it’s a flash of inspiration or a desire to make a difference. It begins in different ways, but it happens to all of us. There is something that we encounter, something we see or hear, and from that, a new thing springs to life. “Hey!” we say. “I have an idea!”

It happens to all of us, but we don’t all make the leap from idea to endeavor. This is partly because some of our ideas are terrible, but it’s partly because our next question is often, “How?” Well, for some people with some ideas, the answer is a little website called Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website launched in 2008 with a vision to “bring creative projects to life.” Its goal is to connect creative initiatives and the people who believe in them, turning the ideas of the dreamer into everyone’s reality. Said dreamers post projects on the website and choose how long they will stay there (30 days is recommended), determine a funding goal, and then spread the word. All Kickstarter projects must meet their goals in order to receive any funds—it’s an all-or-nothing approach. If a project is successful, Kickstarter keeps 5 percent of the generated funds, and the rest goes to make the project happen; that is to say, the beauty of creativity marries the logistics of funding, and something awesome is born. In March of 2014, Kickstarter surpassed $1 billion in project pledges.

Kickstarter has a great feature that allows users to search by city, which means you can fund the people in your own neighborhood. We’d like to introduce you to four Magic City dreamer-turned-doers who got creative, got backed, and got the party started.

A young student who first refused to write (at DISCO’s booth at the Slow Food Fair) and then, once he started, couldn’t be pulled away from his story.

A young student who first refused to write (at DISCO’s booth at the Slow Food Fair) and then, once he started, couldn’t be pulled away from his story.

In some ways, Kickstarter and the Desert Island Supply Co. have the same mission. You might not glean it from their name, but DISCO’s main purpose isn’t to provide you with things you might need on a desert island. Well, they’re really in the business of one thing: Imagination. On a desert island, it’s the thing that just might keep you alive.

The idea was sparked by 826 Valencia, a San Francisco nonprofit (started by Dave Eggers) dedicated to supporting students ages 6–18 with their writing skills. Chip Brantley, who cofounded DISCO with his wife, Elizabeth Hughey, heard about 826 Valencia and, being a writer himself, the idea intrigued him. 826 now has chapters across the U.S. and has inspired a number of spinoff programs. Brantley thought Birmingham ought to have one.

He began by calling 826 Chicago to ask for some guidance. If he was to start something like it, how would he go about it? The advice was simple: Start from the inside. Find out what’s needed, build it from the bottom. So that’s what Brantley did. In the spring of 2010, DISCO went into Woodlawn High School and asked what was needed. They found that kids needed help writing college essays, doing homework, even working on entries for a spoken word poetry contest. That summer, DISCO hosted a workshop that introduced the concept of journalism to 20 rising ninth graders at Woodlawn, earning a cohort of advocates for the program. They began meeting in Woodrow Hall, offering more free workshops for kids. They gained an understanding for what kind of creative tools the kids of Birmingham needed, and they developed a mission, which is “to give Birmingham-area students more opportunities to write and create.” They offer free writing and creative workshops to students ages 7–18, as well as after-school homework help and in-school programs.

Brantley says that he understands that the things DISCO is about—creativity, writing, imagination—can be deemed less “useful” than other pragmatic skills. He tells a story about when DISCO set up a booth at the Slow Food Fair inviting kids to read a prompt and write a story. “There were some really fun booths there. We had a booth with some turnips, some paper, and some pencils. We did not look fun,” he says. “There was this one kid who said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to. I don’t like to write.’ And I said, ‘Which do dislike more: turnips or writing?’ He said, ‘Writing.’ So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you tell me your story? I’ll write it for you.’ He did that, and he eventually got frustrated that I was writing too slowly. So he took the pencil out of my hand, sat down, and begin to write.”

That encounter was a great example of the reason Brantley believes DISCO is important. “Children don’t need to be taught how to use their imaginations. They just need an excuse and an opportunity to do it,” he says. “I think what happens in our over-programmed lives is that we don’t give them an excuse to actually just sit down and use the tools that they already have. [They’re] tools that you and I and other adults may still have a little bit of, but have forgotten how to use, because we think about money, and jobs, and stoplights. We have all these things going on that distract us from that basic, inherent tool.”

Stories that echo that little boy’s happened all the time, Brantley says, and that summer, he realized that DISCO needed a more permanent home. That’s when they turned to Kickstarter. They wanted to demonstrate community support to donors, so they set out to raise a fifth of the total cost and set their goal at $20,000. Ninety days later, after being featured as Project of the Day on Kickstarter, they closed at $21,460. Brantley says one of the struggles of the project was convincing backers that Kickstarter was a reliable way to contribute funds—many of them had never heard of it—but nevertheless, it worked. DISCO opened in its current space on First Avenue North in Woodlawn in the fall of 2012.

One of the trademark components of 826 Valencia is the Pirate Store. Because they had been founded in a retail district, they found they needed a way to draw people in. Their store sells things pirates might need to thrive, and the funds are put back into the program. This was the Desert Island Supply Co.’s inspiration; their current space serves not only as the home base for DISCO’s programs, but also as a retail storefront providing Birminghamians with the things they might need if they were shipwrecked. They offer supplies like the Desert Island Survival Kit (pictured above), journals, Blackwing Palomino pencils, and Castaway Trading Cards. And they give away that rare, priceless commodity called imagination for free.

Wesley Ballew and David Lundgren, who helped with the production of Hypo-critic.

Kickstarter’s mission is to do one thing—encourage and support creativity. The projects that are posted must prove to be actual creative projects (all must be passed by the Kickstarter team), and Wesley Ballew’s project is the epitome of creative. Ballew’s project, a film called Hypo-critic, spent 30 days (Oct. 28–Nov. 27, 2013) on Kickstarter and exceeded its goal of $5,500 by more than $500.

Ballew, a senior piano performance major at Samford University, wrote the first draft of the screenplay two summers before he endeavored to create the film. “I wanted my next project to be light-hearted, so a comedy…seemed really appealing,” he explains. “It also didn’t hurt that I had spent the summer catching up on Woody Allen films, so you can definitely catch his influence on the film. Another facet of the project is that I had just moved into my Southside apartment, so Birmingham was still new to me. You could say I was falling in love with the city, and that adoration shows up in the film.”

The film, described on its Kickstarter page as “a comedy about a jazz pianist who seeks psychiatric help when a beautiful blonde starts to affect his playing,” is 15 minutes long and is Ballew’s third film. He wrote the two main parts for his best friends, Earvin Comer and Rebecca Ryan; he says the first step was getting them to sign onto the project, which they did (Comer plays Dr. Devon and Ryan, Catherine Turner.) Then, he set to work gathering a creative team, which is where he ran into a problem—he quickly realized he wasn’t going to be able to put this film on his credit card. He needed money to make it happen. “I had heard about Kickstarter through a fellow Samford musician, Ethan Asters, who had successfully used the online platform to raise money for his band’s EP. After calculating the budget for Hypo-critic and realizing it was in the same ballpark as Ethan’s goal, I thought, ‘Hey. I can do this.’”

And do it he did, though he admits he wasn’t always sure he would (and remember that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t receive any funding at all.) “To be honest, there were times in the campaign when I thought I was going to fall flat on my face,” he says. “If you break down your goal into a daily quota, those days it dips are brutal. Once the wheels of the machine started turning, though (i.e. once the word got out via social media), the campaign really seemed to take off of its own accord.” Ballew and his team began filming in late February and expect to have a final cut of the film by July. Like every Kickstarter project, his backers will receive special bonuses for different levels of contributions—$10 contributions earned a mention in the “Special Thanks” portion of the credits, while $250 backers got a place in the opening credits.

Ballew, who writes, directs, scores, and stars in his films, says that he hopes to turn the short into a feature-length film. “I want to take the way someone like Woody Allen translates his love for New York to the screen and apply it to my love for Birmingham,” he explains. “I feel like this project is very appropriate at a time when there’s a big push to celebrate Birmingham and discover its unsung treasures. Looking forward, I think Hypo-critic the feature could really be one of the first major Birmingham films. Imagine a movie that glorifies the city for what it is rather than using it as a double for somewhere else. A film that shows off Birmingham’s landmarks, local businesses, parks, street corners…. That’s what I hope to do next.”

Ballew plans to submit the film to a number of festivals, including the Sidewalk Film Festival in August.

[L to R] Finn Apparel founders Michael Rosato, Cody Foster, and Dustin Vann

As it sometimes goes, Finn Apparel’s trademark cuff was born from a flash of inspiration. “It all started with an idea that Cody [Foster, cofounder and designer, 29] had while cuffing his jeans one morning,” says Dustin Vann, 29, cofounder and creative director. “He thought that having the subtle detail of another fabric on the hem of the trouser could give the option to make the whole outfit pop.” Foster searched the Internet for pants like that—one fabric on the outside, another peeking out when the pant leg was cuffed—but he couldn’t find anything like it. He introduced the idea to Vann, and together they presented it to Michael Rosato, 24, who serves as cofounder and designer as well. He agreed that they had to figure out how to make it happen.

The trio set to work creating a prototype, and then, Vann explains, they ran into the funding issue. “We knew that traditional lending methods would not be an option, being that we had such a niche product with no proof of concept—not to mention no business plan—but we weren’t going to let that stop us,” Vann says. “We turned our focus to learning everything we could about the crowdfunding arena.” They settled on Kickstarter, and their project for Finn Apparel launched Oct. 8, 2013. Their goal was $14,800.

Forty-five days later, they had reached their goal—by 263 percent. Their Kickstarter campaign raised $38,962. “Without [Kickstarter] and the ability to tap into such mass exposure through crowdfunding, we wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Vann says. “The company would not be here; it most likely would still be in the works, within our minds and in sketchbooks, with the three of us daydreaming about the products we want to create.”

Vann says that while they knew Kickstarter was the best way to raise the funding, but they didn’t realize it would be such a “home run.” During their active project time, they were chosen as a Kickstarter Staff Pick and Project of the Day, which helped bring awareness to their project. Today, they sell trousers, hoodies, beanies, and more on their website, finnapparel.com, and they’re working on getting their products into stores around the country. Vann shares that while the company has its challenges, the gratification more than compensates for those, and he encourages all the dreamers to find out how to set their visions in motion. “It’s one thing to have an idea, vision, or dream—to talk about it, share it, meet about it. It’s an entirely new world when you take the first step to bringing that idea or vision to life,” he says. “There are too many people with great ideas that we never hear about or see because of fear, and excuses. Stop making excuses, feel the fear, get over it…and get busy!”

Andy Harris with The Old Paints drummer Breely Flower

“Playing music is fun, but it’s more fun to play in public than at home. It’s also more fun to play with a band instead of alone. I like having fun at the highest level,” says Andy Harris, who began Birmingham band The Old Paints. He hosts the Wednesday night open mic night at Good People Brewing Company, where he essentially “held auditions without telling anyone” to put together The Old Paints. The band is a mainstay in local joints, including Rojo and the Cahaba Brewing Company. A couple of years ago, Harris decided it was time to record an album.

Harris’s approach to creativity was a little bit less esoteric than you might think: “There’s not much dreaming happening. I have lots of ideas, but eventually you have to put them in motion. Otherwise, all this dreaming has no purpose,” he says. “Reality is the correct word. What am I doing now? What is a little more than I’m doing now? After writing and performing those first ten songs for a while, it was time to record.”

While some Kickstarter projects are grand, raking in thousands, many—most—aren’t that; rather, they’re a creative effort to make something and put it out into the world. The Old Paints album project appeared on Kickstarter on Sept. 10, 2012, and ran for 29 days; they exceeded their goal of $600 by $130 and put their album into the hands of the people of Birmingham (they mixed and mastered with Bud Brown at Higher Ground.) Harris, who also works at Mason Music, says beyond the production of the album, the project gave their fans a way to have a piece of the band. “I think there is a sense of pride or ownership with some people after they support you like that,” he says. “I see a lot of familiar faces when we play. Some people I really only know because I play music, and there they are in the crowd once again.”

If anything, the project was simply a creative endeavor along the way—Harris is quick to point out that there is always a new goal toward which to work. “Success can be a fleeting thing,” he says. “Even though we’re just talking about it on a local level, I still treat the next performance like it’s the most important one. And it usually is. I don’t get too satisfied, because there is always something else we could try. All I can do is focus on the next thing, whatever that is, and hope it works. If it does, I guess it’s a success, but it will be short lived as far as I’m concerned. It won’t be long till I’m looking for a new challenge.”

In any case, he’s a man who loves music, and he says he’s lucky to be involved in the Birmingham music scene in a number of ways. He’s also a man who appreciates a good picnic and would give a great TED talk: “Don’t sacrifice anything for art,” he advises. “Food, shelter, and clothing are way more important. Human love, human touch. Things like that. Just have fun with it. Get tired of being right all the time. Go on a picnic very soon.  If you don’t want to shake on it, keep your hands in your pockets. You don’t get to be somebody else. Be yourself. Sometimes you just need to get out of the way.

“Don’t grow a beard only on your neck. Take a day off. Recapture the magic. It’s OK to say no, but it’s not OK to say nothing. Give yourself permission to do what you love. You know what you love. And learn to play the banjo for real. People like that sort of thing,” he says. “But if I could tell other people what to think, I would have been very famous long ago. This interview would be in Rolling Stone! But that’s not how it works.”

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