Slava Rubin, W’00 – Empowering the World
17 January, 2016
category: Entrepreneur, Joseph Wharton Dinner
Indiegogo is the largest open and global crowdfunding platform, with over 400,000 campaigns launched from almost every country in the world. At its core, Indiegogo is dedicated to democratizing the way people raise funds for any project or idea—creative, entrepreneurial or cause-related. Slava gave an inspiring speech on entrepreneurial thinking at the Joseph Wharton Dinner (see excerpts below), and granted this interview.
It sounds like a no-brainer now, but how did you come up with Indiegogo?
In the fall of 2006, I was visiting my friend Eric Schell, who I had worked with after Wharton. He and Danae Ringelmann, our other Co-Founder, were at business school in California. Eric asked Danae to tell me about an idea she had to start a mutual fund for artistic projects that would give the right to vote on the investment. I told her that you can’t reform the finance industry from inside the finance industry. I told her about YouTube, which was still relatively unknown, that had democratized video, and about a peer-to-peer lending service called Prosper. It sounded like she was proposing ProspoTube, which would combine video and social media to tell the story of what people want to raise money for, and the crowd can decide if they want to fund it. Danae said that was exactly what she wanted to do — to which I replied, “OK, that’s not a finance company, that’s a technology company.”
How would you categorize the types of campaigns that Indiegogo presents?
It’s completely an open platform, like YouTube or Google, where anyone can raise money for any idea. The major buckets of ideas are:
Creative projects: Miles Ahead about the career of trumpet player Miles Davis. Entrepreneurial projects: Flow Hive was funded in a matter of weeks from contributors in over 150 countries, raising over $12 million. Sondors Electric Bike raised over $6 million, and Canary, a multisensor, home security device created in New York City, raised almost $2 million.
Nonprofit projects: Code.org is improving access to coding classes for students across America, and raised $5 million through its An Hour of Code for Every Student campaign. There have been thousands of projects to help Syrian refugees, and there was even a campaign to help with the Greek debt crisis.
Indiegogo Life: This is our fee-free platform for personal fundraising. We have campaigns to fund medical emergencies, memorial services and even college tuition.
What factors make a great Indiegogo campaign?
- Have a great pitch. If you use video as part of your campaign, we found that you can raise 114% more money.
- Start fast. If you raise 25% of your goal within the first week, you’re five times more likely to reach your target.
- Keep telling your story: If you update your campaign at least every five days, you will raise four times more money than if you update every 20 days or more.
- Find an audience that cares: Reach out to your own network first and create excitement, which will enable Indiegogo to amplify your success.
Why do people fund these campaigns? They’re not getting equity.
We like to call the main motivators for contributing the “four Ps”: people, passion, participation and perks. Contributors fund people they feel a connection with and believe in. They fund causes they are passionate about. They want to participate in something bigger than themselves. And finally, they want to receive interesting perks. Material rewards are only one of the main motivators.
Did you have any idea it would be so compelling?
It was a massive vision. So many act as gatekeepers to capital — VCs and bankers get to decide how much money people get and what projects they can use it for. We knew we could have a huge impact. We would have never been able to anticipate some of our most successful campaigns, from a crowdfunded baby, to a gun that shoots flies called BugASalt.
But previous to this, you were raising money online for cancer, weren’t you?
Actually, all three of us were raising money for different causes. Danae and Eric served on the board of theater companies. And I had started a charity, Music Against Myeloma, to raise money for a cure for myeloma in honor of my father, Mark Rubin, who died from cancer when I was 15.
What role did Wharton play in your becoming an entrepreneur?
Being surrounded by so many intelligent people. Trying to price the IPO of eBay in finance class, or trying to come up with new online business models, like peer-to-peer hosting before the concept of the cloud existed. In Management 100, I eventually became a TA, which was a terrific experience.
Indiegogo is not only an entrepreneurial endeavor, but also empowers other entrepreneurs.
It’s funny that you use that word “empower,” because if you come to our headquarters in San Francisco, on the wall of our lobby is a neon sign that says, “EMPOWER.” We feel it is such a great representation of what we want to do. That is what Indiegogo is all about. Our employees are empowered to constantly improve our platform, and the platform empowers people from all over the world to make their dreams a reality.
Becoming an entrepreneur is so hard, and the love letters we get from our customers have proven, time and time again, that tools like ours make an enormous difference. Our educational system doesn’t encourage us to become entrepreneurs, and as we go through grade school and high school, we become more risk-averse, and our willingness to fail is stifled, and with it, our creativity. When aspiring entrepreneurs come to Indiegogo, they see the variety of projects on our platform and think, “If somebody else can do it, I can do it.” Thanks to that inspiration, they start incredible campaigns that later become incredible businesses.
You’re receiving the Joseph Wharton Award for Young Leadership. How do you see leadership?
Leadership means taking action in a positive way when others are not willing to do so — setting an example. It doesn’t always take the same form and depends on who you are surrounded by. I think it’s important to recognize the situations in which you need to step up as a leader.
I’m sure our readers would like to hear your perspective on equity crowdfunding.
When we started Indiegogo, we wanted to go into equity crowdfunding, but government regulations at the time didn’t allow it. In 2011, we actually had a campaign on Indiegogo to change crowdfunding laws and send a petition to Congress. The various regulations under the JOBS Act are providing an opening for equity crowdfunding, and we are actively exploring ways that equity crowdfunding could benefit our customers.
What did you learn from your parents?
People ask me if my parents were entrepreneurs. Technically, they weren’t. My father was a mechanical engineer, and my mother a doctor, but I feel they were absolutely entrepreneurs, because they always took on challenges with no clear path, and always faced the risk of failure. My parents left Belarus where, despite religious persecution, they were able to pursue their careers. They risked everything to come to America, so their children could have better opportunities. They navigated the hurdles that came their way, as any tech founder in Silicon Valley would. They inspired me to think positively, work hard and always have integrity. Something my dad said always stood out to me: “It’s the people who make it look easy who are working the hardest behind the scenes.”
We made tons of mistakes. We launched in early 2008 with enough money to last until that September, and got our first funding in 2010, so we had to deal with the market crash and almost went out of business in 2009. More than 90 venture capitalists rejected funding Indiegogo. My advice to all entrepreneurs is to follow their gut. No one knows what the perfect advice is in every situation. The people who don’t believe in you will tell you to shut it down. Other people might be very positive and supportive, but have no actual knowledge of what you should do. You have to be willing to make your own decisions. If you make a mistake, you will learn from it. My high-level feedback is to think big, start small and iterate quickly.
Can you offer advice for Wharton students and alumni?
Enjoying your job is a gift. Work is such a major part of your time that, if you are not getting positive energy from it, you should take steps to change it. I’m not saying you need to become an entrepreneur, but rather, that you should approach your work and career in an entrepreneurial way.