Mercyhurst University prof hopes to Kickstart Erie's economy [Erie Times-News, Pa. :: ]
(Erie Times-News (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 13--Kris Wheaton, an associate professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst University, knows the value of crowdfunding resources like Kickstarter.
He's personally used Kickstarter to support the launch of two games he created and to help fund a trip to Jerusalem for a Mercyhurst dance team.
But Wheaton says few people in the Erie area are making use of the Internet-based program that invites the public to back initiatives in exchange for some kind of payback or incentive.
And what's more, he said, the majority of those who do seek funding are coming up empty.
Wheaton has a plan that he thinks could change that -- possibly in dramatic fashion.
Wheaton said he's made a study of Kickstarter proposals and seen why some fail and others succeed.
One of his favorite success stories is a pitch posted on the Internet in May 2013 by Melissa Tackett, a Gannon University student who made stretch-to-fit chain mail bracelets.
Tackett was looking for $200 in pledges and promised her backers bracelets in return.
Thanks in part to a well-designed, professional-looking pitch, backers took Tackett up on her offer.
By June 8, 2013, 394 people had pledged a total of $13,468, launching an online business that's provided her with some extra income.
Wheaton said he's strongly inclined to agree with the results of a recent Jumpstart study that showed Erie has far fewer startup businesses than most communities its size.
He thinks there's a way to change that culture.
"I am trying to find more people like Melissa Tackett," he said. "I think they are everywhere, but they are never going to the small business development center, they are never going to the tech council.
"They are what I call pre-entrepreneurs. They have all the skills, and they can do it, but it is not something they ever thought about."
For Wheaton, it's obvious why Tackett's Kickstarter pitch worked and so many others fail.
Most people make rookie mistakes, he said. They include videos that are too long or unprofessional. The copy isn't clever, and sometimes the project just misses the mark.
Wheaton sees most of those flaws as fixable, especially with some expert help.
"All of those skills are present in students," he said. "I have film editors studying film, I have copy writers, I have business students, I have intelligence studies students."
Wheaton, who assembled a student team in 2013 to help raise money for the university's liturgical dance group, is proposing an initiative that he calls Quickstarter that would hire groups of students to tackle projects for Erie-area residents trying to raise money on Kickstarter.
Wheaton said his study shows just 54 Erie-area projects have sought Kickstarter funding since 2010, and that just 20 projects, or 37 percent, have been successful.
Wheaton won a $2,000 university grant to help pay student teams to work on Kickstarter projects for members of the Erie community.
He's looking, though, for a private individual, government body or economic development group that might step forward with more funding.
"Students would walk away with real world skills, and I think we could raise the success rate from 30 percent to 70 to 90 percent," Wheaton said.
His goals don't end with funding a few projects.
Wheaton sees his Quickstarter initiative as a potential first step toward changing the region's reputation and risk-averse mindset.
"Current Kickstarter numbers suggest Erie doesn't appear to be a very innovative place," he said.
"Imagine 100 of these going on at the same time," he said. "I am very comfortable we could have a 70 to 90 percent success rate," bringing money into Erie from outside the region.
More important than the money, he said, is changing the mindset of would-be entrepreneurs and expanding the pool of people who might become business owners.
"This goes to changing the psychology of the area," Wheaton said. "All of a sudden people start to notice. And this becomes the place to come with your idea."
JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmartin.
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