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Sunday November 18, 2012

Pennies from heaven

Brainstorming: He (in red) discussing the website’s project management with colleagues. — China Daily Brainstorming: He (in red) discussing the website’s project management with colleagues. — China Daily

WHEN He Feng was a mathematics freshman at Swarthmore College in the United States, a group of warm-hearted old people in the small town raised US$1,000 for the Chinese stranger to pay for his first piano course, encouraging He’s interest in art.

Now He, 34, has taken up the torch to light up the dreams of more than 150 creative minds in China, by building a website where they can display their projects to the public and raise money from supporters.

Each creator sets the project’s funding goal, at least 1,000 yuan (RM490), and a deadline of between 15 and 60 days. Fans can put money into the fund the website holds for the creator.

If the project reaches its goal, the website charges 10% of the collected money as commission and delivers the rest to the creator. If the goal is not met, the website waives any fees and will return all the money to the supporters. The project must then look elsewhere for funds.

Demohour.com, the Beijing-based website that He co-founded in 2011, is China’s answer to kickstarter.com in the United States, the world’s largest crowd-funding platform for creative projects founded in 2009.

He says his goal is to connect niche ideas with their niche market.

“For example,” he says, “if only 200 people nationwide like the book you want to write, you can still print it if each of them pays 100 yuan (RM49).”

When He and his co-founders were seeking investors to build the demohour site, some people advised them to set up a group-purchasing website instead because there was a boom in such websites.

“China will be boring if we’ve got only group-purchasing websites. We want to make China interesting, so we must give it a try even though our crowd-funding website might fail as a business,” He says.

The whimsical ideas shown on demohour.com include design, technology, movies, photography, music, publishing, activities, games and travel.

In only 15 days this August, 476 people on demohour.com put up more than 10,000 yuan (RM4,900) to make a gold medal for Chen Yibing, China’s Olympic gymnastics defending champion. Chen had to settle for silver on the rings after a controversial scoring at the 2012 London Games.

A high school graduate from Beijing has designed a gesture-recognition app that will let people manipulate a Macbook with their fingers away from the keyboard. They can flip through the albums on iTunes and enlarge a picture by swinging their fingers in front of the screen, just like Tom Cruise does in the movie Minority Report.

Sixty-three people offered a total of more than 4,000 yuan (RM1,965) to buy the app and its matching finger cot, helping the creator pay for the fee to get on the App Store.

“It’s ridiculous that China is known by the world for cheap knockoffs while the country has a population of 1.4 billion,” says He.

“There is not enough creativity coming out of China because we are not doing a good job to support creative people.”

Du Mengjie is one of the founders of dreamore.cn, a Shanghai-based site that stands out from its peers by offering project creators services free of charge.

Such crowd-funding websites, Du says, make it possible to launch an idea without adequate savings, rich parents, eye-catching educational background and work experience. They can also give life to a project that is too small or not profitable enough for venture capitalists.

“It may take a long time to win investment from venture capitalists, and it often involves compromising changes to cater to the investors’ demands,” he says.

“But people won’t regard it as risky to invest an average of 100 yuan (RM49) per person on an interesting idea.

“At the same time, the creator is also guaranteed 100% of the project’s intellectual property and his first batch of customers.”

The 23-year-old fresh college graduate has a big vision that crowd-funding will change people’s lives in the same way domestic online trading giant Alibaba has.

“Its significance is more than making ordinary people’s dream come true. It also proves the power of the crowd,” Du says.

A new posting on dreamore.cn on Tuesday sought to raise money for the rent and renovation of an apartment where young people can read books and host salons. More than 20,000 yuan (RM9,825) was pledged in 80 minutes.

“It’s hard to get people from around the country together quickly to make one thing happen. But a project on a crowd-funding website can accomplish this, once it strikes a chord with visitors,” Du says.

For some project creators, the trust and encouragement from strangers matter more than the money.

Jia Yuhao’s project of collecting second-hand objects to decorate the public living room for his youth hostel in Lhasa exceeded its funding goal by a bigger margin than any other on Demo Hour.

Jia set a funding goal of 1,000 yuan (RM490), but to his surprise 2,595 fans of the project sponsored 146,400 yuan (RM71,910) in total.

“I had more courage and motivation to overcome the difficulties during the renovation,” Jia says. “I feel a sense of duty to perfect the hostel because it’s now a dream for 2,595 people.”

More than 400 supporters of Jia’s project have visited his hostel in Lhasa, and Ran Yongzhe is one of them.

Ran admires the fact that Jia kept supporters informed of progress by posting photos and videos. Jia also started four QQ instant messaging groups, where he and the supporters can discuss the hostel’s design.

Ran had such a great time with Jia that he extended his stay from 10 days to 20 days, working as a volunteer at the hostel.

“I don’t care about the reward. The room rate is low and I don’t need a discount,” the 27-year-old says.

“What I value is my participation in making a dream come true.” — China Daily/Asia News Network

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