Known as ‘The Crowdsourceress’, Alex Daly changed the digital crowd-sourcing landscape by founding her own company Vann Alexandra. From their cozy offices in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Alex and her team work to fund diverse original projects with creative entrepreneurs. Alex talks to us about the Neil Young project that led her to found her own company at the age of 26, and the valuable lessons she has learned in the process.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I think my first week in New York was actually visiting with my parents when I was really young. We stayed in midtown, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was so excited about being here; I would wake up really early in the morning to see the city. I ran to the window, opened it really wide and said to my mom and dad “this is the sound of New York!” My dad said “no, that is the sound of construction.”
That first week we did Times Square, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty … it seemed so magical, it was unlike anything else. I grew up in Miami, which is warm, sprawling and very different culturally.
Did you always want to come back and live here?
I think inherently I always knew I was going to be here. I somehow always picked New York for my summer internships, and then after I graduated it was like “of course I’ll go back to New York to keep working.” I can’t think of any other place that has so much opportunity work wise.
Right after college I went into journalism, I was a paid intern at New York Magazine, and then I went to work at the Wall Street Journal as a fact checker. I couldn’t imagine any other city where I could try so many different things.
I always wanted to be in media, and this is the mecca of that.
What did you study at university?
I did a double major in Spanish and philosophy, and I minored in film. I did my thesis on “An existential reading of drug cinema”. Basically I studied drug films, and found existentialism in them.
Why drug films?
Because I was obsessed with movies, and I always liked darker movies. I noticed that there was something philosophical about these characters’ addictions, they didn’t have a chemical dependency rather they were existentialists trying to rid that through drugs.
Yeah, I came up with the idea myself. And wrote a 55 page paper on it.
Wow. You also worked in film?
Well, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Then I realized I didn’t, which I guess is sort of what you do … experiment. A friend suggested that since I loved movies, I should try documentary. It is a combination of film and journalism.
So I became a production manager at a boutique company. I was managing a bunch of different documentaries at the same time. I wasn’t a director, but ended up doing more of the fundraising for the films. More like a producer.
At the time I was doing it through grant writing, I wrote so many grants. One day a guy in the office wanted to run a kickstarter campaign for his project and he asked me to do it. That’s how I started with kickstarter. Afterwards I did the same thing for another film, and then people started calling me for their projects because I was becoming very successful in running kickstarter campaigns.
Can we talk a bit about kickstarter? I don’t really know how it works.
Basically somebody has an idea; a film, a book, a tech product, a restaurant. Anything. It can be so many things. You bring this project to the platform of kickstarter. You make a video for it, you set up some rewards and you open it up to the public to donate. The donations then fund the project.
So you would have to have goals, and prove that the money was going towards achieving these goals?
You’re not legally bound. As a backer, you don’t sign a contract but there is something about putting your business out there. If you don’t follow through that’s a very public thing. Say you crowd source all this money and you don’t come through with a product that’s out there for people to know.
And the mob will come for you!
It would look terrible for you, and get bad press for your business.
How did you decide that this could be a full time business, and in doing so creating Vann Alexandra?
When I did my first couple of campaigns, I was written about in a local blog and they called me the ‘crowdsourceress’. People kept telling me that I needed to make a business out of this. But I didn’t know how to do that. I was working as a production manager and producer. I kind of wanted to stay in film, but nobody was doing this.
Running a crowdfunding campaign is a full time job. You have to do the PR, social media, production, copywriting, strategy, day-to-day emails. So it would make sense that you might need a third party to run it for you.
I was doing all these campaigns while also working at the production company. I would work on them at night, on the weekends, in the mornings. Then this time last year I had just finished a campaign for an Oscar nominated film director, so I got to work with some top caliber filmmakers.
After that the Neil Young project happened. It was so incredibly massive. It was such an opportunity; I couldn’t not take advantage of it. I needed to make it a full time thing, so that’s what I did.
Can you briefly describe the Neil Young project?
I had just finished a film project that we had successfully funded, and it went to Tribeca Film Festival. I got an email from a friend asking “how busy are you?” I had a bunch of projects lined up, but he said “would you like to do a project with Neil Young?”
My friend, Erin worked at Pentagram, and they were doing some identity and strategy work for him. She knew that Neil was going to do a kickstarter campaign and told me I should do it.
I went to Pentagram, and was interviewed by one of the partners there and I got hired that night. We only had 10 days to launch the campaign. I stayed up all night for 10 days straight. It was launched at SXSW, and the goal was reached in 1 day! We ended up raising $6.2 million by the end of the campaign. It’s for an incredible audio device …
Yes! It plays the highest resolution possible for digital music. So it’s still digital music but it has the quality of a vinyl. We were rehired by them to take over their social media.
That’s so cool! How does it work when you raise so much more than your goal? What do you do with that extra money? Obviously there are lots of things you can do [laughs] …
Well, you can make more products. The initial goal was just to make the first run. But more money means more backers, and more products to make for them. It’s fairly simple if it’s a physical product. But if it’s something like a film it’s different. Usually with crowdfunding campaigns you’re raising money for a certain portion of project. Say $100,000 will get you through the editing process, and $150,000 will get you through color correction. It’s extending your goals and being able to achieve more things with more money.
Gotcha. Do you have a favorite campaign that you’ve worked on?
I have a few, not just one. This book, ‘The 1970 NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual’ was such an incredible project to work on. ‘The Joan Didion Documentary’ was amazing. We raised over $200,000 to complete this documentary. Obviously the Neil Young project because … well, Neil Young!
We crowd funded an amazing website for a citizen investigative journalist. He was fired from his government job in London, and he was really into learning about the Syrian war, so he would watch all these videos online. He started writing a blog about it called the ‘Brown Moses’ blog. He didn’t speak or understand Arabic, so the only parts he understood were visual. He started breaking all these stories, just by open source content. The New York Times started writing stories, and then the New Yorker wrote a huge profile on him.
We crowd funded his website to bring people together who do what he does. He’s not classically trained. He taught himself how to be a journalist. He teaches people these tools through his website. He changes the world through his website. I felt like I was actually doing something special for the world by raising money for him.
The company is obviously doing great, and you just moved into your new office in Greenpoint. And you also have staff now!
3 people here full time, and we have a couple of interns and a part time designer.
This is all in the space of a year. That is mind-blowing.
It’s really unbelievable how quickly it grew, but there is such a demand for what we’re doing. We have clients coming to us. Every campaign we’ve run is through referrals and requests. So it’s pretty incredible.
It must be amazing to be part of such a diversity of ideas, people and projects. Each one is completely different; you get to learn about a whole new world …
Yeah, it’s really interesting. Each category is different; film, tech, music, as well as all these different clients. We work with them for 3 months and then it’s done, it’s a really quick turnaround. But you become really close to these people because you are raising money for something that’s very close to them. It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of.
You also have a 100% success rate in getting funding!
(Knocks wood) We haven’t had a problem … yet [laughs]. It’s crazy, we’ve run over 20 projects and we have a 100% success rate.
In terms of your life path, in such a short amount of time you’ve come to this point. You didn’t finish university thinking “hey, I’m going to get into crowdfunding”. Nobody probably knew it existed then.
It’s crazy because I’ve always trusted my instincts. I started in journalism because I felt that’s what I wanted to do, and then I tried film. I realized I loved working in film because I was surrounded by incredibly talented and creative people making amazing things.
I’m not a director type; I don’t have the eyes for that. I wish I did but I don’t. It took a long time for me to listen to myself and say “Alex, you’re really good at this. You know how to raise money for things and you’re doing it very well over and over and over again.” So I had to realize that was something I’m good at so I should try and make it work.
We’ve been talking about that recently. It’s hard to take a compliment, and it’s hard to acknowledge that you’re good at something.
Yes. And I also didn’t know what I was doing. I turn to my boyfriend sometimes and I say “what am I doing?” I’m still figuring it out each day because it’s such a new micro industry. I don’t know who to talk to for advice. Luckily my parents are entrepreneurs, so they’re big advisers to me. But I don’t have another crowd funding consultant to call who has done this before and has done it for years.
It can be challenging but I don’t think anybody knows what they’re doing. You’re always learning. Sometimes we’ll have a hard experience, or face a challenge with a client, but then you know what, now I’ll know for the next time. Each contract I make is a different version of the last one because I have to amend to it, and add something I learned from the last one. We have learned everything from scratch, and that’s why I think it’s OK to say sometimes “I don’t know what I’m doing”.
I have such a great team of people who are so loyal; having a good team of people around you in such a high intensity environment really goes a long way. That’s why I’ve created an office that’s warm, cozy and ‘house-like’.
We’re definitely an unconventional company. I want to feel comfortable because it can be crazy. In a week we’ll be running four campaigns simultaneously.
What you are saying makes so much sense; nobody knows what they’re doing ultimately. You just have to keep going, and take those risks.
Totally. I was like “I don’t know what I’m doing but on paper I guess I’m doing it really well.” I have to see that, how is press getting written about me, and how are these amazing clients finding me?
Sometimes you have to see yourself externally instead of living in this internal bubble of doubt and questioning.
You have to find that balance of not being sure and being confident … a little bit of fear is always good.
I never sleep the night before I launch a campaign. It always feels like the first one. With crowdfunding, you can prepare as much as possible, and do everything you can, but when you launch it you never really know what’s going to happen. It can blow up, or not really move, it’s market forces, whatever anybody else wants to feel about it. That’s a terrifying thing that I have no control over. All we can do is prepare as much as possible.
We definitely always have to manage expectations for clients because now we’ve raised so much money for campaigns; everybody thinks they’re going to do the same.
Everybody obviously thinks their campaign is great.
Because they’re married to it. It’s always better to start with a manageable goal and surpass it.
Can we talk about growing up in Miami and going to university in Nashville?
Miami is a great place to visit. My whole family is there and I grew up there. It’s beautiful; the weather is incredible except for the summer when it’s a heat wave everyday. It doesn’t have the pace of what New York has. There is always movement here.
One night recently I couldn’t sleep and was up until 4am. I thought “fuck it” and I went outside for a walk. It was snowing, and there were people out running around. People had just gotten home from the bar, people going to work; I did not feel alone at all. There was so much life going on outside of my bedroom, which felt like a very good thing. It was very calming to know there are all these people here living life. It’s definitely a lot quieter in Miami and Nashville; there is no other city that has a pulse like this one does. I’m attracted to it.
Nashville is super cool and has a great music scene. It also has it’s own culture, and I loved living there but for a period of time. I had a great experience going to school there, amazing professors but it doesn’t compare. New York is a next level experience for me.
New York has the kind of people I want to be around, the kind of energy I want to be around. People are always making things here.
Our last question is always about New York, it’s perfect you’ve already answered it! What about any favorite New York places, either here in Greenpoint near your office, or where you live in Fort Greene?
Definitely Roman's in Fort Greene, which has great hearty Italian food. Mayflower is a great bar; it’s tiny but has killer cocktails. Olea is amazing for lunch, you’ll have to roll yourself out of there.
We roll ourselves out of a lot of places!
In Greenpoint an amazing bar is called Achilles Heel, great drinks and bites. Very homey. Ramona’s is new; it feels like you’re going into a spa. The floor is marble, I think it actually was a bathhouse, and they have super inexpensive sazeracs for happy hour.
We just learned about those last week, it’s all coming together.
They will get you messed up, that’s for sure! And of course happy hour at the Vann Alexandra offices! We always have drinks here on a Friday after a long week; I’m so into having a drink at the office after a long day.
We’ve been playing around with a new question, if you were your own daughter, what advice would you give?
I talk to my mom all the time, and she always says “you’re doing everything right”. I would definitely tell my daughter the same thing. I always think I must be doing something wrong because I don’t know what I’m doing. But if you’re working hard, and being good to people and doing what you want to do you’re definitely doing everything right.
It takes years of experience and I can’t create those years, I have to go through them. It’s OK to make mistakes, if you learn from them and don’t do them again. It’s all going to be OK!