As Mario Rueda hustled to get funding for the company he co-founded, he began to feel like an outsider in the entrepreneur space. The platform, Book a Street Artist, connects a network of 500 artists to people putting on corporate parties, weddings, and the like. But in startup competitions, Rueda says, it’s hard to get an artist-focused app recognized among the fin-tech and med-tech.
“As a young entrepreneur, you try to fit into the boxes that are out there,” he says. A business school graduate who left his job in the corporate world to pursue work that aligned with his values, Rueda (pictured, above) wants to take Book a Street Artist to the next level. While his business model wasn’t scalable for millions, he sees the immediate impact on the lives of the artists he features in the booking app.
Many entrepreneurs fall into this unique space in startupland: making an impact, but not in the way that entices investors. Or, they are ready for investment but don’t want to cede control of their project. Never fear, weirdos of the workplace, there are plenty of ways to find money for your nonconformist projects.
- Enter competitions that cater to originals
When Rueda applies to tech startup competitions, he knows his chances are slim when he struggles to fill in questions about customer acquisition cost and other metrics that don’t fit his business model. A new breed of competitions is emerging, though—one that favors societal impact.
Book a Street Artist made it to the finalist level at the Berlin Creator Awards, a competition that includes for-profits and nonprofits alongside artists. This global competition, sponsored by WeWork, is in its first year.
“The Creator Awards are about trying to uncover people who don’t fit into the traditional systems of funding,” says WeWork Co-founder Miguel McKelvey.
Red Bull Launchpad also doesn’t shy away from socially-minded entrepreneurs. Park & Diamond, which manufactures foldable bike helmets, took home top honors at the Launchpad event in May 2017 when they were still in the prototype phase. As a result, the company was then able to showcase the collapsible helmet to a much larger audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York.
While new awards pop up to fill a need, others are starting to embrace winners with social impact. GoSafely’s Annemarie Stockinger, who designed an alert device to help anyone walking alone feel safer, started to enter tech competitions such as HackATL, but kept her expectations low.
“Hackathons lean not toward social impact but to the coolest newest thing,” Stockinger says. “So I was shocked when they called us for the final round.”
The college-aged crew of GoSafely ultimately won first place in 2016, and applications for HackATL 2017 include a social impact category.
- Crowdfund your project
Besides competitions, Stockinger is also taking advantage of crowdfunding opportunities to raise capital without being tied to investors. “While I am interested in having a company that can stay afloat, I want to help people,” she says. “I’m concerned that any outside funding might not align with that goal.”
With several platforms to choose from, Stockinger suggests studying how similar projects or competitors fared on each site. “Looking at the data, social impact projects do better on Indiegogo,” Stockinger says. “Also their video hosting is on YouTube, so it’s searchable and can drive traffic to our campaign.”
- Ask the crowd to invest
Let’s say you wouldn’t mind getting investors involved, but for whatever reason you can’t tap into traditional investment routes. A newer alternative (as of January 2016) is to crowdfund an investment round. Platforms such as WeFund, SeedInvest, and StartEngine connect anyone willing to invest with exciting new companies. The people drawn to the campaigns are often the same people who would buy the product, making crowdfunded investors an important resource for customer insights, too.
“The people who invest care,” says StartEngine Co-founder Howard Marks. This month, StartEngine kicked off its first round of funding using its own platform. “(Our investors) want to understand why we’re doing this, what our past is and what our future is. There’s as much trying to make money, but also an emotional investment.”
- Try government funding
If you have a project that’s in line with what your government wants to fund, these grants often come without the strings investors would want. Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman heads up Integrated Medical Sensors, which is developing a medical device that would shake up how diabetes patients track their glucose. Instead of patients pricking themselves, they could just check an app receiving levels from a tiny sensor implanted in the finger.
He said that big companies wouldn’t take the risk of developing a whole new product and venture capitalists would want all the control, potentially raising the product cost beyond Rahman’s vision to help anyone in need.
“The government doesn’t ask for any control of pricing,” Rahman says. “I have huge respect for those programs. They support young people and ideas.”
- Stay weird
And, at the end of the day, just embracing the fact you’re a misfit company may be what you need.
“At some point, we realized, fuck it, we’re just going to do our thing and tell our story,” says Rueda of Book a Street Artist. “And we as an art-tech company managed to convince investors to invest in us.”