The LaunchGood Team after winning the Entrepreneur showcase at the American Muslim Consumer Conference.
How One Michigan-Based Crowdfunding Startup is Helping to Launch Muslim Social Good Projects Throughout the World
By Dustin Craun Ummah Wide
This time last year LaunchGood, a crowdfunding website focused on the Muslim community, was struggling to find its first users. Today they have helped launch a wide range of crowdfunded projects that have raised over $1.5 million dollars.
Last month at the 2014 American Muslim Consumers Conference’s entrepreneur showcase, LaunchGood was featured as one of the six emerging startups in a shark tank style competition for a $10,000 prize. The competition, which was moderated by Saffron Road CEO Adnan Durrani, featured a diverse group companies, including Alchemiya, Apna Ghar, Biyo, My Halal Kitchen, and Northern World Entertainment Software. With a pitch that impressed many in the audience, LaunchGood walked away with the prize.
In this interview, CEO & Founder Chris Abdur-Rahman Blauvelt talks about the launch and growth of LaunchGood over the last year and his advice to future entrepreneurs.
How did you come up with the idea for LaunchGood?
It really starts with me becoming Muslim. I became Muslim in June of 2001, which was just three months before 9/11. Like many converts, I was very zealous and excited. Then 9/11 happened, and I just got really confused.
Personally, like many Muslims, it really forced me to go out and seek more answers and to learn more about Islam as a religion and Muslims as people. What I found as I traveled the world is that Muslims for the most part are really great community of people and that the image that the media gave was not representative of our community.
I went into film initially to try and change that image. We made a film called Bilal’s Stand which went to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and we needed to raise some money for that. A friend of mine suggested that we check out this site called KickStarter which today is the biggest crowd funding site. In 2010, however, it was only about a year old.
We did a successful crowdfunding campaign and that got me into crowdfunding. After seeing the quantitative and qualitative impact that KickStarter has had, it was something that I wanted to replicate and bring to the Muslim community to serve us in our own way. About three years ago, I started LaunchGood and it took us about a year and a half to launch it. We have been up now for a little more then a year.
What has your first year been like?
I think it’s been a great test of patience. We spent almost a year and a half building our website and fine tuning it and getting all the bugs out. Once we launched we had very high expectations and we were very excited about it, but initially there really wasn’t much growth. We were doing between $10,000 and $20,000 a month, and after six months our total cumulative sum was about $100,000. Now, six months after that, our total is almost $1.2 Million dollars.
It has definitely been a roller coaster journey where you tell yourself that it just needs time and it is going to grow, but it was a slow process. I think it has taken some time for our community to become familiar with crowdfunding and to trust our platform, but once now that people have seen the positive impact that crowdfunding can have, it’s starting to really catch on.
People were really excited about your pitch at the American Muslim Consumers Conference a few weeks back. What do you think made you stand out from the other startups?
We had an unfair advantage in that we have been operating for over a year and all the other startups were either pre-revenue or they had just launched. Anytime you have data to back up your ideas it’s a lot better. I think what really made us stand out was a moment when we actually got a round of applause in the middle of our pitch. It was a slide we showed where we re-capped our first year numbers with over a million dollars raised. I really thank God for that blessing and accomplishment.
Then we showed ourselves compared to the leading crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in the three most important categories for projects: the success rate, the average funds raised, and the average donation. We beat out those platforms in all three areas.
When people saw that they got really excited. Sometimes we get used to Muslims doing a business and it’s kind of a cheap version of the mainstream business. What we are doing with LaunchGood is really making it the best crowdfunding platform in the world, not the best Muslim Kickstarter. We want to be better then Kickstarter.
NeoCons and pundits like to say that Muslims don’t contribute anything to society and we don’t even need to say anything, we can just point them to LaunchGood and they have to say “you know what, Muslim’s actually do a lot of really great stuff.”
What makes LaunchGood unique and how do you suggest an individual, company or non-profit getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign choose which platform is best for them?
I believe what makes LaunchGood unique is its brand and I’m sure that goes for all the platforms. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo function very similarly. There are a few technical differences but essentially they are the same thing. The question you have to ask is, what brand do you want to be reflected in your project?
If someone is making a video game or a movie, Kickstarter would probably be a good brand for them to use because they are very creative in how they support those types of projects.
If someone really wants to display a project that talks to the Muslim community then I think LaunchGood is a good brand for that. We are really honest with projects that come to us and sometimes we do refer them to other platforms if we think it is a better fit. We are working on building a brand that focuses on everything right that Muslims are doing and so the site becomes a collection of all the beautiful work that Muslims are doing across the world.
What have been some of the projects that you have been most excited about helping to grow this year on LaunchGood?
I think every project is our favorite but we have one which I really liked called Rihla. It is a group of young men who are trying to do a bike ride from Rome, Italy to Mecca to make the pilgrimage, the Hajj.
We were really thankful that we were able to help them raise $10,000 dollars to fund their training and equipment to make the Hajj. What I liked about that campaign is yeah it’s Muslims doing a religious act, but it is also very modern while also getting back to our roots as well: making the Hajj through our own power – in this case, pedal power.
One of the things that struck me when I became Muslim was I felt like we were a minority community. Once I started traveling the world, I realized that there are literally billions of Muslims in the world and we don’t really have much to show for it.
Historically we’ve been very creative, we have been very entrepreneurial, so for me LaunchGood is an exercise to revive that creativity and entrepreneurism within the Muslim community and to give ourselves the confidence and the self esteem to go out and be creative like these guys who want to make a bike Hajj from Rome to Mecca.
One of the interesting things about LaunchGood that many people may not know is that you do both online and offline fundraising, can you explain this to us?
When we built LaunchGood we didn’t want to build a Muslim Kickstarter and call it ”Mipstarter” or something like that. We built it from the ground up, and we are trying to tailor it to the needs of our community.
One of the things that we found with the Muslim community is that there are a lot of people that aren’t ready for online crowdfunding. As an example, although Muslims make up 26% of the worlds population, we make up only about one percent of the worlds crowdfunding volume.
We are really behind as a community. Even in America we are still behind. People like to give cash, and they are not always comfortable donating online so we built that into the site. You can record offline donations to help keep track of your fundraising and that has helped a lot. About half of the money we have helped organizations raise have been via offline donations.
LaunchGood is not the only startup you are involved with. Can you talk about the other unique crowdfunding site you have built called Patronicity?
We launched Patronicity six months before LaunchGood and where LaunchGood is a Muslim crowdfunding platform for the whole world, Patronicity is a civic crowdfunding platform for projects only in Michigan.
We have a contract with the state of Michigan where they match dollar for dollar the money we raise for civic-oriented projects. This platform is the first of its kind in the country where a state is partnering with a crowdfunding platform. It has been tremendously successful, we just had our seventh project in a row funded through the program. Over $200,000 dollars has been donated, which has led to nearly half a million dollars being raised for projects across the state of Michigan.
Some people criticize me for LaunchGood because they don’t think that we should limit it to Muslims, and they don’t really know that I have a whole other crowdfunding platform that is not Muslim at all. As Muslims we have to be more nuanced.
I’m kind of this quirky guy who is working both within the community and beyond the community, and I think we have to do both. It is not really going to help us as a Muslim community if all of our work has no specific tie-in to the Muslim community. At the same time, we risk becoming too insular if we only talk to ourselves, so there needs to be a balance.
What advice do you have for first time entrepreneurs who are just starting a company?
I definitely believe that having patience and being willing to hang in there is a big part of being an entrepreneur. Of course patience is a major theme throughout the Qur’an.
There are a lot of entrepreneurs out there who are much more successful then me and have better advice, but coming from a Muslim perspective I think having patience you learn to have a lot of trust in Allah, and the last thing is to learn how to not get to distracted.
It is very easy as an entrepreneur to get distracted and get so focused on your business that you start neglecting things that matter like the relationships with people that you love, maybe even in your worship and your relationship with Allah.
What you have to realize is that everything depends on Allah and you can do everything that you want in a startup to try and make it successful, but I think every great startup has that moment where they were about to fail and something miraculous happened that flipped the switch for them. A lot of stuff we like to think that it’s in our control but it’s really not. So the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur is sacrifice your relationship with Allah.
What advice do you have for someone who is launching their first crowdfunding campaign?
Being in the right mindset is very important. I always tell projects that the crowd comes before the funding. That means two things:
You are only going to be able to raise as much money as big as your network is. If you are a brand new organization that doesn’t even have a Facebook page or an email list, it’s very unlikely that you would be able to raise much money. But if you have been building that community for years and years and you have a really strong connection, then you are going to be able to do a lot.
2) Realize that really your crowdfunding campaign is a publicity campaign before it is a fundraising campaign. If people just need money, they should a fundraising dinner at their mosque. It would be much more effective for the amount of time you put into it. The great thing about crowdfunding is that it generates all of this interest and publicity and it drives awareness towards the business. In a way, you are getting paid to publicize your work. When people come into crowdfunding understanding that it’s primarily a publicity campaign primarily they tend to do very well. They tend to raise a lot of awareness and raise a lot of money.
Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an interview that originally appeared on UmmahWide.com as part of its Social Innovators Series. It is reprinted here with permission. (Ummah Wide is a global storytelling platform focused on Life, Thought, Story and Cultures that transcend the borders and boundaries of the Muslim and Human family.)