Long story short: The best way to get money to create new things is to find the people who want those things and have them give you the money first. But you don't come to this column for short, simple chunks of wisdom, so here's the long story long.
Consumer product development and marketing has always been a tricky business. From the birth of the corporation until not too long ago, cynical executives could say their customers were sheep who would follow any trend or shiny enticement—and those executives would not only get away with it, but would probably rise through the ranks. Discovering demand was more of an art than a science. The consumer had no voice; a combination of spreadsheet shenanigans and focus group polling could generate products that would sell, for the most part.
The days of voiceless consumers ended several years ago, when the social customer arose and said, "This is nonsense." Since that glorious moment, private citizens have taken ever more control of the conversation between themselves and businesses. It's what a lot of us are counting on as we build the future of business.
Still, it can be hard for a new business to bring an idea to market. If you can't afford to do it with your available funds—and that applies to the vast majority of new businesses—you've got to seek funding. That means proving to banks and venture capitalists that your idea has merit and, more importantly, that the public will bite. A lot of promising companies die at this point because investors want to see a return on their investment, and failure to convince them that this will occur is the end of the road.
If you've had an eye on the tech sector lately, you've probably seen mention of Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com). With Kickstarter, a number of projects that would never have received funding through traditional means have collected millions of dollars in a matter of days, just by going straight to the market. Notable successes include Web and print comic writer Rich Burlew, who took in 2,127 percent of his goal for a new print run of his Order of the Stick comic; Brian Fargo, who funded the long-desired sequel to his 1988 hit Wasteland (the game that spawned the Fallout franchise) and did so well that he attracted the head of the Fallout team to help him; Pebble, an e-paper wristwatch built on Android technology; and a ton of other art and technology projects.
You've probably noticed a trend in these projects, and possibly in the ones you looked at on your own: They cater heavily to nerds. I expect the reason is that we're used to being a vocal yet underserved group. This is true of any niche enthusiast, but my tribe in particular has benefited from the rise of social tech—we're the ones who fix your computers, after all—and we are using it to get what we want. So if Joss Whedon wants to make another Firefly series, we've got his back.
What does this mean to the rest of the world? First, it means that people and organizations who hold all the money don't necessarily hold all the power. If you can't get funding or a developer or a publisher, there's another option that's extremely viable—as long as you have a good idea, can connect to your audience, and they agree with you.
Second, it means that if there's a feature you want added to an existing product (like your CRM system), you can demand it and have a chance of seeing it get made, even if you are a tiny minority—as long as you're willing to help fund it from the start. It won't be long before somebody in CRM realizes the possibilities inherent in Kickstarter and co-opts the mechanism for his/her own R&D ends. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if news of Marc Benioff or some other figure doing exactly this beats this column into print.
Marshall Lager is the founder of social CRM consultancy Third Idea Consulting, and will be resisting the temptation to redirect all his income to cool Kickstarter projects. Contact him at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.