Hello, Linda! How Did You Do It?

Crowdfunding that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars is a sign of something even bigger at play: a true community.

Photo: Touko Hujanen

Ville Blåfield, 20.04.2015

Long form

Linda Liukas shares the story of her Kickstarter phenomenon.

___

A young, flame-haired woman wearing a red top with white polka dots bounces up and down on a red sofa. At times she pauses and smiles – then bursts into laughter. Linda Liukas is obviously someone who is full of beans!

“I grew up with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and Tove Jansson’s Little My of the Moomins”, we hear Linda Liukas explain, as the video image pans from the sofa to the floor, where she is busy spreading out a pile of illustrations. The illustrations are sketches for her children’s book about little Ruby’s adventures. “I want to combine the art of storytelling and software, and help small children get excited about technology in a way that goes far beyond the bits and bites inside a computer”, she continues on the video.

This 2 minute and 49 second video is a success story that helped her amass a record amount of 380,000 dollars for her children’s book project via the Kickstarter crowdfunding site. Towards the end of 2014, ten months after beginning her campaign, a total of 9,258 people had invested in her Hello Ruby project.

And the book hasn’t even materialized yet.

“I’m fully aware that the project is running late”, says Liukas. It’s an early winter’s morning in Helsinki, as she arrives for a coffee at a seaside café. The morning chill has perhaps subdued some of the bubbling energy running riot on the Kickstarter video, but there’s no denying she is a captivating character. Fascinating and self-assured, confident and humble, someone who fills the room yet knows how to listen. One reason for her success perhaps.

“The project is running behind the original schedule, but I’ve been open about this to pre-orderers all along. The great side about Kickstarter is that I’m accountable to the community that has arisen around the project. I know people are waiting for the finished product and want to hear how the work is progressing”, explains Liukas. “And they are also understanding.”

There comes the other secret behind her success: community. Those 9,258 people who were ready to invest in a book project that was non-existent at the time. Liukas herself is of the view that this exactly is the root for something bigger and more meaningful. The creation of a community indicates something deeper at play beyond just an interesting idea for a book.

It’s taken years to build this community, and Liukas is here to explain how it all happened.

***

When Linda Liukas was 13, she, like others her age, had an icon.

But unlike the icons of most 13-year-olds, hers wasn’t a rocker or movie star but a politician: Al Gore.

The young Al Gore fan soon realized that for some strange reason the former US Vice President and climate change evangelist did not have a Finnish language website. So that’s what the 13-year-old set out to create.

First she needed to learn a thing or two about coding.

Let’s pause here for a moment. This is the point where the success story we are retracing at a café in wintery Helsinki begins. The Kickstarter campaign of Linda Liukas aims to teach coding for children, especially girls. This in fact is her mission.

“The world of teenage girls is often laughed at”, she says, “yet everything I’ve done or achieved has always been sparked by something I’ve been ridiculously excited about. People are always talking about the websites of angry young males and the dangers they pose – but big websites actually crash due to the sheer mass of Justin Bieber fans.”

Liukas wants to see young girls becoming proactive also online beyond “liking and pinning”, moving on to acting and creating and “actually curating the Internet”. Not just using a mobile app, but inventing one. Not just playing games, but developing them. Not just consuming, but creating and publishing online content.

This requires computer language skills, coding. According to Liukas, coding should be a required everyday skill in today’s society.

“That’s why I advocate programing so much.”

After creating a Finnish language website for Al Gore and finishing upper secondary school, Liukas went on to study economics. “Both of my parents studied at the School of Economics, and to be honest, I hated it. I never felt at home there.”

Liukas escaped the Turku School of Economics to focus on her minor studies in visual journalism at Aalto University in Helsinki. She lived at Otaniemi campus with her boyfriend at the time, who was studying engineering. Aalto Entrepreneurship Society had just been established, and Liukas was sold.

“It was like a massive tidal wave that swept me along.”

Through the networks of Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, Liukas ended up taking joint study module ME310 organized by Aalto University and Stanford.

“This was the first time something was actually required of me at university”, she says. “We studied in a multidisciplinary community for a year with the task of designing a completely recyclable consumer product. We had to hand in a prototype every two weeks. We learned the Stanford product development process, where instead of funneling, we were looking for wild ideas and challenged to invent something totally different. It took a while for me to warm up – the students looked like Barbie dolls – and studied at Stanford.”

“I don’t know what Aalto University pays for the course, probably loads”, laughs Liukas.

The final dissertation involved designing and assembling a fully working laptop that could be dissembled into parts. The laptop configured by Liukas and her team gained attention and was written about by Forbes. “It became a bit of a viral hit.” Liukas realized that doing one’s own thing could break into international news, if the idea was good enough.

But there was more to her year at Stanford in California; Liukas ended up taking a course in coding.

“There was probably nothing wrong with the course, but the way coding was taught was so boring. I couldn’t help thinking how I’d do it. My mind flooded with ideas on how coding could be taught in an interesting way.”

***

In 2010, ideas had become refined into a course arranged for friends.

Liukas and her friend Karri Saarinen developed Rails Girls, a weekend event that taught women the basics in coding.

“It was supposed to be for friends, but we received about a hundred applications for the first weekend”, Liukas reminisces. “So it wasn’t just for our friends.”

Word about the women’s coding workshops started to spread online; especially bright coding stars eagerly shared the news on Twitter. ”When David Heinemeier, who had developed the Rails coding language, tweeted about Rails Girls, we just had to have it printed for our wall”, sniggers Liukas.

Soon Liukas and Saarinen received a message from Singapore: could you organize a coding workshop over here? “Of course we can”, responded Liukas and Saarinen. As the trip finally dawned after nearly a year Liukas couldn’t help thinking: “If this thing works in a city and culture unknown to us from before – maybe it will work elsewhere, too.”

From Helsinki, it was easy to take Rails Girls to Tallinn, Estonia – coders across the Gulf of Finland already knew each other. The next step was to arrange workshops in Berlin and Krakow. The core team began to expand, and Liukas and Saarinen were forced to learn the art of delegation. In addition to achievements, there were disappointments: after Singapore, Liukas took the course to Shanghai, where a Ruby China community had sprung up. But Liukas was in for a bit of a surprise when she arrived in the country.

“The premises had no Internet connection. Someone had even removed the windows.”

Yet even the most unusual experiences never took away the underlying sentiment: there’s potential here, it brings people together. This could get huge.

“In the end, we open-sourced all of the Rails Girls booklets and materials and published everything online. Not just the technical guides, but also the social aspect. We explained how to gain sponsors for events, and allowed free access to all of the materials, including our logos”, Liukas states. “Letting go felt awful. I sobbed thinking all of this will go wrong. But it felt like the right decision – and it was. The best thing I ever did.”

In a space of four years, Rails Girls has grown into a global community, where Liukas’ role is now only that of an administrator or hostess.

Now Rails Girls guides are available online in English, Japanese, French, Chinese, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and German.

It was worth letting go. “If I’d hung in there as a bottleneck, Rails Girls would be much smaller than it is now.”

It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many girls and women interested in coding have come in contact with Rails Girls around the globe. Looking at the number of followers in social media does give an idea of the size of the community: Rails Girls has just over 13,000 likers on Facebook and 10,000 followers on Twitter. The Rails Girls map already has pins on at least 227 cities. In the near future, Rails Girls workshops will be taking place at least in Brazil, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, Japan, South Africa, and Poland.

Liukas thinks the rapid growth is down to there being no exact plan to begin with. “In an effort to create a network, people usually first build the structure and then wonder how to engage an audience. Rails Girls did the opposite: we began with an idea that got people around the world excited, and made it the joint property of the community.”

“Often people are simply after followers, but it’s even more rewarding to raise leaders.”

In February 2014, Liukas finally plucked up the courage to share her dream of a children’s book on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and the potential support base was already there: a global network of thousands of committed Rails Girls enthusiasts, who shared her mission of the importance of spreading coding skills.

It came as something of a surprise even for Liukas that everything seemed to make sense after all. As if the big picture had been envisaged all along.

“These days, it’s really hard to predict where the money will end up coming from. Trying to license Rails Girls and create revenue on the idea or brand may have completely failed. In the end, I became a children’s author with Rails Girls providing the supporting foundation. Perhaps the lesson of the story is  not to get caught up in wondering where the funds will come from too early on.”

Liukas holds on to the thought that in this day and age attachments are formed with small, constrained subcultures rather than with megastars – “a thousand fans is all you need”. There’s no point in trying to attain the masses, but to make a genuine difference for a smaller bunch of people.  Committed followers form a core group with a scalable force. “For me, Rails Girls was that crucial community. It was the foundation for pushing Hello Ruby over the threshold of a hundred thousand dollars.”

This type of thinking can be difficult for traditional businesses and institutions to grasp. Liukas has a smile on her face, as she tells the story of meeting with the CEO of a large media corporation to whom she had just lectured on her philosophy of a thousand fans.

“This boss told me they wouldn’t even consider a business activity involving a target audience of less than 100,000 people.”

Liukas rolls her eyes. “If the first thing on my mind was to consider whether a particular idea could reach 100,000 customers, I’d never even get started. Take Rails Girls for instance: Finland wouldn’t have offered the same potential at the beginning, as it does now. We got a hundred people excited before Rails Girls grew in volume and started to gain international interest. Now Rails Girls workshops cover the whole of Finland.”

Liukas has a message also for the corner offices and product development departments of large enterprises: traditional thinking can kill off a good idea right at the start.

“Soon these jointly arisen ideas will eat up the money of large corporations.”

***

The Hello Ruby campaign attracted a hefty sum of 380,000 dollars, which is a huge amount compared to the average on the US-based Kickstarter platform.

The service was established in 2009 typically for collecting a few thousand dollars as capital for creative projects, such as books, short films and albums.

The founder, now chairman of Kickstarter, Perry Chen tells the story:

“I was living in New Orleans in late 2001 and I wanted to bring a pair of DJs down to play a show during the 2002 Jazz Fest. I found a great venue and reached out to their management, but in the end the show never happened – it was just too much money. The fact that the potential audience had no say in this decision stuck uncomfortably in my brain. I thought: ‘What if people could go to a site and pledge to buy tickets for a show? And if enough money was pledged they would be charged and the show would happen. If not, it wouldn’t.’ I loved the idea, but I was focused on making music, not starting an internet company. Yet slowly over the next few years I started to work on the idea more and more. Finally, on April 28, 2009, we launched Kickstarter to the public.

Projects trickled in. It was amazing! You cannot imagine how excited we all were.”

In five years the venture has grown rapidly. Kickstarter has expanded to Europe (also Scandinavia) and Australia, and is planning for more.

“We’ll definitely be expanding to more countries in the future”, says Julie Wood, communications director at Kickstarter. “And we’ll be continuing to improve our platform as a place where people can bring their creative ideas to life, and to support our community of creators.”

Hello Ruby is a perfect showcase for Kickstarter.

“Linda’s project was fantastic and embodies what Kickstarter is all about”, says Wood.

“She filled a niche and showed that there is real interest in teaching girls the principles of coding. She told her story in a compelling way and shared her creative process with all of her followers extremely well.”

The speed at which Hello Ruby amassed its funds is another defining feature: the first 100,000 dollars landed within a space of 24 hours.

Individual campaigns – a few innovative technical devices, a film project, and a computer game - have managed to gain millions of dollars in funding through Kickstarter, while most achieve less than 10,000 dollars. When publishing a project on Kickstarter, the applicant needs to define a target sum for carrying it through. Approximately 50 per cent of applicants achieve their goal.

Kickstarter grabs 5 per cent of the collected sum, while Amazon, which takes care of payments, charges a  few per cent.

Taxation is one of the stumbling blocks in crowdfunding, and tax authorities in different countries have rather unclear and contradicting views on the collected funds.

In Sweden, crowdfunding is interpreted as a tax-free donation, while Finnish authorities have held varying approaches. Linda Liukas takes care to ensure that Hello Ruby’s investors get their money’s worth: in practice, they are pre-orderers of her book.

Finnish Senja Larsen caused a bit of a stir, when she sought funding on Kickstarter for her Senja Teaches you Swedish project aiming to publish a Swedish language learning book.

She managed to collect a total of 11,000 euros, but the project never materialized, as the Finnish Police took matters in their hands, demanding an explanation for why she had not applied for a money collection permit in accordance with Finnish legislation.

***

Similarly to Senja Larsen, Linda Liukas set the target sum on Kickstarter at 10,000 dollars, which in hindsight is quite obviously an under-estimation.

The surprising total sum in fact enabled her idea to grow from word go. Now Liukas is busy working on an entire series of books, and has signed a deal with a US publishing company.

“I took too long to procrastinate about publishing Hello Ruby. I would have really wanted my video on Kickstarter already six months earlier, but for some reason didn’t feel ready. I was too preoccupied with money collection laws and the likes”, Liukas recounts.

According to current plans, the book series will be published in 2015. Kickstarter investors will be the first to receive an e-copy of the first book.

“The Kickstarter community can also be demanding. I write a monthly ‘backer update’ to my investors, and have openly shared when I’ve felt totally stuck. At times like that, it’s been wonderful to receive messages along the lines of ‘Project delays are a fact of life’ from some stoic Asian investor.”

With Hello Ruby splashed on the pages of every media from the Guardian to Wired, there’s always a risk that the reception and attention gained by the gospel of coding for girls widens the gulf between Liukas and her original community. One must not forget one’s roots.

“After travelling around speaking to bigger audiences, I look forward to retreating to my world of introverts again. It’s important to remember who you are and to stay relevant to that bunch of people.”

There’s really only one way to remain relevant: integrity. A close core community instantly knows when someone is bluffing. “I have to be totally genuine and honest in what I do.”

Perhaps returning to these blustery Helsinki mornings is one way for Linda Liukas to stay grounded. Following her year at Stanford, she got a taste for New York life during her one-and-a-half-year stint working for Codeacademy, a rapidly growing start-up that teaches coding, albeit also for boys and men.  Liukas loved New York, but wasn’t too impressed with the working culture; 12-hour working days sucked out the last juices and taught the “straight A’s girl”, as she calls herself, one important thing: the ability to say no.

Returning to Finland also denoted a return to her original passion - children’s book illustrations strike the deepest chord with what Liukas is about. “Of course Hello Ruby is already a company, or two companies in fact, but most of all I feel I’m an artist.”

However, putting labels on things goes against her philosophy; for Liukas, pure technology or pure art does not exist.

“The Internet, like technology on the whole, is after all established on a humane aspect – human needs and interaction. The very idea of programing language is that it’s written by a human being for others.”

And how about Liukas herself? After her children’s books are out in the world, it’s time to pursue the next dream. If anything, Rails Girls and Hello Ruby have taught that an idea doesn’t need to be too ready or too conventional.

“I’ve been thinking about an art exhibition where you could crawl inside a computer.”

Crowdfunding Through Selling Shares

The crowdfunding model doesn’t only apply to art projects or computer games. Invesdor, a Finnish online service similar to Kickstarter, provides a means for startups to apply for crowdfunding from customers, risk investors, and business angels.

“At its simplest, share-based crowdfunding refers to a regular issue of shares in line with the Finnish Limited Liability Companies Act, which is marketed online,” explains Mikko Savolainen from Invesdor. “In our view, the biggest hindrances for promising startups to gain funding include their limited presence and a difficulty to discover unlisted companies. Invesdor addresses this dilemma by gathering unlisted growth companies in one place and providing a straightforward way to invest in them.”

The Netherlands and Great Britain are trailblazers in share-based crowdfunding.

“Especially Great Britain has created excellent preconditions for the growth of share-based crowdfunding, as tax initiatives are in place to support growth investment. Also investment activities have deeper roots in Britain compared to Finland,” assesses Savolainen.

Companies with successful crowdfunding via Invesdor include brewery restaurant Bryggeri Helsinki as well as Iron Sky Universe Oy, which sprang up from hit movie Iron Sky. Both startups were able to offer something valuable also to those investors who weren’t customers at the time: a committed community that served both as a customer base and marketing channel.

Although success stories tend to trickle from the B2C market, Savolainen believes that the crowdfunding model works just as well in the context of the B2B side. A crowdfunding project can serve as a marketing measure, shedding light on the customer base that believes in the company.

“People’s desire to decide where they put their money is the underlying thread. The Internet allows to bring together smaller streams, geographic borders rarely setting limits. People want to get involved in growth stories.”

Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: Hello, Linda! How Did You Do It?

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