Mission Driven Entrepreneurs Episode 33

The advantages to being a startup might not seem obvious when you’re working into the wee small hours and there’s nobody else to pass the buck to. But, says Manolis Sfinarolakis, you’re at an advantage.

Manolis, who spoke to me over the sounds of his new beagle-and-Australian-sheepdog mix puppy, is founder and creator of Reality Crowd TV, a virtual crowdfunding network. He says, “When you’re a startup you can make mistakes and experiment because nobody is paying attention to you. You can use tech that the larger ones can’t use because they are slow to make changes. That’s how the small businesses compete.” His mission is to educate and inspire small businesses to raise money through crowdfunding.

Food for thought

Manolis’s entrepreneurial spark was ignited early on, as the child of restaurateurs in Connecticut. “As the owner’s son you take on more responsibility and build the profile of an entrepreneur,” he says. But his parents didn’t want him to, “carry on in the trenches”, they wanted him to use his analytical skills and so he graduated from UCONN (the University of Connecticut), having majored four times. “I just didn’t know what to do,” he says, and so he went on to work for Deloitte and Touche as a financial auditor where he worked “110 hours a week making below minimum wage”. This was, he says, the beginning of his journey to discover what it was he wanted to do, though he’d always had the want and need so common in entrepreneurs.

And like many, he tried and failed a couple of times too. After leaving Deloitte for the first time he worked part time in a smaller firm and dabbled in real estate and property management part-time. When he equalled his paycheck he struck out alone but, he says, laughing, “I was 25 and it was an all-cash business. I spent it having a good time and my cash flow management was not good at all.” Fear of financial ruin sent him back to the corporate world, before working on a second restaurant project with his father, and then back to corporate again. This, he says was a lesson. “If you have had a corporate job in the past and you have a want and a need and you go and try and fail then there should be no fear because your skills are going to translate into another corporate job.” The safety net is is there.

Third time lucky

Manolis SfinarolakisManolis started his third business, Reality Crowd TV, in December 2013 after seeing the opportunity presented by the new crowdfunding laws in the US. “I had always heard about the crowdfunding movement,” he says, “My brother did a Kickstarter back in 2010, but then something amazing happened in the US. The 2012 Jobs Act stated that startups could receive direct investment, instead of reward-based investment. Once that legislation came through, I said, ‘the world of finance is going to change dramatically. Here’s my next endeavour. How am I going to get into this industry?’”

He did it by focusing on bringing the crowd to crowdfunding. “Most people hadn’t heard of it and even now only about 1/8 people know, so there’s a lot of growth.”

Reality Crowd TV started as a web-based series to educate and inform entrepreneurs on the crowdunding industry. Because of the success of this and nationwide touring and speaking, the company began to do well on social media. This, says Manolis, acted as a kind of sales funnel. “People saw what we did for ourselves and asked us for help. How did we get our first customer? We simply did for them what we did for ourselves and individuals began asking us to help.”

By the end of 2014 the company had helped 10 companies raise $825,000 (but Manolis is keen to point out, “We had an equal number who did not reach their goal. Crowdfunding does not have a 100% success rate.”

Pivot (pivot, pivot, pivot)

Revenue comes from helping companies with marketing and raising money, usually on a monthly retainer. Manolis adds, “And in some cases we negotiate down if we get a percentage of the funds we raise.” The business has definitely changed since it started in 2013 and, Manolis says, this ability to pivot has been crucial: “You start with a plan and you learn what is and is not needed. It’s about the journey and taking in the feedback and adjusting course accordingly.” Moreover, “You have to commit to something in order to understand why people are saying no. If you hit roadblocks you have to be able to give it a shot.” To date the company has pivoted no less than four times in order to refine it's offering and focus on profitability.

There have been roadblocks. “When we started, it took us four months before we saw any revenue,” says Manolis, “Now at beginning of the year I changed the revenue model again. Last week we got our first sponsorship.” He has also reacquired almost all of his former business partner’s stake as she has decided to move on.

Who they work with matters too. “We want to believe in the project,” he says, “I am looking for an individual who isn’t looking for someone to hire  to do everything for them. We want to work with people who have done the groundwork." A lot of people make the mistake of using crowdfunding to do their customer evaluation. Manolis firmly believes that's the wrong approach - "we don’t like to work with just ideas.”

 Reality Crowd TV hosts the VICN (Virtual Incubator Crowdfunding Network), designed to bring startups from start to successful crowdfunding finish in six months or less. The platform allows entrepreneurs to track and share their progress, get the latest growth-hacking tricks from community mentors, or ask the integrated startup community for help. “In the four months since we started we have got more than 2000 members so there’s a large community that a sponsor would like to be in front of,” says Manolis. He says that one version will always be free but at some point they may introduce a premium option. He says, “I have been very careful to not really ask for much. And I suck at asking. I have to have no shred of doubt that what I am selling will benefit someone.”

Bringing it altogether in an Online Summit (free admission!)

In November 2015 the company will host its first three-week-long online summit, covering equity and debt, donation and rewards and a how-to bootcamp. There's a huge amount scheduled, and for anyone thinking about crowdfunding this is a phenomenal learning opportunity. Manolis has very generously offered members of the Mission Driven Entrepreneurs community free access to the event. To claim your spot simply visit:  www.eventbrite.com/e/virtual-crowdfunding-summit-2015-tickets-15057268696 and enter the promotional code: thecareerfarm

RESOURCES

Productivity Hack

“What really put us on the map from a perception perspective was our massive following on Twitter. We have 72,000 followers and we didn’t buy them, we did it by targeting them and getting them to follow us. From Twitter alone we get 100 website hits a day. The main tool I use is Crowdfire (formerly Just Unfollow) which allows you to targetedly follow certain demographics and copy the followers of your competitors.”

Favourite Book

Think And Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill

Favourite Quote

The greatest risk in life is not taking one.”

Links

Reality Crowd TV

Virtual Incubator Crowdfunding Network

Email Manolis at: [email protected]

Connect with Manolis on Twitter @AverageJoeVC

I really hope enjoyed the interview with Manolis, whether you just read it here or got the full experience on the podcast. If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do share them with us on Twitter or Facebook – we’d love to hear from you!

INTERESTED IN A CAREER IN THE SUSTAINABILITY FIELD?

As promised in the podcast, here are the details of the 3-part masterclass on How To Develop Your Career in Sustainability. An international event, covering the US and European markets, the webinars are led by market expert Shannon Houde, with input from leading sustainability recruiters Acre Resources. This is shaping up to be an essential event for anyone interested in developing their career in this field. Places are limited, so find out more and reserve your spot while there is still availability.

Eventbrite - HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR CAREER IN SUSTAINABILITY - SERIES OF 3 WEBINARS