Crowdfunding Leader Wants Others’ Dreams To Come True

By Atsushi Kodera Japan Times, Tokyo.

Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all hit the big time by persevering for years in the pursuit of their dreams.

They continue to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs the world over who dream of one day growing their own companies into the next Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. or Facebook Inc., which the three, respectively, founded.

But not all dreams are about creating a globally successful company; dreams can be more short-term and immediate.

For example, a rock band may want to collect funds for a new record, while a zoo may need extra funds to obtain special feed for fickle animals. A nongovernmental organization may wish to help children in a developing country with an immediate need for school supplies.

If one has a dream of the latter nature, one option is to turn to Haruka Mera and ReadyFor Inc., online services that, through the emerging fundraising scheme called crowdfunding, connects those in need with people who may want to support their passion by contributing money.

Ever since its March 2011 debut, ReadyFor has offered a platform for some 1,400 projects to pitch their plans and has raised about Y750 million from some 57,000 people.

"We have always lived by our service mission of creating a society in which anyone can hope to achieve what they dream of achieving," said Mera, a Tokyo native who started ReadyFor in Tokyo at age 23 while a graduate student at Keio University.

She became the chief executive officer after ReadyFor, formerly a division of Internet company Ohma Inc., made a fresh start Saturday as a spinoff.

The aforementioned examples are all dreams that were realized thanks to ReadyFor.

Rock band detroit7 successfully raised Y385,000 from 97 fans in October 2011 and issued a vinyl record commemorating the 10th anniversary of its formation. Nagoya's Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in March 2013 collected some Y4.8 million for a project to grow hard-to-obtain eucalyptus on its own to feed its koalas, while Tokyo NGO Action against Child Exploitation in August 2013 raised Y2.128 million for its plan to donate school supplies to local junior high students and provide farming education to their parents.

Mera's interest in connecting people online began when she participated in Yutaka Matsuo's project to start a "people search engine" called Spysee, after she met the University of Tokyo associate professor while she was an undergraduate at Keio in 2007.

During her studies in 2009, she went on to join a project to start a new service called Cheering Spysee, which allowed users to act as "cheerleaders" by donating money to people they want to support.

After being inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of her peers in Silicon Valley when she was studying at Stanford University in 2010, Mera returned home and, with student friends, started to combine some of the ideas from Cheering Spysee with crowdfunding.

This led to the establishment of ReadyFor, a reward-based crowdfunding service.

Besides pioneering crowdfunding in Japan, Mera's accomplishments include being chosen as a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community, a group of young leaders. She attended the forum's famous annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, as the youngest Japanese participant in 2012.

The fundraising process at ReadyFor starts with an "executor" submitting a proposal, including a project outline and the amount of money sought. If the proposal is accepted, the executor, with assistance from a staff "curator," works out the design of the Web page to be used to make the appeal for support. It typically takes three weeks for a project page to go online.

Those who view the page and decide the project is worth supporting can order one or more "tickets," depending on how much they want to contribute, and become a sponsor.

This entitles the sponsor to rewards from the executor, which typically vary according to the ticket price. These can be anything from a message of thanks, an admission ticket to a related event, project-related postcards or novelties, or a promise to display the supporters' names in some fashion.

Under ReadyFor's "all or nothing" style, the executor gets to receive the entire amount of the ticket receipts collected if the amount ordered reaches the self-imposed target and deadline, minus a 17 percent service fee for the company. The executor now has to carry the project through to fruition.

If ticket orders fail to reach target by deadline, the project and all orders submitted up to that point are canceled at no cost to the executor or the sponsors.

This fundraising style was modeled after the one used by Kickstarter, one of the biggest crowdsourcing providers in the United States.

Mera's desire to help people pursue their dreams was born out of frustration with what she says is a culture that makes it difficult for Japanese to "pitch their projects to many people, talk to people about their dreams and ask for support or funds."

Mera and her staff thus made sure that the company's website and service would be designed in such a way to make even shy Japanese feel like starting a project -- a feature that she said sets ReadyFor apart from rival services.

At ReadyFor, people who might feel daunted by having to pitch their ideas to strangers can always turn to the staff for advice and encouragement, Mera said.

"We're the biggest platform in Japan, so one of our advantages is we have a large user base watching our website," she said. "And we have the expertise to enable the executor and the projects to reach out to as many as people as possible."

Mera also said her desire to help others stems from the frustration she used to experience when expressing herself.

"I'm not the type who has stuck to a dream from a young age or a respectable person who achieved something with a sense of mission," she said. "I was fortunate to have grown into the person that I am, someone who can talk about, for example, how I want to change society or the world. But my growth is the result of dealing with whatever came my way and having experienced so many different things without stopping.

"So what I want to do is support people who are frustrated (like I was), bring out the wonderful activities they are capable of initiating and let the world know about them, by helping them express themselves," she said.

In October, Mera advanced her cause further by establishing the Ichiokuen (Y100 million) Project, a campaign in which the public is invited to submit dream projects through the ReadyFor website with the goal of raising Y100 million. Five leaders in creative industries are acting as special curators to assist those who submit proposals.

Creative director Michihiko Yanai, best known for his "No music, no life" ad campaign for Tower Records Japan Inc., and Toshio Tsuchiya, a television producer who helped develop hit programs featuring comedian "Beat" Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano) and other celebrities in the 1980s and 1990s, are among the special curators.

Proposals will be accepted until Dec. 14, although the company has yet to decide how many projects to support, Mera said.

"We want to start projects that will excite the public. The Y100 million goal is just an amount of money, and it's not like we are demanding executors to achieve that amount," Mera said. "What we want to see is people getting excited about dreams worth Y100 million, and we think realizing a large dream with cooperation from many people is really exciting." ------ Key events in Mera's life 2010 -- Graduates from Keio University's Faculty of Economics; enrolls at Stanford University in California

2011 -- Establishes ReadyFor, Japan's first crowdfunding service, as a division of Ohma Inc. in Tokyo

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