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How to Start Your Business on the Cheap--With Help From the Crowd

Check out PCWorld's guide on how to use four popular crowdsourcing services to get more done for less.

If you need help turning your brilliant idea for a product or service into a functioning business--and get that help for a pittance--look to the Internet. With more than two billion people online, a lot of talent is out there, and many smart and artistic people are willing to help you make your vision into a reality, often at a surprisingly low cost.

But how do you effectively communicate your needs to the hive mind and realize your dream? That's where crowdsourcing websites come in. Most of these virtual marketplaces are purpose-built for funding ideas or creating graphic designs. Others are full of eager Internet users willing to do all sorts of creative and crazy things for as little as $5.

Not all crowdsourcing websites are based on the same model: On some of them, you submit a project and others bid for your money, while on others you submit an idea and pitch it to others to generate financial backers for it.

Here's a guide to four of the best crowdsourcing websites, each with its own unique highlights and advantages.

Use Kickstarter to Fund Your Project

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website: You come up with an idea, write a persuasive pitch, and post it online. If it's good, the public (hopefully) buys in and pledges money to make it a reality. Every Kickstarter project has a pledge minimum, and if the project doesn't earn the minimum amount within the time allotted, no money is collected. Even if your pitch succeeds, you don't get the entire amount: Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut, and Amazon (the payment processor) takes 3 to 5 percent.

Of course, having an amazing idea isn't enough; only 46 percent of all Kickstarter projects meet their funding goal, so it's important to maximize your project's chances of success by following these simple steps:

  • Come up with an awesome idea: This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: Pitch something awesome. Your idea doesn't need to be revolutionary or crazy in order to succeed; it can be as simple as a better iPhone dock.
  • Take advantage of your community: Spread the word to your friends and fans, especially if you're an artist or creative type. Chances are you already have a bunch of social media accounts, so use them.
  • Have a business plan: Figure out exactly how much money you'll need, and how you will use it. Make it clear to your backers exactly how you plan to use their money, and don't ask for more than you really need; if your idea is good, your fans can always choose to pledge more.
  • Offer rewards: Most successful Kickstarter projects reward donors with products or services at each successive donation level, such as a signed poster (for an artist) or a discount for the final product. The rewards typically become more desirable as the donation amount increases, but if you're concerned about depleting your product inventory (or your hand cramping up from signing so many posters) you can also create "limited" reward levels that provide rewards only for a predetermined number of backers.
  • Create a memorable video: The lion's share of successful Kickstarter projects have impressive or memorable videos, ranging from the humorous to the proof of concept. Which leads me to my next point:
  • Have something to show: If you are trying to bring a product to market, make sure that you at least have a working prototype to show off on your Kickstarter page.

Create Real Products With Quirky

Bringing products to market is what Quirky is all about. More than a website, Quirky is a design company based in New York that crowdsources product ideas, cherry-picks the best, and actually makes the products (cutting the inventor in for a cut of the royalties, of course). If you have a product idea that you've been dying to bring to life, you can submit it to Quirky for $10. From there, your pitch lives on the site for 30 days, during which the Quirky user community can submit feedback on your idea, and you can further refine it.

Every week, the staff of Quirky picks two projects from the site to bring to market. Once a project wins, Quirky's design team gets to work making it into a real physical product, then marketing it and getting it on store shelves at major retailers like Target and Barnes & Noble. The community members who work on these successful projects earn up to 30 percent royalties in perpetuity, and some have made hundreds of thousands of dollars from submitting their ideas.

Some quick Quirky tips:

  • You don't have to invent: While it may seem like a funny piece of advice for a site that's all about inventions, you can take part in the community (and turn a tidy profit) by helping others refine their ideas. Quirky members who make influential contributions earn a part of the royalties, and it can be a good way to get started and see what works.
  • Accessorize: Quirky's rapid-fire design process shows a clear preference for simple accessories, as you can see on its Upcoming Products page. Perennially popular products include innovative clothes hangers, better luggage straps, stands for tablets, and other simple accessories.
  • Refine, resubmit: If your idea didn't make it through the first time around, you can always submit it again for a measly $10. Even if the Quirky team never picks your product, this is a really clever way to get useful feedback on your idea without paying exorbitant fees to a design or marketing consultant.

Use Crowdspring to Get Your Designs Made

Designing a logo or website is not a risk-free process. Typically, you pick a designer whose work you like, explain your vision as best as you can, and hope it will come out right.

Here's how to circumvent that process: Try Crowdspring. It's one of several design-centric communities that rely on crowdsourcing to mitigate risk and turn the design process into a competition for your budget.

You start the process by selecting the type of project you're trying to get done: Maybe you need a new logo or website for your business, or perhaps a brochure or other piece of print design. Next, write a brief explaining your project and how much you're willing to pay; designers can then submit drafts and designs (on average, each project draws over 100 submissions). You pick the one you like best, and that's the one that gets your money.

Here's how you can get the most out of Crowdspring:

  • Don't offer the minimum: Prices start at $269 for a logo design project or $729 for a small website, but the more you offer, the more (and better skilled) the designers that will participate and try their best to win your project.
  • Browse before posting: You can browse current projects on Crowdspring to get a feel for your competition. The index page shows you at a glance how much each project is worth, and how many entries it received. See what projects similar to yours are asking, and use that as a baseline to get the best work for the least money.
  • Write a thorough brief: Don't skimp on your design proposal. For designers to realize your dream, they must understand it first. Be as detailed and as specific as possible, providing examples by linking to reference works you like.
  • Provide feedback: As submissions flow in, keep updating your design brief and providing feedback. Crowdsourcing works only when you tell the crowd what you want, so take an active hand in the design process to ensure you get quality results from Crowdspring.

Fiverr Helps You Get Things Done for $5

Fiverr is an online marketplace for getting small and quirky tasks done, each of which costs exactly $5--no more, and no less. Fiverr projects cover a variety of categories including creating music, soliciting expert advice, programming tasks, and even prank phone calls. If you need someone to deliver some networking cables, print posters, or play citizen journalist for an hour, Fiverr is a great place to start.

Many Fiverr offers seem too good to be true, but you can avoid getting scammed and get the most out of the website with these tips:

  • Avoid vague, intangible goals: Make sure you have a concrete, reasonable goal (like a logo or a piece of music) before you start searching Fiverr offers. The Social Marketing category is full of scammers offering to give you "1,000 real Twitter followers" for $5 and other such schemes. Steer clear--it's just not worthwhile.
  • Try title animations: Simple tasks like image design and animation are a great fit for Fiverr's unique marketplace. Some members of Fiverr even offer to create lovely title animations featuring any logo you provide them, which can make great openers for your corporate or personal video.
  • Use it for testing ideas: The most important Fiverr tip is not to take it too seriously. This is not a heavy-duty business tool, but rather a fun way to discover what some people would do for $5. Use it to brainstorm ideas for your business and test out new concepts; then take what the Fiverr community provides to another crowdsourcing service to make something really professional.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how to use these crowdsourcing services, you should have no trouble avoiding irrelevance in the digital age and getting your next big idea off the ground. Good luck!

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