Crowdfunding explosion includes West Louisville group garden and

posted Jul 1, 2013, 1:28 PM by   [ updated Jul 1, 2013, 1:47 PM ]
Louisville-area people, entrepreneurs and groups already make use of crowd-funding sites, most with little success by the time the clock runs out. One exception on Kickstarter is a West Louisville project raising money to build two greenhouses to grow food for Shawnee residents year-round. `The People’s Garden Project,’ is already one third of the way toward its $7,500 goal with a deadline of July 31st. Local people who want to raise money online can have more time at the free,, where there are no time limits on projects. UnlikeKickstarter and other similar websites, is frustrating in that there is no search box, so I could not look for Louisville-area users. The story below describes what is all about

-Jere Downs

This wasn’t the plan. Tom Serres, 31, already had his life mapped out at 18, when he joined a Radio Shack store in his native Austin and quickly made a name for himself as the man behind a cell-phone-accessories sales plan that was adopted across the chain.

“No one in my family had gone to college,” he says. “I was a good manager, and I just wanted to rise up the company ladder. But things changed.”

Big time. Today, Serres is surrounded by 30 staffers at, a crowd-funding site he co-founded with a few friends he’d met during a remarkable post-Radio Shack detour. Where his goals once were limited to corporate success, now they’re dead focused on making Rally a linchpin in the nation’s $300 billion “cause economy,” his favored term for personalized philanthropy.

Where Kickstarter is known for raising money for movies and products, Rally is one of a growing number of sites such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe where individuals make their pitch for everything from sending local kids to camp to rebuilding a destroyed barn. But while many crowd-funding sites lure donors with promises of goods, Rally offers nothing but the warm glow of giving.

“LinkedIn powers the professional graph, Facebook, the social, Google, the knowledge, and I want to power the cause graph,” says Serres, a former political strategist who combines the natural ease of a salesman with the disarming charm of an evangelist. “There’s no question there’s a cultural shift going on now,” he says in his company’s crowded offices as a giant dog strolls by. “People are defining themselves not so much by what they buy, but by how that spending reflects who they are.”

Serres cites everything from “billionaires opting to drive a Prius” to stores luring customers with fair-trade goods as evidence that today’s consumer shops with a keen eye and an emotional heart.

That approach especially goes for giving. A glimpse at some causes seeking donations on Rally proves that humans love helping those in need, even if they’re strangers.

There’s a cameraman from TV’s Deadliest Catch who raised nearly $40,000 to pay for his cancer treatments; a Minnesota pastor who got $23,000 to keep his church afloat; and, one of Serres’ favorites, a Costa Rican man who collected $80,000 to attend Cornell Univer-sity, where he is now a class leader.

“All we’re asking people is, ‘What are you passionate about?’” says” Serres. “It really all comes down to storytelling. That’s what motivates people to give.”

The entrepreneur launched Rally in the fall of 2011, and by the following spring, a million users had registered with the site. Today, that number is up to 5 million. To date, 28,000 rallies have been started.

Among the site’s proprietary features is its own payment system -- other sites use third-party processing companies such as PayPal -- which keeps Rally’s cut of each donation at just under 6(PERCENT), about half what other sites charge.

Serres and his team are chasing the tail of a growing monster, says Heather Joslyn, assistant managing editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “There’s definitely a trend of people giving directly to individuals. Perhaps it’s out of concern that their contributions (to established outfits) don’t always get to the right people. Or maybe it’s just that people are very moved by personal stories, especially after disasters,” she says. “For those making the plea, it’s as easy as writing something up and adding photos and a video. You don’t have to leave home.”

For Silicon Valley investor Mike Maples, an early Rally backer, this cultural shift “away from the oligarchy of non-profits” such as the United Way and Red Cross is an inevitable by-product of technology and social media.

“There’s nothing wrong with those organizations, but we see a world in which anyone with a valid cause should be able to get the word out,” says Maples, who pressed Serres to clarify his vision before his Floodgate fund, as well as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, signed on to provide the bulk of Rally’s $2.5 million start-up kitty (last year, Serres raised an additional $8 million).

“A lot of entrepreneurs have good ideas and good teams, but very few are looking to do something legendary like Tom,” says Maples, who noticed the same fire in the founders of Twitter before he invested with them. “He has a passion about him that’s unique.”

Passion has fueled Serres’ transformation from Radio Shack star to Bay Area tech maven. Let’s go back to Austin, where the store manager’s idea of bundling phone accessories in simply priced and clearly marked packaging drove a sales bonanza. Radio Shack brass encouraged him to apply for a corporate post, but Serres lost out to someone with a college degree. “I knew I had to do something about that,” he says softly.

Bouncing between a community college and business classes at the University of Texas at Austin, Serres and a friend decided to help a friend run for state political office. But when party officials declined to give him voter information files -- “They actually didn’t want her to win, for complicated districting reasons,” he says -- he indignantly set off to create a database using public records.

“I was jaded by the experience of someone telling me whether I could be a public servant or not,” he says. “That didn’t seem right.”

Serres created Piryx, an oddly named data-driven consultancy that helped candidates fund raise for political campaigns. “I was not popular with those in power, but others needed me,” he says.

By then, Serres was under the wing of a local political consultant, Mark McKinnon, whose résumé includes the gubernatorial and presidential campaigns of George W. Bush. He got Serres involved in John McCain’s bid for the White House, which landed Serres on CNN as an expert on politics and technology.

McKinnon smiles when asked about Serres rapid rise.

“I was asked to meet with Tom and I almost didn’t do it, didn’t have the time,” McKinnon says while visiting Rally’s offices on the way to give a speech at Stanford University. “But his intense passion got me, almost like a Labrador. He was a little bit naïve, but transparently so.”

McKinnon jokes that he “didn’t understand half of what Tom was talking about, but I could tell it was the future.” Specifically, he was struck by how those approaching Piryx for fund-raising help quickly expanded from political operatives to churches and schools.

Serres also noticed. He took a “leap of faith,” quit school, moved to San Francisco and changed Piryx’s name to Rally (”I also thought about ‘lift’ or ‘rise,’ but I liked the idea of rallying friends and family around a cause”).

At first, he couldn’t sell his vision even if it were ice cream on a hot summer day. “Investors kept saying, ‘There’s no money in non-profits.’ “

Maples was skeptical but ultimately, his gut convinced him that Serres had what it took: “At Floodgate, we’re emotional investors, and Tom is emotional.”

Serres hasn’t looked back, and recently, the company opened offices in Berlin to try to capture the European cause economy. As ever, Serres is convinced that tomorrow’s big gifts start with today’s pocket change.

“Our society and culture has its roots in shared values, and I want to connect people on the basis of those values,” he says. “If you help someone pay their medical bills or get them through college, then you’re linking your money to your values and you’re linking yourself to people with shared values,” he says. His eyes light up. “And from there, who knows where we can go?”