Subbable: Subscription crowdfunding for rabid YouTube fans

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Two brothers -- Hank and John Green -- have produced online videos since 2007. Known as the VlogBrothers, they gained notoriety for their work on early Web shows such as "Brotherhood 2.0" and "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries." They caught Google's eye and got funded as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative.

In their current series "Crash Course," the duo teach high school courses for free in a frenetic, fun, and fast-paced manner. You may or may not recognize them from their recent hit on what's wrong with America's healthcare system, but it was blowing up my Facebook stream last week. They've got a team of seven full- and part-time people helping them produce their videos.

But all is not well in the VlogBrothers' world -- the Google money is running out, and they're not sure how to keep funding the show. They've got 1.5 million subscribers who love them, and no way to monetize that except through ads, which don't pay the bills.

Then, Hank Green had an idea. What if they did a crowdfunding campaign where their rabid fans could donate monthly, supporting their Crash Course show on a regular basis? Only one problem: Kickstarter (and Indiegogo and all the other crowdfunding site variations) don't do monthly subscription models. They only allow people to donate one-off payments to a specific project.

That didn't stop the entrepreneurially minded VlogBrothers -- they just decided to start their own crowd-funding site. As Hank Green says, "The shows aren't paying for themselves, so do we fire all those people or try to fix the economy?"

Enter, Subbable. It's a platform like Kickstarter, where people can crowdfund money for projects. But unlike Kickstarter, on Subbable people "subscribe" monthly for content. If you love a Web video series, you sign up to pay for that series monthly -- however much you want to donate. Depending on how much someone wants to pay, they can get different prizes set by the content creator -- like a shout-out on the show, swag, or having their name listed in the credits. You can see the show regardless of whether you donate, so your monthly reoccurring payments are simply out of the goodness of your heart.

"The content for Subbable will be stuff people are addicted to and can't live without," Green says. "It doesn't have to appeal to millions of people. Maybe there's a world where there's a show for every group of people that's interested in every little thing."

Subbable is still in beta and hasn't gained the attention of the masses yet. It's gotten no media coverage but has quietly swum along since its unofficial launch in August, and already has $45,000 in regular monthly subscriptions coming in.

Subbable is like an everlasting Kickstarter for people who want to fund content they love continuously. Since the platform is only in beta at the moment, it's not yet open for anyone to run a campaign. Instead, Hank Green has hand-selected 10 Web video shows featured on the beta site.

They're programs the common consumer might not recognize -- like "Beer and Board Games" or "Minute Physics" -- but they've built up a sturdy base of YouTube fans. Once Subbable launches officially, Green may open up the platform so any content creator of any medium -- print, video, photography -- could apply to run a monthly crowdfunding campaign on Subbable.

"I don't want content to be funded based on number of views it gets, I want it to be funded based on how much people care about it," Green says. "Advertising doesn't differentiate between 'Charlie Bit My Finger' and a chemistry course that helps a kid go to college."

Do content creators who post their series on Subbable have a shot in hell at attracting regular paying customers? It's unclear at the moment. Crowdfunding campaigns that aren't set up for particular products don't seem to do nearly as well. (See: TechShop's failure of an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for its new location). But that said, people seem willing to support the content creators they love, like directors Zach Braff or Spike Lee.

So far Subbable is well on its way to achieving its beta goals, especially given that it has gotten very little press. The VlogBrothers show "Crash Course" is 85 percent funded -- and that's regular, reoccurring monthly payments that "Crash Course" fans agree to make to support the show.

"Crash Course" isn't the only program that has seen success. The "Minute Physics" creator got a $5,000 Subbable contribution, with an accompanying message that said, "Email me. I want to support you further." Turns out, the mystery donator was a wealthy fan of the show who wanted to see it succeed.

Now that Kickstarter and Indiegogo have shown they've got staying power, it makes sense that new variations on the crowd funding platform have started to emerge. When Hank Green launched Subbable, he heard from a friend of his, Jack Conte, who was starting something similar: Patreon, a crowd funding platform where people could pay per piece of content. If you like a songwriter, you donate $1 per song they write.

There's also HumbleBundle, where you donate to download Android games, or The Big Roundtable where you donate to support non fiction writers you love.

The age of the crowd fund is upon us, and the offerings are fragmented.

[Image via New Media Rockstars]