Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Debbie Ball thought it was worth a shot.
Facing eviction from her Old Town space over a lease dispute with her landlord, The Candy Lady owner was seeking a cash infusion to cover the cost of moving her deep-rooted sweets shop. When her public relations consultant recommended she turn to the public, she listened.
Ball – who garnered international attention in recent years for her “Breaking Bad” meth look-alike candy – launched an online crowdfunding campaign last month. The hope was that fans from around the world would contribute the $500,000 she said she would need to buy a new place and keep her business running.
But the campaign failed to take off, quickly stalling at $185.
In a recent interview, Ball said she was hoping to suspend it temporarily, saying the timing wasn’t right and acknowledging that it had generated an unexpected amount of negativity on social media.
“You are supposed to be a business, not a charity. Shame on you!” wrote one commenter on The Candy Lady’s Facebook page.
Even avowed fans expressed skepticism.
“I love the candy lady, but can’t support asking the community for money! … I think you are losing more customers with the plea for money!” wrote another Facebook poster.
Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular way to raise money for endeavors of all kinds. At Indiegogo, the website Ball used, there are usually about 7,000 campaigns running at once.
Right now, for instance, the Ithaca College cheerleading team is trying to pay for a trip to Daytona Beach for nationals and a Slovenian group is seeking 1,315 euros to fund a bee repopulation project.
While crowdfunding is often associated with startups, an Indiegogo spokesman notes that its website has successfully served existing businesses like a New York City bookstore that raised nearly $60,000 to revitalize and refurbish its space.
But Paul Aitken, Ball’s public relations consultant, said he thinks her campaign suffered at least partly because people expect the veteran businesswoman to be more financially secure. He said they see her as “needy” or having made a mistake.
Interestingly, the negativity has come almost entirely online.
Ball said she hasn’t fielded such criticism in person and Aitken notes that her sales have strengthened. She’s experienced year-over-year increases for January.
“I think that people want to support her through buying candy, and they have. In droves,” Aitken said in an email.
Ball’s landlord served her an eviction notice earlier this year after she failed to sign a formal lease to stay in the space she’s occupied for 30 years. The landlord – who also alleged Ball had been underpaying rent, though he didn’t seek restitution – said he’s already signed a lease with a new tenant. A judge has ordered Ball to vacate by Feb. 28.
The Candy Lady isn’t the only established Albuquerque small business to try crowdfunding a new location.
Rebel Donut recently turned to customers to raise $10,000 so it could leave its poorly performing Downtown shop for a spot near the University of New Mexico.
Co-owner Carrie Mettling said she had few alternatives. The Downtown site had consumed the profits from Rebel’s other two stores and she knew the business wasn’t a good candidate for a bank loan.
“I firmly believe it’s a good and legitimate way for people who are a fan of a business to keep it going,” she said.
Fans rallied behind Rebel, pledging about $7,500 in 30 days, though Mettling couldn’t follow the campaign to fruition because she realized the UNM site she had picked wasn’t going to work.
But, by the time she came to that realization, Mettling was already slightly disheartened by the process. While the reaction was mostly positive, she had a hard time shaking the naysayers’ criticism.
“They were basically just saying because I was a for-profit business asking for help from my customers that I was pathetic and ‘Business is hard. Put on your big-girl pants and deal with it,’ ” Mettling said. “Basically, ‘(expletive) happens. Get over yourself.’ ”
Both Rebel Donut and The Candy Lady tried to sweeten the deal for those who contributed. Mettling promised dollar-for-dollar gift certificates. The Candy Lady’s incentive schedule included a box of chocolate-covered strawberries for a $25 pledge.
Ball surmised that people didn’t understand that she wasn’t asking for straight donations.
“People assume we’re begging for money. We’re not. We’re going about it in a different way,” she said.
Ball also knows that seeking such a large sum might have turned some people off but said getting into a space with a commercial kitchen is quite expensive.
(At the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter, fewer than 2 percent of successful campaigns raised more than $100,000.)
Ball and Mettling say they believe crowdfunding is a viable option for businesspeople in need of capital – especially those with little chance of obtaining traditional bank loans.
But each questioned whether it had reached general acceptance in Albuquerque.
“I don’t think that it’s such a common thing in Albuquerque or New Mexico,” Mettling said. “Maybe we’re just not ready for it. I have no idea.”
Ball described New Mexico as often being “a couple years behind the times.”
Amy Lahti, a business consultant and trainer for WESST, said she couldn’t comment on Rebel Donut or The Candy Lady’s experiences.
But she does follow many Albuquerque-based efforts on major crowdfunding platforms and estimated that roughly half achieve their goals. Having talked to people who have used it – she even organized a crowdfunding class for WESST – she said the success of such campaigns is usually contingent on rigorous preparation, management and promotion.
Lahti said someone who successfully crowdfunded a project described running the campaign as the equivalent of an 80-hour-a-week job.
“I usually tell people on a regular basis it’s easier to get a loan,” she said.
Despite the sour reaction, Ball said she intends to use crowdfunding again when the timing is better. (Her Indiegogo Web page is still up. Aitken said it can’t be removed once it’s been activated.)
Mettling, however, isn’t so sure.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ll try it again,” she said, noting that Rebel will focus exclusively on its two existing locations at Wyoming NE and Coors NW for now. “I was pretty pleased with the results, but I have a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth about it.”