When chef Gary Usher ‒ of the bistro Sticky Walnut in Cheshire and Burnt Truffle in Heswall ‒ decided with his team that a third operation was on the cards, he didn’t think online funding would be the way to go.
But, despite two successful sites under his belt and a proven track record of support, the bank refused to outright lend him any cash until he could stump up some of his own.
Luckily for Usher, and despite his own misgivings, he’s become the accidental poster boy for successful restaurant crowdfunding.
Usher and crowdfunding: a history
Crowdfunding is the online money-giving phenomenon that allows anyone with an idea to set up a website page asking for cash from members of the public. American company Kickstarter is one of the biggest examples.
Donors do not receive any shares or rewards in the business, except small thank you prizes related to the project should it be launched successfully. Campaigns have a set amount of days to raise the money, and funds are only allocated if the entire amount is raised in time.
It sounds risky, but Usher seems to have cracked it.
In 2013, the chef and his team managed to raise over £100,000 for his second venue, Burnt Truffle, which would open in 2014 and become the sister restaurant to Sticky Walnut.
Promoting his campaign via Twitter and a professionally-shot, comic promotional video, Usher offered donors rewards such as free meals, branded aprons, their name on the new restaurant wall, or an invitation to the staff Christmas party.
Although he managed to raise over £24,000 in the first 24 hours in 2013, asking for online cash a second time round wasn’t a given. But when the bank said no, Usher was forced to turn to his 13,000 Twitter followers for more help.
Second time lucky
And they didn’t disappoint. This time asking for £50,000 as a way to show the bank that he had enough support behind him to warrant a larger loan, Usher’s second Kickstarter campaign once again raised over £24,000 in the first 24 hours, and within two weeks, he had smashed the target with another two weeks’ left to go before the window for pledges closed.
Hispi bistro will be Usher’s third location, expected to open later this year in Chorlton, south Manchester, and has once again been made possible by the power of crowdfunding.
Secrets of crowdfunding success
But what makes Usher so successful? He is known for his tongue-in-cheek and often rude Twitter account, which pokes fun at any notion of corporate branding or any chance he might be taking himself too seriously.
He does hardly any marketing except jokey tweets online, and has been a slow-burning, casual bistro success since his Michelin-starred training days at the likes of Chez Bruce.
Other chefs may have walked in his footsteps – such as Paul Foster, who recently raised £102,334 in the same way, in a bid to open his own restaurant Salt in Leamington Spa – but few have done it with quite as much panache, honesty, or swearing, as Usher.
So what’s his secret, and how can your business learn from his approach? Listen in here
Please be aware that the following excerpts contain adult language.
1. Know your audience
“We don’t appeal to the world, we just appeal to the people who are already in to what we do.”
Cultivate a small but certain group of people that like you, and are happy to support your work. Much of Usher’s success comes from a hardcore of Twitter followers and fellow restaurateurs who have followed his businesses since the beginning, and are happy to see the group grow. This is about quality of support, not quantity.
2. Be honest about the ups and downs
“We’ve been like that from day one. If something was shit, we said it was shit.”
Usher’s approach may be a little rough and ready for some – with the swearing, the deliberating mocking of his own restaurants, and the joke tweets – but despite all that, it’s obvious that this style actually works. Usher thinks it all boils down to being authentic; rejecting carefully-crafted PR speak in favour of real life stories and honest portrayals of what opening a business is really like.
3. Stick to what you know and like
“I like the name Kickstarter, because it sounds like kickstarting something...and no, I don’t want outside involvement; I’ve got a business to run.”
Some entrepreneurs may sniff at Kickstarter because it spurns traditional markers of investment, such as offering shares or ongoing involvement in the business. And yet, Usher has rejected other online investment platforms – such as, say, Seedrs, which does offer shares in its campaigns ‒ to use Kickstarter, because he feels comfortable with how it works, and didn’t want, or feel the need for, outside involvement in his projects.
4. Set realistic goals
“Our aim is just to have a couple of little bistros, and I don’t think I need a couple of million quid.”
Usher is candid about the scale of his ambition, and plans accordingly. He has no current ideas to open tens of new sites up or down the country, and is instead focused on growing his sites slowly, maintaining control of the business’s finances and investment, and ensuring it works well on a small scale. This allowed him to ask for a relatively-small amount of money online, fostering good feeling and commitment without pushing for too much.
5. Stay humble and respect the process
“I phoned my brother and said, I don’t want to do it…imagine it’s not successful. I’m not going to do it. He said, get it on Twitter now.”
Even despite such success first time round in 2013, Usher was reticent to post a second campaign. He worried that people would think he was asking for too much, that he would appear arrogant, and would be pushing his luck after the first crowdfund. This humility arguably helped. Because campaigns don’t receive any money if they fall short of their total, it’s worth remembering that success is not guaranteed, and each donation is as important as the last.