‘Crowdfunding’ success for Norwich entrepreneur

PUBLISHED: 09:17 19 November 2013 | UPDATED: 09:18 19 November 2013

Simon Middleton of the Great British Banjo Company and the prototype banjo he is now going to manufacture with the backing and support of customers via Kickstarter.

Simon Middleton of the Great British Banjo Company and the prototype banjo he is now going to manufacture with the backing and support of customers via Kickstarter. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

One of Norfolk’s newest enterprises is about to begin manufacturing after funding the business in a way many people would not even know is possible.

When Simon Middleton set about launching a banjo manufacturing company in the heart of Norwich he knew banks “would never go for such a crazy idea”.

So instead, he turned to the masses, appealing for funding in exchange for rewards on the US website Kickstarter, a leader in the growingly successful ‘crowdfunding’ phenomenon.

Under the rules of the new fundraising model, Mr Middleton, of Cotman Road, Thorpe Hamlet, made a video pitch and had 60 days to achieve his £30,000 target or he would receive nothing.

Any fears that his would be one of the 57pc of businesses that fail to achieve their funding goal through the website quickly evaporated as investors passed the target with ease - finally committing £48,000 to the business.

The size of the investor’s reward depends on their donation with £10 investors receiving stickers for musical instrument cases and £300 investors receiving their own Shackleton banjo.

Mr Middleton said: “We have had about 150 advance orders, including 120 that came in via fundraising on the website.

“Now we have started spending the money; we have placed an order with Premier Drums, a top company in Manchester, to make 200 rims by hand and the necks are being designed in Sheffield and manufactured in Blackburn.”

From the end of December, Mr Middleton, the former director of a Norwich advertising agency and expert in branding strategy, will be assembling the banjos at his small base in St George’s Street with a local guitar maker he has contracted to work with him.

A guitar player himself, Mr Middleton was inspired to make an affordable banjo by the revival in folk music led in the UK by the group Mumford and Sons.

He sees potential in developing his Great British Banjo Company brand to include other instruments and even branch into new areas such as clothing, musical events and banjo tuition.

He said: “I anticipate a need to create two full-time jobs in the next 12 months; we could even use Kickstarter again to raise money for new products.”

Mr Middleton, 55, who is backed by a local investor and supported by his wife Sheila as a business partner, said crowdfunding had rich potential for businesses looking for funding outside of the banks.

However, he said: “It will only work for projects that inspire the end user. You have to have something that makes people go, ‘wow, I want one of those’.

“People assume Kickstarter is some sort of magic but that six weeks was probably the hardest six weeks of my life. I was working on PR and social media to tell the story and engage support nearly 24 hours a day.”

Valuable publicity had been created by using Twitter to tell the story of the banjo to leading American banjo player, Bela Fleck, who then passed it on to his 57,000 followers.

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