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Donald Trump’s terrible crowdfunding site was a microcosm of his political career

Donald Trump’s terrible crowdfunding site was a microcosm of his political career

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Donald Trump’s name is linked to steaks, hotels, vodka, and an isolationist political platform. Some of these ventures have succeeded, many have failed, and the last one has put him in the White House. Less known, however, is the time he tried to clone Kickstarter. The site was called FundAnything, and despite its supposedly ambitious beginnings, it’s now literally a facade.

FundAnything was founded by Bill Zanker, also a founder of the Learning Annex online education company and co-author of Trump’s 2007 book Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life. Trump didn’t put his name on the site, but he was supposed to be deeply involved. In addition to investing in FundAnything, he promised to promote selected campaigns on his Twitter feed and personally donate money, including a $1 million prize to the first person who beat Kickstarter’s record-setting $10 million Pebble campaign.

And from the beginning, the site had Trump’s populist edge. Zanker boasted that “the reign of Kickstarter’s Brooklyn hipsters is over,” referring to Kickstarter’s New York headquarters. “Crowdfunding got traction with creatives and tech, but you go anywhere but the coasts and they don’t get it yet,” he told AllThingsD. (Apparently, creative and technical people don’t live in flyover country.) Trump himself was more dramatic. “People’s lives have been destroyed by this economy and they feel hopeless,” he said. “FundAnything is a real solution.”

FundAnything more or less cloned Indiegogo’s “flexible funding” program: people could set a goal and pay a 5 percent fee if they met it, or a 9 percent fee if they didn’t. Its most distinctive feature was that instead of focusing on either donation campaigns or creative projects, FundAnything — true to its name — would fund almost anything. Trump officially launched it by giving suitcases of money to a family funding medical bills, a woman with a small business, and an aspiring singer. (He then filled an aquarium with cash and had visitors grab bills from it.)

FundAnything’s site is almost entirely gone today, and it’s difficult to judge its scale. But it appears to have had a small number of high-profile campaigns: Magician Penn Jillette and comedian Adam Carolla, the most highly publicized users, raised over a million dollars apiece for their respective films Director’s Cut and Road Hard. While FundAnything promised to make crowdfunding appealing to “the masses,” however, Jillette and Carolla already had ties with Trump, since they’d been competitors on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. Carolla’s campaign in particular was equally a publicity campaign for FundAnything, which Carolla said offered him a special, lower pricing rate.

Trump all but promoted the site as his personal charity

What might draw a small-time user to FundAnything? Basically, the prospect of getting money and publicity from Trump, who Zanker described as a “genius businessman.” One press release all but described it as a Trump charity foundation, and Trump promised to tweet about campaigns every week to his 2.2 million (at that point) followers. But his support was, at best, lackadaisical. A few months after launch, Forbes reported that he’d only endorsed five campaigns since launch (FundAnything added three more after being contacted) and tweeted about FundAnything a handful of times, mostly with generic promotions for the site.

Trump finally cut ties with the site in late 2014, saying it “took too much of my time and too much time to raise the money.” He’d posted 27 tweets over the course of eight months, only six of which mentioned specific campaigns besides Jillette’s and Carolla’s. At the time of Forbes’ article he’d put around $92,000 toward campaigns in increments between $2,000 and $40,000 — a lot of money for individual recipients, but very little for an entire platform.

FundAnything stuck around for a while after Trump’s departure, although its purpose wasn’t clear. PC Magazine reviewed it in 2016, praising the platform’s flexibility but calling it bare-bones and dated. (In a particularly weird detail, it noted that one of the funding categories was simply called “Oklahoma.”) But as of today, it’s a Potemkin website. What appear to be menu buttons and campaign thumbnails are actually part of a large single image, hyperlinked to itself.

Economic anxiety, Kickstarter edition

I emailed and tweeted at several people and organizations who used FundAnything, including Carolla. Only one wrote back: Free the Nipple, which raised $45,000 of its $250,000 goal on the site. “At the time, FundAnything was affiliated with Donald Trump. Thus, Free the Nipple declines to comment! Sorry,” a representative told me. At publication, Zanker also had not responded to an email asking about his future plans for the site.

Gawker referred to FundAnything as a “new crowdfunding scam” back in 2013. But unlike some of Trump’s other ventures, FundAnything doesn’t seem necessarily underhanded or fraudulent, although users might have been more successful on another platform.

It is, however, a striking microcosm of Trump’s path to the White House. FundAnything was supposed to take crowdfunding beyond coastal elites (or “Brooklyn hipsters”) who had, in Trump and Zanker’s estimation, failed ordinary Americans. It played on real economic fears and Trump’s reputation as a brilliant dealmaker, although it wasn’t clear how his skills applied to crowdfunding. It appears to have ended up most greatly enriching Trump’s associates, albeit perhaps unintentionally. And like his political campaign, Trump launched it with a lot of big promises — only to lose interest once the real work started.