How ‘The Crowdsourceress’ Created Her Dream Job
Key takeaway: Say yes, then figure out how to get it done
Top 5% in the world at: Doing my best
The first time Alex Daly was asked to create a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary film, she had no idea what she was doing. “I literally Googled ‘how to write a press release’,” she tells us from her trendy office space in Brooklyn. A couple years (and campaigns) later, Daly had earned herself the nickname “The Crowdsourceress" and was contacted to run a crowdfunding campaign for Neil Young’s audio player. After raising $6 million (yes, $6 million!) for Neil Young, Daly founded Vann Alexandra, her own digital fundraising firm, at the age of 26. Since then, she has raised over $20 million for 75+ campaigns, including ones for TLC and the Joan Didion Documentary (which was just nominated for an Emmy!). She also literally wrote the book on crowdfunding and launched a sister company, DalyPR. Alex spoke with us about the importance of taking risks, avoiding burnout, and figuring out the unknown.
How She Did it
I grew up in a very entrepreneurial environment. My mom had her own marketing company and my dad had his own software business. At a young age, I was surrounded by that entrepreneurial energy — I was constantly around ringing phones, urgent deadlines, and teams.
I was an ambitious and hardworking student, but I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career. I dabbled in lots of different interests. For a while, I wanted to be a meteorologist because I was obsessed with hurricanes. Then I wanted to be a writer because I liked creative writing and poetry. Then I thought, maybe I could be an entertainment lawyer? It was pretty scattered, and it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
My mom attended Vanderbilt when she was younger. I was obsessed with my mom (I still am) and thought that if she went there and was successful, I would be too.
One thing I really loved about Vanderbilt was the academics. I majored in philosophy because of Professor Horowitz, a philosophy professor who was the kind of person you always showed up to class for. I absolutely loved reading, writing, and thinking philosophically. I questioned everything, and he really welcomed that. I also majored in Spanish because my dad is from Puerto Rico and I grew up in Miami. Latin culture fascinated me and I wanted to stay connected to my roots.
My senior year, I started taking film classes and realized I had enough credits to get a minor. I took a philosophy of film class and was so into the material that I focused on that subject for my honors thesis. That’s what I loved about Vanderbilt; that I could just keep on taking classes around the stuff that I was attracted to.
Did you have an “identity”?
When I attended Vanderbilt it felt less progressive than it is now. I was social so I found my way, but I didn't really fit in the sorority life. Many times I would feel anxious, depressed, and lost, and I think that's normal for college. But I was struggling to define myself.
After I went abroad, I realized there was another world out there. I came back from Barcelona feeling like a new person.
Did you know what you wanted to do for a career?
I thought I wanted to be a writer. During my junior year, I was a fact-checking intern at New York Magazine. I got the internship because my grandfather, who represented media companies in Miami, called his friend in New York and asked for a favor. I was really lucky because of that. While fact-checking was a painful job for someone as obsessive as me, I learned a lot about the industry as well as the importance of attention to detail. I was then offered a paid internship after I graduated and stayed for 6 more months.
I was really excited to be back in New York because I loved the city and identified with it. But I ended up seeing my my fact-checking internship as a stepping stone. At the time, I really wanted to be a magazine writer or editor because I figured, If I like writing a lot, shouldn’t I be some sort of writer? So, I went with it. But I also realized that I needed to find a freelance gig, especially since it was so expensive to live in the city with just one paid internship. So I also freelanced for some indie music magazines on the side.
I had a friend who was a freelance fact-checker for the WSJ. magazine and referred me for the position. I ended up becoming the publication’s sole fact-checker at the age of 23. I think that was a huge career jump for me, especially at that age. To be honest, I was embarrassed to say how young I was. I remember wishing that I could say I was 25 or 28 because of the amount of responsibility I was carrying. In the various industries I’ve worked in, even in New York, ageism is still an issue.
I fact-checked for WSJ for approximately 6 months and then felt that I was stuck. I had been doing a ton of freelance gigs at the same time, including unpaid writing assignments for a variety of magazines, but I started to question what I wanted to be doing. Did I want to be a writer? Did I want to be an editor? Did I want to work in journalism at all?
Was it hard to change directions after investing so much time into developing a writing career?
I never felt badly about the time I invested in journalism. I realized the only way to learn what I'm interested and not interested in is to try different options. But I was always very quick about making those decisions, which I think is harder for some people. It doesn't take me 5 or 6 years to figure out that I'm not interested in something; it takes me 5 or 6 months. While those decisions are scary and risky, I had this inherent confidence that I would be okay.
How did you transition into film?
I fact-checked an article by a woman named Marisa Katz for WSJ. I thought she was so compelling and accomplished, so I asked to take her out to coffee to learn about her career path. She said yes immediately, and quickly became a mentor of mine. One day, I mentioned how I felt lost and didn't know what to do next. She asked what I enjoyed doing, and I thought back on my film classes at Vanderbilt. Coincidentally enough, she had worked in documentary film when she was younger. She told me that when you merge film and journalism, you essentially get documentary film, and she offered an introduction to a friend that worked at a documentary company. It was the beginning of my new life.
I went into an interview for a production manager job knowing absolutely nothing about producing films. The employer was asking me all these questions and I pretended to know everything she was saying. I just kept nodding yes.
There was a lot to learn. I learned how to manage a team, delegate tasks, and write grants. Back then, the only way to keep documentary films alive was through grant writing and private funding from investors, so I was grinding out grants on a daily basis.
How did you get into crowdfunding?
One day, a producer who worked in the same office space as me said that he was working on a film and needed funding for it. I asked if he wanted me to a write a grant for him, and he replied, "I was thinking we should try Kickstarter." At the time, I had no idea what Kickstarter was, but once again, I sort of pretended like I did. He made the video, and I wrote up the campaign page, brainstormed fun rewards, and created the press release. I literally Googled "how to write a press release". The campaign was incredibly successful and overwhelming in the best way possible.
I continued doing campaign after campaign, all of which were successful. Friends started giving me nicknames: Crowdsourcing Queen, Kickstarter Queen, Crowdsourceress, etc. And then the Crowdsourceress stuck. I continued freelancing any chance I had: in between lunch breaks, after work, and on the weekends. I never stopped.
What was your big break?
In 2014, I had the opportunity to run a crowdfunding campaign for Neil Young’s Pono audio player. Their campaign was launching in 10 days and the raise was $800,000. The most I had ever raised was $80,000 — I couldn't even compute that amount. But again, I just went for it. By the end of the campaign, we raised $6 million. It was crazy.
At the end of the campaign, I received a substantial completion fee, which felt really exciting, and decided to start my own company launching crowdfunding campaigns. I created a janky little website, opened a bank account, hired a freelancer, and got a desk space in Greenpoint. Around that time, I met my now boyfriend Hamish at a Pentagram party. On our first date, I showed him the website on my phone and he said "You need to change it." He came up with a new logo, designed a splash page, and created my business cards. I still can't believe he did all that for me, but it worked!
When I first started my company, I didn't know what I was doing at all. Luckily, I had the privilege of being able to talk to my parents all the time. I didn't have a business background so I learned all the mechanics of starting a company by making a ton of mistakes and asking a lot of questions. There was no playbook because there were no other companies that were launching Kickstarter campaigns.
In 2016, when I was running the company and writing my book, I went through a serious burnout. I was close to closing the company because I felt like I couldn't do it anymore. I took a few days off and flew to Miami to hang out with my family. I realized I needed to change the way I was running the company because it was literally driving my employees and me to the ground.
I wanted my company to be a place where my workers actually enjoyed going to every day. After I made some fundamental changes we went from working around the clock to leaving at 6PM every day. Once I took out the things that weren’t working, the company started doing better. The profits were higher and the company culture was so much better.
Can you talk a bit about Daly PR?
Just last year I opened DalyPR as a sister company because clients kept coming back to us for PR help after their campaigns ended. So Vann Alexandra launches crowdfunding campaigns, and DalyPR manages PR work outside of crowdfunding. After learning from all my mistakes with Vann Alexandra over the years, I want to build DalyPR to be the best company with stellar culture and clients, in a shorter period of time. I feel so much more confident than I was when launching Vann Alexandra.