LiveTree: From little acorns…

Tom Hurst, head of business development, Ashley Turing, CEO and Lennard Van Otterloo, chief marketing officer

A socially responsible financial system that benefits everyone? A system that gives back rather than takes? Surely a Utopian fantasy in a profit-driven global marketplace? Not according to social crowdfunding platform LiveTree, which is busy proving that doing good business and doing good – to charity, people and the environment – are not mutually exclusive.

LiveTree’s alternative funding platform is targeted at creative projects and their creators, including filmed content, music, publishing, journalism and technology. The pilot site launch was last year in February and went fully live in April. In its first year of operation, it has helped more than 100 filmmakers to fund on-screen projects, while simultaneously raising funds for a variety of good causes.

LiveTree is the brainchild of Ashley Turing, a serial tech entrepreneur and consultant. The platform was initially launched as a three-tier proposition consisting of a crowdsourcing social network, a crowdfunding service and an e-commerce marketplace. It soon became clear, however, that this set-up was too complicated – would-be creatives and investors liked the idea but were boggled by its practical application. “So we took some painful decisions,” Turing recalls. “We decided to strip away functionality and make the service as simple as possible. We realised people had to ‘get it’ in a couple seconds or they’d just clicked away.”

On the basis that lack of money is a major brake on many worthwhile creative projects, Turing and his team opted to focus on crowdfunding. The next challenge was to rebrand and reposition LiveTree as a simple, user-friendly concept. “We are now slowly experimenting with how to add additional features without compromising that clarity and simplicity,” Turing adds. “We decided to focus on the film industry first, because filmmakers are already familiar with crowdfunding, which meant that introducing them to a new model would be less of a learning curve.”

The philosophy behind LiveTree is a blend of altruism and pragmatism. On the philanthropic front, the objective is to enable human potential by providing a platform that encourages and rewards socially responsible growth, and shares the benefits not only with the stakeholders but with charities. “We also want to raise the reach and power of the individual to the level enjoyed by global corporates,” Turing adds.

And then there’s inconvenient economic truth that the global financial system is no longer fit for purpose. As the crash of 2008 demonstrated, the current system is creating ever-widening pay, social and geopolitical divides that are driving the world into frightening and unsustainable levels of debt. As Turing puts it: “The problem with the present model is that it doesn’t promote real growth – that is, building stuff, creating things and taking care of the environment and the people around us.”

He points out that the European Central Bank is expecting ‘slow’ – “which means virtually no” – growth for the next 50 years. “This is because corporations can make huge sums of money by financialising their assets, playing the stock markets and betting on the financial system, instead of creating jobs, innovating and producing real things in the real world,” he adds. “But the fraud can’t go on forever. Governments are reaching 100 per cent GDP debit levels, which means there’s no more money left in the system. Add to the mix environmental concerns and the western world’s rapidly greying population and it’s clear that, unless drastic measures are taken, there’s a real danger of chaos post 2050.”

LiveTree’s response to the broken financial system is to harness new technology to the information economy and good old-fashioned human relationships to create a catalyst for real growth. A key problem with crowdfunding is getting projects in front of the right investors. LiveTree’s solution is to market projects by the time-tested technique of personal recommendation. To achieve this, the platform has devised a transparent referral (sometimes called affiliate) system called Branch Out, reflecting the imagery of the LiveTree brand. Project creators ‘branch out’ by dedicating a percentage of what they raise to any bloggers, journalists or individuals who recommend potential investors to the project via their networks and social channels. Anyone who shares a project also earns percentage rewards when someone in their network funds it. The commission percentage earned by the promoter – or ‘Brancher’ in LiveTree-speak – is set by the project creator. In this way, ad spend is diverted to people who genuinely care about the project rather than profit-driven corporates. “And as Livetree has no financial interest in advertising, there are no online gatekeepers,” Turing notes.

Project creators can also dedicate a percentage of the funds raised to a non-profit or charitable organisation, which in turn incentivises these organisations to promote the project. It also means that those who pledge money to a project are supporting not only creativity, but a good cause. Charities, non-profit institutions and industry partners are encouraged to help market projects in return for a portion of the funds raised. The end result is that everyone gains: project creators, Branchers, those who pledge funds and non-profit/charity organisations.

In its beta phase, LiveTree succeeded in building an online community of more than 10 000 investors and raising around £150 000 for a variety of creative projects. These range from new feature length doc Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock from Illumina Studios due to premier at Glastonbury Festival in June to ambitious creative works, such as the feature film Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains, written and starring Steven Berkoff (Clockwork Orange, Beverly Hills Cop, Octopussy), which debuted in May.

Berkoff’s precursor to the film was the one-man show Shakespeare’s Villains, which had its first run at London’s Theatre Royal in 1998. Since then, what has been described as a ‘masterclass in evil’ and has toured the world to huge critical and commercial success. The feature-film version explores some of the Bard’s most notorious characters – Macbeth, Iago, Shylock, Richard III, Corialanus – as well as some of his most heroic. Berkoff acts as a guide in a performance that is part workshop in Shakespearean acting, part stand-up comedy and part academic analysis.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call this is a landmark film,” Turing says. “Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains has huge value to the global Shakespeare community – from actors through academics to fans – and is a great illustration of how LiveTree is helping to realise projects that add to society’s creative wealth and value.” He adds that LiveTree has also put together a series of collectible items, learning materials and Steven Berkoff memorabilia, which it is offering in return for funding to help market the film.

So what’s next for LiveTree? Turing has a lengthy list: “Developing social networking, time-banking, time-card and listing features, along with a mobile app for instant projects, a social-networking crowdsourcing feature, a marketplace, P2P financial services…”

Seems there are a lot more branches on this particular tree.

By Jo Stephens


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