The First Crowdfunder: Meet The Kid Who Used Crowdfunding Before The Internet

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In recent years, there’s been a bunch of crowdfunding services set up to help people in need of donations and loans from friends, family and even total strangers. GoFundMe, GiveCollege, Upstart and Kickstarter are examples of this type of service. This is 2016, the world has embraced technology and innovation but lets go back to 1987 before the Internet was even a thing. 18 year old college freshman Mike Hayes pulled off what seemed impossible.

Hayes wasn’t penniless, but his pharmacist father and school teacher mother had already put four children through school and it looked very unlikely that they would be able to afford the $28,000 it would take to put Mike through four years of school at the University Of Illinois. As time passed, young Hayes got one tremendous idea, “Probably the only idea I’ve ever had”. Would 2.8 million people each be willing to give him a penny? This teenager had stumbled on the idea of crowdfunding, but how would he reach 2.8 million people? Computer Scientist Tim Bernes Lee was more than a year away from inventing the world wide web so how would he reach all those people? Welcome Bob Greene, columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

Bob Greene was a 40 year old reporter turned established columnist, at the top of his journalistic prowess at the Tribune with his column published in almost 200 newspapers nationwide. When Hayes met Greene, he only wanted to know one thing: “How many people read your column? Millions right?” Bob Greene couldn’t deny that, this young man had intrigued him. On September 6, 1987, Greene wrote a column about Mike Hayes and his plea for pennies. “I don’t really feel like I’m begging” Hayes argued via Greene “I honestly believe that no one will feel that it’s a hardship to send a penny to me”

“QUIT READING! Go put the penny in the envelope!,” Greene wrote to his readers providing them with Hayes’s P.O box number. Despite their confidence in Bob Greene’s star power and persuasiveness, neither of them believed it would really work especially since at the time the cost for mailing was 22 times the worth of a penny. But it turns out that even before social media, human beings had been vulnerable to virality.

Pennies, nickels and even larger donations came pouring in from all over the world and in the end, Hayes had about 2.9 million pennies plus 90,000 letters to read. His crowdfunding was officially successful. He paid off his college bills, graduated with a degree in food science and was even a celebrity on campus with the nickname “Penny Man”

Fast-forward 29 years and now there are a lot of creative options to fund education like Pave, Upstart, GoFundMe. And now prospective donors don’t have to worry about germ covered coins or the cost of a stamp.

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