Studying failure: What I learned from a Kickstarter project that failed… badly

According to Kickstarter only 40% of projects are successful. That doesn’t really surprise me. Creating a project that really resonates with people is actually very difficult, as I learned the hard way.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have run two successful Kickstarter campaigns. But this post isn’t about those projects. This post is about what I learned from one of my most recent and biggest failures. My hope is that you can learn from my experiences and avoid the painful mistakes that I made. Failing isn’t fun, neither is reliving that failure, but I think it’s important to talk about it so we can learn from our mistakes and figure out what works.

My third project, StreetXSW

Back in February I launched my third Kickstarter campaign called StreetXSW: Capturing the moments you missed for a photo book I wanted to make. The project looked at how people are being distracted by their mobile phones and are missing out on life happening around them. I wanted to go to the SXSW music film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas and shoot the entire festival in the street photography genre. Street photography is a type of photojournalism that focuses on people and special moments that happen in the street. Since street photography focuses on interesting moments that happen around us, it was a perfect way to highlight the moments we missed while on our mobile phones.

A year earlier, while attending the SXSW festival, I had experienced how distracting mobile phones can be for myself. I had been walking through the streets when I snapped a photo of a petty cab driver that I thought was interesting. A few days later I went back to the photo and was shocked to realize that I barely remembered the moment. I had been so busy tweeting, and checking Facebook, and looking for the next big thing, that I had completely missed this amazing moment. It hit me over the head like a ton of bricks, my desire to be connected (online) was making me disconnected from the world around me. It was a powerful realization for myself, and one that I wanted to share with other people. It was the type of project that I thought might be great for Kickstarter.

Having done two other Kickstarter projects I was well aware of the process. In fact, one of my projects was to write a book about how to use Kickstarter to fund a creative endeavor. I knew a photo book might be a tricky idea to kickstart but having written the book about the site, I felt I had a leg up. From my research I knew that idea and story were very important components to any project. I knew my project wasn’t that unique of an idea, so I focused on telling a compelling story.

I spent from November until the end of March working on the project page and the video. I wrote and rewrote the script countless times. I shot the video at least three different times. I knew how important a great story would be to my project, so I poured everything I had into making the best video possible.

One of my goals for the project was to create something that would go past it’s minimum funding amount. I think what people don’t realize about Kickstarter is that most projects do not get overfunded. The last figure I saw, only 8.5% of projects get over 200% funded. I wanted to make something that was both meaningful, beautiful and could go the distance.

The Launch

Early in the morning at 6am on February 1st I launched the project and then…nothing happened. From my research and previous experiences I had a sense something was off. Usually there is some early traction. Either people backing the project or sharing it online. This time there was nothing.

I spent the rest of the day preparing emails and updates to send out across my networks. I wrote a long and detailed message about how excited I was for this project and encouraged everyone to be a part of it by sharing it or backing it. Still nothing…

There were a few backers here and there but none for my main reward of the photo book. It even got picked by the Kickstarter staff as a featured photography project. Still that did not help. After a day or so I knew the project was not going to make it. It wasn’t getting enough traction and I started to get negative feedback about some of the rewards. I could have made some adjustments to the rewards or the project description but I felt like this would not fix the underlying problems.

So, with a heavy heart, I canceled the campaign. I wrote another set of updates to all the people I had contacted only a week earlier and let them know project was off. I said that I was sorry for bugging them and I hoped that they didn’t think negatively of me for the emails.

I was devastated. I had put so much time and effort into the project. I had made an amazing video that people really loved but all of that wasn’t enough. I felt silly. After all, I had “written the book” when it came to Kickstarter. Shouldn’t I of all people know how it was supposed to work? Not only had my campaign failed but at 4% funding I wasn’t even close to what I set out to do.

After a couple weeks of sulking I started to realize my project wasn’t a complete failure. I had gotten some elements of the project right, but there were others I had overlooked. There were also some aspects of my project that were more important than I had originally thought. Eventually my failure helped me see that there is a lot that goes into a Kickstarter project and even though I had a couple successes, there was still a lot to be learned.

What I learned

I’m not a big fan of bullet points but here you go. No summaries though. If you want know what I learned you’ll just have to keep reading. 🙂

The importance of a prototype

Generally speaking project creators on Kickstarter are trying to do one of two things: Get funding for an idea they would like to do, or get funding to help complete a project they have been working on. It turns out that knowing what kind of project you are working on is very important because the two types of campaigns operate in different ways.

When you are gathering support for an idea that you would like to do, Kickstarter acts as a fund-raising platform. People are helping you launch your idea but often care less about receiving the final product. They are there to support you as a creator and to make your idea a reality. For the most part these projects are funded by a few backers, which are mostly friends and family, and rarely get overfunded by large amount.

When you are fund-raising for a project that is almost finished, Kickstarter acts as a powerful pre-sale platform. In this scenario people are often backing the project to buy the final product. There is a much greater chance that it will be overfunded and might have hundreds or even thousands of backers.

The first big lesson I learned was this: Unless you have a working prototype of your final product then your campaign will be viewed as a fundraiser, not a pre-sale.

When I started StreetXSW I wanted to create a project that acted like a pre-sale and might get overfunded. Partly to prove to myself that I understood Kickstarter and partly to challenge myself. In order to have a better chance of being overfunded, I knew that I had to create a campaign that acted like a pre-sale. I studied many of the projects that I classified as being pre-sales and and set my project up like theirs. There was just one problem, I didn’t have a working prototype.

This might have seemed like a red flag, but going into the project I knew exactly what I wanted to make. I thought if I accurately described the project and the product, people would respond to it like a pre-sale. Turns out I was wrong.

Right away I started getting negative feedback about the price of my product. I was confident in the fact that my pricing was not off, and what I figured out was that they were responding to the lack of a prototype. In other words, I had nothing to show them. Had I already had the book made and almost ready to go, then I think people would have seriously considered my offer. But the lack of a prototype was a deal breaker.

What does this mean for you? If you’re thinking about launching on Kickstarter be honest with yourself about where your project is. If you don’t have a working prototype of your final product then your campaign will most likely act as a fundraiser. Fundraisers are not likely to get overfunded and it is much harder to get higher goals. So, set your goal lower ($10,000 or less) and embrace the fact that people are here to support you. Tell a great story and get people excited about your idea.

A couple of clarifications. When I say product that could mean anything from a record, to film, to an actual commercial product. The word product refers to whatever it is that you are creating. Also, the words working prototype are very important. Unless you can show me an almost completed movie, a product that’s ready to buy, or illustrations for the book you want to publish, then you do not have a working prototype. Sorry, CAD drawings don’t count.

Bonus Tip: In both fundraisers and pre-sales people aren’t always buying the final product. Often, they want the experience of helping to bring a bright idea to life. If you want to make your campaign even better, embrace the fact that you are also selling an experience. Lean into that, and provide ways for people to be part of the creative process. We get caught up thinking that people are backing our projects just to get the final product. That’s not necessarily true, especially with fundraisers, where the final product could be months or years away from being delivered. We already have enough stuff, what we want is an experience that we will remember.

There are different stages of an idea

Another interesting thing I realized is that there are different stages of an idea. With Kickstarter you can launch your idea at any time, regardless of what stage you are at. However, there are some stages that are better for launching projects than others. I broke the process of developing an idea into four stages. There are probably more, and it’s probably way more complicated, but breaking it down like this makes it a lot easier to talk about.

Conceptual – This is when you first get an idea. You’ve done very little research and you just think something is neat or fun. The problem with this stage is that ideas are easy. Everyone has ideas and what really matters is execution. Can you deliver on what you say?

People like launching here because it’s safe. You haven’t really invested anything so there’s nothing to lose. But if you haven’t invested in your idea, why should other people?

Research – You’ve done some research, you know what you want to build, but you haven’t started yet. You are turning to kick starter to help start your project and get your idea off the ground. There might be more expenses down the road, but with your funding goal you’ll be off to a great start.

This is actually a pretty good time to launch your project. I launched my first project Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto at this very stage. We didn’t have any equipment and we needed the funds to get the cameras rolling. The catch is, your project will probably act like a fundraiser. Lower goals are better because it’s unlikely thousands of people will comply with your idea. It’s not that it’s a bad idea it’s just not developed enough.

Development – The next stage is when you are developing a prototype of your idea. This is not a great stage to launch because your campaign is confusing. Is it a fundraiser or a pre-sale? Well it can’t be a pre-sale because your product doesn’t exist, and it you’ve already spent money developing it, so people wonder why do you need their help? This is a very difficult place to launch but more on that in a bit.

Prototype – You’ve spent a lot of time developing your idea and you have a working prototype. This is probably the best time to launch. People can see what the final product might look like and they know what you are getting. Most of the biggest and well-known Kickstarter projects are pre-sales where the creators have a working prototype that is featured in the video. However, this stage is one of the most difficult stages to get to.

When people launch on Kickstarter with dreams of being vastly overfunded this is the stage that tempts them. What if my great idea gets picked and the internet comes flocking! What they miss is the fact that it may take months or even years to get to this final stage. It also requires a significant personal investment to bring a project this far along.

There are good and bad times to launch

Reflecting on my failure I realized that I had launched my project during the development stage. I did not yet have a working prototype of my photo book, and therefore potential backers had no idea if it would be any good. Why didn’t I just create the photo book before launching?

This was the tricky part, when I launched StreetXSW I had not actually gone to SXSW yet. So, I did not have the pictures to create the photo book. I set my funding goal so that it would help offset some of the expenses I had already put into the project, and help pay for the creation of the book. This seems like a logical place to launch the project. I had already invested in the project so people could tell that I was serious, but I needed a little help finishing the project. While this made sense in my head it confused potential backers and inflated my funding goal.

I got comments such as: “If you’re already shooting with this very expensive camera, why do you need our help?” or “The price you are asking for this photo book seems very high.

To me, these comments highlighted the fact that people could not see my final product. Even though I really did need their help at this point in time, without a working prototype they were just not willing to become a backer on the project.

If launching during the developing phase is confusing, when is a good time to launch? After re-examining many projects I’ve come to the conclusion that the best times to launch are during the research stage or prototype stage. During the prototype stage you can see the final product and you know what you’re getting. During the research stage it is very clear that you need financial help to start your project but the final product is still an unknown.

This raises the question: Why don’t more people back projects with unknown outcomes? As Seth Godin points out we like to pick winners. We want to know that the thing we have backed, both financially and emotionally, is going to happen. When there is a working prototype of the final product it’s easy to see that it will eventually happen. It feels less risky to part with your money to support an idea that’s well on its way to happening. It’s much more emotionally challenging to back a project that may or may not happen. This is why people are so hesitant to back fundraising campaigns in large numbers.

Bonus Tip: One of the reasons that getting to the “30% tipping point” is so important is because it changes the perception of the projects success. Once a campaign has crossed this line, it feels much more likely that it will succeed. Making your project seem like a sure thing from the beginning, will help get you over this hump. One way to do this, is to offer a limited reward designed specifically to get you to 30%.

For example, if you’re funding goal is $5000, then the tipping point would be $1500. So why not offer in extra special reward at $60 and limited to 25 backers? This limited-edition reward will help you get to 30% and make your project look like it’s well on its way.

The are several factors to success

In A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter I argued that there are two primary factors to a project’s success, idea or story. Either the project represents a unique idea OR it tells a compelling story. Since I knew my project was not a unique idea, I focused on telling a compelling story with the video. Based on the feedback I received, I think this is something that I did well. However after the project failed I realized that idea and story aren’t the only two factors.

After thinking about it for a while, I realized that there were four major factors that determine the project’s success. They are audience, engagement, offer, an explanation. Idea and story fall under the engagement category. I’ve created a framework around these four factors which I call The Kickstarter Hierarchy of Successfulness. You can read more about the framework and get an introduction to each of the four factors in this blog post. For now, this is what you need to know:

Simply posting your project on Kickstarter is not enough. Having a great video is not enough. Working really really hard is not enough. Kickstarter is complicated and there are multiple factors that determine a projects success. I hope you’re not freaked out or discouraged. There is some good news.

Even though Kickstarter is complicated, there are specific tactics that you can use to address each one of these factors and boost the chances of your project being a success. My interviews with other Kickstarters revealed that their projects were not super special or picked by random. There were specific things that each project creator did during their campaign which helped their project get funded. I can’t go into all the details now because this post is long enough as it is. But many of these tactics I will be discussing in detail in future postings and in the next version of A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter.

How important is this stuff? Well it really depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re just launching the small creative project because you just want to do something fun, well then most of the stuff you don’t need to worry about. However, if you are trying to use Kickstarter to launch a serious creative endeavor, and you wanted to go beyond just your friends and family, then understanding how Kickstarter works becomes increasingly important.

I should have done a soft launch

Something that I wrote about in A Kickstarter Guide was doing a prelaunch for soft launch. The idea is to show people before you launch the project what you have in mind. This does two things.

One it gives you valuable feedback about how your project is set up. Sending it to people within the audience you are trying to reach before it launches can help you identify any problems or concerns people might have with your campaign.

Two it exposes people to your project before you launch. After StreetSXW failed, I was reading Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness. The book was about how ideas spread online and it shed some light on how Kickstarter project are shared. Zarrella’s research showed that a person will only spread an idea if he or she was aware of the idea or it’s creator before being asked to share. In other words, people need to be aware of your project before it launches. This is what makes the soft launch so important.

Over the course of my three Kickstarter projects I am yet to do a successful soft launch. I came across the idea while doing research for A Kickstarter Guide To Kickstarter. At the time it seamed like a neat idea but it wasn’t until I read Zarrella’s book that I realized it vital to a campaign’s success.

I did not do a soft launch with SeetSXW and had not shown it to anyone in my core audience. Had I done so I might have noticed some of the flaws before launching so publicly. This also meant they were less likely to share it with their networks and spread the message.

So for my next project, A Kickstarter’s Guide: Version 2, I will be sure to talk about and share it with people well before it launches. (Hint hint like I am doing right now.)

Taking my own advice

This experience was interesting for me because I talked about having a prototype in A Kickstarter’s Guide. I also talked about a soft launch and the importance of finding an audience. Basically everything that went wrong in my campaign I had written about in A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter. Maybe I should’ve read my own book!

I think what happened was I underestimated how important many of these factors are and I got sucked into the details of launching my campaign. The difficult thing about launching anything publicly is that you get caught up in all the details and trying to make everything perfect. You are so busy crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s that sometimes you miss the bigger issues. Hey it happens to all of us.

The good news is that I learned a lot about what it really takes to make it Kickstarter project successful. Perhaps even more than I learned on my first campaign. I’m looking forward to sharing my insights with all of you and helping people avoid the many mistakes that I made.

In closing I want to leave you with my summary of A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter which pretty much says it all.

Great Kickstarter projects are successful because they connect and resonate with a specific audience. They use compelling storytelling combined with interesting or wacky ideas to attract backers. They are authentic while effectively communicating goals, passion, credibility and purpose. The more time spent thinking about these elements BEFORE the project is launched the easier the campaign becomes.

If you want to do a Kickstarter project because you think the Internet will find and love your project, stop right now. The Internet does not care about you. However, if you can reach out to the right people, in the right way, before time runs out, you just might get lucky.

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Separated from my family during El Salvador's civil war, by death and adoption, I was reunited with them at the age of 16. I do entrepreneurial art projects that are meaningful, relevant, and push me creatively.

21 thoughts on “Studying failure: What I learned from a Kickstarter project that failed… badly”

  1. Thank you for such a detailed, helpful post. I’m working on a Kickstarter project right now… hoping to launch it this fall and the advice you provide is priceless. Thanks!

  2. I’m really glad you wrote this all up.

    As you know, I had a lot of feedback for you when you launched the project and I’m glad to see that you learned a lot and more importantly are sharing what you learned with the world so that others can do well with it.

    Kickstarter and all the other crowdsource funding services are amazing services that I’m a big fan of. Lately though it seems that more people are just throwing up their projects without fully thinking them out.

    1. C.C. your feedback was though to hear at the time, but I knew you made some good points.

      I agree that people seams to be putting projects up with out thinking them threw and that was part of my motivation for this post. As I learned there is a lot that goes into it and I hope people can learn from my mistakes.

  3. You are a true artist, not only you push the boundaries, but you also clearly communicate your experience of doing it. This is very insightful. Thanks for sharing you experience!

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