It has been a few years since A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter was published and the crowd-funding world has changed a lot since then. There are more crowd-funding sites, more crowd-funders, and more write ups about the process. As a result I’ve begun to wonder what is the value of my guide over time? As information gets older does it become less valuable or, dare I say it, worthless? Continue reading What is the value of information over time?
People often ask me which crowd-funding platform is the best. My response is, aside from the site guidelines and ease of use, it really doesn’t matter.
Over the past couple years, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what successful crowd-funding campaigns have in common. Through this process I’ve been able to identify five factors which I believe are vital when trying to raise money from the crowd. While these factors come from looking at hundreds of Kickstarter projects, I believe that they relate to just about any crowd-funding endeavor.
Spoiler Alert: They have nothing to do with which platform you choose.
A brief History of Crowd-funding
Before we talk about specific factors, lets look at the history of crowd-funding. Even though sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become popular in the past couple years, online crowd-funding has actually been around for almost 15 years.
What is interesting about these examples is that they were successful even though the creators did not use a site like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Each creator used the internet to leverage their existing fan base. You might be thinking, “I’m not like them, I don’t have thousands of fans.” That’s the point I will be trying to make with this post.
The success of your project has little to do with which platform or site you choose, and everything to do with your ability to reach an audience that cares, engage them in a compelling way, and offer them something of value.
What I’ve learned:
Audience – You must target a specific audience with your project.
Reach – You must be able to reach enough of that audience to meet your goals.
Engagement – You must engage that audience with a unique idea or a compelling story.
Offer – You must offer that audience a product or experience of value.
Explanation – You must make the description of the project simple enough that someone else can explain it.
Take it slow – It’s taken me a year to write this, so don’t try and process it all at once.
Audience is by far the most important part of getting a project funded online. The reason that people like Seth Godin, Amanda Palmer, and Louis CK have such an “easy time” getting funded is that they have spent years developing and cultivating an audience. When they launch a project they have a group of people who love their work and want to support them. It may seem obvious, but most people fail to realize this.
When you don’t have an audience of your own, you must be trying to identify one. Making sure that the project resonates with them is incredibly important. Projects are backed by people who believe in what you are trying to do, not random strangers online.
Crowd-funding works best when you have a build-in audience. But how do you know if you have an audience or not? If you have to ask, you don’t have one. But just in case you were wondering, here are some examples.
A following (Fan base, Community)
A permission asset (Blog, Newsletter, Podcast, or Video channel)
Proven track record (Existing customers, Industry experience)
An extensive personal network (Facebook, LinkedIn, Address book)
Most “built-in audiences” take a long time to build up. You can not start this process two weeks before launch. It can take months or years to build a sizable audience that is passionate about your work. A great resource for how to build such an audience is Gary Vaynerchuk’s, Crush It.
Personal networks act similarly to a built-in audience but they are usually limited in size and resources. That is why having a real, sizable, built-in audience is such a powerful asset. You have a group of people who are interest in your type of project, trust you, and that you can easily reach.
Exercise 1: Think about all the people you could possibly reach out to (family, friends, co-workers, church members, etc.) Say it’s about 500 people and of those, 10% back your project. 10% is actually a high conversion rate when selling online but we will use it for simplicity. 10% of 500 is 50. If 50 people gave you $70 (the average pledge on Kickstarter) would you hit your goal?
What if you don’t have a built-in audience?
Creators without a built-in audience must actively look for communities or tribes where their message will resonate. I’ll talk about how to do this in the Reach section. But, before you reach out to people you need to think about who they are and why they would like your project. Who are the people that are actually going to pay money to see your project come to life.
To often people don’t spend enough time thinking about this and they struggle to get enough backers to reach their goal. One of the biggest misconceptions of crowd-funding is that the “crowd” will just show up and fund the project. From my research (and personal experience) this is just not the case. It is completely up to the project creator to bring the audience to the project.
Chances are you already have a group or several groups of people in mind. They might like jazz music or tech products or SiFi films but your probably need to get more specific then that. Try to define your audience by their world view not by there age sex or location. What do they believe in? What do they wear? Where do they hangout?
Keep these groups in mind while you put together your campaign. It might be your project, but they are the ones who will make it happen.
Exercise 2: Try making a customer archetype, a profile of a person that is a member of the audience you want to reach. You can make the person up or base it off of someone you know. This will help you get out of your head and into theirs, so you can view the project from their perspective. You can constantly ask yourself, would “Joe” or “Susan” like this?
What about the Kickstarter/Indiegogo audience?
You might be wondering about the existing audience on whatever crowd-funding platform you chose. Won’t they help fund your project? Maybe, but probably not to the extent you are hoping.
In the Kickstarter project to write this guide I got several backers who also backed multiple projects on Kickstarter. For the most part they only gave my project a couple of dollars. When I looked into their profiles I saw that some people had backed as many as 50 projects or more. (One even backed 170! ) So if people are backing a lot of projects, they probably aren’t spending a lot of money.
Another example of the limited impact of site specific audiences is a project that my friend Cedric Victor did. His project was a staff pick and ended up on the project page of Kickstarter.com. The result was $240 in sales. Not too bad for his goal of $3000, but for larger projects that’s barely a drop in the bucket.
Once you have defined who you think is going to back your project, you need to figure our how you are going to reach them. It’s tempting to think that the internet will always find and promote the best material but from my experience I don’t think that is the case. As I’ve tried to point out, it is up to the project creator to bring the audience to their project.
Reach is about two things, how many, and how much. How many people can you reach and how much do they trust you?
How many people can you reach?
The best way to explain this concept is with an example. Using the numbers from exercise 1, when 50 people back a project, at $70 each, the creator raises $3500. In order to get $3500 from 50 people they had to reach out to 500 people.
Now, let’s say your funding goal is $15,000. To figure out the reach needed, divide the goal by the average pledge ($15,000/$70 = 200 backers), which gives you the backer count. Then divide the backer count by our optimistically high 10% conversion rate (200 backers/0.1 CR = 2,000 views) and you get the number of views needed to hit a $15,000 funding goal.
This is where things get difficult. The larger your funding goal, the more people you will have to reach. With a goal of $50,000 you might have to reach as many as 6,700 people or more. Since the average person can only reach a small group of people (family, friends, or current customers) this might explain why there seems to be a limit, around $20,000, to how much most projects raise.
So how do you get a project out to more than just a hand full of people? There are a couple of ways to do this:
Pitching blogs, websites, and news outlets
Pitching people with existing audiences (Influencers)
Pitching communities or groups of people
When reaching out to people and groups you don’t know there is always a risk that they won’t embrace your project. That can be a scary but an important part of the process. My advice: If you aren’t getting traction with your outreach efforts then back off. After awhile even the most well intentioned outreach becomes spam.
Some great resources on generating press for your project are:
I want to point out that it’s not just about how many people you can get to see your project link. Trust is a huge part of the equation. This is another reason why having a build-in audience is so powerful. They already know you and trust you.
It’s very hard to get people who don’t know you, or haven’t been exposed to your work, to back you. Besides the financial risk, there is also an “emotional” risk. People want to back winners and since they don’t know you, they are skeptical that you can deliver.
One way of combating this problem is by having someone, who is trusted by the audience you are trying to reach, share your project. This provides social proof and minimizes the perceived risk of backing you. However, most influencers and people with large audiences aren’t just going to talk about your project because you ask them too. They also need to know you and trust you.
Tip: Build as many meaningful relationships as you can before you launch, and then ask them if they will help you get the word out.
To get the audience interested in your project you must engage them with a unique idea, or tell a compelling story. Projects that represent unique ideas are much easier to market, but they are also harder to replicate. Projects that tell a compelling story require a certain level of skill, and experience with storytelling and must meet the expectations of the audience you’re trying to reach. It’s important to know which type of engagement you are going to use to market your project.
From The Million Dollar Homepage, to One Red Paperclip, to the countless memes created every day, the Internet loves unique and quirky ideas. The trouble is, it’s hard to create one of these on purpose. The idea has to be truly unique and represent something that has never been done online before. However, if a project does fall into this category it will have a much easier time spreading online. Some crowd-funding examples are Detroit Needs A Statue of Robocop! or the OUYA: A New Kind of Video Game Console. Since most projects to not represent truly unique ideas, you should focus on telling a compelling story.
Telling a good story about your project can make all the difference in the world. What makes it hard, is that not everyone has experience with telling a compelling story. If you haven’t had experience with writing copy or creating online videos, then it would be beneficial to find someone who has. Let them help you highlight the most important aspects of your project.
Tip: No matter what type of engagement you choose, you want to make sure that it resonates with the audience you are trying to reach. Share your project with some people from the audience before you launch to get their feedback. If they get really excited, you are on the right track. If not, you might need to rework your pitch before launching.
When someone backs your project you are offering them a product or an experience. How can you tell the difference? Unless you have a working prototype, that you can show on camera, then you are offering an experience. The difference is subtle but important.
When you are offering a product people are usually backing you to get that product in it’s final form. They have a different set of expectations then someone who is backing an experience. When you are offering an experience people are less concerned with the final product and might be backing the project just to support you.
It’s also important to note that people do not consciously think about backing a product vs experience. Most of the time they are backing your project because of the story. However, as the project creator you need to be clear on what type of offer you are making, and then structure your project accordingly.
I use the word product in a very broad sense. A CD, film or theatrical production could be a product. The main distinction between a product or experience is the prototype. A prototype could be anything such as album art, or scenes from the film, or video of your rehearsals. You just need something to show, in the project video, that you have done 80% to 90% of the work.
If you don’t have a working prototype of your final product than you are offering an experience. People are really backing you because they want to support you, or your idea. They are less focused on getting the actual product. You should still deliver on your promise, but hopefully they will give you a little more leeway if things don’t go according to plan.
The limitation of experience based projects is they typically do not raise as much as product based projects. This is because there is more perceived risk when backing ideas in their initial stages. What if the project never gets finished? How do I know the project creators can actually do this? You should expect that most of your backers will be people who already have a relationship with you.
The mistake people make is thinking that projects without a working prototype will receive massive amounts of funding. Unless the project creator has a large built-in audience, this just isn’t the case. As long as you keep this limitation in mind and set your goals accordingly, you shouldn’t have a problem.
There are a ton of ways to make your project more fun and inclusive for backers. Christopher Lackey did an amazing job of this with his project Transreality. Want to be a character in the comic book? You can! Part of the fun of backing his project is the experience he created around the actual product. Creating amazing experiences requires a bit of creative thinking, but it’s one of the biggest untapped resources when trying to get funded.
Tip: Obviously there is a huge benefit to waiting until you have a working prototype to launch a project, but this creates a paradox. The more money you need to create a product, the longer you should wait to crowdfund. The way around this is to start with a really small project, or find alternative financing that will get you to a working prototype.
You must make the description of the project simple enough that someone else can explain it. A critical aspect to a crowd-funding campaign is sharing the project. If someone cannot easily explain your project, it will have a much harder time spreading.
This does not mean your project has to be simple, but the explanation and description does. Make sure you spend a lot of time refining your pitch so that it is easy to understand. Share it with people and get their feedback. If they say “I don’t get it” then you need to keep working on it.
It may seem like a waste of time to put so much effort into the explanation, but you can avoid a lot of problems down the road. I typically spend the most amount of time getting the pitch and description right. Once you have a solid pitch the video, project description, and even the rewards fall right into place.
My crazy prediction
Most crowd-funding sites will not be around in the next five years. The same reason that the platform does not matter, is the same reason why these sites will not be around. It all comes down to audience.
The biggest factor to a the success of a crowd-funding campaign is having an audience or being able to reach and audience. The actual site that hosts the project really does not make that big of a difference. That is why I think most of the smaller crowd-funding sites are going to struggle.
People will launch on one of those sites, expecting that their will be a crowd of people waiting to back their project. When no one shows up they will give up or go somewhere else. And unless the crowd-funding site has a steady stream of successful projects it won’t be a feasible business model. The only way smaller sites can stay alive is by cultivating and maintaining a passionate audience that funds a few projects.
Take is slow
So I know there is a lot of information here. My advice is to sit with it and not try to use it all at once. Looking at the history of this post I realized that it has taken me nearly a year (Started Sept 24th, 2012) to write this. The writing process has been slow but it’s also taken me a while to be able to explain this information clearly.
Give yourself time to process it all. You should bookmark it, save it to Evernote, or whatever works for you but come back to as your work thorough your project. I hope it helps you make the best project that you can. I look forward to seeing you in the comments.
A Year ago today I launched my third Kickstarter project called StreetXSW, which turned out to be my biggest entrepreneurial failure. The project was to create a photo book by shooting the SXSW festival in Austin TX in the street photography genre. I wanted to highlight all the cool stuff we miss while plugged into our devices.
I had worked for months on my photography, the video, and getting the project page setup. 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.
Excitedly I launched the project and then… nothing happened. No one bought the book, a few people shared the project, but it wasn’t enough to get any meaningful traction. It got picked by the Kickstarter staff, as a featured photography project, but that still did not help.
After a few days, and some negative feedback I realized the project was broken. I could have promoted the hell out of it, but in the end it wasn’t going to do what I wanted. So with a heavy heart I canceled the project I had spent months working on.
After you’ve done your best
For the next few days I beat myself up , thinking about how badly I had failed, and how all my work had been for nothing. Then I read this from Seth Godin:
Successful people analytically figure out what didn’t work and redefine what their best work will be in the future. And then they get back to work.
I realized that I needed to get back to work and see the project there, even if I wouldn’t be able to do my project as envisioned. With the help of Jerry Hirsch and Robert Ortiz I went to SXSW and got some amazing photos.
I’ve been sitting on the photos for a year because I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I thought about creating a video with the photos, I thought about prototyping my photo book, I even thought about tossing them all because they were a bitter reminder of my own stupidity. However, as I’ve reflected on the past year, and everything that happened because of my failure, I thought this might be an opportunity to remind people that failure isn’t that bad after all.
The Consequence Of Failure
The most interesting aspect about this project has been all of the stuff that has happened after it failed. As a result of preparing for the project, I was able to raise my photography to a new level. In August I wrote a post called Studying failure: What I learned from a Kickstarter project that failed… badly which talked about what I learned from the Kickstarter campaign. It has been viewed over 3,500 times and has helped people avoid the mistakes I made. The connections and the response I got because of sharing my failure so openly made the entire experience more than worth it.
All of this is great but in the days after I canceled the project, the only thing I could think about was how badly I had messed up. However, over the past year I came to realize one very important thing.
Our failures do not make us a failure.
Whenever a something doesn’t work out, or when we are scared it might not work out, we create all this anxiety and stress about being labeled as a failure. I think we need to give ourselves permission to let go of our negative feelings, and to realize that failure is not the end of the world.
So in celebration of my biggest entrepreneurial failure, here are the pictures I took last year at SXSW.
Click to see more
I’m thinking of doing a project related to letting go of our fear of failure but only if there is enough interest. If this post spoke to you, or you know someone that is having a hard time dealing with failure, leave your name and email and I’ll contact you soon. http://eepurl.com/uL7AL
The success of a Kickstarter campaign relies on the project being shared. Everything about the site from the share buttons to the all or nothing deadline are working hard to get the project to spread. But how does that process happen? Why do some projects get spread far and wide and other do not? Obviously there are many factors to a project’s success. Quality of the project, video, and pitch are all important. However, a great project that isn’t shared doesn’t get funded.
Over the years I’ve been really interested in how ideas spread. I wanted to understand the process because I realized that no matter how great my idea was, if I couldn’t spread it, it would go no where. One of the things that fascinates me about Kickstarter is that it turbo charges the process. When done right it can give your project wings may beyond what you normally could do. But being able to do that process over and over is a tough to learn. That is one of the reasons I conducted interviews with other Kickstarters, to learn what works.
What I’ve learned from my interviews is that your launch strategy is just as important, as your project page. Launching a project and hoping the internet will find it is not enough. In this post I’m going to explore the topic of how ideas spread online and try to define some things we can do when launching a Kickstarter project.
My first time actually seeing an idea spread online was with the campaign for Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto. We ran the campaign for 60 days (back when you could run it that long) but for the first 7 weeks nothing happened. During that entire time we only managed to raise 27% of our $15,000 goal. Things weren’t looking very good for us. Then Friday night, a week before the campaign ended, we got a backer that pushed over the 30% Kickstarter tipping point.
Then something interesting started to happen. High school friends shared it on Facebook. At first it was one or two but with each post more people started sharing and backing the project. Then camp friends started posting about it. Later in the week it was college friends. The idea was spreading!
After a while I started to notice a pattern. For each Facebook share we got another backer. That backer wasn’t always the person who shared it either. This meant there was a direct relationship between my backers and the numbers of people exposed to the project. I quickly checked my visitor count for the page and realized that for every 100 views of the project page we were getting 10 backers.
The whole process was interesting because each of my friend groups did not know each other. There was no way for my camp friends to see posts from my high school friends. This told me the idea was spread in each group of friends separately. The other fascinating thing was I was no longer doing any of the heavy lifting. That week I really didn’t send out any emails asking for support. I didn’t have to, it was happening on its own.
What I was experiencing was an idea going “viral.” But instead of being shared by random people on the internet it was being shared by my friends. People who knew me, and who I had been close to me at one point. Seth Godin would call this a “Tribe.” I realized the project was not going viral with the internet at large, it was going viral in my tribe. It was going tribal!
Now I am not trying to create another buzz word here but I think it’s an interesting way to think about ideas spreading. We often assume that when an idea takes off its because masses of people come flocking to the idea all at once. Turns out thats not how it happens.
One of the reasons that this experience was so profound was because I had been studying how ideas spread for so long. When our Kickstarter project finally took off I got to see everything I had been reading about happen for real. It was that experience that really drove me to try and figure out how one could repeat the process over and over again.
In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore talks about how new businesses must target a niche to get traction. Once they have established themselves with an initial group of customers, they must work quickly to find other niches. This is because there is a “chasm” between early adopters and the mainstream. The only way to cross is to get a small number of customers from different niches. Once the business has a solid base of customers and is viewed as established, it can be embraced by the mainstream.
In The Tipping Point, Malcum, Gladwell agues a similar point. He says that for ever idea that takes off there is a critical moment when the project starts to take off on it’s own. This is the “Tipping Point” where the idea tips and starts to take off on it’s own. Enough people know about the idea and are talking about it that the idea has enough momentum to carry on its own.
Both books provide insights into what makes a project take off.
There has to be a certain amount of social proof before an idea will spread on its own.
Early traction comes from early adopters who are willing to take a risk on an untested idea.
The accumulation of several groups of early adopters is what creates social proof.
Obtaining social proof as quickly as possible is important to the survival of the idea.
If social proof cannot be attained quickly the idea will lose momentum and stall.
This describes the process of Kickstarter very well. Before a project will start to spread on it’s own there has to be a certain amount of social proof. So getting those early backers is vital to the success and momentum of the project. This is why the 30% tipping point is so important. Once the tipping point has been reached the project deadline acts as a force to motivate and energize the base. Share this project or it will disappear.
When you set out to launch your idea you should really think about the different groups you are going to hit. Crossing the chasm can be brutally hard. Ours took 7 long weeks to cross. You have to be patient and really think about how you are going to address it. Who will jump in right away no matter what? Who is going to want social proof before backing it? For example, I wouldn’t pitch a blog or newspaper with random strangers until there is solid social proof around your project. You really only get one chance to pitch your idea so you don’t waste it.
You need to test your idea virus
In Unleashing The Ideavirus, Seth Godin argues that ideas are like virus. They “infect” the population as they spread from person to person. Once you have been infected you can’t help but share it. However, not everyone is susceptible to the idea virus so starting the idea in the right place is important.
Seth Godin’s formula for creating an idea virus goes something like this:
Powerful “sneezers” or influencers spread the idea to a “hive” or group of people
Finding the right “hive” or group people to infect is important.
The speed or “velocity” an idea virus travels is important
Ideasviruses spread on a path or “vector” that is related to the hive
The idea passed to a person through a “medium” which holds the idea.
Making the idea easy to share in very important to the way it spreads.
The longer the idea stays with a person once they have been infected the better.
How do you amply the efforts of the most effective sneezers.
Is your head spinning yet? Don’t feel bad, creating an idea virus on purpose is hard. I got this book in 2005 and I am still working on understanding the formula. I really don’t want to overcomplicate things, so I’ll only talk about the three most important parts of the formula, that relate to a Kickstarter campaign.
Understanding the concept that an idea is transferred via a medium is something I still struggle with. But I think the simplest example of this is the project video. When someone watches your project video they are interacting with your idea virus. Like sitting next to someone with a cold, the contagiousness of the disease has a roll to play in whether or not you get infected. Your job is to make that interaction as compelling as possible.
The story you tell in your project video is going to draw people in and “infect” them with the idea virus. You are going to have to work really hard to make sure it’s a good one. I think one mistake a lot of people make is not telling a compelling enough story. Simply putting up a video that says “I want to do this” is not enough to get people excited. You have to layout what are the stakes if the project fails, and why it is so meaningful to you.
The hive is a group of people that can relate to, and will back your project. In A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter I called this audience. Figuring out who your potential hive is, before you launch is very important. If your project does not meet the expectations of that group and it will have a hard time spreading through it. You are going to want to list several potential groups. Sometimes the hive that backs a Kickstarter project is not the one the creator imagined at the start.
Make a list of all the different hives, or audiences, that your project might relate to. Then try to figure out how close you are to each group, and how you can reach out to each group. The best groups to reach out to are the ones that you have a personal connection to. People often start by looking for audiences that they think might back their project but have no connection to. Selling to strangers is tough, so start with the people you know and move outward from there. Maybe they can connect you to the groups that you seek.
Sneezers, or influencers (as are called in today’s web culture) are people who in touch with a hive and can spread your idea virus far and wide. If you can get them on your side, they can be a big asset to help spreading your message. But don’t wait until the last minute to get in touch with them. If you start contacting sneezers the day your project launches, then you are just using them for their audience. Respect their time and attention, and get to know them before you need their help. Finally, before you ask for their help, think long and hard about what’s in it for them, that has nothing to do with you.
One of the biggest challenges to launching an idea virus is knowing if your message will resonate with the hive/audience you are trying to reach. I recommend that you send your project people you trust (preferably within the hive you are trying to reach) and get their feedback. This was one of my biggest mistakes with my StreetXSW project. Had I gotten feedback earlier in the process, I might have have realize that my project had some big flaws. Instead I worked on my project alone and when I launched, I had built something no one wanted.
One of the best features Kickstarter has recently created is the preview link. This allows you to build your project and then send it to people before it goes live. Often time you are too close to the project to spot the big mistakes. You also want to judge their reaction to what you are sending. I look for phases of excitement and high approval.
“Wow, this is great!”
“I can’t wait to get this!”
If you aren’t getting this kind of reaction out of people, it might be a sign of problems to come. Keep working on your pitch until you start to get these types of reactions. It will make the whole campaigning process SO much easier.
I don’t worry about people hating my work, or liking my work. I worry about then not LOVING my work. If they don’t love it they won’t pass it along and my idea goes no where. If you don’t get a lot of this excited feedback them either you should hold off to reevaluate or understand that it will be an uphill battle to get backers.
You shouldn’t surprise people with your project
The final piece to understanding how to launch an idea came by reading Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness, by Dan Zarrella. In his book Dan lays out a framework for understand why things are shared online. There are three parts to the framework, exposure, attention and motivation.
Dan explains his framework like this:
“The person must be exposed to your content. This means that the person has to be following you on Twitter, be a fan of your page on Facebook, subscribe to your email list, and so on.”
“The person must become aware of your specific piece of content (the idea you want to spread). He has to read your tweet or open your email message.”
“The person must be motivated by something (generally in the content itself) in order to want to share the idea with his contacts.”
In summary, for people to share something they need to be exposed to it (or the creator) before hand, it needs to catch their attention, and there needs to be a call to action. This means surprising people with a Kickstarter project is probably the worst thing you can do. Instead, try to build support for your project as you develop. Feedback and buying is key, especially from the sneezers and hives you are trying to reach. View your Kickstarter launch as the end of a venting process, not the beginning of the project.
When we ran the campaign for Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto I had no idea how important it was to make people aware of your project before it launches. Had we known it might’ve changed our entire strategy. By dumb luck, we ran the campaign for 60 days (back when you could do that) which I gave us enough time to make people aware of the project before the last week. What we should have done was run a 60 day campaign, but only made the project live for 30 days. The first 30 days should’ve been spent contacting our biggest supporters, and closest friends to let them know that our project was about to launch. That would have brought a lot more momentum into the campaign, and made it a lot easier to hit our goal.
Another interesting take away from Dan’s book is that ideas are not as viral as we think they are.
Those interested in actual science use a more precise term, borrowed from epidemiology: “reproduction rate.” The reproduction rate, or R0 (pronounced “R-naught”), is the number of new infections that a case of a disease will cause in a single generation, averaged over the entire life of the epidemic. If I have a cold and I give that cold to two people, and each of them gives it to two more, the R0 of that cold is two.
With many biological pathogens, R0 is greater than one, meaning that the pathogen spreads to every susceptible person in a population over time. However, every example of idea viruses I’ve studied, from retweets to email messages, has an R0 well below one. Some pieces of content out there, particularly those that spread through small groups, have a higher R0 for short periods of time. Typically, when those ideas jump into larger populations, the average reproduction rate declines and the ideas die.
Zarrella, Dan (2011-08-23). Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas (p. 14). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
Zarrella is saying that the ideas aren’t as viral as we think they are. When something gets posted on Facebook or Twitter only a small percentage of people actually pass it on. This means seeding our idea with a large number of people is important. The challenge is that most of us cannot reach a very large number of people. Most of us probably can probably reach a couple hundred people via email or Facebook. Once we have contacted them, then what? This is why sneezers, and resonating with a larger audiences is so important. you have to figure out how to get your idea into larger groups, your friends and family can only do so much.
You need to have a launch strategy
“A new idea’s execution, [has] to be as good as the idea itself.” ~ Howard Schultz
We tend to think that once we hit the green launch button, our work is done. Over the past few months I’ve learned from other Kickstarters, to videos on the web, that this is not the case. It turns out that the way you launch is just important than what you launch. I admire the way other project creators have found creative ways to pitch and promote their projects. This is definitely something that I have not been great at and need to improve. Here are a couple examples, from my case studies, of ways Kickstarters were able to reach audiences be on the friends and family.
Pitch the blogs
During their campaign the Custom SLR team spent a lot of time reaching out to the writing staff of various blogs and websites that they thought were part of their target audience.
First they gathered a list of web sites within their niche. For each blog they looked at what had already been written on similar topics and who wrote it. Then they reached out with a template email that was customized to each blog. They approached smaller blogs first knowing that they only got one chance to pitch their project on each blog. This gave them a chance to refine their pitch before approaching the bigger blogs.
Eventually they were picked up by the blog Engadget. After that the project had enough momentum to not only reach their goal but go well over.
Send it to an Influencer
Dan Provost, co-creator of the Glif, had a small connection with the prominent blogger John Gruber, whose blog has over 400,000 readers. Dan sent Gruber an email about the project and he thought it was cool enough to post about it on his site. From there the project was picked up by many other blogs. John had linked to a couple of Dan’s posts in the past so Dan was not a complete stranger when the email was sent.
Having a relationship with an influential person, no matter how tenuous, especially if s/he is also in your market niche can be a powerful tool. They can help you get the right kind of traffic to your project. As Dan said: “Your project is not going to explode if it hits the New York Times. It’s going to explode if you hit the audience perfectly.”
Motivate your advocates
Linsky.me is a very cool web app you may have never heard of. I met it’s creator Adam Loving earlier this year at SXSW. His site provides a interesting and fun way to help spread an idea. The site works like this:
Submit a link you want to share.
Create prompts for people to help you share the project.
Enlist the help of “advocates” to help you spread the message.
Advocates share your project across their network. (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. G+)
Keep track of how the project is being shared and who had gotten the most clicks
The Linksy software makes this entire process easy to manage. In my eyes the real benefit is making the project launch exciting for the people who support you the most. Your advocates, or biggest fans are the ones were going to go out of their way to help you succeed. Giving them a platform and tools to help spread your message can make all the difference in the world. Oh, and make sure you thank them when you’re done.
PS If you are interested in using Linksy.me for your project you can sign up here.
The topic of spreading ideas online is an important and complex one. More complex than I can possibly covered in one post. Below are some resources that I’ve used to help understand this topic. if you are interested in launching projects repeatedly over time these can be valuable resources.
We often hear stories of someone posting a creative project online. Then hundreds or thousands of people come rushing to them and it takes off. It seems so simple. Come up with a brilliant idea and the Internet will take over to make our dreams come true.
Somewhere deep down inside we know there is more to it than that. There must be some explanation as to why their idea took off. We’re just not sure what it is. We launch our own project, hoping the masses will show up, but they never do. We are left feeling disappointed and full of doubt. Why not me? Was my idea not good enough?
The truth is that there is a lot of work that goes into a project before it will take off. Simply posting an idea online is rarely enough to get meaningful traction.
In the fall of 2010 I posted my first Kickstarter project for a documentary film that I wanted to make with a friend of mine. Our project finished just two days before the launch of the TikTok Multi-Touch Watch. TikTok went on to raise $942,578 set a new record for amount raised via crowd funding. It was the first time people started to realize the true potential of Kickstarter.
TikTok held the record for over a year until the Elevation Dock and Double Fine Adventure broke the $1,000,000 funding mark. After that it seemed like every week I was hearing about projects raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the time the Pebble: E-Paper Watch had set a new record at $10,000,000, I had run three different projects of varying size and results. Throughout my three projects I had yet to experience anything like what I was reading about. In fact my campaigns had been much different.
My three experiences
During the campaign for Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto we raised $15,212 from 170 people, the majority of which were family and friends. Not exactly a crowd but it was my first project. After that, I ran a campaign to create A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter. This ended up being 150% over funded and raised $1,303 from 104 backers. Definitely a great success but still this mythical “crowd” had not shown its face. Granted, the guide was a small project so that could be one reason why the masses didn’t flock to it. Then in February I ran a campaign for StreetXSW: Capturing The Moments You Missed. It was an attempt to create a project that would go beyond my family and friends and attract a larger crowd. Despite all my hard work the campaign flopped and I end up canceling the project a week in.
I started to wonder why none of my projects caught on like the ones I was reading about. Were my ideas not good enough? The projects in the news were pretty damn cool but I didn’t feel like my mine were unworthy of more attention. After all, my documentary film was about how I had been separated from my birth family during El Salvador’s civil war and then was reunited with them when I was 16.
The story involves revolutionaries, kidnappings, government cover ups, loss, regret, and redemption. It’s one of those larger than life true stories that you can’t make up. If anything had the legs to go big wasn’t this it? Now, I am in no way suggesting that I deserve or that our film deserves that kind of attention. I’m just trying to say, that even an incredible story like mine doesn’t necessarily catch on with the crowd.
I probably would have felt like a complete failure had something not happened, which started to shift my perception of crowd funding.
The first 10,000
On June 19th, 2011 Kickstarter posted 10,000 Successful Projects, which highlighted how far the service had come in two years. Along with the post was this video which featured a screen shot of all 10,000 successful projects.
I went looking for my project. It was a bit tough because the pictures went by so fast but I realized that the projects were being displayed by amount raised. Great! I thought, I’ll just click a head until get into the ball park and then I can slow it down. I clicked about half way through the video to where I thought my project should be but the projects at that point had only raised a couple thousand dollars. I thought it was a little weird but I kept clicking.
To my amazement I was 2/3 of the way though and still no where near the amount of money I had raised. It wasn’t until I got to 5 minutes and 9 seconds, out of the 5:33s video, that I started to get close. I finally found our project at the 5:11s and thats when it hit me. Identifying Nelson was one of the most funded projects on the site! Doing some quick back of the napkin calculations I estimated that we were in the top 10% of projects funded. I’m sure this is no longer true but at the time it was a big shock. That was when my perception of crowd funding started to change.
Over the past couple months, some new information about Kickstarter has come out that has furthered my belief that our perception of Kickstarter as we read about it is much different from the reality of what most people experience.
The “crowd” is actually a lot smaller than you might think
Recently, Kickstarter released a new statistics page that gives us some insights into what is happening behind the scenes. One of the most interesting statistics was that only 2,200 out of the 28,600 projects launched have raised more than $20,000. Of those only 251 have raised over $100,000. That means roughly 92% of all projects launched on Kickstarter have raised under $20,000!
Again I was surprised by how few projects ended up raising large amounts of money. I’ve done enough research to know that is easier to get funding for smaller goals but I didn’t expect the number of “high end” projects to be so low. If you’ve been following crowdsourced funding in the news you may get the perception that there are a lot of large projects bringing in well over $100,000. Turns out that’s not the case at all.
I think part of the misperception lies in the name. The words crowd-funding or crowd-sourced funding represent the idea of a project raising tens of thousands of dollars from thousands of backers. Partly because the definition of the word “crowd” means a large group of people. However, if our perceptions of the amount of money being raised is off, could we be wrong about the number of people backing a project as well?
On a side note: What is this mythical crowd anyway? Is it made up of people living in some corner of cyber space with credit cards at the ready, waiting for someone to launch a project? As great as that sounds I doubt thats the case.
One way of figuring how many people make up the crowd is by looking at the average pledge amount on Kickstarter. According to Kickstarter the average pledge amount is $70. This means that a project with the goal of $10,000 should be funded by roughly 142 people. Right away this is interesting, because the number of backers is a lot lower than we might expect. Using the $70 average pledge as a benchmark we can estimate that 92% of all projects on Kickstarter are funded by less than 300 people. Not exactly a crowd…
The number of friends you have matters
I have a theory that the average Kickstarter project is primarily funded by a small number of 1st degree connections, not a large group of anonymous strangers. This is something I experienced in Identifying Nelson. Less than $1000 of our $15,000 came from 2nd degree connections. People who had never personally met John or or myself before. My theory has to do with something called Dunbar’s number. You might be familiar with it but if your aren’t here is a refresher.
Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist that suggested humans have a limit to the number of social relationships they can maintain. While there was no exact number that was proposed by Dunbar, it said to be between 100 and 230 people, with the most common number being 150 people. Does that number look familiar? It’s roughly the same amount of people that it takes fund a project of $10,000. If humans are limited to roughly 150 social connections, I’m willing to bet those connections are somewhat meaning. I’m also willing to bet that the people who make up those meaningful connections would be willing to pitch in $70 to help a friend. It happens all the time with charity walks and bake sales, why should Kickstarter be any different?
For that $10K project, holding everything else constant, if you had 10 Facebook friends, you would only have a 9% chance of succeeding. If you had 100 Facebook friends, your chance jumps to 20%. And if you have 1,000 Facebook friends? Your chance of succeeding is now 40%.
Facebook allows us to extend the reach of our campaign to people who care about us but might not be in our, day to days lives. Not all of those friends will chip into our campaign but some will share it and pass it along to friends who will back it. The larger the group of people you have to draw from the easier it is to find the group of people that care enough to help you out.
In A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter I argue that projects are funded by a specific audience or group of people. Most of us do not have “fans” but we do have family and friends. I think your family and friends acts as a kind of build-in audience. The mistake we make is thinking that our project has to the strength to go beyond our family and friends. In my experience creating something that resonates with a people beyond family and friends is a lot harder than you think.
Part of the challenge is that it just takes a long time to understand what gets people excited and how to communicate your ideas in a meaningful way. If you look at the most successful projects on Kickstarter they are done by established artists, entrepreneurs or skilled individuals with proven track records.
The reality of Kickstarter is much different than what we read and that’s OK!
I think what we are presented with here is the reality of Kickstarter and perhaps crowd funding in general. Kickstarter works well for projects under $20,000 and only a few top-tier projects, get more than that. Sounds like the 80 to 20 rule to me. But does this hurt the crowd-funding and sites like Kickstarter? I would argue not at all. If anything, it means project creators need to adjust their exceptions and understand what they are up against.
Don’t try to hit a home run right away. Launch small and launch often. Over time you will figure out what works and what doesn’t. Be realistic in your expectations. If you’re project takes off great, but it should be a reward for working hard, not your strategy. (Hey even Amanda Palmer did it that way.)
Sure I would love for one of my projects to take off, but I’m not expecting it anytime soon. I’m not sure thats the point either. Kickstarter provides a safe and reliable way to test ideas and learn what it takes to create something that resonates with people beyond family and friends. It also provides a platform for skilled project creators to reach a large number of people. It’s pretty clear that on Kickstarter there is room for both. The challenge is being honest with ourselves about where we fall on that scale.
Let me be clear, without Kickstarter there is NO way I could have raised $15,000 to start our film. Maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, but I just don’t think asking friends to send money via paypal would have had the same impact. There is just something about a project on Kickstarter that people respond to.
It gave me an opportunity to launch an idea and learn with very little risk. What bothers me is when people present Kickstarter as an easy source of capital or a lottery where your project just might get picked. I think that completely glosses over all the work that goes into a project and sells people false hope. Projects that take off represent solid ideas, skilled creators and hard work. Anyone who says otherwise is lucky or lying. Now, stop reading and go make something happen!
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
A couple months ago I wrote that I am moving on from Kickstarter Guide, but still wanted to find a way to share my crowd-funding insights. Well over at Medium.com I started a series called Inside The Campaign.
I will be posting weekly updates as I working on a campaign for my upcoming documentary film Identifying Nelson/Buscando a Roberto. The goal of this series is to give you a look into my thought and decision making process. This is not going to be a “course” or a “how-to series.” I won’t be giving general advice about how to structure a campaign. Instead, I will talk in detail about our campaign, so that you can learn from my insights and mistakes.
So I hope you will check it out and let me know what you think. Best of luck with your own campaigns, and as always drop me a line and let me know what you’ve built.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone from the Kickstarter.com legal department.
Dear Mr. de Witt,
We’re thrilled to see that you had a great experience as a creator on Kickstarter and are looking to help others with your experience. However, your site as it’s currently designed is likely to confuse people into thinking that it is an official guide or is endorsed by or affiliated with us. Please remove all uses of our logo from your site and your guides, and include a disclaimer stating that the site is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by Kickstarter.
Thanks, and please let us know if you have any questions.
I always wondered if I would get this email. From the very start of the project I worried that someone at Kickstarter might take issue with it. I was calling the book “A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter” and in the design process I chose to include the Kickstarter logo on the front cover. I wasn’t quite sure if this was “allowed” but it just made sense to me artistically. I mean, what better way to represent the site than with its own image? Despite my concerns I decided to go forward. So I was thrilled when I got a chance to share it with someone who worked for Kickstarter.
In the process of writing the book I tried to interview one of the Kickstarter founders. I knew it was a long shot but I wanted to make the best book possible and an interview with Perry or Yancey would help with that goal. I got a really nice email back from someone on the PR team who explained that the founders where very busy but he would be happy to look over the book when it was finished. I sent him a copy as requested and to my surprise not only did he like it but he sent a list of connections! He did not mention the logo at all, which eased my concerns.
Honestly, I was pretty excited to get the buy in of someone from Kickstarter. I had put a lot of work into the guide to make it the absolute best it could be and their approval was important to me. The last thing I wanted was for them to think I was trying to trick or manipulate people into buying the book. So that is why I was pretty disappointed to receive the email from Kickstarter Legal.
I decided to write them back and state my case. I felt the email they sent me was a little vague. They had done some research into my project but it didn’t seem like they had taken the time to really understand it. You can read my full response here but I will summarize my three main points.
1) Why has the use of the logo only now become a problem?
I pointed out that the book has been out for almost 2 years. I explained how I had shared it with someone on the PR team in development. I pointed out that one of my backers worked at Kickstarter and another employee who I met at an event thought it was very well done. None of them had an issue with the logo, so why was it a problem now?
2) How did they determine that the site was “likely to confuse people?”
As said before, I have always been weary of people getting the wrong impression of the book. So over the past two years I’ve taken steps to try and make it clear that the book is based on my experiences and not a product of Kickstarter.com. For example, I’ve always had a disclaimer on my site. I do not feel like I have acted in a way that would confused people but I wanted to understand how they arrived at this conclusion.
3) Does using the logo on the blog constitute as fair use?
I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that one can use a company logo as part of a blog post to identify the company, as long as it does not imply endorsement. Using the logo in this way should fall under fair use.It only appears on one post but I wanted to make sure that my assumption was true.
I hoped that by writing back and explaining my side of the story they might reconsider or at the very least give a more detailed explanation. I pressed send on my email and a week later I got this response.
Thanks for taking the time to respond. In order to protect the integrity of the Kickstarter name and brand, we’ll need you to remove the logo from your site as requested and to include a prominent disclaimer of affiliation on the home page of your site.
I was disappointed to say the least. Not only did they not reconsider, but they didn’t even take the time answer any of my questions. Honestly, it’s not their decision that frustrated me. It’s the fact that they didn’t even acknowledge my points or answer my questions. I totally understand that it is up to Kickstarter how to enforce the use of their logo; I don’t disagree with this at all. It is really the lack of a response, and their anonymous signature, that makes me feel brushed aside.
The kicker is I’m probably doing more for their brand then their brand is doing for me. A lot of people come here to find out how to learn about Kickstarter and then go on to run a project. Most of those people do not end up buying the book. I did the calculation and less than 1% of all visitors show any interest in actually buying the guide. That is fine by me. To me, what is more important than making money is that I hope the book is helping people. I felt that their email suggests that somehow my book is taking away from their brand in a negative or misleading way.
This experience has been interesting because I just finished a book written by the founders of the home cleaning company Method called The Method Method. Once of their core principles is to inspire their customers and fans. They talk about one of their biggest online advocates, Nathan Aaron, who runs the site Methodlust.com.
Having recognized the value of such a voice, Method has nurtured Nathan’s lust by responding to requests for interviews, sending updates on Method products, and supplying Nathan with pictures and other content… As a fan of the brand, Nathan’s blog methodlust.com helps spread our mission and keeps us honest.
Maybe Method understands branding in a way that Kickstarter does not. True branding has nothing to do with logos and company policy, but how you treat people. I’m not saying I deserve or want any special treatment from Kickstarter, just that I feel brushed off and not listened to. I put a lot of time and care into the guide and my site so that I could represent it as best as I could. I just wish they had taken the time to understand where I was coming from. I think my frustration can be best summed up by this recent Seth Godin post:
The complaining customer doesn’t want a refund. He wants a connection, an apology and some understanding. He wants to know why you made him feel stupid or ripped off or disrespected, and why it’s not going to happen again.
I’ve been a big fan of Kickstarter from the very beginning. I’ve told everyone I know about it. I’ve helped several people structure their projects. Hell, I even wrote a book about it. I’ve had a great experience so far and almost everyone I have interacted with has been great, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. It’s just disheartening to me to not have even been given the time of day. Perhaps the days of being a small start up are over. Will I still use a service? Sure, but I really hope this is not an indication of what’s to come.
So, reluctantly, I’ve created this new book cover.
My interaction with Kickstarter Legal reignited an integral debate that I have been having since the start of the year about what to do with this project and website.
Where to go from here?
Over the years, while doing entrepreneurial projects, I’ve learned the importance of focus. To make any meaningful traction you can only really work on a couple projects at a time. Any more than two and all your projects start to suffer.
One thing that people tend to do is hold onto projects for way too long. We develop an emotional attachment to our project because of all the work we put in. We hesitate to let go or move on because we are fearful of missing out. What if this project takes off?
I’ve benefited greatly by letting go of old projects. It frees up mental bandwidth and allows me to move on to something new. All my old projects were great, and I am proud of them but it was time to move on. That is the way I feel about my work on the Kickstarter Guide. I also feel like I need to more time to finish my documentary film.
My original vision for the project was to write a book about my experiences and help people who are just starting out. I wanted to practice shipping an idea and get used to putting myself out there. I feel like I have accomplished this and more.
The guide has been downloaded over 600 times and helped several people (that I know of) to launch projects of their own. The site has been visited by more than 13,000 people in the last year alone. (I know that’s not a lot for bigger sites but it is the most impact I have ever had.) I’ve received a lot of compliments about the guide and it has led to new opportunities for me. As a project that was just done to practice shipping, it has been more successful than I could have imagined. But I feel like it’s time to move on.
My biggest problem is that I am someone who needs a vision, something to work toward. Now that the guide has been published I’m not sure where to go from here. There are a lot of things I could do, like a second edition, an online course, or just continue posting here infrequently. But none of these scenarios appealed to me. I never felt like the project got enough traction to merit the creation of a second edition or a course and as I said before I like the idea of letting go.
So after my experience with Kickstarter legal and much deliberation with friends and family I have decided to move on. It was not an easy decision. Part of me still feels like I could make a big impact with my writing but I think this project has served it’s purpose. I might do something with the rest of my ideas and insights but it would be in the form of a different project.
I am going to leave the site up and running as is. The guide will still be available for download and I will continue to receive emails at email@example.com. However, I will no longer be updating the blog. I will also delete all the social media accounts for the guide except YouTube which hosts all the interviews. Thank you for reading and thank you for all the wonderful feedback. I wrote the guide to help people and I’m so glad people are finding it a useful resource. I’m going to end this blog the same way I ended my guide.
You may think your project isn’t that important, but you never know who you will inspire. Many of the people I talked with, said how the success of other projects got them to launch their own. So go out there and make something happen.
In November of 2010 the team at Custom SLR launched the C-Loop Camera Mount. Having never launched a project before they quickly realized that their friends and family would not be enough to fund their project.
They got to work making lists of blogs and websites they thought might be interested in their project. Starting with smaller sites they worked their way up to bigger blogs. Eventually it was picked up by Engadge and their project took off.
In October of 2011 Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt launched a design project that would spark a revolution. Almost anyone who has done a project design project on Kickstarter has heard of the Glif. So, I had to sit down with Dan Provost to talk about what lead to their success.
Besides having what they thought was a solid product idea, Dan & Tom got a plug from a high profile blogger. Of course it wasn’t that simple. In this interview Dan talks about how his existing relationship with this blogger was the key to getting his project picked up.
In May of 2011 Peter Dering launched a wildly successful design project to being production on his Capture Clip System. In this interview we talk about how a single tweet from someone on twitter sent his project skyrocketing.
More then just a cool product, Peter’s project shows us what happens when someone who loves what they are doing shares their idea with the world. He put in A LOT of up front work but it all paid off in the end.
In July of 2011 David Greelish set out to revive an old computer history “zine” called Historically Brewed. I sat down with David to talk about his thoughts on Kickstarter, and why I thought he had the perfect project for first timers.
David had small but interested following, and hosted a podcast about historical computing. He pick a reasonable goal and project. All of these factors allowed him to easily hit his goal and almost triple it.