Thoughts on Running a Kickstarter Project

Apologies for the huge gap in posts on this blog. I haven’t been able to write for most of the past six weeks for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that I’m unemployed and anything not related to the job hunt has felt incredibly wasteful and unproductive. As a writer, I probably shouldn’t think about it that way, but them’s the facts. The good news is that I have a few prospective jobs on the horizon. I hope they pan out.

Still, I need to write something on this blog to mark a significant accomplishment: We’ve finished sending out most of the physical and digital rewards for the Storyville Kickstarter project. However, this is only the first step of our project: Now we need to create Storyville itself, and we’ve been working on that.

So here are a few of my thoughts on the Kickstarter process:

– It would be hard to do alone.

The project was my professor Richard Goodman’s idea, and I came in to help with Kickstarter, but I don’t think either of us could have done it alone. Not only were two people necessary to maintain a sense of momentum and movement, but the give and take in the revision/editing process was critical to ironing out the kinks in our pitch video, thinking through our reward levels, and preventing either one of us from overthinking ourselves along the way.

A good example of this is the reward level tiers. I wanted to go with a relatively simple set of tiers with rewards that could largely be fulfilled digitally or physically without much trouble. And I think we accomplished this, but Richard was insistent that we offer some higher-level rewards. I initially wanted to top out at $150, but we offered a few higher rewards and ended up getting one $1000-level donor, which is a third of our total goal. If I’d done the project on my own, that’s not something that would have happened.

The pitch video is the best example of our revision process. I think we created upwards of ten different versions of the video and finally settled on the final product you see on the page. It was frustrating at times—as revision always is—but it was necessary.

We also needed the help and support of the other students in the program. We reached out to everyone, and a core group of folks were extremely willing to throw in their energy and commitment. They are in the process of writing pieces for Storyville right now.

– Fully source and price all rewards before you launch.

We did offer a few physical rewards, and I tried to keep them simple and source them all before we launched so I would know how much they cost and how easy they would be to fulfill. This might seem like an obvious step, but I wonder how many folks do this for their projects.

Of course, physical rewards can become exponentially more difficult as the number of rewards ordered increases. I capped most of our physical rewards to prevent that. In the end, our physical reward fulfillment is nothing compared to the big projects, but it was still a lot of work for just two people.

The physical reward that took the most time and effort were the “original stories and poems” written for our backers. I sourced these by contacting my classmates and getting them to commit to the activity before we launched. Once the project ended, all I had to do was email them to get started writing. It took some effort to coordinate and edit all the pieces, but in the end, I’d already done much of the work before the project started by getting everyone in line.

I’ll talk more about rewards below – our project is a beast of a somewhat different animal since we weren’t trying to make a thing.

– You need to get beyond your initial audience of friends and family.

Basically, you can’t cannibalize your immediate community. Both Richard and I were a little surprised at the lack of support from our immediate UNO community. We were hoping many of our classmates and coworkers would chip in, but not as many did. In retrospect this makes sense. People are constantly being asked to contribute to causes, so these often get tuned out.

Before we launched, I wondered if Kickstarter would work as a funding mechanism for other university programs, but now I’m not sure. Imagine if other university-related Kickstarters started popping up. People would soon get tired of having to contribute, and you’d be out of funding sources. You have to do whatever it takes to get beyond the immediate local community and tap into other resources.

This is true for all projects, even the really big ones. Take MASSIVE CHALICE for example. At this point, I’m sure the audience for large video game projects has been drained to a certain extent. Yes, they made a lot of money, but it didn’t rocket to success nor did it hit the peaks that Project Eternity or Torment did. You either have to be the first to ask your community (see the Double Fine Adventure), to look for different markets (like the Wii did when it first launched), or to have a really incredible pitch.

We were lucky. We had one very large local donor who found us through one of my classmates who shared the link on Facebook. That bumped us up really quickly. Richard also made use of his audience of readers that he’s been building for a long time. This gave us a notable spike after the first few days as well.

This leads to my next point…

– Estimate how many of each item you will have to sell in order to meet your goal.

Before we launched, I looked down our list of rewards and estimated that we could raise $1500 if we sold all of our capped items (all of the magazines at the $10 and $15 levels, all of the manuscript critiques at $50-$150, all of the copies of Richard’s book at $60, and all the original stories and poems at $75). I knew that we needed more than that and hoped that the $25 thank-you notes would fill in the gap. Either that or we would have to uncap the rewards and offer more midway through. So I looked into providing more supply if we needed it.

We ended up being very lucky and getting funded after three days thanks to a couple of very generous people, but I think we were still on good track to fund the project even without any major donors—we had two donors that accounted for $1800. As you can see, we were still on a slightly upward slope before we got bumped up.

I think we would have gotten more sympathy support over the long haul if we hadn’t hit that initial bump. We only sold 15 of the $25-level, and we only had 77 backers total. Before we launched, I estimated that we needed at least 100, which means that the average pledge would have been a very do-able $30. As it is, we ended with an average pledge of $56.

– Are you making an item or a program? Are your rewards the item itself or something additional?

I don’t think I’ve worded these questions correctly yet. Lemme try this way: Are you trying to fund a cause or the creation of a new item? I think of Storyville as a cause of sorts rather than an item. We create all of the items in our rewards (which is part of the Kickstarter guidelines), but the project as a whole is to create something beyond the rewards. This is different from projects whose goal is to create a physical item (an iPhone dock, a deck of cards, a graphic novel, etc).

Often those projects have the physical item for their reward. For them, the hard work ends once they fulfill all the rewards. With other “cause” projects like Storyville, the hard work only really begins once the rewards are fulfilled. We received all the money and now we have to make good on what we set out to create. What we are making is intangible and will be free to access. And if we don’t create it, then we will have failed all of our backers.

This is a key reason that I wanted to make our rewards easy to fulfill. Not that I wanted to shirk any of the backers; I think we did great work on all our rewards and that they were reasonably priced: there was definitely value for everyone. But the real work is only beginning. Now we have to maintain the program and produce what we promised.

This is just something else to think about in terms of work load but also in terms of goal. This is important because…

– With a “cause” project, your audience may stop giving once you meet your goal.

As you can see from Kicktraq, our funding stopped growing as rapidly once we met our goal. This might be another reason why we didn’t get as much contribution from the community. People did contribute, but it didn’t seem as urgent as it might have had we still needed $500 or so with a week to go. I think this is a sign of a few things: 1. Our rewards weren’t all that exciting. If they were better, there would have been more demand for them and they would’ve kept selling even after we met our goal. It would have taken more effort on our part to make them better, and I’m not sure if the tradeoff would have been worth it. 2. Our stretch goals weren’t all that compelling. We managed to get enough money to squeeze them in without affecting the overall quality of our project, but we didn’t end up getting to $5000, which is what we initially estimated. 3. “Cause” projects are more difficult to fund and their funding goals need to be as low as possible because the “carrot” just isn’t as tasty as the “carrot cake” a “thing” project can offer.

I like to think that we could have eeked our way to $3000 had we stayed on our initial course. We raised nearly a third of our goal in two days, without large donations, and I think that would have put us in a good position to call more aggressively for donations from friends and family, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that.

– You can’t assume that your audience will be savvy to Kickstarter lingo or even the Kickstarter website itself.

And this is an important final point. You will teach your audience about Kickstarter as you run your project. I used to hate on all the project runners who explained the nuances of the site in their videos (we don’t get any money if we don’t raise our goal, the rewards are on the right side of the page, you can pay with your Amazon account, etc), but now it makes sense: not everyone is a Kickstarter enthusiast, and many people actively dislike using computers. These people are still within your audience, and you will be teaching them how to use the site. You have to be clear and concise with every aspect of your project page and pitch video, and I’m really happy with how Storyville looks. (This is something important to remember: your project will be on the Kickstarter site forever. It’s a representation of your self and your work that can either haunt you or help you from here on out.)

This is also the reason why it’s important to take outside donations. I have no problem with this. Large projects do it with PayPal once they’ve met their goal, but we did it with checks directly to WWNO. I think we took in an extra $500 on top of our Kickstarter take, which ended up being around $4000. These were folks who either didn’t know how to use the Amazon payment system or couldn’t be bothered to. They knew about the program, though, and that’s what really counts.

Whew. That was more than I planned on writing, and I think I could write more, but I’ll wrap it up there. Is there anything else you’re curious about? I think the overall message should be this: Balance. Is your project balanced with its goal and reward system? That is the most important question for project runners.


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