ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Kickstarter: All I Know —

I’ve now done two kickstarters, and maybe I should talk about what I know.

If you don’t know what Kickstarter is, then either you’re being sent to this weblog entry or something’s really gone out of whack, because I’ve mentioned the kickstarter campaigns I’ve run here extensively, as well as putting up the cute widgets telling you to visit.  But for the first group, let me say that Kickstarter is a site for “crowdfunding”, or “patronage”, or as some nimrods call it, “cyber-begging”.  It is obviously much more than that to many people, but maybe that’ll get you started. The Kickstarter site has a FAQ and a few minutes of browsing will have you caught right up.

I’m mostly writing this for people who think they want to start a kickstarter or best practices crowdfunding project, or have done one and want to compare notes. I encourage all manner of comments.

So, a quick disclaimer. I know these people. I don’t know if any of them would call me a friend, but I’ll settle for “knows exactly who the guy in the hat walking up is”. And I’ve walked up a few times, either at swishy NYC digerati gatherings or SXSW or what have you. It’s always been cordial. Additionally, during a specific stressful situation in my first kickstarter that I’ll go into, co-founder Yancey Strickler answered my frantic 1am-on-a-Sunday-morning tech support e-mail within 30 minutes, solving the problem instantly, and you’ll follow someone like that into a hail of gunfire after that. So if you read nothing else, let me say, stand-up guy. Also, I have no dirt on anybody, so there’s no dirt coming out in this. I’m just giving you the facts.

I had the idea for something like Kickstarter before Kickstarter, for what’s that worth. Faced with friction from my family about setting out to doing another documentary after BBS and realizing I wanted a $5500 camera to do it, I said that I could instead raise some of that from the world at large, and the “GET LAMP Adventurers’ Club” was born. Invest $100 in me, and at some point in the future, which turned out to be four years later, you would get three copies of whatever it resulted in. I intended it to be open for a month, but I had to shut it down after 50 people came forward waving money, pushing me to $5000 and making me nervous about how many copies I was preparing to give away (i.e. 150 guaranteed copies of GET LAMP). Looking back at everything, I probably could have kept it going, but 50 was a good solid number. Oh, and they got into the credits of the film as well. If this sounds similar to kickstarter ideas, well, this sort of thing has gone on a long time. I suppose I could draw some conspiratorial idea from the fact the CTO of what became Kickstarter was in that Adventurers’ Club, but come on – ideas are everywhere, playing them out into reality is a whole other business.

In fact, let me drop what I think Kickstarter’s main secrets of success are, in case you decide you want to rip off their style, like Indie Gogo did. (Indie GoGo, open before Kickstarter, looked like this for years and when Kickstarter ate their lunch and squatted it out in gold coins, massively reskinned themselves to look so much like Kickstarter than I’ve had people surprised to hear they’re not the same company.)

Kickstarter’s main secrets are Frictionlessness and Curation.

To know what I mean by Frictionlessness, let’s blow through 20 years of Web History in less than a few sentences:  We start with holy crap it all works, followed by a few years of what the fuck is this thing, and then that awesome how do we make money by the buckets off these assholes, followed by a multi-year situation in the mid 2000s where all the clever people who went through the first decade of web and were trying to find out what to do next started major noodling on all aspects of computer-human-data interaction, which flew into wild directions. And here we are.

There’s a whole range of thinking, a lot of which I personally identify with Caterina Fake,  where we go past this or that web technology and just get back to making a computer interface and program that does a lot of stuff simply. I’m dramatically oversimplifying here, ironically. But Fake and a lot of brethren in the Cult of Simple changed how websites were expected to function. Google had done something similar way back in a big way, and yes, Xerox PARC looked into it years and years before, but the Cult of Simple said that maybe people didn’t want a fucking webpage that looked like a 32-track recorder exploded, and just wanted to make stuff happen. I happen to think that Fake was right, and people listened, and stuff got much simpler to use even though the underlying technology got more and more complicated. Someone more interested than me in the prospect can trace where these ideas take root, but I suspect the SXSW conference and wayyyy too many BOF-like parties in San Francisco helped.

Kickstarter is off-the-showroom polished in this regard – the web pages are clean without being sparse, sharp without being oblique, informative without being overwhelming. It feels like french-kissing a Nicholas Felton chart while Edward Tufte snaps photos for his personal collection. All the integration is there – ways to shove in photos, videos and links from all manner of missing-a-vowel sites, as well as the ability to BOOM! WIDGET! at the drop of a hat. Text entry boxes you could park a Smartcar in. You’re not loading up a business plan spreadsheet – you’re filling in the big friendly spaces with your dreams. And it all just works.

So if you’re filling out a kickstarter project proposal, you are in fat city – it’s awesome and represents, I guarantee you, a billion grey hairs of effort on their part to make sure the gentle amusement park ride car slides silently down the track towards potential funding success. Assuming you can make admission. Which brings me to the second secret.

Curation. Kickstarter curates everything. When it started, it was invite only. I got in because I was invited by one of the founders of ROFLcon, and I don’t know how she got one other than knowing people from ROFLcon. So people knew people knew people. This went on for quite a while, to the detriment of “just anybody” being able to start a project.  It’s not democratic and it’s not nice and it’s not particularly going to lead to out of control growth, but it worked. People adding projects were, to at least some extent, people who would push through to the end and make something of it. I’ll be the very first person to tell you I lucked out like mad on getting on the ground floor of Kickstarter.

Like a television show, Kickstarter looks really straightforward and stuff just “works” but that belies the massive amount of curation they do, which I tend to call “meddling”. For the most recent kickstarter drive I did, a meddler showed up to question my choice of rewards, my funding structure, and a few other things. No demands, mind you. Just someone getting in there with me and sending along suggestions and ideas based on their research into what works and what doesn’t, and where I’d strayed from those known quantities.  I responded to the meddler politely and I was left alone. But I’ll bet someone who has no idea what they’re doing would really have appreciated the helping hand.

What I’m saying is that projects succeed on Kickstarter because Kickstarter helps projects succeed. That may sound simple, but one could look at something like Ebay, with its endless fraud issues, terrible quantity of users who come this close to ripping you off, and million pathetic attempts to get attention, and you realize how much great work Kickstarter’s people are doing to keep the shining city on the hill from getting that broken window. Those people are doing enormous work on this silent, not-obvious front, and don’t ever forget it.

I’m sorry one of the secrets turned out to be “do hard work”, but come on, you knew that.

Kickstarter has had a number of Supreme Successes, cases where shit went so crazy that people noticed.  It’s one thing to fund a kitchen for a brewpub. But when this Obama Design Book pumped $80,000 out of what seemed like thin air, that got some major attention, and when a wristwatch adapter for iPod Nanos made nearly a million goddamned dollars, well… everyone got that concept. Personally, nothing blows my mind more than the $3,000 Jellyfish Tank project that ended up getting $162,000. I mean, woah. At this point, pretty much everyone understands that language.

So now people are flooding into the site – Kickstarter happily let people know they surpassed one million credit-card-verified backers in October. Even with the curation, projects are flooding onto the site as well. And so it’s been the case multiple times, with friends and associates, that I’ve been asked for advice or insight into the process and making things “win” the kickstarter game.

I did two kickstarter projects, here and here. You can’t possibly do the first one anymore – looking at it now, it says “Please help me raise this money, and in return, I will spend this money.” It’s cushioned by also being a way to fund the final editing of GET LAMP, and in fact I later offered copies of GET LAMP at cost to backers. But still – I don’t think they’d ever allow that past the curation stage at this point. I’d have had to rearrange things pretty significantly.

But propose to fund me being me I did, and fund me being me they did. I asked for $25,000. I got $26,658. I spent that money happily and heartily, and here I am a mere two years later doing the things I love and living a life of dreams, so the money went somewhere good. And let me say that one of the thoughtful actions that turned the tide on that funding drive was Jeff Atwood’s weblog entry about it, which sent things skyrocketing to success. Hope I fulfilled the dream, Jeff.

These days, I get requests to “help” a kickstarter either before or after it goes on the site, and the request comes in from two disparate groups I will label thusly: pals and douchebags. Nobody who’s talked to me gets to ask which group they’re in, although I will say it’s a 95-5 split, historically, so you’re safe. Probably.

To everyone, I have the general talk I give about the idea of Kickstarter. It goes something like this.

  • Since I was first on Kickstarter, they’ve changed how you get to join. It used to be invites, and now it’s applications. I am assuming your application got through. If you didn’t get through, there’s nothing I can do. If you did get through, then we can keep talking.
  • Kickstarter is not a VC that you need to convince once and snowjob into success – it’s a platform that makes fundraising easier by giving you a sexy backend (read: the tufte-felton threeway from above). In a very rare case you might drum up support from just posting the thing. But more likely, you’re just making a cool way for people you know and friends of friends and your fanbase to come in. When I did my first kickstarter, I had something like a decade of what I’d call my current public life behind me. Influx of support came from that fanbase, not from free-floating individuals on Kickstarter going “woo hoo”.
  • Generally, you want a goal number before you think of rewards. Ideally, it should be as little as possible while getting the job done.
  • Every project has a sweet spot, the one people go for. If you’re finishing a documentary, the sweet spot gets a DVD and is probably something like $50.
  • Products are easier for people to wrap their heads around than a precious set of individual “this level gets a PINK bow, THIS level gets a BLUE bow” bullshit.
  • Provide rewards that are cheap for you and impossible for your audience to otherwise get. Example: autographed cast photo, phone call with you, drum lesson from you the famous drummer, personalized voicemail message from you the crazy getting a podcast funded gal.
  • For fuck’s sake, make a video. If you don’t make a video explaining what people should expect and how much you care, you probably don’t care.
  • Have a family friend or relative who has an account who can throw some cash in at the end if you’re just under. If it’s $150 that means the difference of getting $5000 or not, I mean… come on.  Consider this a break-glass-in-emergency thing, but it’s a fact.
  • Amazon + Kickstarter will yoink 8 percent of what you make. Calculate that in, moneybags.
  • Also, if you don’t “validate” your account with Amazon Payments, it will reject incoming money after hitting a certain limit. This is what I wrote frantically to Yancey Strickler, the co-founder of Kickstarter, one early Sunday morning, and in mere minutes he responded to tell me that I shouldn’t worry, just validate the account, and Kickstarter’s servers would try again. And so I did, and they did. Thanks again, Yancey.
  • Like I said, Kickstarter will meddle at every level. They’re trying to help, don’t be a dick.
  • The initial rush of people after you announce will make you feel like the most important person in the world. You’ll want to go outside and cheek-kiss hobos, you’ll be so happy.
  • Somewhere after the initial rush, you’ll wonder what the fuck happened and you’ll kick a kitten.
  • There are a group of people, and I have no explanation for this, who will only jump in after it succeeds. Kickstarter only pulls cash if the project succeeds, so this is silly, but there you go.
  • “Kickstarter Project Starts” is a “Dog Bites Man” story in 2012. Sorry. Try and bite a few dogs, somehow.
  • Once your kickstarter starts, the real-time updates of people investing will eat your fucking existence. You’ll try and live a productive life, but the real-time aspect of people giving you money will cripple you. Sorry about that.

After that, it tends to be custom advice, like brainstorming specific unique rewards, suggesting ways they might portray the thing, asking what unique aspects they can bring to a Kickstarter campaign. Generally, the pals appreciate that. The douchebags are already trying to figure out how many e-mail blasts to send to anyone in their address book over and over until they make goal.

Now, for the part where it gets weird.

For my last kickstarter, I broke as many rules as possible.

When I made the draft form of the kickstarter campaign, and set it at 100,000 goal, and saved the draft to work on other things back in July, I got a nice little e-mail from someone at Kickstarter who I won’t name, asking if I maybe wanted to make it, maybe… $30,000? And do just one documentary? Wouldn’t that be better? I kissed him on his nose and sent him on his way. Well meaning meddling.

I put up one of the strangest pitch videos you’ve ever seen. I still get comments about it. If it seems completely off-kilter and weird, that was the intention. It’s the Blue Velvet of Pitch Videos.

(For the cinephiles in the audience, the ending shot was directly inspired by the end of the Spike Lee joint “School Daze”.)

I did a single tweet (except for one answering questions): This tweet. I didn’t post in other weblogs, didn’t write in my own weblog, and didn’t do all the stuff you’re “supposed” to do, until much later in the process.

Within two days, the pledges passed $30,000.

About halfway in, I mailed everyone who had ever bought a documentary to mention the project (and the two documentaries, as people might have known about one and not the other). This juiced the pledge off onto success.

What I’m saying is, I don’t follow my own advice. Probably good to know before you take mine.

And that’s all I know.

Categorised as: jason his own self

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  1. Chris A says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. If I remember correctly, yours was the first Kickstarter project I backed, and since then, every other project I’ve backed (aside from Open Locksport, sadly) has either happily wrapped up as planned or is making steady progress towards doing so.

    Say what one will about curation, but I think it above anything else has been the key propellant for the site, and helped set an example for later projects. Hopefully some of the spinoff sites will realize that it takes more than emulation of the look to create their own success (and I say this without snark, as I really do want to see sites like 8-Bit Funding to succeed).

  2. Drew Wallner says:

    Thanks for putting this together Jason!

  3. Laroquod says:

    Curation is fine and uncontroversially valuable, so long as it is not accompanied by the kind of conflict-of-interest that inevitably leads to mandatory lock-ins. I can’t picture that becoming an issue with Kickstarter, although I could be wrong.

    The key to making a curated environment a healthy one is to have a lot of curators to choose from, and I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m glad to see 8-bit funding linked, but scanning their FAQ I didn’t see whether they operate in Canada. I know IndieGogo does, but Kickstarter doesn’t. So that’s one confirmed, one maybe, for crowdfunding in Canada.

    Can anyone commenting here recommend any others? And Jason, do you happen to have any tips on the options in countries ineligible for Kickstarter (i.e. Earth minus the USA)? 8)

    Anyway, thanks for all the great process insight and advice!


  4. Anna Newman says:

    Jason, thank you so much for making this info available. I get asked about this stuff all the time too now.

    My writeup about using IndieGoGo for funding my film project Pinball Donut Girl:


  5. Matt Haughey says:

    Great post, but know if you write at all about Kickstarter, you will start getting emails, phone calls, invites to coffee, and possibly people at your front door that read your post and think you have some secret “in” that you can share to magically make their kickstarter campaign successful.

    Seriously, my one brain dump of what I look for when funding kickstarter campaigns is probably the blog post I regret most, based on all the people that feel like a phone call is the appropriate first contact for a stranger (and half of them think I work at Kickstarter and can approve/fix/encourage their project).

  6. Jeff Kaplan says:

    jason, that was inspiring and just a little scary. good work my friend. thank you.

  7. Josh M says:

    ” It feels like french-kissing a Nicholas Felton chart while Edward Tufte snaps photos for his personal collection”

    This is the FIRST time in 11 years where getting a graduate degree in Information Science didn’t feel like a total waste of two years. I am pratically giddy! Thank you!