For most of the history of the Internet, asking for money from strangers in return for a promised, not purchased, product meant you were likely a not-so-savory character up to no good.
Now, this exchange is not only common, but downright popular, and it’s called crowdfunding.
The concept is pretty simple: imagine a baker begins to shout out that she will make a boysenberry pie for $10 and give out the slices a day later; 10 pastry lovers gladly pledge $1 for a slice, hand their money to a mediator, who sees that the $10 goal has been met and disburses the cash to the baker who can then get to work.
This greatly oversimplified model generally represents the core of how a Kickstarter-style campaign operates, but it is also the least likely outcome. More commonly, the baker will start a Kickstarter, only raise $3.47 and have to try again later. If it turns out that 56,782 people love boysenberry pies, the baker has to bear the burden of unchecked success and figure out how to produce over 5,000 pies in a day.
If you’ve got your own product that you want to release to the world and want to know the ins and outs of starting a Kickstarter and crowdfunding, then this guide is for you.
You might not be baking pies (fresh food is certainly against Kickstarter TOS), but whatever you hope to bring to life, there are a lot of challenges ahead, so I’ll be discussing the details of what makes or, more importantly, breaks a campaign and how to be prepared.
How Does Kickstarter Work And What Is A Kickstarter Campaign?
Let’s say you’ve gathered a group of friends to make your own indie movie and have decided Kickstarter is how you’ll be raising the funds for production. You’ll be the ones running the campaign, so you are the creators of a project, i.e. the movie. Kickstarter projects have to be concrete things, so creative works like paintings, concerts, and movies are all fair game, whereas organizations, companies, and help-me-go-to-italy-for-a-month adventures are a no go.
The most critical aspect of your campaign is the funding goal, which is the threshold of success. Once your campaign is active, backers have the opportunity to pledge money towards your funding goal within the timeframe that you set (up to 60 days).As a creator, you make this process simpler and more attractive by setting tiered pledge values for which backers receive rewards within estimated delivery dates. Your funding goal can be as modest or ridiculously high as you wish, but you have to match or exceed that goal to receive anything. Let’s say for your movie you’ve decided $2,500 is more than enough to make the next Paranormal Activity. Even if you were to receive $2,499 in pledges, then you’ll receive $0, the campaign will end, no one is charged anything, and we all metaphorically go home.
In order to convince people that they should fund your next Sundance contender, you’ll also be filling out a project page. Front and center is your title and project image, although I would suggest a series of moving images, as the most successful campaigns have a promotional video. Below this is your opportunity to describe the project and preemptively answer any questions a backer might have, although they can directly leave comments and questions on the page itself.
If you had three tiers of rewards, let’s say a $15 T-shirt, $25 DVD copy, and $100 for a local screening with concessions included, you’d only need 100 backers at your middle tier to succeed. When your campaign succeeds, then backers will be charged immediately, and after some time and minus some transaction fees (more on this later), you’ll receive what remains and can get to work.
Kickstarter brokers the financial dealings, so customer payment information is always protected and isolated from creators. At this point the campaign is technically over, but your project is still in a delicate spot. You’ll now receive the names and addresses of all your backers and will have to fulfill those reward orders. Only once you’ve done that, is your project finally complete.
Kickstarter Tips and Tricks
Every campaign is unique, and while the factors that led to a particular success or failure are always changing, there are definite tips for success that lead to better results (Forbes has some great ideas). While a Kickstarter project can encompass nearly every creative genre, I’ll be focusing on the design and fabrication of physical goods, as that is my repertoire.
Launching a Successful Kickstarter Campaign
For a very brief time, I was a cook in a busy Mexican restaurant, and while I learned I would want to do more with my life than make gallons of horchata (delicious as it may be) day after day, I also learned a very important term and strategy: mise en place. It basically comes down to having all of the tools and materials for your meal laid out before you, and simple as that may sound, is an effective strategy for any complex operation.
Before you click that launch button, heck, before you even make a user account, do your due diligence and figure out if you are really ready to hit go. Even if their products don’t, the most funded and successful Kickstarter campaigns have a lot in common at the start: they were ready. Let’s examine what worked for these campaigns:
Landmine Detonator – Massoud Hassani’s Mine Kafon is a campaign with a cause. Not only is it attractive as a humanitarian project that is explicitly out to save lives, but the concept is so clearly explained that it leaves little uncertainty for backers. While an exception to the usual pattern of rewards, Hassani created multiple low tier pledge values so that anyone could contribute, no matter their budget.
Electric Eel Wheel – Moe and Emily spun a yarn about spinning yarn and did so cost effectively. Their DIY machine had an edge from the get go because they managed to undercut the cost of commercial devices by hundreds of dollars, and while their device is of prototype quality, that is more than good enough to work for backers. Their reduced manufacturing complexity also allowed them to keep a modest goal of $5K, which they easily surpassed.
Rope Braiding Machine – Speaking of spinning yarns, Mixed Media Engineering’s campaign succeeded for similar reasons. Rather than waste money on a more advanced production run of parts, they opted for simple acrylic construction which kept costs low enough to also offer a practical $2K goal.
PennyPult – Apptivus’ desktop siege weapon keeps it fun and simple. Not only is it plainly clear that they can easily manufacture their kit, but have demonstrated with many high quality photos and gifs how their product works, leaving little uncertainty for backers.
The Proportioner – SIPs Productions has designed a beautiful, minimal device for artists and engineers alike. Because it is such a self explanatory design in terms of construction, they spent additional time creating many photos and diagrams, which is important for providing context for their tool and selling their campaign.
Wild Gears – Aaron Bleackley’s project spun out of control, but that’s a good thing. This campaign is an excellent example of selling a simple idea. Not only is the product exceedingly simple to manufacture, but also framed by plenty of images of the final artwork it can produce.
Animatronic Head – Jeff Kessler’s campaign speaks for itself, literally. The design of his robotic platform is efficient and easy to assemble. He also made sure to offer the kit in various levels of “completion,” which is particularly important for DIY Kickstarters for backers of various skill level and interest.
There are many more examples of successful campaigns worthy of study. If you want a thorough breakdown of the crème de la crème of Kickstarters, Entrepreneur has an excellent write up of some of the best products to go above and beyond their goals.
Learning From Kickstarter Failures
Beneath the shining examples of campaigns that skyrocketed beyond their creators’ ambitions, lay heaps upon heaps of failed ideas. Some were only inches away from their goal, while others barely left an impression on the ground. Oftentimes campaigns smash through their targets and discover the practical difficulty of fulfilling their rewards and fade away, having failed to deliver.
Take a stroll through this list of the worst projects and you’ll start to notice they might suffer from one or more of these issues:
Asking For Too Much!
One of the largest nails for the coffin of many a failed campaign comes from simple greed or naivete in setting a project goal (I discuss pricing later in this article). This is particularly unique to Kickstarter due to the all or nothing campaign style. You should calculate the minimum goal for practical success, so that it can become a smashing one. Kickstarter likes to promote wild successes and there’s a simple psychological effect of seeing something that’s already a runaway hit (e.g. it’s easy to be a fan for the most popular team). 1,050% of a thousand dollar goal sounds a lot better that 105% of ten thousand dollars, despite the total amount raised being equal.
These don’t necessarily affect the campaign, but will seriously bite you afterwards if you get funded and don’t consider supply chain management, quality control, proper packaging & design flaws.
If someone can’t be bothered to make a decent video, how can you trust them to make 100 pieces of art or a complex gadget? You don’t need the next Kubrick to shoot your pitch, but basic things like well lit subject, balanced audio, and properly framed shots make a world of difference. On the flip side, overproduced videos can certainly be damaging. Parody Kickstarter videos are easily made, because far too many campaigns pitch in the same overwrought, hip-trendy-modern style that seems phony (and you ain’t no phony).
Too Few Rewards
It’s better to always have at least one unlimited reward tier so that your campaign can exceed its goal. If not, you risk alienating backers who want to support you, but find your options lacking.
On the flipside of running a lean campaign, unchecked excess could crush the dreams of any small project. This overlaps with unreasonable deadlines as you now face a larger logistical issue if you have to deliver ten times or more products than you were anticipating.
Poor Market Research
This is one of the most complex variables affecting the success of your campaign. Is your project a good idea? Even if it is, are you releasing it at the right time? Who is your audience? Do you already have an established enough brand that it doesn’t even matter what you’re selling as long as you’re the one selling it?
Kickstarter does have an approval process, but their vetting is minimal. If you don’t want your project shut down for an avoidable reason, make sure you’re aware of the Kickstarter rules.
Developing A Kickstarter Campaign Strategy
What does it take to develop a Kickstarter strategy for your project? Hint: a lot, and you can’t run a successful one alone. Launching a successful Kickstarter campaign is as much a social challenge as it is a technical one. Only at the very beginning are you evaluated by an algorithm to see if your project meets the criteria for a legitimate campaign, after that everyone who will be looking at your work will be a real human, judging whether or not yours is a good idea.
Your video is the very first thing potential backers will see and is the main shareable aspect of your campaign. While many Kickstarters opt to hire a professional video crew to shoot their campaign pitch, it is far from a necessity. As long as your video is well lit (hint: the sun is free), the audio quality is decent and free of pops and noise, people and your product are presented in frame and in focus, that’ll be just fine. Also, a little background music goes a long way, but you don’t need to contract Hans Zimmer to score your project.
Technical aspects aside, what should the content of your video be? At the very start, be sure to introduce yourself and any other creators behind the project. Life stories aren’t required, a simple “Hi, I’m Sarah and this is Waldo. We’re two artists from Smalltown, Somewhere and today we’re here to talk to you about our passion for Thing XYZ.” Now is the time to talk about your plan and, if your product already exists, go over the design and show off any features that can’t be captured in still images. Reassure people that you can execute on your project and you need the money for specific goals. There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence that you’ll have to walk, but just be honest about your intentions. It is very much like a job interview in that you might not check off all of the boxes for 100% certainty of future success, but because of your past and commitment to future dedication, you’ll do your best. You’re not only building trust in your product, but trust in you, the creator. Unless your product is so basic as to speak for itself, you have to demonstrate technical proficiency as well as social accountability.
Towards the end a simple thanks followed by a call to action is enough. You definitely want to remind people that, even if they can’t commit money to your project, sharing your page with others would be very much appreciated.
Overall, keep it brief. If you can’t explain your idea in one minute, then an additional five won’t make it better. Backers are likely already browsing through multiple projects, so if you make it more digestible, well, the more likely they are to hear you out. On this note, it’s also just as important to have a thumbnail from your video that clearly represents your project with your product front and center and minimal text.
The video is for covering the core of your campaign in a few minutes. Your project description is where you ought to dive a bit deeper to tell your story and explain the rewards you’re offering.
For artist Joshua Harker, this mean having plenty of macro photos of his intricate anatomic 3D prints from his campaign. This kind of detail is essential (especially for artist projects) where the video just can’t quite capture what you’re offering. You should also link to your product website near the top for people who want to learn more outside of Kickstarter.
Many projects toss in the concept of stretch goals as an additional incentive for pledging beyond your main goal. Oftentimes, these include additional rewards for “early” backers and unique content or goodies that you would not have otherwise been able to produce. Poligon created a series of beautiful low poly sculptures of animals for their campaign and offered a unique polar bear design as a stretch goal. Simple and effective.
Updates & Comments
Throughout and after your campaign you’ll have the opportunity to post updates on your project page. While you can technically edit these into the description at any time, posting as updates provides an easier progression of information for backers to follow and keeps your description page concise. Regular updates will keep your backers aware of your campaign more often, presumably making it more likely they’ll share it more, in addition to just being a regular courtesy.
Every project page also has a separate comments tab for user discussion. Often backers will ask questions, and while you may be tempted simply answer there (as you should), I’d recommend updating your project page to reflect the new information. People who are browsing projects, and your own backers, shouldn’t need to check the comments section to find critical information. Having everything on the main page is better for overall user experience. Also, every comment is an opportunity to learn why it is you’re connecting with your backers. Why do they support you? While things are certainly full steam ahead at this point, it’s never too late to adjust your campaign’s direction if commenters are willing to tell you how they are responding to your project.
Answer questions! Especially the uncomfortable ones. Like it or not, silence allows backers and prospective supporters the opportunity to fill in the blank with their doubts, and since this is the internet, they’re likely to do it loudly and publicly. Nipping their fears in the bud is an assertive way to build trust with your backers. Some people want 100% certainty that you will succeed and won’t settle for anything less, while others will have reasonable faith (that you may or may not have rightly earned) that you’ll accomplish your goal. While getting funded is certainly the bottom line, it’s those latter folks who will more likely have the patience and understanding if, and most likely when, you encounter difficulties in fulfilling your rewards.
After you hit go, you’ll be spinning plates the entire length of your campaign to keep sustained interest. Press releases make it easier for people to talk about you (especially if it can be packed in a tweet) so have one ready beforehand. It’s an extra step, which basically comes down to reformatting your project description, that also demonstrates more professionalism.
Reach out to your fans! If someone seems to be particularly enthusiastic about your campaign, reach out to them not only share thanks, but to encourage them to share it even more. Here’s a sobering fact: You’re building a bridge to that elusive funding goal and even if you do brilliant work, your 100% of effort can only ever build 50% of that bridge. The rest of that path is built by the backers, and the influencers who encouraged people to build towards your idea.
There are two opportunities where influencers are incentivized to talk about your project: at the start, where your project is fresh and exciting content, and at the end, just days before that elusive funding goal where backers have a limited opportunity. Take advantage of these two hype periods for promotion, while being sure to remain respectful to whomever you’re marketing. You’re reaching out for support, not lunging.
And the secret sauce? As soon as you have your product idea, start building your own email lists of potential backers and promotional channels (EG – bloggers & social influencers in your niche). Then make sure you contact your lists at least 1 month before your campaign launches – to let them know something is coming. Then 2 weeks before launch, remind them you’re really close to launch. Then 24 hours out, let them know again. And perhaps on launch day, etc. In this way you will bring a warm crowd to your Kickstarter from day 1. Don’t rely on Kickstarter traffic. Seed the start yourself to give yourself more of a chance of getting promoted by Kickstarter. Of course, when you’re emailing your lists from a month out, give them something that’s unique to them for being first / create a sense of urgency for them to want to get in early before everyone else.
Getting Kickstarter Funding
You’re not just designing and making one project, you’re preparing a dozen. Kickstarter rewards are their own beast, and even the most well received and executed project can fall flat on its face if the rewards aren’t as exciting.
Kickstarter Reward Ideas
For Kickstarter, pledge rewards are some of the best crowdfunding perks. The range of reward ideas depends on your type of project, but their are many creative opportunities that work for nearly any campaign.
While no size fits all, I’ve seen these are the categories most rewards fall into:
Rewards For The Supporter
Some backers just want to help. This is the SWAG tier that is often unlimited, under $20, and rewards backers with cheap or non-physical signs of your gratitude. Many projects include “Thanks” pages that list all supporters starting at this level or even personalized thank you notes. Now’s the time to call up your buddy with the screen printing service and make yourself a hundred t-shirts or hats.
Rewards For The Individual
Here’s your main crop of backers. This is the “I want the actual project advertised” group who will likely fund the bulk of your project. At this level you should offer one to several copies of the final product. Depending on your ability to supply for the demand, you’ll generally want to leave this one open to unlimited backers, while providing a limited set of “early backer” rewards to entice your first backers.
Rewards For The Group
Rewards for backers who want a package deal of your product are always attractive. There are many backers who are teachers, community organizers, et al. who want a bulk reward tier (which is also slightly cheaper for you to offer) and would be more incentivized to pledge if this tier is available. At this level, many campaigns often offer slightly cheaper versions than at the individual level, so you may want to limit the number of pledges to prevent offering too much at the smaller margin.
Rewards For The Superfan
While not always appropriate for every campaign, it’s a fun and potentially lucrative idea to offer (usually less than 10) rewards that are very expensive. Rewards are capped at $10,000 USD , so you still have limits as to what you should offer, but many campaigns offer rewards that are much more personal at this level. Things like paying for travel to local events, personalized products, and exclusive communication or thanks from the creators are great opportunities to attract your superfans.
- Less is more when it comes to reward choice. Having fewer, yet distinct, rewards makes choosing easier for your backers
- Higher tiers including lower tiers. Even if it’s just swag at the lowest levels, the higher tiers of rewards should include everything received in the lower levels (within reason), so that the supporters who pledge more money are rewarded fairly. It seems trivial, but could make the difference for some who feel like none of the rewards should be exclusive.
- Be very generous with your deadlines. This comes down to the underpromise and overdeliver attitude that should always be present when pitching an idea.
- Leave information about your rewards in the main project description. Reward descriptions should be brief and literal.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on your way to the bank. Kickstarter has provided a popular and powerful platform to help you achieve your pecuniary ambitions, and they receive their share of your earnings in exchange.
What Percentage Does Kickstarter Take?
Out of your total funds raised, Kickstarter receives 5%. For payment processing in the US, you’ll also be charged 3% plus $0.20 per pledge or 5% plus $0.05 for pledges under $10*. Beyond these explicit costs, credit card payments might not be actually received, so even if you have a successful campaign, you might not raise the amount you expect even after deducting fees. Unfortunately, the number of failed credit payments is unpredictable, and you are charged the payment processing fee even if the card fails authorization. This further incentivizes the short campaign strategy, as the fewer days between launch and funding, the less likely its backers will have somehow invalidated their credit information.
* Values and figures depend on your location of business. You can read more here.
Kickstarter Product Pricing
Having an effective pricing strategy is another essential component on your path to project success. The profit margins are much tighter than you might first imagine when running a campaign and defining a realistic budget before you go live is essential if you want to stay above water.While they don’t apply to every campaign, consider the following potential expenses:
- video production
- product design and prototyping
- website hosting and design
- graphic design
- ad buys
- packing materials
- marketing materials
Consider throughout all of this you will be investing a substantial amount of time with no guarantee of payment. I recommend not even counting your own cost of labor because appropriately charging for your time would likely add significant cost to your project. Frankly, Kickstarter on its own is not a profitable means of producing a physical product save a lucky few exceptions.
So, why bother?
Kickstarter is easily the top dog when it comes to trafficked crowdfunding sites. Launching there naturally means that, even if they don’t pledge, you’ll have more eyeballs on your product and people will be introduced to you or your brand. You can gauge interest in a similar or more complex project and receive valuable feedback by essentially using the campaign as a beta test.
Prototyping Your Kickstarter Product
In ye olden Kickstarter days, you were allowed to show off the “artist impression” version of your product and still run a whizbang campaign. This only applies to the Hardware and Product design categories, but it is important to note that you do need to demonstrate a working version. It doesn’t need to be a finished product, but images that imply it is are strictly forbidden.
Well, if you need to have something made quick, what’s a designer to do?
Choosing from all of the the methods and services available for rapid prototyping is a worthy (and wordy) article in its own right, but here are some popular options:
The hot new thing in terms of additive manufacturing (despite being decades old technology), 3D printing is an excellent choice for prototype fixtures, enclosures, or anything else you might need made out of plastic for your product. While FDM machines like the Prusa I3 are great for printing larger objects out of useful materials like ABS or nylon, if you need to have ultrafine features in more than one axis, then SLA or SLS printers would be more appropriate. Speaking of which, this LittleRP SLA 3D printer is an enticing option if you’re looking around for one.
There’s a particular beauty in seeing freshly machined aluminum, hot out of a mill with the distinct tooling marks over the surface. While having your components machined is easily one of the most expensive options, it certainly demonstrates you mean business. There are a lot of hobby-grades desktop mills now, and while they won’t be able to do a final production run, they’re more than capable of making prototype parts in house. The Shapeoko, which is an open source CNC router design, is now a popular platform for many a maker.
I personally call these instant gratification machines, because they are far and away one of the fastest CNC technologies that allow you to turn 2D designs into physical parts. If you only need teeny, tiny laser cut parts, then you might try your hand with the MicroSlice laser cutter, but if you need a few more material opportunities and bulk production, you’d be better off using a professional laser cutting service.
Hardware like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are excellent choices for quickly creating electronic proofs of concept. Thanks to massive online communities and years of third-party hardware accessories, creating effective prototypes is easier and more affordable than ever. While you won’t find them in many finished products, Jeremey Williams’ very popular Game Frame LED display project has an Arduino at it’s heart.
While you may or may not have met your goal in order to produce, all is far from lost if you’ve had a failed campaign. As I’ve mentioned earlier, one of the main benefits of Kickstarter is the marketing value from having your idea on a heavily trafficked website. If you’re confident in your idea, and the market research you’ve done shows that it could be profitable, there’s always just doing it the old fashioned way and trying to secure a business loan. While it’s not technically for starting operations, many individuals use crowdfunding projects to launch a business and transition from Kickstarter to Shopify when the product is ready for prime time.
There’s no rule against trying again! There are dozens of other websites like Kickstarter and variations of the most popular crowdfunding platforms, each with their own quirks and unique strategies that might be a better fit for your needs.
Kickstarter vs Indiegogo vs GoFundMe
Choosing between Kickstarter and IndieGoGo and GoFundMe can be a bothersome choice for many, so for those looking for the quick comparison, I’ve assembled a table below:
|Funding||All or Nothing||Partial OK||Partial OK|
|Deadlines||up to 60 days||up to 60 days||indefinite|
Believe it or not, this is still just a brief introduction to crowdfunding. There’s so much more to research and discover and prepare for a successful campaign. It seems like a lot, and that’s because it is. If you’re asking for $100,000 to build your dream and share it with the world, are you prepared to do $100,000 worth of work? Or more? If you’re feeling uncertain, that’s good. No one launches a venture like this with a guarantee of success, but that’s the thrill of it.
So what are you waiting for?