Doing Kickstarter Right

Kickstarter. I’m crazy excited about this platform (and IndieGoGo, a similar service that allows people to start a project from anywhere in the world, not just the US). I’m excited partially because of how this transforms the DIY community, and partially how this opens up new possibilities for publishing and enterprise. Crowd-funding is neat.

It’s also riddled with risks and potential problems. I say that as someone who’s backed five projects and created two of my own (one poorly structured and unsuccessful, the other better structured and quite successful). I’ve discerned a list of what I considered to be best practices and potential pitfalls for both project creators and project backers. Feel free to debate and deconstruct! I’m not an expert. I am just a person analyzing the ride that he’s on, and wanting to improve a community I’m excited about.

Before I launch in, Daniel Solis (art director, game designer, good person) wrote a blog post last week about the “meta-economy” of Kickstarter, and the risks and opportunities it affords to those involved. It’s worth a read.

I’m going to talk about Kickstarter here, but in almost every instance I mean “Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and similar platforms.”


What Does a Kickstarter Require?

A responsible and viable Kickstarter campaign requires the following things:

  • An idea. Specifically, an idea that’s been committed to writing and subjected to (both internal and external) scrutiny.
  • A plan. Specifically, a plan that includes a list of any necessary partners and services, and a timeline.
  • Relevant experience. Specifically, a demonstrable track record that can serve as proof of competency.
  • All of the required skills and connections. Figure out all of the skills needed for your campaign. For each skill you don’t have, you’ll need the support of someone who has it. As much as is possible, you want that support confirmed before going live.
  • Clarity of goals and expectations. This includes whether you are doing this for profit, the level of professionalism that will be present in the final product (for whatever “product” means in your case), where the money will go, and what people will be getting from the exchange.

When you couple that list of things with money and audience, you get a good final product. When you establish your money and audience before those things, it can go sideways and end in disaster.

Now, I don’t believe that you need to have every single answer locked in before you go live with a Kickstarter campaign. However, you do need to know how and when you’ll fill in the remaining answers. I’ll illustrate with an example from my recent campaign, Monsterhearts. When I went live with that campaign, I didn’t know which printer I would be using to print the final book. What I did have was an existing relationship with a POD book printer, a list of additional printing companies, and past experience with printing games (Monsterhearts being my fifth printed game product). I knew when I needed to have my decision locked in, and how I would go about making my decision. As it turned out, the game greatly outperformed my expectations, and it made sense to move from a POD printer to a traditional printer. I’d never done a traditional print run before, but I had a list of printing rep contacts as well as the advice of others. I knew how to lock in my answer quickly.

Creator Best Practice: Before launching a Kickstarter, make sure you have a comprehensive plan and all of the necessary support.

Consumer Best Practice: Before supporting a Kickstarter project, look for a comprehensive plan, and identify whether they’ve got the knowledge and support to execute it. If the answer isn’t apparent, ask questions until you’ve illuminated the answer.


What is Kickstarter good for?

As far as I can tell, Kickstarter is good for four things:

  • Raising money. This one is hopefully self-evident.
  • Up-selling. The reward-tier structure makes it easy to offer a base product, and then offer additional perks and attachments above that. Kickstarter is uniquely positioned to make up-selling an easy and exciting thing for both creators and consumers.
  • Determining level of interest. Have a great idea, and not sure whether your audience exists? Kickstarter is a great way of confirming audience before making investments. This saves people from the utterly deflating experience of having 487 band t-shirts in their garage, from an initial order of 500. This also saves you going a no-risk route that costs more per unit, thus losing you money if the audience is there.
  • Free marketing. Kickstarter is an excellent way to spread the word and garner attention. The pitfalls are many (thus this article), but the potential is awesome.

If you’re not looking for at least three of those things, debate whether Kickstarter is really an important thing for your project. Maybe it is! Maybe it’s important for only the first two reasons (you’ve already got a confirmed and engaged audience), or the last two reasons (you’ve got funding, you just need to connect with your audience).

Creator Best Practice: Know what you’re hoping to get out of Kickstarter, and communicate this.

Consumer Best Practice: Know what the creator is trying to get out of Kickstarter, and what they’ve already got.


How Long Will It Take?

It’s rare that a Kickstarter campaign meet all of its deliverables on time (or, where no timeline was specified, before consumers would have anticipated). Delays are common. As a responsible creator, it’s your job to manage expectations and prepare for problems. As a responsible consumer, it’s your job to develop informed expectations and ask questions in order to hold creators responsible.

Creator Best Practice: Plan a timeline, leave lots of room for error, develop contingency plans, communicate  your timeline, communicate about delays when they occur.

As an example, Jake Richmond recently kickstarted the first print volume of his webcomic Modest Medusa. I backed it, because the comic is great and the guy is also great. Jake encountered production delays! When he did, he posted an update saying: “Good news and bad news. After talking to the printer yesterday I have a time table for production and delivery that I can share with you. The good news is that things are finally rolling. The bad news is that it’s looking like the book will be later than I had anticipated. Here’s the timeline straight from the printer rep: [a big long timeline.]“ That update was reassuring and confidence-inspiring. I continued to feel good about my purchase. Jake was being a responsible publisher.


Will someone be making profits?

I just read an article (in the form of a Kickstarter update) that someone wrote on the progress and problems that had occurred with their Kickstarter project. It’s a great documentation of what can go wrong, especially in biting off more than you can chew. While some of the decisions that Schuyler made were poor, some of the comments struck me as… well, problematic. Indicative of a misalignment in expectations. One comment in particular: “Okay, not happy that my $ went to living expenses. Just my 2c.

Now, in this case, the KS money went to living expenses before project expenses, and so the creator wasn’t able to complete the project within budget. That’s super bad news. On the other hand, note: lots of Kickstarter projects are done for profit. As a creator, it’s your responsibility to inform your audience about whether you’re planning to do this for profit. It’s fine to say, “I intend to make profits on this project,” or “$X will go towards 4 months living expenses, while I take a leave from work to complete this project,” or “Anything in excess of the funding goal will be profit that I keep,” or “All the money will go into printing additional books, which I will continue to sell for profit.” Whatever is true, say it. If there’s profit involved, be sure to include the word on your main page. Otherwise, your audience can perceive it as stealing or misappropriation or shady practices.

Creator best practice: Declare profit motives, and what part of the money will be going into your personal bank account.

Consumer best practice: Recognize that many Kickstarters are products being sold for profit. Discern profit motives and money allocation.


Is this marketing or community building?

Many Kickstarters are about funding a commercial project. Some are about nonprofit community-building initiatives.

Almost every single one uses the rhetoric of nonprofit community-building initiatives. What I’m talking about is basically this tweet: “Come on guys, we’re almost at the $5000 mark! We can do this! Spread the word! #hashtag1 #hashtag2 #hashtag3″. Are you leading a nonprofit community-building initiative? If not, why are you using language that implies you are? It feels dishonest. You know how I just talked about declaring profit motives and managing expectations? Using community-centric and collective-accomplishment-centric language implies that this isn’t a commercial endeavor, that profit isn’t going to be made, and that a community is being built or validated. If that’s true, great. If that’s not true, then please choose different words.

I say this as someone who’s been guilty of such a crime. When I was marketing my first Kickstarter project (Perfect Unrevised), I would post a stream of stuff (to Facebook, forums, everywhere). It employed the language of a community-building initiative, even though the project was a pre-order campaign. Worse yet, my posts were typically shills that didn’t add anything to the community in question. Someone was kind of enough to set me straight through private messages, and since then I’ve noticed how god-damned annoying it is when people abuse that sort of language.

Creator Best Practice: Be honest about who benefits from your project, treat commercial ventures like commercial ventures, and make sure that your excited marketing adds value to the forums you post it in.

Consumer Best Practice: When you spread the word about a campaign you’ve discovered and are supporting, employ appropriate language in talking about it. Don’t call a spade a rose, or whatever the saying is.


How much work will this take?

Kickstarter projects take an inordinate amount of work. Both times, I’ve been surprised by the amount of work involved. Creating the project page takes hours. Mucking around with the video takes hours. Answering questions and sharing your project takes hours. Updating the excel file with details that you forgot to ask of your backers takes hours (this is at least true with IndieGoGo). Oh yeah, and whatever project you’re actually doing? Hours and hours.

How much time could this project possibly take? No, that’s a conservative estimate. Give an outlandish estimate. Great, now double that. And now budget time for getting the flu (or, in my case, dealing with a long recovery after fracturing your pelvis). There will be more work than you expected, and there will be longer delays than you expected.

This is true of all developing and producing and publishing and building. It is somehow twice as true when Kickstarter is involved.

Creator Best Practice: Sit down with a pen and calculator. Itemize your tasks, and estimate how much time they’ll take. Double that figure. Estimate how much time you’ll be able to spend per week on these tasks. Halve that figure. Give yourself a week off for the unexpected flu. You’ve now got a practical work schedule to build your timeline around.

Consumer Best Practice: Only back a project if you’re willing to embrace the possibility that it could be months (possibly even many, many months) before you get your perks and the project is completed. Delays are less likely with creators who have a proven track record and a solid timeline, but even then, there will be delays often.


How complete should a Kickstarter project be?

A Kickstarter project should be as close to finished as is possible, before it ever goes live. There is so much that is unknown when a (typical) Kickstarter gets backed. A responsible creator will remove as many unknowns as possible in advance, and will get the project as close to the finish line as possible without the money/audience. A savvy consumer will look for projects that have seen due diligence.

Creator Best Practice: Turn to Kickstarter when everything is as far along and thoroughly planned as possible (given your project and personal situation). Ideally, people backing your project is the final switch needed to launch production and wrap the project up.

Now, “given your project and personal situation” is pretty vague, and necessarily so. There’s been a number of high-cost video game projects that’ve funded via Kickstarter recently. The folks behind those projects often need the development process to be paying their bills, otherwise they can’t invest the required (full-time) hours. Further, the development process for such a project needs to take budget into account. More money equals more game. But most projects aren’t video games, and most projects aren’t full-time job-producers.

If I had one self-criticism, reflecting on my very recent Monsterhearts campaign… wait, scratch that. My one self-criticism would be in deciding to make fifteen original zines as perks. What was I thinking? My second self-criticism, however, was that I could have delayed the IndieGoGo launch by a full month, and I should have. I launched when the game was in the editor’s hands, and while printing decisions were still being made. I could have waited until those were both completed, but I got giddy and eager. The downside is small, but real: the people who contributed to the campaign have to wait longer for their product than is absolutely necessary. That’s kind of a bummer.


How much success should I anticipate?

Hilarious as it sounds, many people get swamped by the success of their Kickstarter. It raises way more money than they anticipated. Which in turn means a combination of: they need to produce way more stuff; they need to store way more stuff; they need to do way more work; they need to provide way more perks than expected.

Here’s a good rule: take your target goal. Multiply it by 10. Can you handle that much success? If not, re-examine your capacity to take on this Kickstarter project.

Take your expectations about how much you’ll raise (often a figure much higher than the target goal). Multiply that number by 10. Can you still handle the success?

Creator Best Practice: Prepare for a wide spectrum of what success might look like. Make sure you can finish your project if you hit your target goal on the nose, or if you beat your target goal by a factor of 10.


Where is the proof?

Creator Best Practice: Demonstrate a track record of success that proves your competency. Substantiate your promises in advance by proving that you know how to do the things people are paying you to do. If this is new terrain for you, own that fact and still demonstrate your most relevant accomplishments.

Consumer Best Practice: Only give money to creators who can demonstrate their competency and past accomplishments. Discern how much of there project is new terrain for them, and be willing to accept the risk that comes with a project.


What should I avoid doing with Kickstarter?

If you’ve got an idea percolating in your head, and you want to generate some enthusiasm for it, you should not use Kickstarter to accomplish that. It is a recipe for generating unfulfilled promises and bad blood.

If you need money for the first stage of a project, and will then need to figure out how to raise additional money in the future, you should tread cautiously. If you sell people on the idea of the final stage, and then you solicit their money in order to fund only the first stage, some people are going to feel like you are being fraudulent. At the very least, you’re taking a risk with other people’s money and that’s irresponsible.

Creator Best Practice: If you’re going to kickstart “stage one,” then your marketing + perks + goals should all be specific and limited to stage one. Treat whatever you are funding as a stand-alone project, because it might be.


In Summary

Creators, do everything you can to plan thoroughly, set achievable goals, and manage expectations.

Consumers, do everything you can to make informed decisions and make sure you’re giving your money to diligent and attentive creators.

Communication and transparency are the most important tools you have in navigating the world of crowd-funding.