How to Crowdfund Your Dream: Checking In on the WWW Kickstarter Fund

12/7/12Follow @wroush

Back on Nov. 9, I published a list of 10 Kickstarter projects every geek should support, and put my money where my mouth was by creating the World Wide Wade Kickstarter Fund. I pledged $10 to each project on the list (eventually there were 13 in all), and promised that I’d return in a few weeks to let you know how my bets turned out.

Well, it’s time for the reckoning—and for some speculation about why each project succeeded or failed. I argued in my November piece that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have helped to bring about a new golden age for creators and entrepreneurs; they give creators a way to connect with passionate supporters and raise needed resources without having to sell their souls (and a stake in their companies) to investors.

But it’s a big mistake to see crowdfunding as some kind of panacea. In fact, managing a successful Kickstarter campaign can be just as tricky and challenging as bringing a new gadget or film or book into the world—and some of the failed teams that I backed clearly never mastered the art. To find out what works, I talked with some of the people behind the successful projects in my little portfolio, and I have a bunch of interesting insights to share below.

But first, the bottom line. I pledged $130 for 13 projects altogether. Four of them were successfully funded, costing me $40 so far. Another four failed to meet their fundraising goals, meaning they won’t collect any of the pledged money. (On Kickstarter, unlike Indiegogo and some other crowdfunding sites, it’s all or nothing.) Five more projects haven’t reached their deadlines yet. Three of those have already surpassed their goals and are guaranteed to get their money. For the last two, things are looking dicey.

So my overall hit rate is at least 54 percent—before December is out, a minimum of seven of the 13 projects will have achieved their goals. That’s not too bad. It’s actually higher than the average success rate on Kickstarter, which is 44 percent, according to the company. For a detailed rundown on how each of the 13 projects in my fund has fared, keep reading.

Do successful Kickstarter campaigns share some common traits? You bet they do. I don’t have space here for a systematic list, but here are some thoughts based on my observations, and on conversations with a few of the creators I backed.

The Product

To succeed on Kickstarter, an idea must be either so useful or so delightful that backers feel compelled to help bring it into the world. I’m not surprised that Sparse Bicycle Lights got funded, for example; every urban biker needs lights, and Colin Owen’s design is both theft-proof (useful!) and incredibly cool-looking (delightful!). At the same time, though, a lot of totally non-utilitarian stuff gets funded on Kickstarter. A case in point: Amazing Capes, a company that’s raising money to make reversible silk capes that “release your inner superhero.”

Victor Saad, the instigator of The Leapyear Project, raised more than $31,000 on Kickstarter to publish a book of stories about people who “take risk to create change.” He says it’s crucial to use your Kickstarter page to sell backers on the importance of the product. “After my first drafts of the video and copy, several friends said they were confused,” Saad told me via e-mail. “They liked the content, but they didn’t know why the book was important. I went back to the drawing board and added a few new clips and a list of reasons why the book NEEDS to exist.”

The Message

It almost goes without saying that a great video is the centerpiece of a winning Kickstarter campaign. Saad says people like it when the video tells the behind-the-scenes story of the project—”the journey of how you came to your idea.” For that purpose, it’s crucial to start documenting and storing as much photography and video as you can, well before your launch your fundraising campaign. “You’ll be surprised by what you use,” he says. “I know I was.”

It’s also important to stay in touch with your community as a campaign progresses. The simplest, easiest way to do this is by posting periodic updates on your Kickstarter page. Looking back at the projects in my portfolio, the pattern is clear: The teams that posted regular updates went on to meet their fundraising goals, while those that stayed radio silent didn’t.

The other way to generate buzz is to reach out to the press. The bad news here is that it’s very hard to get the attention of the media. (As I can attest, being on the receiving end of scores of pitches every day.) But if you can come up with an exclusive pitch tailored to a specific publication, it will raise your chances. “For many news outlets it needs to be clear that you’ll get funded before you become news, but then once you’ve been news for other outlets you become less desirable,” says Sparse’s Owen. “So you need to vary your message or give additional, exclusive content. A bunch of press found us. Kickstarter has been a really nice way to become buddies with them.”

Maintaining the Buzz

It’s really helpful to build a team of friends to keep the buzz going around your campaign. “I did this with friends in a few different cities and reached out three times during the 5-week campaign (once beforehand, once in the middle, and once towards the end),” Saad recounts. “They were a refreshing boost, every time. Nothing adds more momentum than seeing OTHER people talk about your idea.”

But don’t overdo it with the updates, e-mails, and blog posts. If you go too wild, people will smell your panic, and get tired of hearing your pleas. “This may be the most important lesson of [my] entire campaign,” Saad told me. “I tried to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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