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 space out my updates, e-mails, Facebook posts, tweets, etc….There were days that I was really nervous, but I knew I couldn’t force it. I’ve seen a lot of people go way too crazy with their Kickstarter push. Nothing can burn online bridges faster.”

Ultimately, if your project is worthy, you’ll get quite a bit of traffic directly from Kickstarter, which does a good job of showcasing promising projects on its Discover pages. “I’m impressed how much traffic comes from Kickstarter itself,” says Owen. “Our product is pretty niche—you have to be on Kickstarter, a biker, an urban biker, an urban biker who understands difficulties of riding in the city, and an urban biker willing to take apart part of your bike to install this thing. I’m impressed that Kickstarter was able to find anyone at all.”

Setting the Right Fundraising Goal

Everyone knows the old edict “Underpromise and overdeliver.” On Kickstarter, I think the byword should usually be “Under-ask and over-raise.” In general, the projects in my fund that achieved and surpassed their goals were the ones asking for the least money. Menswear startup Pistol Lake, for instance, asked for $5,000 and has racked up more than $45,000 in pledges so far.

But this can be a tricky business. You don’t want to lower your goals so far that you wind up with too little money to deliver on your promises. “Often, the folks who create Kickstarter campaigns (especially in Technology and Product Development) don’t understand how much it costs and how long it takes to mass-manufacture a product,” says Zach Supalla, the creator of the Spark Wi-Fi-enabled light socket. “And that’s why you see so many products delivering late or not at all. In my perspective, the absolute worst place to be is one where you took money from your backers and then realized that you don’t have enough to actually deliver on your promise.”

Supalla says Spark set an ambitious fundraising goal on Kickstarter—$250,000—because that’s how much much money the company really needs to finish the product by its self-imposed deadline of July 2013. He says he might have calculated differently if he’d known that Kickstarter was about to change its rules to prohibit teams from giving away multiple units of a product as a reward. “If we could sell 2-packs, 3-packs, 4-packs, etc. we would have already hit our goal,” Supalla says. Still, he says, “I’d rather miss the goal than set a lower goal and not be able to deliver the product.”

And even if the campaign doesn’t ultimately succeed, Supalla says, “the visibility and publicity we got with the campaign has opened a lot of doors, and we hope we’ll still be able to deliver the product by financing it through other means. And the fact that 1,400 people lined up and put their credit cards down for our product even though it wouldn’t be delivered for 8 months is exactly the sort of traction that investors want to see, regardless of the outcome of the campaign.”

Now for a formal tally of the 13 projects in the World Wide Wade Kickstarter Fund, with details on where each one stands.


Bright Ideas Kickstarter Project

Bright Ideas: A Crowdfunding Almanac

Project Deadline: Nov. 23

Goal: $25,000

Status: UNSUCCESSFUL ($14,970 pledged)

Bright Ideas is a project to compile a book highlighting successful Kickstarter projects. Ironically, it didn’t generate quite enough interest within the Kickstarter community to meet its fundraising goal. But the project’s creators say they won’t be deterred. “You will be seeing Bright Ideas coming back in the near future,” they promised in a final note to supporters. “Next time we will be more specific on the contents of the book and more intentional on marketing. Along with the interviews we have already compiled we will be acquiring more, making sure that there is something for everyone.”


The Leapyear Project Book on Kickstarter

The Leapyear Project Book

Project Deadline: Nov. 29

Goal: $29,200

Status: FUNDED ($31,049 collected)

This book is essentially about creative ways to invent, or reinvent, your career. Project creator Victor Saad plans to chronicle the year he spent doing month-long internships at 12 different organizations. When the project hit its fundraising goal last week, Saad posted an update for supporters saying that his mom “was so ecstatic to hear the news that she invited all of you to dinner at our home in Missouri.”


The Looking Planet project on Kickstarter

The Looking Planet—An Animated Short Film

Project Deadline: Nov. 13

Goal: $18,000

Status: UNSUCCESSFUL ($8,417 pledged)

This delightful computer-generated short is about a planet-building alien. The campaign failed to reach its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, but creator Eric Law Anderson says that won’t mean the end of the project. “I am pretty determined to finish the film any way I can,” he says in an update to backers. “I’m not giving up. Not a jot.” For one thing, he’s accepting donations directly through PayPal.


Mothership Hackermoms on Kickstarter

Mothership HackerMoms

Project Deadline: Nov. 18

Goal: $10,000

Status: FUNDED ($12,564 collected)

MotherShip HackerMoms is a hackerspace for moms in Berkeley, CA. Its marketing director, Karen Agresti, calls it “a haven for women to prosper as artists, makers, hackers, inventors, entrepreneurs and mothers too.” It used its successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for equipment and classes.

Romo Smartphone Robot on Kickstarter

Romo—The Smartphone Robot for Everyone

Project Deadline: Nov. 15

Goal: $100,000

Status: FUNDED ($170,034 collected)

This is a project to build a roaming base that turns an iPhone into a mini telepresence robot. It blew way past its funding goal. The project had a built-in fan base thanks to a successful $115,000 project in 2011 to build the first version of the device. But my guess is that the project’s frequent and enthusiastic posts to supporters also helped.


Sparse Bicycle Lights on Kickstarter

Sparse Bicycle Lights

Project Deadline: December 8

Goal: $45,000

Status: IN PROGRESS, GOAL EXCEEDED ($58,814 pledged as of Dec. 6)

Anybody who bikes in San Francisco knows that everything not securely bolted to their bike will get stolen sooner or later. The ingenious idea behind these LED bike lights is that they fit around the stem of your bike seat and handlebars, so a potential thief would have to take your bike apart to get at them. The project is part of a larger effort by San Francisco-based designer and engineer Colin Owen to rethink bike design to encourage more bike commuting. The project has already passed its fundraising goal, but there’s still time to contribute if you want to help Sparse hit a strong finish.


Square Frame project on Kickstarter

Square Frame

Project Deadline: Nov. 15

Goal: $5,000

Status: UNSUCCESSFUL ($1,242 pledged)

The creators of this campaign hoped to raise money to market an aluminum photo frame optimized for displaying pictures from Instagram. I thought it was a cool idea, but it was hard to tell whether the team’s heart was really in it, since they never posted any project updates.


Sunseeker Duo project on Kickstarter

Sunseeker Duo

Project Deadline: Nov. 11

Goal: $70,000

Status: UNSUCCESSFUL ($25,927 pledged)

Pilot Eric Raymond of Ramona, CA, raised less than half of the sum he’d hoped to collect from Kickstarter to finish the electronic systems in this two-seater, solar-powered plane. To meet his goal, I think Raymond would have needed to spell out the societal benefit of the project more clearly. I backed it because I think solar flight is cool, but I can see how the project might have come off as one dude’s project to finish his weekend-hobby plane. Raymond posted no status updates and the project attracted zero comments, so community involvement was definitely a missing element.


The Vela Music Project on Kickstarter

The Vela Music Project

Project Deadline: Dec. 26

Goal: $50,000

Status: IN PROGRESS ($2,522 pledged as of Dec. 6)

The Vela iOS app, which is already available in the iTunes App store, lets you select songs on Rhapsody, Spotify, or Rdio verbally the same way you can ask Siri to play songs from your iTunes playlists. It’s the creation of Air Force veteran Justin Mason, who says he’ll use the money to build an Android version as well as an improved iOS version. The campaign hasn’t picked up much momentum yet.


Who Killed (or Saved) The Music Industry? on Kickstarter

Who Killed (Or Saved!) the Music Industry?

Project Deadline: Nov. 14

Goal: $30,000

Status: FUNDED ($33,381 collected)

Rock musicians Ryan Phillips and Adam Russell turned to Kickstarter for help raising the money they need to finish their documentary about the recent history of the music business. The campaign succeeded, largely on the strength of the video Phillips and Russell posted on Kickstarter, and the duo estimate that they’ll finish the film by July 2013.


Pistol Lake Men's Shirts on Kickstarter

Pistol Lake—Perfect Men’s Shirts at Perfect Prices (formerly From Holden)

Project Deadline: Dec. 8

Goal: $5,000

Status: IN PROGRESS, GOAL EXCEEDED ($45,882 pledged as of Dec. 6)

Pistol Lake plans to open an online store selling tailored hoodies, polo shirts, T-shirts, and v-necks at reasonable prices. It’s the creation of William Sulinski, a former Boston-based entrepreneur who recently transplated himself to the Los Angeles area. The project ran into a speed bump when a trademark dispute forced Sulinski to change the company’s name, but that didn’t slow down fundraising on Kickstarter. The project has shot way past its original $5,000 goal. Apparently a lot of guys are interested in dressing better, without shelling out for Burberry or Ralph Lauren.


Spark Wi-Fi Lightbulb Controller on Kickstarter

Spark—Upgrade Your Lights with Wi-Fi and Apps

Project Deadline: Dec. 13

Goal: $250,000

Status: IN PROGRESS ($107,415 pledged as of Dec. 6)

This is an ambitious project to raise a quarter of a million dollars to commercialize a Wi-Fi-enabled light socket that lets you control your lights via the Internet. The possibilities are pretty fun: you can login to Spark’s website and take a turn controlling the Christmas lights on their house in Minnesota. But it’s looking like the creators are going to need a little holiday magic reach their goal by December 13.


1 Second Every Day App on Kickstarter1 Second Every Day App

Project Deadline: Dec. 27

Goal: $20,000

Status: IN PROGRESS, GOAL EXCEEDED ($31,010 pledged as of Dec. 6)

Like Victor Saad (see The Leapyear Project Book, above), Brooklyn-based Cesar Kuriyama decided to take a year off from his regular work to explore other interests. Also like Saad, Kuriyama decided to create a chronicle of that year. But he did it very differently: by recording 1 second of video every day and, eventually, stringing the clips together into a 6-minute video. Now he’s building an iOS app to let others do the same thing. The project hit its funding goal this week, and Kuriyama says he hopes to release the app before the year is out. An Android version is on the way too.

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

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