A little over a year ago I successfully funded a new publishing platform called Ghost on Kickstarter. If you're interested in the back-story, I've covered that in a 5-part series which starts here. This is the story of my experience running a crowdfunding campaign. The good, the bad, and the sleepless.

Ghost Kickstarter Campaign Page

Ghost started out with a goal of $30,000 (equivalent). By day 2 of funding it had raised $100,000 - and at the end of its 29 day campaign it finished up at just over a $300,000 total from 5,236 individuals.

It was an incredible experience in many ways. It was also very, very intense. So, for the next few weeks - I’m going to share a series of posts with you on what I learned before, during, and after the campaign. What I’d do differently, and what I’d do the same if I had to start all over again.

So you want to do a Kickstarter

Many people look at successful Kickstarter campaigns as a sort of fairy tale lottery where any dream can come true. With seemingly minimal effort, a short video is all it takes to get people from all over the world to throw their wallets at you in fervour. It's pretty common to look at a Kickstarter project and think - "What the hell? I could easily have come up with that..." - which usually leads to the subsequent thought - "What could I come up with that'd work on Kickstarter so I can quit my job and do that instead?"

So let's say the most important thing first. The thing that doesn't get said enough, because I still get multiple emails every week asking me what "the secret to Kickstarter" is.

This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If you are looking for an easy way to make a lot of money: don't get into crowdfunding. You will spend time, you will spend energy, and you will get nothing in return. There is no "secret" to achieving a lot of funding, there is only hard work. That thing everybody would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

Before Ghost went on Kickstarter, I did roughly 6 months of research on other crowdfunding projects. A few things came up over and over again - but the most significant of them was this:

Most funded projects on Kickstarter

Of the projects which reached a seriously high funding goal (let's define that, for the sake of argument, as $250,000+) the overwhelming majority were created by people who hadn't just been working on this project for a long time, but they'd been working in the industry in question for years. When a projects exceeds $500,000 (eg. Ouya, Pebble, App.Net) it is usually set up by an existing, functioning, profitable company with a team who have already been working together for years.

Let me say that again: Of the projects which achieved significant levels of funding - the overwhelming majority are not created by someone who just had a cool idea and made a video about it.

Kickstarter makes it look like your average Joe just came up with something novel - and the joy of crowdfunding fulfilled his dreams. That's rarely the case. If you want to start a big campaign, you're probably going to need:

  • At least 2 years working experience in exactly the field your project is proposing to compete in.
  • At least 5 years experience in the wider industry which your project is a part of.
  • A large, existing network (at least 100 people) of respected peers within your industry. Authors, speakers and business owners.

Why are these things so important? Because your idea - by itself - is not the next big thing. I don't usually do stuff like this, because it's such a massive cliché - but here's probably the only Steve Jobs quote you'll ever see me share:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

Any business or crowdfunding campaign is like Mount Everest. Your idea is simply the pair of shoes you’ve put on to attempt to climb it.

It's a long journey, and you're going to need every bit of experience and effort you have to reach the summit.

Now start walking.

What works on Kickstarter

The thing that consistently works on Kickstarter is the magic of that process. The subtle details that are learned over time. The things you don't think of or notice or see unless you've been there and done it. The things which look so incredibly simple, and yet have a long and sordid history of failed iterations which came before them.

Kickstarter website screenshot

The good thing is that with each passing day it becomes simpler to figure out exactly what things do work well on Kickstarter. Every day there are more crowdfunding projects out there succeeding, giving you reference material to work from. Every day more consumers discover sites like Kickstarter and learn what crowdfunding is, giving you a larger target audience.

Here are the most important things I picked up from dissecting as many of the most successful Kickstarter projects as I could - before even sitting down and getting started on my own campaign.

The Tone

Every crowdfunding campaign has a tone. It has a sentiment which is instilled by the project creator, either consciously or subconsciously. The tone answers the question: Why should this project exist? The answer to this question, in my opinion, has the single largest intangible impact on a crowdfunding campaign. You cannot put your finger on exactly what defines it, but everyone knows when it's there.

Is this a single mother who has created a life-saving medical device? Is this a struggling artist with a heart of gold? Is this a product which has the potential to do genuine good? Is this an expression of principle which is worth fighting for? Or is this a creepy hipster with dollar signs glistening brightly behind his pupils?

On Kickstarter you don't just have to prove that you have a viable idea. You have to prove your motivation for the idea. And it had better be genuine, because the only thing that will hurt you more than no motivation, is false motivation. Crowdfunding is (largely) about doing social good, and people will pick up on how much (or little) your project fits within that mantra.

Ouya founder photo

If you look at the most successful projects, you will see hints at this consistently:

"There is a need for an open games console ... you are the signal to the world that this is wanted." - Ouya, raised $8,596,475

"I want everyone to hear music that way ... everyone who real loves music ... that's what we're here to do" - Pono, raised $6,225,354

"Join the revolution, make a pledge, and help us change gaming forever." - Oculus Rift, raised $2,437,429

Why is your project important? What lasting impact is it going to have on the world? What are its social, political or enviornmental implications?

"We're not just making this to sell it - we're making it because it needs to exist. Ghost is about the future of the feedom of speech, and it needs your voice."

The Goal

One of the most common questions when creating a new crowdfunding campaign is "what funding goal should I set?" - and for some projects this is easier to answer than others.

For projects which have some form of physical manufacturing, there's usually a base cost involved which can be calculated relatively easily. The goal is generally based on manufacturing cost according to an initial minimum order.

For events or software projects, it's less tangible. A large proportion of what the money is going towards is human time, which is more difficult to quantify exactly - because it's hard to place your finger on need vs want. So how do you do it? Set the goal too low and people might stop pledging after you hit it. Too high and you might not reach the goal and end up going home with nothing.

There's no right answer. Every project and every situation is different. I spent a long time thinking about this and concluded that the most sane way to calculate it would be to set the goal at the bare minimum required to make a viable version of what was laid out in the video. Anything above and beyond that would be used to improve on that.

In practice, if you have a good campaign and good rewards - the goal itself matters relatively little.

A small proportion of people will back you purely out of the goodness of their hearts to help you reach a target - but far more will get involved because they want to have the thing you're making. If you can achieve demand for what you're creating, then the goal line becomes arbitrary.

The Video

Arguably the single most important part of your entire campaign. This is the thing that will have the biggest impact on people's decision to back or not back. No matter how great your idea or product is, the video answers the question "Do I trust this person/team to deliver on what they're talking about?" - You can't fake that. And you can't buy it.

Kickstarter video play stats

The most consistent thing that I noticed in my research was that the biggest projects had videos which were about 3 minutes long.

That's hard.

It's hard to squeeze the last X months (or years) of your life into just 3 short minutes. It's impossible to cover every single little detail in that timeframe, so here's the most important piece of advice I can give you: Do not try to cover every single little detail in that timeframe. It's crazy how many people can't get past this.

The job of your video is to tell a convincing, succinct story:

  • What is it?
  • Why should it exist?
  • Who are you, and why should anyone listen to you anyway?
  • What does it actually do? (The short version)
  • How are you proposing to make this happen?
  • What do you need?

Say what your thing is in the first 25 seconds of the video. Once you think you're done with the whole thing, cut another 20% off to make it shorter. You will make the first version too long and too boring. Work on it and polish it over and over again. A little extra work here can make or break your entire campaign.

One of the best videos I’ve ever seen for a campaign was for the Minaal Backpack. They didn’t say what the product was in the first 25 seconds, but other than that - it’s such a great balance of information, humour, and impassioned sales pitch.

The Description

Often neglected and often abused, the project description holds so much opportunity. If you think of your video as the advertising spot, the intro, the taster, the blockbuster trailer for your Hollywood movie - your project description is the book which the movie should be based on.

Don't just write the same thing that you already said in the video. Expand, go into depth, write about all those details that I told you to cut out of the video to stop it from getting boring.

Treat your project description like a long-form blog post. Make it interesting. Make headings which clearly divide it up into sections. Use images, but not too many images. For the love of god don't fill your entire project description with a picture of every different possible reward combination.

Your project description, in many ways, is what will dictate how much your project gets shared. The people who want more information, the people who are passionate, your most loyal fans - they will read every single word of the project description. If it impresses them then they'll probably share it on their social networks. If it doesn’t, they won't.

Your project description is where you have a chance to convince skeptical people with influence that your shit is worth talking about.

Putting it Together

Something which often gets overlooked about a Kickstarter campaign is just how long it takes to put together.Creating the Ghost campaign on the Kickstarter website took a full 6 weeks of work before the campaign was finally launched.

Kickstarter's create a new project page

Kickstarter gives you the facility to publish a draft version of your project and send it to friends with a private link for feedback. Something which it's a good idea to make very heavy use of.

Ghost's project page was created, revised, changed, updated and tweaked continuously until all the pieces of the puzzle came together to form a coherent message.

Coming up Next

This post covered the basics, the background, and the general structure of a Kickstarter project. These are the foundations of everything else. In the next part of the series, I'll go into:

  • How to structure your backer rewards for maximum pay off
  • Kickstarter backer demographics and how to appeal to them
  • Getting people to pledge at the $10,000 level
  • Timing your campaign launch and close for maximum impact
  • Precisely how many cans of Red Bull are needed to maintain sanity levels prior to launch

In the mean time, here's a list of some of the most helpful case studies I read while putting together the Ghost Kickstarter campaign: