My Kickstarter Experience: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

It’s four days before the deadline for my Kickstarter project reaches its end. I’m only about a third of the way to my $9000 goal – a seemingly impossible feat.

A few hours later the goal is reached! So sudden? Anti-climactic? I know.

Now I wish I could say I received a miracle flood of donations in the 11th hour, or a mysterious backer stumbled on the project and became very interested. But no, it came from a phone call I made asking for an emergency bailout.

A few days later I wrote a check repaying this money. This is my Kickstarter experience.

So this post is not going to be pretty and inspirational, like Miao Wang raising $10,000 to go to SXSW (half of which came from one donor), or Driven raising $25,000, $12,000 of which they raised in the last four days.

Instead it might be a hard hitting dose of reality, but I think it’ll balance out the more popular success stories that you read that actually make you think this stuff is easy. And at the end are some things I learned that you can take away and learn from.

(Some backstory: I made a Kickstarter project to fund my feature documentary Bots High, which follows high school robotics teams built combat robots)

The Good

Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m still a huge fan of Kickstarter. I think the main thing to takeaway is it’s a tool, not a magical source of funding.

The best thing about having the project is it gave me a hard deadline, and forced me to do stuff I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

So I created the project. Within an hour I got a $25 pledge from a stranger. Yay, hopeful start! I posted the link on all my social networks, and got a good response, mostly from people invovled in the documentary and friends. But then it stalled.

I’m at about $600 and suddenly $9000 seems like a ridiculous ammount. So I started doing what I had been meaning to do – I emailed blogs. Tons of them.

I emailed anything to do with robots, science, technology, teaching. I created a press area on the site so they could grab photos, videos, and logos easily. I got a good response.

A few popular robotics sites wrote about the film, and RSS subscribers went from a handful to a couple hundred. So awareness of the film definitely went way up. Plus I created connections with blogs (and kept a spreadsheet of everyone I contacted, over 100 different sites), which will definitely come in handy once the film is done.

The Bad

Despite the good writeups on various sites, and increased traffic and subscribers, none of that really converted into donations.

Funding was still stalled around $600. I’ve read studies that people are more likely to give if the funding goal is closer to being reached, rather than really low. So I put in $1500 to bring the level to over $2000. Not exactly close to the goal, but at least it was something in the four digits. ((The study is down on page four of the article. Here’s the quote, “To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised.”))

My marketing campaign continued, and I feel like the awareness was great. I emailed all my mailing lists. A few weeks before the deadline I was the Kickstarter Project of the Day. The project was written about in the Miami New Times Blog (mainly because I was using Kickstarter).

So while awareness was great, that still didn’t convert into donations.

But you know what did work? Credible referrals. A super nice and famous robot builder that I met when he came to Miami wrote about my project on a robot forum. I got a few good donations from that, just because his opinion had a lot of weight and he liked the project.

The Ugly

You already know where this is going. It was a few days before the deadline and aside from a miracle I didn’t see anyway that I was going to reach the goal. I didn’t want to lose all the pledges I already had. Plus I couldn’t have an email going out to everyone saying the project wasn’t successful. I always said from the start that success or not, this is happening, it just depends how much hair I’m going to pull out and stress over.

So I called a relative and got bailed out. Not pretty. Not glorious. Not the ending I was hoping for (I could have used that money, especially now that I got rejected from the Tribeca Gucci Grant).

Epilogue

I learned a lot from this experience, and I think I know where I went wrong and what I can do better in the future (and what you can learn from my experience).

Larger Established Fan Base: Sure, I have a few hundred Fans on Facebook and picked up more fans while marketing the project, but this is my first film and I don’t have anywhere near Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans. It’s also harder to build a fan base and raise money in the early stages of a project, before you have something to show and spread. That’s why there’s so many finishing grants – they want to put their money on something that has a high chance of seeing completion.

People like a sure thing (preferably a completed thing): So I just touched on this, but it’s a tougher sell for a film in pre-pro or production. A lot of this stems from my short doc/experiment You 2.0. I had been pre-selling DVDs for a few months for $9.99. Got a few buys – I think 30 or so. Then when the DVD was actually done and I raised the price to $14.99, I got tons of orders. People weren’t willing to gamble on a pre-sale. They were fine paying more for a sure thing. So if you’re trying to raise funds while you’re in development or production, you just have to work that much harder to sell it to donors. ((Case in point: Beijing Taxi didn’t get its flood of donations until after their second email blast, which announced it was premiering at SXSW))

Be a Hustler or Find Someone Who Is: So by my standards, I hustled more than I ever have before. But that clearly wasn’t enough, and I should have found someone who is a born hustler to get in touch with more blogs and groups to promote the film (Jon Reiss talks about this, though it relates more to booking films in theaters. Either way, if you’re not a hustler, find someone who is).

Get on a high profile blog: This is pretty elusive and I might as well have put “Create a Smash Hit Viral Video,” but it’s worth mentioning. If I were to have gotten Fluffy on fire or some other video on Boing Boing or Gizmodo, I would have been set.

Going back to You 2.0, I’m not actively promoting it and pay zero for advertising, yet I get a few sales a week. Most of that is coming from two Lifehacker write-ups – one of a video of a guy talking about his office, and the other about a program I had developed (and there’s also an article I wrote on another popular blog about creating that program solely to drum up traffic). That’s how powerful these big aggregating sites are.

Goal Amount: As far as the whole post on the True Cost of a Kickstarter Project, I still stand behind the issues brought up there. But I might add to throw in a dose of reality. I probably should have set the goal lower, maybe $5,000. After all, more can always be raised (Like Diaspora, which is nearly 1800% over their goal. Insanity! A NY Times article does help. And Signal vs. Noise has an interesting explanation as to why people are giving to them.)

—–

I hope you found this useful. On a positive note, that survey I did that graphed behavior patterns of Kickstarter backers was spot on – all the donations I got pretty much matched the graph.

I’m curious to hear other Kickstarter stories that might not have ended so well, as well as other tips or things learned from fundraising. Leave them in the comments!


21 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with Kickstarter. As a filmmaker interested in crowdfunding, it was good to read an actual experience and not just hype.

    “People like a sure thing (preferably a completed thing)” sums it up nicely, and it doesn’t matter if by people you mean an anonymous donor willing to give $5 or someone working to hustle your project or a grant-giving entity.

  2. Thanks David. Yeah, the sure thing – that’s why you see a lot of finishing grants or the last minute investor that pays for a film print for Cannes.

  3. I’ve been closely following Kickstarter. While I think it is the best of the crowdfunding sites because it is selective and promotes the projects it does select, I also think that the more this model becomes the norm, the harder it will be for most people to raise money for their projects. Not only will there be more competition for fans’ contributions, there is likely to be burnout if every band, every filmmaker, every painter, and so on is pitching for direct funding. It makes sense to turn to fans and potential fans for help, but I’m not sure at what point people may turn away because they get approached too often. I’m sure that’s something Kickstarter has given some thought to: How to grow, but not grow so big as to become overwhelming.

  4. Exactly, the bulk of the donations were from close friends and family – so down the line if I need more money it’ll be really hard to go to them again.

    I think if you can get a solid fan base of true fans that Kevin Kelly talks about, and maybe reach out every year or so for a new project or endeavor, that’s a sustainable way that actually improves with every project because ideally you’re getting more new fans along the way.

  5. Joey,

    Thank you for this great write-up.

    My team and I recently reached our Kickstarter goal for our film ‘Goodbye Promise.’ It certainly was not an easy task. I remember seeing your campaign quite a few times. I didn’t realize the backstory behind it.

    You are right on the money with all you are writing here. Believe you are in a much better position now than you were before you launched your campaign. Even if you had to bail out in the final days, there is no shame in that. You have created awareness towards your project, connected with your audience and you have expanded your contacts.

    I have written a full blog with my advice on Crowd-Funding. You can type in my name and ‘crowd-funding’ in Google and it will pop right up.

    I am wondering if you would grant me permission to repost this blog on my blog as a ‘Guest Blog?’ Or if you have any blogs in the future that you would like to pass onto my audience that would be welcomed.

    My best to you as you move forward.

    David Branin

  6. Joey,

    You’re awesome!!! Thank you so much for generously sharing your experience so clearly.

    I’ve been researching crowdfunding for my own feature film and you affirmed many of my findings: completion funding is more successful, most contributors are established fans (i.e., friends and family), and a heavy-weight backing your project is huge!

    Questions: do you have any thoughts on the types of perks that do well? And do you think there is any chance Amazon Payments as the only option on Kickstarter turns some people away?

    Thanks,
    Christopher J. Boghosian

  7. @ David – Thanks, I actually saw your post on No Film School and it looked really interesting. It’s in my Instapaper queue. And congrats on reaching your goal! I think another keyword there is ‘team.’

    Feel free to repost this, just link back here. Thanks! (btw, big fan of Film Courage)

    @ Christopher – Thanks, glad you found it useful! I think with the perks it’s best to mostly stick with what’s ‘standard,’ but make it unique. I think there’s become an expectation (at least for me) that $25 is DVD, $50 is shirt or poster, $100 all three. But you should think really hard if there’s something you can offer that’s unique to your project. A prop from the film that can be bought in bulk, unique (hand-made perhaps) memorabilia, etc.

    I don’t think Amazon Payments itself was a deterrent, but more online paying in general. When I sent emails to mailing lists I had a few people who wanted to just send in a check and I had to convince them that it was more helpful to the project to do it online because of the whole goal setup.

  8. Thanks, Joey. You’re the man!

  9. Excellent article – thanks for sharing your experience with everyone and writing it up in an engaging, entertaining way.

    So here’s the thing for me: I like robots, I have donated to a few Kickstarter projects. I didn’t know about your project – hence I couldn’t donate or help promote. I’m trying to think how you might have found me because I don’t hang out on robot forums :) I’ve just discovered you project through someone I follow on Twitter.

    At this stage, one thing I would find helpful is some kind of progress chart – where’s the project at? What are the milestones? How do I pre-order and when can I expect to get it?

    One other small point is, just because the Kickstarter phase is over, does that now mean that all subsequent donations get a thank you but no merch or DVD? And there’s a big leap from $100 to $1000 sponsorship. I wonder if you feel there’s any merit in continuing the differential pricing approach during production and post?

    Ok, final point… seems like this project is crying out to make an educator’s version available for $200 that can be used in the class room. You might have to create some additional materials but it could be worth it. It’s just a thought. I know that Tiffany Shlain has had success is area http://tiffanyshlain.com/tiffanyshlain/Tribe.html (nothing to do with robots though).

  10. Great write up and thanks for being honest – especially about calling in the cavalry. It’s helpful to get these types of stories that I think reflect the reality of so many kickstarter projects.
    My experience (“Wrestling for Jesus” with about 3 weeks left) is pretty similar. Mostly funded by friends, family and other filmmakers. One of the challenges as well is figuring out how to appropriately follow up with people. I’ve had people say they’ll support the project but you don’t want to be the annoying guy who keeps bringing it up, especially when you would prefer to keep a friendship going long past the project’s completion. I have noticed that I get significantly higher responses from the friends and family with e-mail communication as opposed to social media. This experience has taught me either how little this group uses social media OR more likely, how much noise there already is on Facebook etc so it is SO hard to have something that cuts through that and gets people to actually open their wallet.
    One question – how did you kick in the amount to get it up to 2K without breaking the rules? Did you have a friend do that?
    Again – thanks for the honesty.

  11. Really interesting article. I worked with the Kickstarter guys before their launch, so it is very interesting to see how it has evolved in the “real world.”

    I’m now working with another startup called Appbackr that is similar in concept, but geared toward iPhone and Android developers. So it is very valuable for me to hear your insight and get first-person experiences like this article…it helps shape our strategy for this new crowdfunding platform. Many thanks! Very helpful. Nathan

  12. It’s great to hear about your experience Joey! Couple 0f things – for folks interested in raising money online without the pledge/all-or-nothing approach, you can check out our personal fundraising site, GoFundMe.com… For guys like Nathan interested in developing their own crowdfunding service, you can have a look at our customizable crowdfunding platform at WhiteLabelCrowdfunding.com

    Please contact me with any questions!
    Thanks! -Brad

  13. Thanks for going to the trouble of sharing your experience, it certainly is useful to hear the whole truth!

    I would suggest that the next step is to keep communicating with the people who pledged, thus continuing the relationship, and you may find it easier to fund the next project as these people might be faster to both put in and recommend you on.

    Iron Sky is a good example of a project that has come out of the long term growth of a fan base – you’ve probably already heard of Star Wreck, which was made low/no budget with the help of 3000 fans crowdsourcing their efforts, went on to have over 8 million views – Iron Sky is the follow up film. Have written about it here if you’d like to read more http://yetanotherstrugglingwriter.blogspot.com/2010/06/iron-sky-crowdsourcing.html

  14. Thanks Christopher and Nathan!

    @ Robert – Thanks for your feedback, I like the progress chart idea. Transferring the Kickstarter reward levels to PayPal donations is something I’ve been meaning to do, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

    @ Nate – Thanks Nate. I used a different credit card on a different Amazon account.

    @ Brad – I actually stumbled on GoFundMe.com right after I finished the campaign, and really liked a flat $9 monthly fee vs 5%. Are you planning on adding reward levels in the future?

    @ Luci – Great article, thanks for the link. I actually haven’t heard of either but I definitely want to check them out. They also seem to be doing really cool stuff with transmedia, which is another area I’m really interested in.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone!

  15. Lady Millard Facebook “100 Real Friends Project ”

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ladymillard/lady-millard-facebook-100-real-friends-project
    How can you feel a deep connection to someone you’ve never met. I have friends all over the world that I have only met through facebook but have yet to meet in real life. I have shared very personal relationships with these people and somehow I have found a deep connection to them. They have become collectors, contributors and even family.

  16. Lady Millard Facebook “100 Real Friends Project ”

    How can you feel a deep connection to someone you’ve never met. I have friends all over the world that I have only met through facebook but have yet to meet in real life. I have shared very personal relationships with these people and somehow I have found a deep connection to them. They have become collectors, contributors and even family.

    http://kck.st/qdQZ9n

  17. Wow, thank you so much. This has REALLY helped me greatly. All of the comments were really great as well. I am not a filmmaker, but a designer and after ten years building my business without borrowing, totally grassroots, I was finally contacted by a wonderful fashion publicist that I’ve been in communication with. All I need to do is raise the retainer and get additional funds to finish my new collections. I was considering kickstarter and some traditional fundraising ideas. I really wanted to hear a true experience, not the fluff you see on every websites that gives the appearance that they can make it all better. Not only that, but my designs are handmade made and when I started organized how I wanted to do the rewards, I began to realize that I am going to have to market this and make some of these items, although I’ve created T-shirts, tote bags, and other marketing items I don’t have to make. At the end of the day I could see that at least 40% of the total amount I wanted to raise would have to go back into the rewards, ordering the T-shirts and making dresses and putting all of this together myself. Because honestly, I have yet to find someone who has my work ethic, so it has been very difficult for me to find an intern that will stick around. I’ve been through a few. Any thoughts on this??

  18. Thank you for the informative article. I currently have a project on Kickstarter and I am experiencing the same issues. But yes this hard deadline has taught me a lot about marketing and PR. Please take a look at my link below on Kickstarter right now. This is a documentary about repairing the family in the US and it is a great film to donate to.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/131111839/on-my-own

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