October 24, 2012

How to Kickstarter

Tips from Louisville entrepreneurs on becoming a crowdfunding success story

A handbag that charges your cell phone, a more masculine mayo called Mannaise, a pillow that you wear on your head during desk naps, a just-for-moms hackerspace: These are a small sampling of projects currently seeking backers on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Since being named one of Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2010,” the New York City-based company has helped more than 31,000 campaigns across the country raise $385 million. These numbers will likely spike on Halloween, when Kickstarter begins offering its services to artists and inventors in the United Kingdom.

Closer to home, more than 50 successful campaigns have taken place in Louisville since the site’s launch. CycLOUvia is a recent one, with 91 micro-investors raising enough cash to close Bardstown Road to vehicle traffic one Sunday afternoon this month. Another, “Pleased to Meet Me,” is a feature-length film from Louisville native Archie Borders. Based on a “This American Life” radio story, the film cleared $44,000 in donations with 171 people chipping in.

But not all Kickstarter projects end in a green light. For all those endeavors that have hit their goals, there are about 40,000 who haven’t. The company’s all-or-nothing policy means that none of the pledges made during failed campaigns are collected on. And for as heralded as Kickstarter has been, not all of its news has been good. Take, for instance, the growing cases of vaporware — that is, a successfully funded concept that never gets made and never officially cancels.

Currently, three well-publicized Kickstarters have raised seven-figures in donations and have yet to deliver on the products promised to their backers. One is the Pebble Smartwatch, which raised more than $10 million in May, but has since lost track of time. Kickstarter makes no guarantees on the promises of creators, but is currently implementing policies meant to prevent vaporware and the negative press it kicks up.

All that aside, Kickstarter has leveled the playing field, as well as made the game a bit more fun for upstarts. But this is indeed still business we’re talking about. To promote higher success rates, Kickstarter does reject weaker applicants and sometimes suggests fixes before accepting a project. So getting your ’zine published or animated-short budgeted may take more than just a couple of mouse clicks and a half-baked plan.

Four Louisville companies we spoke with confirmed as much. And with the crowdfunding waters about to become more congested with competition from overseas, these local businesses were kind enough to suggest some pointers for aspiring Kickstarters.

 

“People want to support people, not just products.” —Tyler Deeb, Pedale Designs

It sounds like a mathematical impossibility, but at the time of this writing, Tyler Deeb’s Kickstarter is 1,403 percent funded. With still a week before the campaign closes on Nov. 1, the 29-year-old graphic designer is playing with house money. Pre-orders for Pedale Designs’ original playing cards are already nearing 2,500. The cleanly decorated deck features an updated Arts and Crafts aesthetic, with crisp lines evocative of Charles Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.

From his Germantown studio in a one-time neighborhood bar, Deeb estimates he has spent at least 200 hours on the designs alone, pausing occasionally for the errant old-timer who has wandered in looking for a drink. Since completing the deck, Deeb says he has turned Kickstarter into a full time job.

The former gig-poster designer advises that when making a crowdfunding video, try to put as much of your personality into it as possible, which is almost as important as getting your idea across. Try to be the guy you want to have a beer with, he says. Asked if this is simply a type of salesmanship, Deeb suggests it’s more than that. Kickstarter is a place where the mystique between maker and buyer can be swept away.

“I respond back to emails in an hour or two,” Deeb says. “I’m eating it up, man. I love letting people know that I’m just a normal dude. There can be a disconnect between people who are creating stuff for us. A lot people want you to feel that, but I’m like, fuck that. I’m just one of you guys, and it’s not a shtick. I want to pull back the curtain.”

Giving accessibility to 2,500 backers can certainly leave one open to nitpicking, especially from collectors and “cardists,” who Deeb says can be very particular. They might ask “Why did you make the King of Diamonds the Suicide King?” or “Why is the deck all black?” Deeb has even caught guff from the magicians’ community for not making the card backs two-way, which he jokes was like getting a letter of complaint from Gob and the Magicians’ Alliance from “Arrested Development.”

But the designer has taken these queries in stride. In addition to fostering a strong online identity and personalized relationships with backers, Deeb also didn’t confine his campaign to just Kickstarter. Spreading the word via social media is good, but looking beyond those obvious plays is even better. It’s worth noting that one-third of the deck’s sales can be linked to a write-up on the men’s retail blog Uncrate.com.

“There’s so many ways that this can explode if it’s hit right,” Deeb says. “When you approach this, make sure to give credit to who you are, so people can know who they’re supporting. Be someone that they want to support, and offer a product they can get behind.”

 

“Don’t make it look like a charity or a handout. Let them get something for their investment.” —Scott Scarboro, Good Folk Fest

Scott Scarboro wasn’t sure he’d be able to revive it. The art and music festival he’d built while at the Mellwood Arts Center remained dormant for three years after steep budget cuts were implemented there. Throughout that time, Good Folk Fest continued to lack funds, a venue and, for all its steward knew, the public’s interest. But a piece in this magazine about a vegan food truck that used Kickstarter brought on an epiphany. Scarboro held onto this new crowdfunding idea, believing it could one day be an important piece in putting Good Folk back together again.

Some time later, during the gut-wrenching, closing days of Scarboro’s first Kickstarter campaign, 106 investors managed to give Good Folk the push it needed. This has led to the three-day music and arts festival finding a home at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. The one-time trolley barn is a perfect fit for the event, which blends old folk traditions with new ones.

Billed as “untamed, yet civilized,” Scarboro describes the collection of 80 artists and 24 musical acts this way: “It’s not just carved ducks, or whatever. It’s folk art, but with a tweak.”

Hints of that tweak can be gleaned from Scarboro’s interest in new art trends like yarn-bombing, a form of street art that covers public spaces in colorful wool, thereby blurring the lines between hand crafts, folk art and graffiti. To the curator, this is akin to hanging a quilt on the side of a barn and is representative of a more open interpretation of folk, one inclusive of urban, 21st century forms.

Asked about his Kickstarter experience, Scarboro agrees with many others, saying this can be a more liberating arrangement for makers of things who might otherwise rely on a bank loan, or a publisher, or a single patron to set a project afloat.

“You don’t have to change the color of the canvas to match the sofa,” Scarboro says. “You still have to sell it, but the funding you raise, it’s clear to your backer what you’re doing.”

He added that Kickstarter is also a great way to gauge interest, particularly for a project that has been collecting dust for so long.

“Once you open that door and get the ball rolling, it’s really frightening at first,” Scarboro says. “You can raise $200 in the first week, and then it just sits there. You wonder, how can I kick this back up without being a pest?”

The festival organizer — who is also a talented found-objects artist and maker of sound collages — gained encouragement when past fans of Good Folk began to pop up with donations, some of whom he’d not met before. Scarboro’s jitters were further assuaged by consulting friends who had used the site, as well as by heeding Kickstarter’s own advice — like finding someone else’s project to contribute to in order to get an idea of what works.

Scarboro was willing to take Kickstarter’s suggestions, in large part because the company does not collect its 5 percent fee unless a campaign pays out. (Amazon.com also skims 3-5 percent in payment processing fees off the top.) For this reason, Kickstarter wants you to succeed.

Good Folk Fest runs Nov. 2-4.

 

“I didn’t promise anything I couldn’t follow through on. I didn’t promise a one-year subscription. I promised the first issue, because I didn’t know what was going to happen after that.” —Maggie Huber, This Is Louisville

Like Scott Scarboro, Maggie Huber learned of Kickstarter when reading about Morels Vegan Food Truck. But her first true taste of crowdfunding occurred at Soup deVille, an analog group fundraiser sponsored by the Louisville Visual Arts Association.

Soup deVille entrants pay $10 for all the soup they can eat and, more importantly, the chance to pitch their projects. The best idea takes home the entire pot (of money, not soup), allowing the recipient to begin working on his or her concept.

Huber told the room about a photography magazine she’d been devising during slow periods as a freelancer at The Courier-Journal. This Is Louisville was to be a lush, black-and-white publication that documented all corners of the city.

In the end, Huber beat out a period music ensemble called Bourbon Baroque, some puppeteers, and 19 others to claim a $240 bankroll.

“One guy liked it so much, he chipped in an extra $20,” says Huber, accounting for the additional take.

Like a lot of other Kickstarters who rely on a wide variety of resources when planting the seeds for their business or project, Huber amassed more than 500 followers on social media sites before snapping her first image for This Is Louisville.

This attracted press from WFPL, Insider Louisville and others. Once a good buzz had been established, Huber used the Soup deVille money to compile a press kit to attract advertisers. And once ads were in place, Huber launched This Is Louisville’s Kickstarter page in order to secure the rest of the money she needed for the photography mag’s debut issue.

The magazine cleared its $3,500 hurdle with the help of 72 backers. According to Huber, one technique that helped ensure success was being honest about what the publication could offer in return for pledges.

“I tried not to make too many promises,” she says. “Even though you’re not confined by a boss, or whatever, you still have little, individual investors. Even if they just gave a dollar, they still want you to follow through on what they supported you on.”

For Huber and many others, it seems the financial contributions collected through crowdfunding are only a part of the value of the experience.

The word community comes up often when speaking to Kickstarters, and Huber is no different. Now 10 issues in, she continues to communicate with her backers, providing updates on the magazine.

“I want them to see that their $5 is still stretching out. But I also want to keep in touch with them, in case we need them again in the future.”

 

“I was pretty naïve going into this whole thing. I kind of made up a number, $12,000, and that sounded like a lot of money to me. I got a pretty hard slap of reality. It wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough.” —Stanley Chase III, Morels The Vegan Butcher

Vegans represent a narrow slice of the market, so it creates something of a moving target when you put an animal-free product on wheels. Sometimes the audience had trouble finding Stanley Chase III, owner of Morels Vegan Food Truck and something of a Kickstarter pioneer around here. Chase admits there was a lot he didn’t know before jumping into his campaign with both feet — namely, that there was a minor design flaw at the center of his business model.

Chase has since sold the truck and streamlined the scope of his operation. Speaking with him today, one gets the sense that the experience has added a sharpened business acumen to Morels’ already quality product and clever, colorful branding.

Looking back on the truck, Chase says, “That sucked. But now, every day, more and more, I see it turning into something.”

The company has been reborn as Morels the Vegan Butcher, selling wraps and vegan jerky at a number of outlets, including Heine Brothers Coffee. Seasonal wraps, like the Thanksgiving-themed Turkee Apple Lentil, are currently being offered. Morels’ faux jerky is a new, less perishable revelation that is allowing the company to expand its reach beyond Louisville. The product, which can become rather chummy with a cold beer, evolved from a happy accident. Forgotten soy curls that had sat in the oven too long were later passed around a bar that night. Many could not distinguish it from actual jerky.

Chase says Kickstarter lit a fire under him, pushing him into the game regardless of whether he was totally ready. This evokes something Tyler Deeb from Pedale Designs spoke of when discussing trying to see a campaign all the way through. What are things going to cost? Am I prepared if this explodes and customers start knocking down my doors? There’s a fairly common reaction that occurs when a Kickstarter reaches the financial goal. It goes something like, Shit! I actually have to do this now! People are waiting!

Dreams do come true, and almost always, there are consequences.

“Sometimes I just want to get on the page and thank everybody again,” Chase says when asked for lasting impressions of his campaign. “I have 220 pledgers that, cheesy as it sounds, changed the course of my life. I don’t know if those people ever think about that, or if they even know. I hope they know how grateful I am, because it is something I think about a lot.” 

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