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I Got Kickstarted, and Here’s What I Learned

SmartiPi, my Kickstarter product

SmartiPi, the Raspberry Pi B+ and camera case I Kickstarted last fall, began as a design exercise but once it became clear the concept had legs I looked at crowdfunding as a way to make it real.

I actually wasn’t thinking about making money. Crowdfunding was a way for people to vote on the product with their clicks and dollars.

Pre-Kickstarter, I would have had to post SmartiPi on a blog and hope for comments to help me gauge whether it would fly or flop. Funding would have come from friends and family and … that’s about it. On Kickstarter I validated the product and raised over $15,000, and it still isn’t over. Almost 10 months after beginning the prototyping phase on my Raspberry Pi case, I’m shipping product to backers.

Having done all the research and scaled the considerable learning curve, I wanted to compile what I found to be the most useful resources. I’ve also added my own advice and experiences so you can learn from my successes and mistakes. (The advice is divided into three sections: Before Your Campaign; During Your Campaign; and Success, Now What? or After Your Campaign.)

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Before Your Campaign

I researched other crowdfunding platforms, but for product design and especially for electronics/technology, there’s no close second to Kickstarter in terms of organic traffic. My Kickstarter was rather typical. While it didn’t go viral I did successfully raise an amount just over my funding goal. Most Kickstarter projects raise less than $10,000. Big projects such as the Pebble and Coolest Cooler are by far an anomaly. These projects often skew how people view Kickstarter. A vast majority of Kickstarter projects fulfill (usually late) and help small-time inventors raise funds for passion projects. Once I knew I was launching on Kickstarter, I also set up a separate SmartiPi website as a permanent home. Here are some more reasons for setting up your own site plus other suggestions for things to do and what I did before my campaign.

SmartiPi website

A screenshot of my SmartPi website.

1. Create a separate product site for pre-orders and a flexible post-campaign presence.

A product site acts as a landing page for your campaign once it’s over and allows more creativity and flexibility with content. You can link to this site anywhere in your campaign. Interested backers can go to it to learn more about the product and to pre-order after the Kickstarter campaign ends. The links between the two sites will help your product site’s SEO.
DO: After your Kickstarter campaign ends, you’re not allowed to edit the main page of your campaign, so plan on posting a link to your product site before that happens.
WHAT I DID: This strategy has lead to a great number of pre-orders from my own product landing page. I use Celery to capture them.

2. Make a credible video.

A recent Wharton school study found that all else being equal, a project without a video only has a fifteen percent chance of success, while a project with video has a thirty-seven percent chance of success. A video helps make the campaign a bit more personal. It’s a chance for you to show your face and connect with the community. You don’t have to spend a lot on the video. You could bring in pros, but good lighting and technique go a long way.
DO: Introduce yourself and explain why you’re launching your campaign and why your project deserves to be backed. Finally, clearly explain the product. Keep the video to about three minutes, if possible. Any longer and viewers tend to lose focus.
WHAT I DID: I made mine with my wife’s help. We started with a rough script and did about 20 to 25 takes — basically until she refused to do any more. (There might have been more takes if she wasn’t seven months pregnant.) I recorded the audio with an on-person mic and merged them together later. Otherwise it would’ve sounded like I was in a big, hollow room, which instantly reads as amateur.

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Shooting SmartPi using tips from Shopify’s tutorial.

3. Don’t underestimate the impact of good campaign visuals.

Kickstarter banned photorealistic renderings from campaigns after discovering a lot of backers were fooled by glossy, fancy images into assuming the product was farther along in the production process. New guidelines state a photo of a prototype must be part of the campaign. These days it’s easy to produce prototypes for any concept, no matter how complex the product. At Bresslergroup we have the capability of building prototypes with screens and working buttons and sounds that act and look like a finished product. Highly polished models, along with good quality photography, can really entice backers. Don’t skimp out on photography.
DO: What? You don’t have funds for photography? You don’t have to spend a fortune. Product photography is about technique, not the price of your camera. Shopify has a great tutorial on taking great shots on a budget. Take plenty of photos of prototypes in context and with users using it. Kickstarter allows uploading of animated GIFs that will continuously loop. A GIF is an effective way to show a specific feature in the product or a sequence of use.
WHAT I DID: I followed Shopify’s tutorial and enlisted my wife’s help. (It doesn’t hurt to marry someone supportive and multitalented.)

4. Budget for hidden costs.

Before starting my campaign I picked the brains of a couple of Kickstarter veterans. They all mentioned there would be hidden costs for which I didn’t budget. Some said to budget ten percent over my anticipated budget.
DO: First, budget the known costs into your campaign funding. Kickstarter takes five percent of funds raised and Amazon payments takes three to five percent. Project backers will immediately be charged for the amount they pledged and will anxiously be waiting for you to make good on your promise. You also need to think about the unanticipated costs that might creep up: manufacturing/tooling changes, compliance testing of parts, packaging supplies, services fees, and fluctuating shipping costs.
WHAT I DID: I did not budget tooling change costs into my budget and underestimated the price of working with China. Shipping samples of my product after the initial production run really added up and started eating away at the money I received from backers.

5. Budget for worst-case shipping scenarios.

Kickstarter is a global platform with backers from all over the world. By default, reward levels ship to any part of the world unless you specify otherwise. In my case more than half the market was outside the United States. International shipping is expensive.
DO: Budget for every backer having an international shipping address.
WHAT I DID: When you set up your reward levels you will have the option of adding extra for international shipping. In my case I included shipping to U.S. backers and added $4 for international shipping. When it came time to ship, I knew the weight of my padded mailer, screws, product, every label, packaging, EVERYTHING going into or onto the mailer. I knew that the weight of my rewards was at the top of the USPS shipping weight class and if I went into the next weight class, I would have to pay over two dollars more to ship each international reward. A few dollars doesn’t sound like a lot, but with 700 backers and a campaign goal of only $14,000, that two dollars could have really been a big hit to my shipping budget. To get my package under the four ounce USPS first class shipping tier, my wife and I actually took scissors to the shipping labels to cut them down to their minimum required area.

I must have weighed the thing a dozen times, going back and forth between the two post offices nearest my house. Each time, the scale said something different. (Hello, postal workers at 20th and Chestnut! Thanks for the memories.)

Kickstarter reward tiers

Reward tiers should be as simple and straightforward as a Denny’s menu.

6. Make the reward tiers clear and simple.

Great products are simple and easy to immediately understand, and your campaign rewards should be, too. If a potential backer has trouble deciphering between two reward tiers, then you have too many. Provide large, clear images with the reward name in the picture so backers can clearly see exactly what they will be getting (kind of like on a Denny’s menu). This is especially helpful for backers outside the United States.
DO: Offer a dollar or more reward section in which backers can pledge any amount they feel comfortable with. Some people will want to donate a few bucks just to help you out. This section is also where you can direct backers to create a custom order of multiple rewards. You will need to communicate directly with these backers to ensure you’re clear on what they want.
WHAT I DID: Because Kickstarter doesn’t have a simple way to offer multiples of rewards, I told backers to add up the rewards they wanted and just pledge it in the dollar section. This complicates the fulfillment process, but backers get what they want.

7. Plan ahead for a big launch.

Seventy-five percent of traffic to any Kickstarter campaign page comes from outside Kickstarter. The other twenty-five percent comes from Kickstarter users browsing the Kickstarter site. Simply put, you cannot just put together your campaign and launch and hope that people will stumble upon your page.
DO (weeks or months before launch day): Create lists of bloggers and influential social media accounts to contact the minute you launch your campaign.
DO (on launch day): Send a personal email introducing yourself and your campaign, and ask them to write a post about it or share it on social media. Write a few status updates suitable for Facebook and Twitter (i.e., under 140 characters) that they can easily copy and paste. Avoid overly stylized emails that look like spam. Keep the message short, direct, somewhat personal, and avoid attachments. Images and attachments are great ways to get your message caught in spam filters. Instead, provide links to your product landing page, the Kickstarter campaign page, and the product’s social media accounts. It is also a good idea to provide a link to a Dropbox-like account where they can download high quality images and logos for their blog post.
WHAT I DID: All of the above, plus I posted a link to my campaign page on relevant forums, groups, and online communities such as Reddit and Digg to drive more traffic. Users on these sites are often passionate, and passion drives shares.

8. Strategize for early pledges.

When potential backers see a campaign raising money early and rapidly, they are more inclined to jump in right away rather than waiting until the end or, even worse, forgetting. For most campaigns raising just twenty percent of their goal sets their chances of success at eighty percent — a great number! When backers see a campaign that is likely to succeed, they are more inclined to take the time to pledge. Early momentum also excites bloggers and press.
DO: Every campaign creator has family or friends who want to help out your cause by contributing larger lumps of money to the campaign. Identify them ahead of time and ask for their help with your strategy.
WHAT I DID: In my case, my mother and father generously gave a few hundred bucks. It really helped boost my campaign by helping me gain even more attention from backers.

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During Your Campaign

Remember that Kickstarter campaigns have ups and downs that are not entirely unpredictable. For example, near the end of a campaign most projects will start to see funding pick back up. Check out this graph that Kickstarter put together showing typical pledge distribution over time. A couple of forces are at work here: There’s the procrastinator, who is coming back to the campaign to pledge, and there’s the reminder email. Backers can click a button on the campaign page to receive an email 48 hours before the end of the campaign. You will definitely see a surge of backers after this email goes out. Here are some tips to make sure your ups outweigh your downs:

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Charting the ideal campaign length on Kickstarter.

1. Don’t campaign for too long.

Kickstarter advises limiting your campaign length to 30 days. This isn’t an arbitrary number. Kickstarter has a great graph on success rate vs. project length that clearly shows projects over thirty days are less successful. A few factors may contribute to that result. For one, sixty days is too long – it gives backers plenty of time to procrastinate and tell themselves they’ll get back to the campaign later. Some do, but many don’t. There may be certain circumstances in which you may need to have a longer campaign, but make sure you have good reason.
DO: Research past campaigns’ progress by using tools like Kicktraq which let you look at campaigns similar to yours and examine how quickly or slowly they’ve progressed toward their funding goal. Look at both failed and successful campaigns, and do a comparative analysis of their goals and funding lengths.
WHAT I DID: I researched a similar campaign on Kicktraq and compared it to my own. I saw they hit $15,000 in about forty days so I made my campaign forty days. I figured I would base the length on something rather than nothing.

2. Keep the momentum going.

After initial launch and excitement that may have come from blogs and social media, many campaigns experience a slowdown period. Here is a link to the phenomenon. It’s important for campaign creators to not panic and to have a game plan.
DO: Save a reward for release mid-campaign. This will allow you to create some excitement when you really need it. Use the new reward or come up with some other mid-campaign angle to attract more press and entice visitors to your site.
WHAT I DID: I created social media share buttons with custom share links to make it easier for people that landed on my campaign page to share it with Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Here is a simple tool that will allow you to create the social media links for your campaign. Just create the link and attach it to an image in your campaign .

3. Engage with backers throughout the campaign.

Backers will post comments and message you about reward levels and ask about product specifics. It is important for you to respond to each and every comment.
DO: Budget time to respond while the campaign is running. Post project updates in the campaign’s “Updates” section. Find a balance in the amount of postings. Too many updates will feel like spam and not enough will feel like the campaign is not getting your full attention. Suggested updates could include milestones or important issues. And just like the campaign itself, these updates will never be taken down after they are posted.
WHAT I DID: I posted updates when I hit significant milestones: when my project got staff-picked, when I hit the halfway mark, when I hit the seventy-five percent mark, when the campaign was featured on a significant blog, and when I was fully funded.

4. Make all edits to your campaign’s main page before it ends, or else….

Once the campaign is over, you won’t be able to edit the project page. And once you start a campaign, it will always be up on Kickstarter, so you want it to look good. (Failed campaigns are de-indexed from Google searches, but they’re still on the Kickstarter site.)
DO: Make your final edits to the main page before your campaign winds down and the page locks. You can post updates after the campaign’s finished, but these will show in the update section — not on your main page. And for a small campaign that doesn’t go viral, that’s a big deal.
WHAT I DID: This is one of those things no one really tells you, but it’s critical. With a minute left in my campaign I put up a link on the campaign’s main page to my separate product site, and sure enough Kickstarter froze the page soon after. It was one of the most important things I did on the campaign page. It will just continue to push more and more traffic to my site indefinitely.

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Success, Now What? (After Your Campaign)

If you were persistent and did your homework you either went viral or, as that recent Wharton study found, you barely made it. (Only seventy-five percent of projects raised ten percent over their goal.) You are now legally obligated to either fulfill the reward to your backers or return the funds. Kickstarter has been trying to clean up its reputation as a black hole where creators get funded and run. Late last year they updated their terms to reflect the legal, contractual relationship created when project creators receive backers’ funds.

If you haven’t already found a manufacturing partner (which you should do before starting the campaign) you need to get moving. (Read more about making a detailed production plan in JD Albert’s post, “3 Things To Do Before Kickstarting Your Hardware Startup,” at Entrepreneur.com.) Update backers with periodic updates so they know you didn’t run off with their money. As manufacturing starts up and you began to get product samples, look for distributors to carry the product after you fulfill all the Kickstarter rewards. Some more advice:

1. Communicate about fulfillment.

Look at this great chart put together by CNN examining shipping times for popular Kickstarter projects. Eighty four percent of projects ship late. Don’t feel bad if you are late shipping to backers. Just keep them informed of what is going on and they will mostly respond with support.
DO: As the fulfillment date approaches, you either need to tell backers you will be shipping on time or they will be waiting longer than expected. Transparent project updates that showcase you and your product development setbacks and successes are key to keeping backers happy and informed. This strengthens the personal connection between creators and backers.
WHAT I DID: I was a month behind when I was expecting the parts from my Chinese manufacturer. When I received them I realized there were manufacturing errors. I was disappointed that I had to tell my backers they had to wait even longer. I made a personal video and apologized and received nothing but support from the backers. I was actually pretty angry at myself for the delay but had nothing but support from backers. People value honesty and transparency. I ended up fixing most of my products that had manufacturing defects by hand. It took an extremely grueling four-day weekend, but I managed to fix and ship seventy-five percent of my rewards. I plan to ship the final twenty-five percent in mid March.

shipping SmartiPi

Fixing and shipping SmartPi at home, with a little help from my wife.

2. And fulfill!

There are great services that can coordinate reward fulfillment, the most popular being Backerkit. Backerkit integrates nicely with Kickstarter and communicates with backers after the campaign. If you plan to ship yourself, services like Shipstation make it easy to automate shipping and receive the best rates possible.

Congrats! Now’s your chance to rest, see how people react to the product, and use that feedback to begin designing your next product and campaign. That’s what I’m doing. Good luck, and see you on Kickstarter.