What I Learned From Running a Kickstarteron October 19, 2012 at 7:49 AM
Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the go-to sites for anyone with an idea but no money to find funding from any number of strangers who believe said idea is a good one. They are perhaps the most democratic form of lending – what the crowd likes gets the money (an aside: why can’t my tax money be handled like this?). When I ventured in to get funding for my plan to host a 24 Hour Comics Day in Erie, I expected that just by putting my plan out to the Crowd, it would take on a Life of Its Own and, without much Effort from me, my 24HCD would be entirely funded.
Sweet Theresa’s Heartburn, was I wrong!
Funding flowed in the first few days, but then plateaued at the beginning of week two, staying at $300 for another week. Why? What was I doing wrong? Was the idea a bad one? Is 24HCD something that no one was interested in? What wasn’t I doing that successful Kickstarters were? Holy shit! Should I have gone with Indiegogo where I could have gotten any donations pledged instead of Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing model? My days off were spent looking for ways to extend my reach; on days I did work, I counted how many days it had been since I last contacted someone to promote my Kickstarter and was I able to ask them for more promotion or was a being a nudzh? I babysat and worried this like it was a child with a 102° fever and a crib under an open window in December. I met with a local professional fundraiser. I asked the local rags for some column inches. And still funding remained as flat as yesterday’s Coke.
Not knowing the answers and not knowing exactly where to get them, I was being crushed by the learning curve, which is a terrible, terrible feeling when a project I believed would have a marked, positive impact on my hometown was on the verge of failing.
It took one person -one very generous stranger whom I had never met- donating $250 that was the turning point that, in the end, got my Kickstarter fully-funded. The experience was simultaneously enlightening and confounding. What had happened? What had I done right? What had I done wrong? Aaaah, so this is why people get compensated so well for their fundraising abilities! Next time, I should… went the notes for a good couple of pages in my Moleskin, which, now that my ulcers have healed, I want to share with you: what I learned in all those hours of anxious devotion to a goal whose success or failure was becoming very, very personal.
MY FUNDING TRENDS
1. I Love My Friends, But They Can’t Pay For My Hobbies.
My Kickstarter was 54% funded by people I am friends with; not Facebook acquaintances, but people I have dinner with or have enjoyed hours of conversation with or vacationed with or have fucked. Seriously. No, I’m not telling you who. The point is that is an untenable and unsustainable percentage of donors who did so because they know me and want to support me on a personal level. Which is not to say I am not humbled by their faith in me and even more in love with them than I was before. I am. What I’m saying is that I have other projects I want to pursue in the very near future, and my friends are not deep pockets for me to ask for money. That’s what The Many of Kickstarter are for.
The question became “How do I expand my reach past my friends?” The simple answer is “I reach past my friends by asking them to reach out to their friends.” The truth of the answer is “That’s not what my friends are for.” However, when the choices were to ask for help or to let my Kickstarter peter out, I chose to ask for help. And I have learned to be… less uncomfortable with this than my personality would normally allow. I can’t believe I didn’t crack a tooth writing those emails.
While I have an online presence -Facebook, this website, numerous discussion boards- one may notice if they click on my Facebook link that I am heavily privatized. I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, so when I posted about my Kickstarter -and I didn’t realize it at the time- was that I was asking my friend to be my fans. And that’s not who I want to be. But even with my friends helping out by passing word of my project along -and some of them have quite a following- there was not much movement on funding.
So, where does one go for fans?
2. Develop A Fan-Base Early On.
They go to Twitter.
Twitter is amazing for developing audiences -even if I’m still learning to let go of being private- to the point where I am preaching to local businesses about the opportunities they are missing out on by not having at least this one social media outlet to promote their nightly specials or what’s fresh from the oven or who’s tending bar that night. I’m becoming annoying about it. But as Action Toyman told me, it’s where businesses live and die these day.
I took to Twitter and after two weeks when the headaches went away, my personal boundaries ran right up against my need to get the message of my project out. My need won after a fraught skirmish. #24HCD, #comicmarket, #Kickstarter, #Erie, #Erieproblems, became part of my vocabulary. Asking Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer for retweets was like whispering through a hurricane (they rule the Twitterverse so it’s understandably difficult to get an audience), so I asked more accessible personalities like Jimmy Palmiotti to retweet my pleas for attention, which he did …and shit, it just struck me that I didn’t thank him in person when I saw him at NYCC last weekend. Not that he would remember, but it was the polite thing to do. Dammit.
In any case, some movement happened, but because I was still restrained by my nature, there was not as much as there could have been. It took me time to see that Twitter is, at best, impersonal. Audiences by being masses of people do not lend themselves to one-on-one relationships. Kevin Smith, for example, has 2 million followers, but only follows 69 people (which breaks the “for every two people you follow, one will follow you back” rule of Twitter). It is impossible that he could communicate efficiently and sincerely with everyone on that list. I err on the side of sincerity which limits my ability to communicate with large swaths of people.
I know. I’ll get over it. Next time.
The upshot of all this is to have people following you on Twitter before you begin your Kickstarter. It saves a lot of time. Oh! Something to avoid: one can buy thousands of sock-puppet Twitter followers, but what the hell do they care about your tweets? They are there to make you look good, not to get your message out. Find real people who will be interested in what you’re doing.
3. HYPE HYPE HYPE (Wide and Well, But Don’t Be An Asshole).
When competing for attention, “buzz” and “hype” are not to be ignored. I’m terrible at both, but I see how important they are and how they effect what people will pay attention to. Ever watch “Amadeus”? I’m the Salieri of Social Media. I have no advice to offer on generating these, but I can tell you the cons of not using them well. Or at least, I can tell you what bugs the shit out of me.
Looking at other Twitter folk who have run or are running Kickstarters, there are a few who have only one message that repeats every hour without variation like the chili at Mabel’s All-U-Can-Eat down near the highway: “GIVE ME MONEY!!” Not that anyone’s message on Kickstarter is any different, but when that is the only message that is being broadcast, when one can’t deliver a wider picture of who one is, and what other thoughts one has to share, I get turned off. It’s like those horrible emails I get from Eugene Delgaudio that harp on “The Homosexual Menace” and “GIVE ME MONEY TO FIGHT IT!!” I can’t believe anyone is taken in by not only the naked asking for money but the monolithicness of his emails. It’s not only traif; it’s boring, uninspired traif.
Related to being sincere -and I fully realize this is not for everyone- is knowing who comprises your audience, especially if it’s a niche group or community to which you can claim membership. I belong to a group of comic book enthusiasts who happen to be gay -The Gay League- in which there are dozens of creative types who have projects going on that they share with the rest of us. We’re a small but dedicated (and opinionated) group, happy to support one another when we can, eager to wear out a discussion thread on a daily basis. Alas, there are those members who participate only to drive-thru, tout their new work, then disappear until the next time they want the community to rally around something. There’s no rule against assholery, but it’s still assholery. I believe that if one is going to ask a community for support, one should be a participating member of said community. It looks mercenary and spammish otherwise. It also make me -an active member- wary about posting my own projects for fear of being blended in with these carpetbaggers. This is, of course, my own opinion. My distaste for how people ignore social contracts shouldn’t dissuade you from doing the same if you think it will help you get to where you’re going.
4. Support Is Out There. Sorta.
When panic set in that my Kickstarter might not get funded, I did something that I never would have considered doing before: on the advice of friends, I called total strangers -newspapers, local museum staff, a radio station- and promoted myself and my project to them. Reactions was… tepid. Mostly. I had a wonderful conversation with a staff member at the Erie Art Museum who told me about her own fundraising efforts and the difficulties she faces even having an established base to draw from. She had some advice about what to do if my Kickstarter failed (which seemed likely at the time): hit up local 24 establishments and see if they’d host and offer food discounts in exchange for media buzz. Make it small and grow over time. She also donated money, which was very sweet of her.
A writer for the The Erie Reader -a local indy rag- told me that before he could dedicate inches to giving my Kickstarter some signal, he would need to make sure that backing my project -which was not an an assured success- could damage the paper’s credibility on future recommendations. He also told me that a Kickstarter should have been my last choice in terms of fundraising. He assured me that free stuff -a venue, food, drinks- existed everywhere. When I reached 55% of my goal, I asked again for coverage and got it. I was worth leveraging then.
Around this time, there was talk on Twitter about how many good Kickstarters there were (and still are), and the need for a curator to point people in the direction of worthy projects. Geekstarter’s name was bandied around, as was TeamKickstarter (which seems to no longer exist). It was Geekstarter who gave me the idea to offer a comic book of the work that was created on 24HCD (a brilliant idea, that), but he passed on a signal boost (possibly because the outcome would be “ultra-local” as he called it). TeamKickstarter wanted money for promotion, which may explain why they no longer exist on Twitter. Are curators part of the democratic process of crowd-sourcing, or are they lobbyists who have an agenda to push? Do they cut back the noise, or do they marginalize weaker signals? And what metric would a curator use to direct people to “worthy” projects? (I’ll spare you the approaching Election Year metaphor and stop here.)
How helpful was all this?
Not in the way one might expect.
What I heard a lot of was the doubt I was already listening to in my own head whereas I was looking for helpful ways to go in others. I know that at my age and with the experience of already having put out several comic books and short stories, I should have my self-promotion patter polished and ready to soft-shoe. But I don’t. I’m getting better because I want to extend my reach and work on larger scale projects, though I know I’m not there yet. Seeing the flip side of the coin -the defeatism I know I harbor that tells me if I don’t try, I can’t fail- manifested externally was unpleasant, but necessary. I had to care if I failed to try to succeed. That was when the babysitting began.
5. I Still Don’t Understand Why Some Projects Are Funded And Other are Not.
Have you heard of The Kickback Machine? It’s an archive of Kickstarters -both failed and successful- which is supposed to allow the cautious reader to divine which elements propel someone to their goal and which will send the same person home empty-handed. Some failures (I say this in the sense of “didn’t reach its goal”; everyone has a project out there because they believe in, and who am I to tell them that they should dream smaller or not at all?) are easy to spot -unclear goals, no backstory, sparse information, lacklustre incentives- yet others are beautiful in their planning and stunning in their passion. Some successes are just as poorly conceived and presented as the previously mentioned failures, yet managed to have stretch goals unlocked.
It’s a great bubbling stew of “WhyTF…?”.
I should say here that outliers like Gail Simone’s Escape from Megalopolis don’t count. Ms. Simone -being a lovely and talented soul, to say nothing of her raging popularity- could probably get funding to bronze pinecones just by being Gail Simone. Her reach and audience are well-documented, and well-deserved.
No, I am talking about cases like these: Joe Martino’s The Mighty Titan (which got funded) and Menachem Luchin’s Escape Pod Comics (which did not). I followed both of these guys on Twitter throughout their runs. They were machines! Personable machines, but totally goal-driven. I don’t think an hour passed when they were not actively promoting their Kickstarters or talking to heady folks like Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman. They worked very hard at getting their message out. Hashtags flew true to their targets like knives in a wuxia. Thanks for support was immediately broadcast. Can you spot anything in either of their projects that would lead you to think they wouldn’t both succeed? Does one suck more than the other? (Hint: neither do.) Or does suck not even enter the equation? Is it a question of audience size? Widespread vs. focused appeal? Asking too much money or just enough? Is one more established in the comics field than the other? Or is this just how democracy works: sometimes shit doesn’t happen?
If someone has any analysis, please contact me. I’d love to know if there is a pattern.
6. What Comes Next.
Expect it. Though probably with better graphics.