The decision to create a Kickstarter campaign was made (read more in part 4). But when? And how?! We needed a deadline. We also needed to figure out how to do a Kickstarter campaign with some chance of success. Neither of us had done anything like this before! There were a huge number of decisions ahead of us, how much to set our goal at, how much to price the Hemingwrite (scary!), how to get a video made, and the list goes on.
I felt a ton of pressure to launch the Kickstarter as quickly as possible in order to keep what momentum we had at the time. If we waited too long, people would start forgetting about our little project and move on with their lives. We needed to strike while the iron was white hot.
And it was actually quite hot. From mid-October to mid-December we had received ~125,000 visits to our basic af WordPress website. We were converting those visitors to opt-ins and by the time we actually launched the campaign, we had over 9,000 email addresses on our list. That was all organic, unpaid, unoptimized, and earned traffic! It was super crazy watching a big press hit drive thousands of visitor to our site in a single day. There were days where we had 150 people on the homepage at one time! I had never done anything in my life that had received that much attention.
We knew we had something on our hands. And from Patrick’s and my view, we were anxious to see if this was worth continuing to work on. At each step of the way, and even now, we have tried to maintain a very high bar for deciding whether this project is worth our time. Even though I am a bit older than he, we both fully understood that making the decision to spend our time on something is not to be taken lightly. The Hemingwrite project was just a thing we made. Could it really be something bigger? Even if we had a successful campaign, that would tie us to at least 18 months of working on the product to get it into production. It’s almost like enrolling into a graduate program with no certainty of a degree.
The press was very interested in us (and mostly complimentary), and random people on the internet were relentless in telling us their opinion. More than a few posted memes ‘throwing money at us’ and some told us the Hemingwrite signaled the end of willpower as we knew it. That’s right, the mere notion that any so-called writer would pay $$$ for a device that does less than the devices they already had in front of them was the tipping point; we were all fucked. In my view, anything that divisive deserved to be made.
Google this subject and there are endless resources to help creators with their first campaigns. There is a whole cottage industry setup to support crowdfunding. There are countless consultants, marketing agencies, and PR firms catering specifically to crowdfunding campaigns. Some of that existed in 2014 but a lot has changed in the past few years. In general, campaigns have become much larger and there are now serial creators that have become true professionals. One dirty little secret is that all the big (>$500k) campaigns nowadays are heavily reliant on paid traffic.
We had zero budget to hire any consultants and thus didn’t explore hiring any of them. We also didn’t do any paid advertising. But that’s okay and ultimately (spoiler alert) we had a successful campaign.
What are the critical aspects of a campaign? Some people say the video is the most important thing. Some people say press or getting a huge email list. In my opinion, from doing our campaign and paying very close attention to other campaigns before and since then, by far the most important things are what you are selling, how clear you are in telling people what it is, and whether it is a good fit for crowdfunding.
Here is what we had going for us:
Patrick got started drafting the copy after reviewing some other successful campaigns. The key is to get to the point as quickly as possible by answering the question, “what is it?” Once the question is answered directly, you can unwrap the story, how it works, and who it’s for. Also critical are adding visual elements that explain various aspects of the product. We didn’t hire a graphic designer so we had to make do with my poor Illustrator and Photoshop skills.
I created some laughably amateur graphics but saved face with some decent gifs that showed the prototype working. Good gifs are really critical and these days they are stupid simple to make. I used my DSLR on rapid fire to get a series of shots that were then compiled with Photoshop into a gif. That’s the hard way. Now you can shoot a gif, edit it, and publish it right on your phone in seconds.
Patrick and I went back and forth on the copy a couple of times but that was about it. I think it took about 2 weeks from start to finish which is an extremely compressed time frame.
One pro tip: Kickstarter backers LOVE features. No, don’t add tons of features since that’s how Kickstarters fail but DO try to make as many features as possible out of the product. It’s all about presenting as many aspects of the thing as features. Get it? Get it!
Aside from the gifs and a basic graphic or two, we invested in professional product photography. It just so happens that a neighbor of mine in Detroit is a very high end product photographer and overall very awesome guy. We just walked the prototype over there and worked out a very reasonable deal to get 4-5 critical shots. I think it ended up costing about $4-500ish for the shoot. The overhead shot he took ended up being used in tons of materials from the Kickstarter to press to other marketing materials. Even though I probably could have taken usable photos with my full-frame Canon 5D Mark II, he had the studio setup and knew how to use lighting to showcase a product. He used a 50MP multi-shot Hasselblad too which was probably unnecessary but at least we knew were getting the best possible shots. Even given our budget, it was well worth the money.
Kickstarter is not a store, that’s core to their ethos and they have made that very clear. But it sorta kinda acts like one, at least in limited circumstances (sorry KS!). As part of the campaign, we had to set reward tiers that correspond to funding thresholds. For a campaign that results in the production of a physical product, those tiers typically correspond to receiving one or more of the products. Generally, it follows this structure:
Yes, this is simplifying things a bit and some campaigns have gone to crazy lengths to workaround Kickstarter’s limitations of not being a proper store. The issue is that backers can only back at a single reward tier and they are not able to ‘add to cart’ like you would during a normal e-commerce checkout process. That means you can’t up-sell backers on accessories or allow them to choose options unless you provide a specific tier that includes exactly what they want. That’s not practical for every single permutation of product choice so it makes some reward tier structures very complicated.
We stuck to a fairly straightforward reward tier model similar to the one I outlined above and didn’t even try to add color options to the basic tiers. One thing that I really wanted to do was have a crazy ‘halo’ tier like a solid gold Hemingwrite for $500k but I quickly learned that Kickstarter limits tiers to $10k :( I even went through the exercise of calculating the cost of our housing if it was made from solid gold at market prices!
Here is the tier structure we ended up with:
We didn’t get anyone at the tiers above the Beta Testing Special which I was a little disappointed about. Actually one person had selected the Color Custom tier but then they cancelled before the campaign was over! I was really excited to make custom Freewrite’s for people. In the end, it was more than fine because making custom anything takes a ton of time. That’s why we priced the tiers so high but it still would have been a huge amount of work to fulfill them.
Suprise, these little details are monsters! When can backers expect to receive their rewards? How many countries did we want to ship to? How much would it cost at each tier to ship to each country? How much would a backer in each country have to pay in duties and taxes to receive their goods??
No matter how you cut this problem, it’s painful and extremely difficult to figure out. For most people, it is virtually impossible to forecast accurately. For starters, you need to know the precise dimensions and weight of a package in order to properly quote it for shipment around the world. All we had were best guesses!
Thankfully, I have been selling goods online for at least a decade and have good friends that are true logistics experts. Even so, it took a while to work out estimates and even with that experience, I added in some buffer to international shipping to cover our butts in case we couldn’t get better international rates than I expected.
How did we do with our estimates?
I’ll have to write another post about international hardware logistics because there is just too much to put here.
I was seriously dreading this part of the campaign. We needed a good video. Not just something that was entertaining but also something that properly explained the product and fit the format for a Kickstarter campaign. We watched a ton of other Kickstarter videos from other campaigns. This is the format we came up with:
One thing that we did not do and I am not even sure why, is introduce ourselves or talk about our background. Maybe we didn’t think anybody would care since we were first-time creators and weren’t even writers! It probably just fell off the priority list as we ran out of time.
To get our video shot and edited, Patrick contacted an old filmmaker friend of his in northern Michigan about helping us out. He liked the idea and was in! And he didn’t care much about the money, he just wanted us to throw him whatever we could. I think we ended up settling on something like $500. Deal! He had his own camera, a pro-quality but older Canon, and even a crane that we used in a coffee shop. It was pretty hilarious rolling into a local coffee shop in Traverse City with this huge camera crane. They were very accommodating and I think the guests were all excited to be part of the action.
So we made the 4 hour drive up there with the plan that we would shoot everything in one day. Even though it was a trek, our thought was that it would give us the necessary focus to get it done. We had a clear mission and we would be completely undistracted.
Once up there, we started writing the script. We probably should have done that before hand but we didn’t. In fact, our filmmaker had already wrangled some actor extras for us to use in the shoot and they were waiting for us in his apartment while we were writing the treatment!
We shot the video on XX Nov and he spent some time editing it.
On XX he sent us the first cut. I think I nearly lost my mind at that moment. It was terrible. The music was cheesy as hell. A lot of the footage was 2-3 stops too dark. I couldn’t even fathom publishing this video.
After calming down a bit, we sat down and set about trying to get something usable with the footage that we had. Yes, the first cut was bad but it was workable. It had to be because we weren’t driving back up to northern Michigan to shoot more.
We went back and forth and after another edit or two ended up with the final video you can see on Kickstarter. I still think it’s cheeseball and doesn’t show any of our style or creativity but the days of being squeamish about it are long gone. It did the necessary things of clearly showing the product and explaining what it does. That’s the most important part and I will just have to step it up for my next Kickstarter video (coming soon!).
The funding threshold is the amount at which our campaign becomes successful and we, as creators, receive all the money raised. If the campaign is unable to reach the threshold, the creators get zero and the campaign fails.
We landed on $250k based on some very basic projections of how many Hemingwrites we would ‘sell’ through the campaign and how much we thought was the bare minimum capital we needed to build it. The cost of each unit and the development needed to be factored in. This is the right way to do it and shouldn’t be too controversial. It’s a little tricky because estimating demand ahead of the campaign is very hard. The last thing you want to do as a creator is only get enough money to do half the development.
Wow, was I wrong! You wouldn’t have believed how many people told us to put an artificially low number ($50k) in order to say at the end of the project ‘we met 5000% of our goal’. Unless the campaign is simply a marketing gimmick and you are already fully committed to investing the required money for development and production, setting a very low threshold is reckless and borderline unethical. I also don’t think the marketing value of saying ‘we met 5000% of our goal’ is valuable at all. So to risk the entire campaign on a valueless marketing line would be a terrible tradeoff.
Most people we talked to, including other creators, thought we were insane to put a $250k funding threshold (they thought it was so high that it would be a deterrent for backers). We understood that it was a big number but didn’t agree with lowering it. We only wanted to work on this project if we had the money to do so.
In the end, was $250k enough? Hmm, maybe but it would have been extremely stressful, at best. We raised additional funding that allowed us to build things the right way but it also cost a heck of a lot more money. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing this project on a 250k budget but maybe we could have pulled it off. It would have taken every trick in the book and then some.
Just before Thanksgiving I was invited to be on a podcast in Detroit. While chatting off air with the other guests, who had themselves recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, I let them know our plans to launch our campaign in a couple of days. “You know that you have to get your campaign approved once you submit it, right? it can take 3-5 days!” That was one of many “oh, shit” moments.
Our original plan was to launch the campaign on Black Friday 2014. It was turning out to be a perfect storm because our big feature in the WSJ on the Hemingwrite was scheduled to publish on that Saturday, i.e. 2 days after launch. It all was a little too perfect! Who launches on Black Friday and gets a huge feature in the WSJ that weekend with no PR team and zero budget?!
It didn’t happen, either thing. I got notice that they were holding the WSJ piece for another weekend. It was a good thing too because the campaign was far from ready. Oh well.
After a couple more delays, we got approval and finally went live on December 10, 2014. We were told that launching on a Tuesday around noon eastern time was the best time to launch which is what we aimed for. We missed Tuesday but Wednesday the 10th at 1pm should be fine, right?!
We had the great benefit of having a lot of press reach out to us and cover the Hemingwrite prior to the campaign. I did a couple of outbound emails at the very beginning of the project but quit after not getting anywhere with them and getting swamped with inbounds. Sounds ridiculous but that’s what happened. There were multiple cases when I had so many reporters emailing me with questions that I couldn’t get to them all in a timely manner. And instead of not publishing, they would still publish a piece even if I didn’t respond to their email!
To maximize our launch effort, we teed up press to go out at the same time that our campaign went live. How did we do that? With an embargo and some friendly reporters.
An embargo is a well understood industry term that means a reporter will not publish anything using the information you give them until a specific date and time. There is no formal contract (in our case, at least) but I think the concept of an embargo is familiar enough and the implicit trust between source and journalist keeps everyone honest. We haven’t had any issue except for one tiny incident of a reporter breaking an embargo by accident. In that case, there was a time zone issue and they didn’t realize they were breaking the embargo and promptly took the post down.
I reached out to about 5 friendly reporters (people with which that I already had a running email chain) and simply asked if they would be interested to get early access to our launch press kit in exchange for them going on embargo.1 I think all said yes at which time I told them about the specific timing of the embargo and forwarded them the materials.
For those wondering, our press kit consisted of a press release that we drafted, pictures in various resolutions on white backgrounds and in settings. Pretty simple actually. I didn’t understand this at the time but after working with hundreds of journalists over the past couple of years, I understand the process of working with press quite a bit better. Journalists are under a ton of pressure. Constant deadlines and the push for better and more exclusive content is always on their minds. The point of the Press Kit and any outreach is to serve a story up on a silver platter while also giving the journalist some confidence that it would be interesting to their readers. There is a huge barrier between startup people and press because they don’t speak the same language and their interests are not inline. In my experience, once you have become a solid source of a story for the reporter, the barrier goes down significantly. Then it is up to us to keep the communication tight and friendly.
A hidden benefit of working with Press on an embargo is that once they agree and you send them the press kit, the clock starts ticking, loudly. Because as soon as the time comes that you said you would launch, they are publishing whether you are ready or not. So you better be ready! Of course, you could always go back to them and push the launch but aborting leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
We managed to get coverage from TechCrunch, CNET, The Verge, and Huffington Post for the launch of our Kickstarter. Once those hit, much more followed including international press from around the world.
It was as great of a launch as we could have ever dreamed of! Just months prior I had thought of a feature on TechCrunch as the holy grail and here I was setting it up at a time I dictated as a general matter of business.
Just like that, on December 10, 2014, our campaign was live and the backers came pouring in.
(1) I didn’t realize it at the time but a seemingly minor omission of one blogger (Nate Hoffelder otherwise known as PNG1) turned into a full-on vendetta against us that has continued to this day. He was left out because he, out of 100+ journalists that inbounded, was insolent to me via email from the very first interaction and continued to be ruder with each email. I didn’t reach out to him for our launch because he was rude and his blog wasn’t as big as the others I had lined up. We even tried to convert him back to our good side when Patrick went out of his way at CES to give him a personal demo. He pretended to be nice in-person only to return back to the shelter of the internet where he published article after article in an attempt to ruin our business and reputation. Since then he has consistently gone out of his way to find negative opinions, exaggerate them, and push them as fact. I don’t like Nate for the material impact he has done to our business but I also feel bad for him because spending that much time on negativity is no way to live life. On the positive side, we learned a very valuable lesson in that it is not worth our time to convert haters like Nate. Instead, time is much better spent finding new people which haven’t already cemented their opinions, and there are always more people.