Snowballs in Hell
Have you ever tried to hold a snowball in hell? No? How about launch a Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign?
Well. Then you get it.
Creating a new product, project or business is a lot like making a snowball. You start with a bunch of messy stuff strewn about the ground, and you spend a lot of time gathering and shaping your snowball. If you work with other people, that makes the process a little easier, because more hands make the work go easier. Although, that comes with it’s own challenges. To make a good snowball, you all have to have the same vision of size and shape - otherwise, it can come out kind of lopsided. One person might have a big, giant snowball in mind, and another wants a small, projectile missile. You have to agree on who will hold it, and who will go and get more snow. Then, you start to push that snowball up a hill. The pushing is a lot harder than maybe you think pushing a snowball should be. With a team, you can help each other with that long climb. Encouraging and refining and reassuring that, yes, there really is a top. For a long time, you just keep pushing it upwards - gathering snow to keep it in a nice round shape and not letting it roll too far backwards. If you work alone, it can be very hard to spend every day in the cold, pushing that snowball and hoping it keeps its shape as you climb. It’s much harder to get a picture of the whole hill if you are alone.
Then, there comes the magical moment when your idea - your snowball - crests the hill and starts to gather it’s own speed. Now you get to run with it and try to keep it in line as it gathers speed and more snow. You are not pushing it as much as guiding it.
A Kickstarter campaign can provide the cresting hill that helps many businesses gather their own momentum out in the world. It can also feel a little bit like taking your snowball into hell and trying to survive the journey. As is often said, “pressure makes diamonds” - and it is very possible to thrive and come out the other end with a snowball rolling down the hill, but it takes a lot of work, and some luck - and a great snowball.
I learned a few things when I took my snowball into hell and came out the other end. We launched our IAmElemental Kickstarter campaign in May 2014, and were fully funded in 2 days, doubled that in another 2 and ended up 465% funded. The campaign gathered international press attention and arguably launched our “snowball idea” of action figures for girls down the hill. A few months later we were listed as one of 25 Best Inventions of 2014 by TIME magazine and our product hit stores. It was an incredibly exhilarating and satisfying experience. Kickstarter was exactly what our business and idea needed to launch itself, but it had distinct challenges and yes, there were moments I thought I was in some sort of weird and private hell. Holding a snowball.
From the very mundane, to the more strategic, here are 7 lessons on Kickstarting Snowballs.
The end is really the beginning. Are you trying to launch a business or trying to get a single product developed and delivered to a small community of enthusiastic customers? You should ask some honest questions of yourself about what comes *after* Kickstarter. Creating a product is different than running a company. A single product does not always a business make. Time your campaign for your target audience. We were marketing primarily to parents in the beginning of our campaign (turns out we had a secondary audience in collectors, but that was a lucky bonus) so we made sure we got our campaign launched with that specific audience in mind. Moms get busy when school gets out, and people go on vacation. We needed to get to them before summer vacation started. Backing out 30 days before the earliest “school’s out for summer” gave us our must-launch date. The inherent rhythms unique to your product and audience will help dictate timing. Listen to them.
Money, money, money. Don’t make your funding goal too high. Determine the bare costs you need to deliver the product to the minimum number of people. Know how you are going to produce and deliver your product. Find your partners and vendors. Get real numbers. Don’t wait until it’s funded and then think you will figure it out. You may have to lay out some money in advance for prototypes or 3D renders. Do it. Decide if you are willing to self-fund or use friends and family to have a successful campaign. Don’t forget about shipping and packaging and fulfillment. Are you going to try to market to retailers, brick-and-morter or online? Are you going to offer the product via your website as soon as your Kickstarter closes (I recommend yes.)? How much inventory can you comfortably handle?
Rewards. Don’t over-complicate them. Don’t make them too expensive. Have something good at the $25-30 range and something at the $65-75 range and then at the $150-200 range. Only do a few things at the $500+ range. Yes, some people will support you there, but this is not where your primary customers will come from, these are probably personal friends, rich relatives and a few select super-fans. Make the descriptions of your Rewards clear. Write it all out and then give it to someone who doesn’t like you much to read. They will tell you if it makes sense.
Video. Keep it short, I beg of you. People do not have the patience to watch a long video. (I am of the 2 minute camp) Edit it. Keep the “so what” right up front. Make it fun and interesting to watch. This sounds like the most basic advice, but some videos make my eyes bleed. Watch a ton of videos.
People. You need a few lists. The first is every email you have access to that you can reasonably send a Kickstarter launch to, who will know your name and it will not be spam. Get that list together. Then develop your list of everyone you feel reasonably comfortable asking for a personal favor. When your launch date is firm, reach out to about 50-100 of your friends (personal and professional). Tell them you will be having a Kickstarter launch coming up and they will be getting an email from you about it when you launch. Ask them to do a few things when they get that email. First, ask them to back you right away so you come out strong with some Backers out of the gate. Next, ask them if they will please send the Kickstarter email when they get it to 1 person you do not know, but who might be interested. Don’t get greedy and ask them to send it to everyone they know. That feels overwhelming. But if you ask them to just send it to 1 other person, it will feel easy and they will do it. Also, chances are, once they sit down at their computer to do it, they will think of others and you will get a lot of forwards that way. Ask them to post to social media and make it easy for them with links embedded. Don’t make people work to help you. In MailChimp, you can create multiple lists that you will use to send people your Kickstarter announcement. Create a VIP list for this specific group of close contacts and supporters. When you actually send the Kickstarter email - repeat all of the requests you made in that first email. Start creating your MailChimp list tomorrow. It takes a while to track down emails of every person you have ever met, and that is how many people you should send your Kickstarter launch to.
Press. This is the magic question. I have worked at magazines. I have lots of friends who are journalists. But even knowing people in the press, I still had to hustle my little tuckus off. You need to send a lot of personal emails. A lot. Don’t phone it in with blast emails. Every email needs to be customized. Create a list of bloggers and journalists and outlets who have covered Kickstarters that are similar to yours or who write about your product area. (Hopefully you have been backing projects in your space for a while. If not, ask yourself why you want to do Kickstarter if you are not actually a member of the community.) Then, when you email writers, send them a link to your Kickstarter, reference a previous article that they wrote and then help by giving them the “so what” right up front. What is the story? I’m telling you, it’s not a story just to say that a Kickstarter has launched. You need to tie it into a larger business or social issue or question. It doesn’t have to save the world, but tell people why they should care - and more importantly, why their readers should care. Look for small regional news outlets like newsletters and blogs. They can be a good source of initial press and help you hone your message. The barrier to entry is lower with these outlets and might lead to pick-up by larger brands. One of the first press pieces on IAmElemental was a local neighborhood newsletter called DNA Info (thank you Emily Frost) - which led us to be picked up by Bloomberg News and then the local ABC News station (thank you Lauren Glassberg), which cut the piece on us for use on NYC Taxi TV and we were off and running. Bottom line: pitch everyone the same as you would pitch Oprah, you never know where it will lead.
Just do it. At a certain point, you have to stop talking about it and planning it. Go into Kickstarter and start putting your project page together sooner than you think you are ready. You can start and save and share it as much as you want before you launch. Do it. It takes longer than you might imagine.
Where does the hell part come in you may ask?
Kickstarter is compressed in time. Most campaigns are 30-45 days. Stick with 30. Answer every email and Backer comment. Pitch every press person you can think of during that time. Tweet, post, blog, meet, connect. Email every person you know. All of this happens while you have a day job, and probably a family or a pet, or someone who expects things of you. So yes, it feels a little like hell some days. Also, you are putting this special, unique, one-of-a-kind snowball into the world for others to see for the first time and decide if they like it. It is nerve-wracking to say the least.
Then it ends and you have to figure out how to get the product you promised to everyone on time. But that is another journey.