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How to crowd-fund when nobody knows who you are

By on October 2, 2012

A ‘guest post’ from Deputy Editor Zoya Street

Not long ago, I was talking about crowd-funding with someone over coffee. ‘I remember in the wake of the Doublefine campaign,’ they said, ‘Tim Schafer started publishing all these articles about how to run a successful Kickstarter. I thought, are you kidding me? You were successful because you were famous. Strategy had nothing to do with it. Crowd-funding isn’t going to work if you’re not a tried and tested name.’

It’s true that an unknown budding creative with a dream and a concept drawing is unlikely to raise millions of dollars on Kickstarter. However, I just recently raised $5000 on Indiegogo for a book on the history of the Dreamcast, and when I started the campaign I had just 150 Twitter followers (@rupazero, in case you were wondering). It was an amazing experience – I learned a lot about community, marketing and metrics, and came out the other side with the means and motivation to get my book finished.

For young upstarts without a back-catalogue or reputation, crowdfunding is a different proposition compared to the Tim Schafers of the world. But if you have a project that you’d like to finish, polish and publish – maybe it’s your final-year project from your degree, or just something you’ve been working on in your Mum’s basement – then it is a great way to get the job done and find your audience.

Is your project right for crowdfunding?

I did a bit of research on successful crowdfunding projects before I started, and came up with some rules:

  1. Your product should already be nearly finished. Famous people can get away with asking money for a product that does not yet exist, but everybody else needs to be able to demonstrate that this is a real thing – not just a concept drawing or an idea, but something you’ve been working on passionately for a while. Student projects are ideal for this.
  2. Your product should address an audience that already crowdfunds other things. Anything that geeks will like is a goer. Hardware projects have been so ludicrously successful that Kickstarter has had to place limitations on them. Games are of course doing well, as are comic books. Similarly, projects that speak to the queer community do very well, because grass-roots communitarianism comes naturally there. If your product is for children, middle-aged housewives or academics, then you are less likely to be successful. Converting people to crowdfunding from zero is hard – most of my backers had already backed at least one project before mine.
  3. You will not raise more than $10,000. The exception to this used to be hardware, but Kickstarter is cracking down on it and the audience is likely to become very skeptical very quickly as many crowdfunded hardware projects get abandoned. There is a small chance that your idea will resonate with people so much that it will go viral, but this chance is tiny. So if you cannot get this done with less than $10,000, crowdfunding isn’t going to solve your problems – and with hundreds of backers expecting a product from you while you wait for other funding sources to step up and fill in the gap, your problems could in fact get much worse.

Design your perks

Before you can work out how much money you need to raise or how many backers you need to find, you first need to cost out your perks. In fact, before that you should buy yourself a cinnamon bun. You’ll be needing it very soon.

There’s lots of good advice out there about designing perks, most of it published by the crowdfunding platforms themselves. I’d like to add a quick note on perk design – not selling your premium levels is a very big deal. It will cost you hundreds of dollars in lost profit. Think hard about them and do whatever research you can to make sure your premium perks are appealing.

You then need to work out how much money you’re making on each perk level, and optimise where you can. I shopped around to see how cheaply I could print a short run of my book without sacrificing too much quality. I quickly learned why the publishing industry is so happy about e-books. I knew from the outset that at least half of the money I raised was going to be spent on fulfillment and platform fees. Take the ratio for the ~$30 perk level – that will be the level that sells the most units – and from that extrapolate how much money you need to raise. I needed a minimum of £1500 to be able to work on this book part time for a few months and still afford to repay my career development loan and pay rent – the amount I needed to raise was double that, to account for fulfillment and fees.

Once you’ve worked out how much money you actually need to raise, eat the cinnamon bun to calm down.

Look at your network reach

Find a benchmark for average contribution – I used $70, which is the site-wide average for Indiegogo and Kickstarter, but this was a mistake. Books are not worth an average of $70. I learned too late that my book is worth around $35-$40. I suggest you find some data on your kind of product so that you can benchmark more accurately.

To work out how many backers you need to find, divide your fundraising target by this benchmark. I got a figure of 73 when I worked this out – it was wrong, because my benchmark was wrong, but it was a useful number to have anyway. I had 150 twitter followers, and I knew I would be able to put a post on Gamesbrief that would get around 300 views. With a little bit of network effect, it seemed reasonable that I would get 73 backers within 60 days.

Here’s what is likely to happen – you’ll get featured on a few small websites who love your product, and you’ll find a small group of dedicated fans who advocate for you very passionately. This is what you should plan for, and your strategy should be 80% focused on making this work well for you. Assume that you’re not going to go viral, you’re not going to get featured on Joystiq or Kotaku, and you’re not going to hit the front page of your chosen crowdfunding platform. Might you still make your target?

Make content, and be content

After your fundraising campaign launches, you need to give people something new to say about your project once in a while. Do extravagant things to personally thank your backers – they like to share things that are about them. Make quirky things that relate to your product. Be funny on Twitter. Ask people for their opinion. Learn from what people say in tweets and comments – they’ll rewrite your pitch for you if you listen carefully. Retweet every compliment.

There’s a Buddhist sutra that gives great marketing advice. It says to be “capable, upright and straightforward”. Be forthright with people about how things are going – tracking some key metrics daily helps you to do this (I used an adaptation of the Gamesbrief free-to-play spreadsheet).

Be “easy to support” and not greedy – always tell people what is the minimum thing that they can do. Point out that donating just $1 increases your prominence on Indiegogo, and that just tweeting about the project increases your chances of success.

Most importantly, be loving towards absolutely everybody. There are people out there who you don’t like for one reason or another – get in touch with them anyway. There are people who take time to decide to back your project – be patient with them. Be genuinely grateful to every last contributor. Respect their opinions and love their voices as the conversation grows.

Putting yourself out there

The number one thing I learned when crowdfunding was this: the idea of ‘putting yourself out there’ is a fallacy. ‘Yourself’ is not enough. It’s all about having something to show people.

This is why crowdfunding is such a good idea for young upstarts. People are always telling us to ‘network’, blithely declaring that ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ as if networking events and Twitter were therefore enough to rid the world of inequality. What’s missing from that advice is that having met someone once isn’t the same as knowing someone.

Crowdfunding gives you something to show people. It gives them a reason to care about your success. It builds real relationships and lets people know not just that you exist, but that you make great things.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.