As soon as we formulated the idea for Destination: Dev in November of 2016 and started presenting it to people, we knew we were onto something. The software development bootcamp model has been very successful over the last five years, and for good reason. However, I became a developer to be able to work on what I wanted and travel the world without sacrificing my professional development, and I knew that there were many other aspiring digital nomads just like me. We set out to build an MVP model for our course, and took to promoting it through content, social media, and word-of-mouth. However, after a few months and zero signups, it was clear to us that we were doing something wrong.
We believed in our idea, but decided that our biggest roadblocks to getting it off the ground were lack of credibility and lack of time-pressure. After some brainstorming, we decided that reducing the price of our program to the bare minimum necessary to validate and funding it through Kickstarter could help us to prove to ourselves that we had something worth pursuing.
Four months later, our Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded, and we're just now meeting our first full class of students here in Medellín. We learned a lot along the way in pushing to crush our goal, and although the amount we raised is modest compared to some of the Kickstarter juggernauts who've brought in over $1M, I was surprised to learn when checking out Kickstarter's stats that our project is somewhere in the top 2-3% of projects all time and top 6-8% of successfully funded projects. So, obviously we landed on a formula that works, and I thought it would be useful to share our experience for anyone thinking about running a Kickstarter campaign. Below are my top takeaways from a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign.
Presales and Validation
Prior to launching our Kickstarter campaign, we had been validating our product for about 4 months. We had collected a ton of information on our pricing, messaging, and sales cycle and already had a good understanding of which marketing channels worked for us and which didn't. We took this validation a step further by collecting $14K in presale spots in our course backed by non-refundable deposits prior to launching. This not only assured us that we weren't wasting our time with the campaign, but also gave us a lot of momentum out of the gate as we opened our campaign 37% funded on day 1. Kickstarter campaigns provide time pressure, which can work to your advantage, but you should have your market tested and ready-to-go before launch.
Set An Attainable Goal
Kickstarter campaigns are all or nothing. If you set a goal that's too high and get it 80% funded, tough luck - you won't get a dime. For this reason, your initial goal should be the bare minimum you need to make releasing your product feasible. An added bonus of having a modest goal is that it will give potential backers who are on-the-fence confidence that you're going to deliver if they make a pledge. If someone sees that your project is 90% funded (or better yet 120% funded) it's more like they're buying a product than making an uncertain pledge. Set your initial goal low, and then add stretch goals to raise more once you hit it. If you raise a decent amount on Kickstarter, you can also ride the steam at the end of your campaign to a few additional sales outside Kickstarter (we did this and raised an additional $6K).
Follow Your Gut
You're going to read a lot of material, both from Kickstarter directly and from outside sources (like this blog post, for example), telling you about best-practices. While you should approach all of this advice openly, none of it should be taken as gospel. This advice is generally one-size-fits-all or pertains to a specific type of product, and you have to pick and choose which "best-practices" apply to your product and which don't. For example, one thing that Kickstarter stresses and that I saw others advising a lot is to favor a shorter campaign over a longer campaign (campaigns range from 1-60 days). We vacillated a lot on this, but ultimately decided that this wasn't the right strategy for our product. A lot of products on Kickstarter are primarily funded by pledges under $100, but ours was primarily funded by $3K+ pledges. This required a sales cycle of an average of about a week, and we decided that 30 days just wasn't enough time and we opted for the 60 day maximum. Our instincts proved correct, as if we'd gone with 30 days we wouldn't have hit our goal.
Don't Waste Money
A lot of teams spend thousands of dollars on professional videos and marketing campaigns for Kickstarter. In my opinion, if you have enough money to afford professional video services that are actually going to make a meaningful difference, you probably don't really need to bother with Kickstarter in the first place. We've found that anything in the realm of branding, press, design, marketing etc. on a shoestring budget is better off just being done in-house for free. You'll save money, be more agile, and ultimately will often get a better final product because low-budget outsourced options are never going to care as much or know your product as intimately as you do.
Don't Launch to Crickets
Due to the time pressure associated with Kickstarter, momentum is very important. You should have a robust marketing strategy built-out for your campaign coordinated for launch. If you can put out some original content, social media campaigns, ads, and press all set for release on launch day you'll be in a much better position to build momentum early. If you can make some presales like I suggested above that will also help you to get off to a great start.
Being upfront with who you are and what you're trying to accomplish will go a long way towards building trust and a personal connection with potential backers. If you present yourself as a faceless company, people are going to be far less forgiving of a hastily produced website or low-budget video. However, if you present the personal story of you and your team and authentically share why you're passionate about your project, people will be rooting for you to succeed and will be far more likely to trust you with an early-stage idea.
If you check out the graphic above, you'll see that almost none of the funds we raised came from Kickstarter directly. Kickstarter may put in some work to help promote their biggest, trending projects, but for the average campaign you're going to have to drive all of the traffic yourself. People don't go on Kickstarter looking for pipe dreams to fund - you're going to have to connect with potential customers where they live on social media, through press coverage, etc.
Focus on What's Working
We launched our campaign with several rewards, and also tried out several different marketing channels. It didn't take us long to figure out what was working and what wasn't. Rather than worrying about tweaking our marketing strategy or adding new rewards, we doubled down on what was producing results. Ultimately, nearly 90% of the money we raised came from two rewards that were identical and just represented early-bird and regular price tiers for spots in our course. We also tested out driving traffic through press, Google AdSense, Twitter ads, and a number of other channels. Ultimately, the vast majority of our leads were generated by Facebook/Instagram content/ads and original long-form content and videos (which also helped with SEO, where we picked up some more leads). We could have spent more time figuring out how to make Google ads work, but when you're under-the-gun and you've identified a winning formula you're better off sticking to that.
I'll go into greater detail on this in the section below, but Kickstarter does not guarantee in any way that you'll receive pledged funds. If you've reached your goal and you're happy with it, it's important to keep driving forward to get more pledges even if it'll cost you money. Backers can remove or modify their pledges whenever they want, and there is no guarantee that all of their credit cards will successfully process your charge at the end of your campaign. It would really suck to be 101% funded and take your foot off of the gas just to have a few people cancel last minute and drop you below your goal. We had multiple people cancel, but fortunately it didn't matter because we kept selling after our goal was reached.
There are a few gotchas with Kickstarter's model that I wish I'd been aware of at the start of my campaign.
First, as mentioned above, Kickstarter provides no guarantee that you'll actually receive pledged funds. Forgive me for going on a bit of a rant, but this is a huge failing on the part of Kickstarter in my opinion. Before running our campaign, we assumed that Kickstarter had an escrow service built into their model. This would mean that as a backer, you pledge funds and only have to pay if the creator's goal is met. As a creator, you would have assurance that if someone pledged money to your campaign and you successfully reached your goal, you'd be guaranteed those funds. This is not the case. Backers have something akin to an escrow guarantee, but creators have no protection whatsoever. Backers can cancel or have their credit cards bounce, and you will get nothing. This could potentially be a huge problem for a project like ours that relied on a smaller number of big-ticket pledges. If we'd gotten unlucky and had a few people back out last minute we really could have been screwed. It 's disappointing to me that creators act as a salesforce for Kickstarter, have to pay them a hefty fee, and get no security in return. This technology would be an investment for them, but in my opinion is a requirement and leaves me hoping for a blockchain-based competitor with lower fees and actual two-way guarantees to come along and give creators a better deal.
This one I can't blame Kickstarter for (they're a company, they've got to make money), but I wish I'd been more prepared for how much it was going to cost to run a campaign. The 5% fee you'll pay to Kickstarter seems obvious and is expected, but what is not are the additional credit card processing fees they're going to pass on to you. When all was said and done, we gave up 8% of what we raised in total fees, so it's important that you're prepared for this and factor it in when setting your goal.
Be prepared to have your Kickstarter inbox overrun with hucksters trying to sell you on their crowdfunding marketing plans, access to their exclusive email lists, and press contacts. This is another big problem I wish Kickstarter would address because legitimate inquiries about your campaign can get lost amidst all the spam. Be careful with any unsolicited services you're getting directly via Kickstarter - I've heard bad stories and some of these people are straight-up scam artists.
Despite some of the limitations and challenges associated with running a Kickstarter campaign, I think it is a great option for many types of products and teams. For us, it really helped to light a fire under our asses and forced us to prove to ourselves and the world that we could create something worthwhile. If you strategize, validate your product early, and work hard Kickstarter can help you to make your vision a reality.