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Lessons learned from my first Kickstarter campaign

I launched my first Kickstarter on December 3, 2013, and funded it on January 2nd, 2014. As I write this, it is October 3rd, 2017. I’m 15 days into my second Kickstarter campaign (which has gone quite well so far), and the very last of the products I promised are getting sent out to backers this week. Every day of the last three years and 10 months has been dedicated to this project, and “surreal” is not even scratching the surface of what it’s like to be done with it. That said, I’m kind of burying that “more-than-surreal” feeling with the insane workload and intensity of a second Kickstarter campaign, so…I guess I’ll let you know after the 2nd Kickstarter what it really feels like when there’s a break in between.

I thought it might be interesting to write a bit about the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years. All in all, I’d consider this project a success. That’s not to say it’s been perfect; I’m more than three years late in delivering everything, some people have been (legitimately) pretty upset with me, and that feels pretty crappy. But I’ve created 65 really excellent products, people seem really happy with them and folks have been really forgiving with how long it’s taken. I have way, way more people using those products than the original 1858 Kickstarter backers, and now, my whole life revolves around this language learning business thing, which continues to bring in new users at a steady rate and later on, produce fluent speakers. It’s turned out pretty well so far.
I’ll break these lessons up into two categories:

  •  Lessons learned about running a successful crowdfunding campaign, and
  •  Lessons learned about running a business

Let’s get to it. And fair warning: this turned out to be a long blog entry, so buckle up, (or read it in chunks).
P.S. If you ordered a word list and/or pronunciation trainer and haven’t received it yet, please check your spam folder. For some reason they like to end up there. If you still can’t find it after checking, please send us an email at gwyner (at) fluent-forever (dot) com.

Lessons learned about running a successful crowdfunding campaign

The standard advice you see when running a Kickstarter is:

  •  Make an awesome video
  •  Design your pledges well
  •  Have a base of people who are already interested in your stuff
  •  Leverage that base
  •  Use your successes to pitch to the media

Those are all true.

Make an awesome video

The “awesome video” part has some really specific ingredients to it. I learned most of these from Jesse Genet, who used to do Kickstarter consulting over at Popexpert.com when that site still functioned:

  •  Make it personal. People are giving money to YOU. Include the emotional components about why this is a project you care about.
  •  Make it concrete, with a clear beginning and end date. Everyone should be able to get together at the end and say “We did it!”
  •  Make it urgent, and make backers necessary. If this doesn’t get backed NOW, it’s not going to happen. Time must be running out for this to happen.
  •  Make the first 30-40 seconds count. It should be clear what backers get within that time. Then keep the total video to 2-3 minutes, ideally. Here are some targets. It’s hard to nail all of them, but it’s something to aspire to:First 5 seconds: What’s it called? What is it?
    Next 10 seconds: What does it do?
    Next 10 seconds: What are you going to get?
    Next 5 seconds: Why do we need money?
    Next chunk: Why must this happen NOW?

Here’s my first Kickstarter video. I did a decent job of covering the topics I needed to cover first, though I took a bit longer than ideal to get there:


It’s 4.5 minutes (a little longer than ideal), and I hit most of the marks I need to hit in the first 1.5 minutes. Ideal would be half that time:

  • 0:00-0:25: This is ME, and here’s my problem (need to learn languages, traditional methods didn’t work)   [Makes personal]
  • 0:25-0:45: I found a solution to learning languages and wrote a book   [Starts introducing product idea]
  • 0:45-1:05: I discovered how to make a pronunciation app, I have limited time, and I need help [What it is (concrete), why it’s urgent, why help is needed]
  • 1:05-1:20: Here’s what you get
  • 1:20-1:30: Here’s why I’m passionate about this
  • 1:30+ : Now, actually present ideas in detail.

Design your pledges well

Make a cheap pledge level. $1-5 max. Give people the ability to contribute and be a part of the project without spending much money. It’ll increase the number of backers you have, which increases your visibility on the Kickstarter homepage.
The next pledge level is on the order of $25-50. If people believe in this thing and want to have it, then generally, they’re willing to pay around that much for it if they’re on Kickstarter. So yes, definitely give them good value for their money, but don’t make it easy to just spend $10-15 to support and receive awesome stuff. If you do, people will back at that $10-15 level, and you’re going to have a much harder time reaching your funding goals, your project might fail, and then both you and your backers are going to be sad.
Theoretically, it’s good to design your pledges with a target in mind, but be aware that you might miss the mark on this entirely. In the case of my first Kickstarter, I wanted people to see really good value in my $30 pledge level and go for that. As it turns out, I totally misjudged that; TWICE as many people ended up going for the 4-language polyglot pack. Surprise, people want to learn multiple languages! With my new Kickstarter, the folks I’m surveying are grabbing the $40 level half of the time, and the rest are split pretty evenly across the higher levels. But…I’m surveying existing customers, and I’m incentivizing existing customers heavily in the direction of the $40 pledge by offering bonus months at that level. I really don’t know what new backers will do.
Last, be careful about adding a time-consuming personal touch to higher pledge levels. There’s nothing wrong with it, but if your Kickstarter exceeds your funding goals, you may find that you need to spend a lot of time doing personal pledge stuff instead of working on delivering products that reach all of your backers. I didn’t get hit with this TOO much in my first Kickstarter. Mostly, I had ~7 people who got 4 hours of private Skype lessons. I did learn that 4 hours of Skype lessons is a bit overkill; generally, we found that we ran out of stuff to talk about after 1-2 hours. Anyways…if you added a bunch of personal touches to your pledges and your Kickstarter does well, you may have committed to hours and hours and hours of work, recording voicemail messages for backers, or writing letters, or what-have-you, and not working on your products. For the new Kickstarter, I have some personalized books I’ll be signing. It’ll take some time but not forever. Initially, I added in 2 hours of private Skype lessons for the highest pledge levels, but then I started getting responses back from backer surveys showing that the $800 level is going to be substantially more popular than I was initially expecting. So…I adjusted it down to 1 hour (which is still plenty of time to cover each person’s individual needs) and replaced that second hour with a gift subscription, so backers can give a friend or family member the ability to try out the app for 6 months.

Have a base of people who are already interested in your stuff

I started my Kickstarter with a mailing list of 500 people who explicitly asked me to let them know when my book was coming out. In many ways, this Kickstarter was for two things: my pronunciation trainers AND early access to the content of my book. So I KNEW these people would be interested in this thing. If I didn’t have those 500 people, I’d have been pretty screwed. Kickstarters are an audience multiplier. I began with a 500 person mailing list and ended up with 1853 backers. It multiplied my existing audience by 3-4X. If I began with a zero-person mailing list, I don’t think I’d have made my minimum of $10k, let alone the $96k I ended up raising.
Facebook is NOT your audience. I mean, you’ll find a starter audience there of friends who want to support you, but that’s likely going to be around 10-50 people. You’re looking for a group of people who are already interested in what you have to offer, and have willingly given you their contact info. Not an easy prospect, and not something that happens overnight. I got my 500 people as a result of writing a Lifehacker article. It got a million views. I got around 30k people going to my website each month after that article. After a year, 500 people signed up for my mailing list. Given the amount of traffic I was getting from Lifehacker, that 500 number is pretty low. It’s HARD to get people to sign up for stuff like that.
That said, I could have done a way better job of getting email addresses. It wasn’t obvious how to sign up for my mailing list on my website. And I didn’t incentivize it. Since then, I’ve added some resources on my website that people seem to like (a free version of my 625 word list in story order and the first chapter of my book), and I’ve turned them into “lead magnets” – basically, if you want to download the cool thing, you get it in exchange for your email address. That produced around 19k mailing list subscribers in the past year. If I was going to do everything over again, I’d have prepared a cool lead magnet (an expanded version of the Lifehacker article, perhaps), put it on a landing page for anyone entering from Lifehacker.com, and then collected WAY more than the 500 email addresses I did.

Leverage that base

In my first Kickstarter, I contacted my mailing list three times: once, when the Kickstarter started. Once halfway. And once two days before the end. Each mailing produced an immediate (large) spike in pledges.
This time around, I’m contacting folks more. I’m treating folks like backers before the campaign starts. I want people involved in helping me make decisions about the kind of product we’re going to create together. I want people involved in helping make decisions about the sorts of pledge levels they want me to offer. And above all, I want them psyched. Even if we only raise the minimum here, we’re about to run the most successful app Kickstarter ever. This is big. So I want to treat it as such.
I’ve been working with a Kickstarter consultant and he mentioned that almost everything you do before the campaign starts has to do with ramping up your Day 1 pledges. Apparently, if you can hit ~$100,000 pledged on the very first day, it means you’re going to rocket onto the front of the Kickstarter homepage and very likely break $1 million by the end of the month. So I’m doing what I can on that front, giving folks bonuses for pledging on the first day (an extra month on their subscriptions), giving them useful or interesting updates, running a raffle, etc. And I’m trying to be as up front and honest about all of this as possible. I’ve listed everything I want this app to do in the future, and it’s way more than we’re going to be able to do with this Kickstarter. So we have almost unlimited ground to cover when it comes to potential stretch goals, and folks are excited about those stretch goals, and I’m making sure that people know what it’s going to take to achieve as many of those goals as possible (pledge on day 1, tell your friends, tell your friends more).

Pitch to the Media

When my first Kickstarter first launched, I spent a few hours every day, pitching it to tech bloggers. I found Kickstarters for tech/app projects, then I found the folks writing about those Kickstarters, and I researched their contact info (which is usually not very simple to find), and then started emailing them. Personal emails are better than mass emails, naturally, but you DO need to contact a LOT of journalists before you find any that will have any interest. Pitch to media once you have some success, or some evidence for future success. “Success” means “attaining funding goals” or “getting someone to write about you” or “coming up with a decent reason for someone to write about you.” So it’s a bit iterative: with my first Kickstarter, I funded in just over 2 days. So I emailed a ton of journalists: “Funded in 2 days: Fluent Forever!”, followed by a very short intro to what I’m making. One of them wrote an article. “Funded in 2 days, passing 450% funding: Fluent Forever,” with an intro explaining how we’re ALREADY getting media coverage. That led to 1-2 more articles. “Funded in 2 days, passing 500% funding: Fluent Forever,” with an intro explaining how a bunch of media outlets are talking about us, and Zach Weinersmith is tweeting about us, and holycrap this is getting exciting.” Business Insider writes an article with an amazing title, “This could be the best language learning app we’ve ever seen”. Write to everyone “BUSINESS INSIDER: This could be the best language learning app we’ve ever seen!” Rinse and repeat. Try new journalists at the same tech blogs every few days, and keep researching, looking for more writers.
With this new Kickstarter, I have a bit more clout coming into this, in that I’ve already done a successful Kickstarter, I already have some journalists that wrote about it, and I have a really nice PR angle (soon to be the most funded Kickstarter app ever). So I’m starting early, before the campaign. We’ll see if that results in articles on day 1 or not. If not, I’ll try again once we have results to show (“$100k raised on day 1!” “$330k passed; it’s now the most funded app ever!” etc.), then repeat the process discussed above.
If all goes well, by the end you’ll have raised a bunch of funds. Now you need to spend them.

Lessons learned about how to run a business after a Kickstarter campaign

Treat Your Backers Well

First off, you need to remember to treat your backers well. They’ve decided to trust you with their money. They deserve a lot of appreciation and quality treatment for that.

  • Give them updates. Regular, honest and dependable. From now on, Kickstarter is your blog. Tell your backers about your ups and downs. They paid to be a part of the action, so let them see what’s going on inside.
  • Involve them. Let them control how the project goes, vote, etc.
  • Treat your backers like backers, not customers. Refer to pledges as “rewards,” rather than “orders.” This isn’t just a psychological trick or something. Kickstarter is not a store, and these aren’t customers placing pre-orders. It’s much more emotional than that; all of us are creating a new, awesome thing together. Backers are a part of the creation process. Being a backer is exciting and special and new. Treat your backers like the royalty they are; they’re the ones who are going to be putting up with your stumbling over the next few months/years.
  • Make quality products for them. You may find that you need to decide between giving your backers something really great that’s really late past your deadline, or giving them something that’s good enough, but closer to your deadline. Some folks might disagree with me here, but I think the right choice is to give them something really great. That doesn’t mean you need to be a perfectionist, but I feel like it’s more likely for a backer (or later, a customer) to be happy in the long run when you give them something awesome, even if it comes late. And if they’re happy, they’ll chat with friends about your stuff. I prefer “Man, those guys really messed up with their deadlines, but I friggin LOVE these headphones, so I think it turned out okay” to “Headphones? Oh yeah, I bought those a year ago but they weren’t that great so I’m using my standard iPhone ones instead.”

And on the topic of missing deadlines…

Deadlines and the realities of running a business

Then you need to realize some realities about running a business:

  • Everything takes way longer than you think,
  • Everything involves more work than you’d guess, and
  • It’s really hard to find good workers.

Here’s what all of that looks like:
Yay! Your Kickstarter got funded! Time to get started!!! Right?
Nope. You have 300 emails in your inbox from backers with questions about your Kickstarter. You have 100 people asking if they can join after the fact. Kickstarter isn’t going to send you any money until three weeks have passed. Oh wait, here come 50 more emails, and 25 of them are asking if they can send in more money and change their orders.
So…you hire some help using your trusty credit card. You need a virtual assistant to help you sort through the piles of email and also to start building a database with all of your customer information, to record their after-the-Kickstarter payments and their order changes and all that jazz. You need someone good and you don’t have time to look through resumes, so you pay a little more and hire through an agency. Success?
Nope. Hiring help turns out to be a full time job, and it’s a really hard job. I went through SIX assistants in my first year. Some of them couldn’t write quality emails to backers and customers, making backers angry. Some of them riddled our customer database with mistakes, or managed to completely randomize everyone’s orders, forcing me to redo the whole thing myself. By my sixth assistant, I finally found some quality help, but man…it was not an easy road, and that process repeated itself for every position within my company.
At this point, I’m of the opinion that you should always hire 2-3 people for each job you want filled. I find most of my people on Upwork.com. Put out a detailed job posting, and at the end of it, put something like “Please include the word ‘PIXIE’ in your reply to this job offer.” Ignore ALL offers that don’t include “PIXIE.” (As it turns out, 80% won’t read your job offer in that kind of detail). Out of the offers you DO get, give them all a simple job to do. The same one. Pay three times for one job. See how they did. If all of them succeeded, do it again for a more complex job. Use these jobs to weed out the folks that aren’t going to be a good fit. If it makes sense, hire TWO people and have them split the work. That way, if one of them suddenly quits (happened to me ~4 times), you don’t need to start all over, and you have someone on staff who can train the next person.
Things will get smoother as you move on, but I don’t feel like I had a handle on things until the 1 year mark. By then, I was already ~3 months late with delivering all the products for the Kickstarter, and I had spent so much time managing that I had barely been able to make much progress at all in actually delivering things. And even after then, when I had a pretty solid staff and things were going alright, management is a huge time sink. I had planned to jump into this, make some recordings, design some flashcard decks, and send out products, and I discovered that 80% of my time would be spent making hiring decisions, cleaning up people’s mistakes, answering customer technical support emails, and generally doing stuff that had little to do with product development.
The lessons learned here aren’t very practical or fun. In part, you should generously pad your time estimates for when you think you can deliver a new product, but you’re probably still going to be late if this is your first time running a company, because it’s so hard to fathom just how much time it takes to learn how to run a business. You can decide to choose insanely long time estimates, but that’s not super effective either, because it’s discouraging for your backers. They want to see something cool, soon.
For my second Kickstarter, I’m trying to do things a bit differently in the following ways:

  • I’m not doing the work. I’m hiring a design house, and I’m only looking at design houses that are established and known for delivering quality products under deadline. I’ve gotten MULTIPLE time estimates, and then padded the averages of those estimates. So if I am completely unable to work on this, and am buried under emails, it’s still going to get done, and get done well.
  • I already have good staff, and we’re hiring more staff in advance to handle the influx of emails that’s about to start. Once this thing gets going, I’ll bring on another 2-3 workers just to handle the database work of keeping customer data records and verifying that it’s all correct. I may even get a super expensive monthly service like Intercom to manage my customer support, so that there’s always a simple way for any backer or customer to contact the right person. This is basically throwing tons of money at a problem until it goes away, but it’s the appropriate solution here, because I KNOW how intense the email flood was with my first Kickstarter, and this one is going to be 10x larger.
  • I’m going to do my best to get VERY clear with backers about how deadlines change when a $400k Kickstarter becomes a $1 million Kickstarter. This is something I really screwed up with my first one, in large part because I had no idea what I was doing. I began that Kickstarter with a campaign promise to produce 12 pronunciation trainers. No videos, no word lists, no English trainers. Even then, I was over-promising when it came to deadlines, because I didn’t know about the running-a-business stuff. But as the Kickstarter became more and more successful, we went from twelve products to fifteen to thirty to sixty-five(!). You can’t say you’re going to make 12 products in 9 months, and then add 53 more products and still finish everything in 9 months. Yet, it’s not possible to change your time estimates in the Kickstarter pledges once the campaign has started.This is something that doesn’t have a good solution, other than a lot of open communication with your backers. With this new Kickstarter, I think an August 2018 deadline is pretty achievable if we raise $400k. But it’s no longer achievable if we raise $550k and add four more languages. Even less so if we raise $700k and add Japanese and Mandarin. Not even kind of feasible if we raise $850k and add support for ANY language. (These numbers are guesses at the moment, but are probably close to what we need.) We even have a stretch goal that extends the beta test length by 2 months, giving our backers bonus time with the app, but delaying the final version of each language by 2 months.So as this Kickstarter goes on, and before the end of it, I’m going to have to send out updated deadline information to my backers, and those deadlines are going to be rough guestimates, and I’m going to pad them hard. And hopefully, that’s going to be enough to give people realistic expectations for when their language will be done. If they’re learning Spanish, it’ll be close to the original August 2018 date (though if we extend the beta by 2 months, then even that will shift). But if they’re learning Klingon, they’re going to have to wait longer, and I don’t want that to be a surprise to anyone. It’s exciting launching a project like this, and it feels really good to think about this magical time, ~1 year down the road, when everything is done, and everyone is happy, and it’s really, really easy to be optimistic about that. And that’s the moment when a backer will email and ask “OMG I’m so excited to start learning!!! When is Welsh going to be ready?!?!” and you’re going to want to open your mouth and say “Man, if everything goes well, I think we can knock that out in a couple of months! Isn’t that awesome?!” and what you should do is close your mouth, think of the worst timeline possible, and then pad it. Then wait 24 hours, look at that email, think of an even worse timeline and pad that. Come to peace with the idea that your super excited backer is going to be disappointed with you, and it’s going to feel awful. Then send the email.I’ll be honest, I suck at dealing with disappointment. When I was responding to every customer email myself, a disappointed one would knock me out for 24hours of trying to figure out how to write an email that will make that person like me again. Aside from being nearly impossible, I realized that if I lost 24 hours for each disappointed email, I was going to get a lot more disappointed emails since I was never going to get this stuff done. As such, one of the most important jobs of my main assistant is to insulate me from folks who are really angry at me, treat them well, and summarize their emails for me, once a week, on a giant spreadsheet with words like “X was upset about Y. I’ve refunded them.” Then I could focus on getting work done instead of trying to make people like me. If you’re also someone who sucks at dealing with disappointment, I can highly recommend having someone do the same job for you if you’re starting up your own business.

UPDATE: November 21, 2018

Two Kickstarters and one year-long Indiegogo campaign later, and we’ve finally released the Official Beta of the Fluent Forever app! Check it out here.

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