How I Raised $125,000 on Kickstarter
Here’s what I learned from running a $125,000 Kickstarter campaign for my feature film Man-child, which became the most funded project in Kickstarter’s narrative film category — for just one day, it turns out.
What, only for a day? Yes, Man-child held the top slot in the most funded narrative film category for a very short period of time before being (easily) overtaken by Save Blue Like Jazz, which was just recategorized as a narrative film (a year after its campaign ended).
The fact is, I had no intention when setting my fundraising goal of $115,000 to break any records, but with a couple of weeks left I discovered no narrative film had raised as much. I thought it would be cool to let people know we could make history together. But thanks to Blue’s retroactive revision, this turns out to not be the case. This answers my question as to whether Blue, which is based on Donald Miller’s bestselling book of essays about Christian spirituality, was going to be a narrative or not. Which is totally fine — it’s not about raising the most money, after all, it’s about making the best film you can, regardless of your budget.
To contextualize what we achieved — record-breaking or not — here is a video of all 10,000 projects (as of July) funded on Kickstarter in order of least- to most-funded. See how far you have to fast forward to find where Man-child would fit in:
That was the largest font I could choose — I’d go larger if it was an option!
In case you’re thinking of running your own campaign, the least I can do is to try to share the lessons I learned by running my own campaign. Ron Dawson also wrote up 7 lessons from my campaign, so in addition to those, here are all the behind-the-scenes details I can think of right now:
How much time did I spend on the campaign?
I tracked my hours throughout the 38-day campaign — which is something I do for all work-related activities, though I’ve since switched from using Freshbooks to Harvest — and, over the last six weeks I spent 345 hours running this campaign (five weeks of which was spent on the active campaign, plus a week of prep work). This averages out to 8 hours a day, which does not include time spent running this website, which I tracked separately (and is not included in the graph below). Suffice it to say, I had absolutely no life throughout the Man-child fundraiser. This was all I did. Here’s the complete chart of my hours every day for the Man-child campaign:
It’s worth noting that I’m stingy with my hours, given there is no hourly rate and I do it expressly for the purpose of being honest with myself. If I take a coffee break (I don’t normally drink coffee, but I did drink it for the last 38 days!), I pause the timer. But what I can’t track is the total man-hours of this campaign, which includes the efforts of friends, family, NFS readers, and anyone else who took the time to tweet, facebook, email, or otherwise share the Kickstarter page (which, as I write this, has 3,200 “likes”). The number of man-hours (and woman-hours) is much higher, and the campaign never would’ve come close without all of your support. Thank you once more!
Assemble a team
Suffice it to say: if you can assemble a team of trusted and competent people to help you with your project, do it. I built this website myself and have gotten very efficient at executing a variety of tasks back-to-back, so I felt I could manage the campaign better by working full-time (or double full-time) myself than I could if I was managing others. But this is a fairly unique situation, and not a task I’ll be putting myself through again. If you already have a cast and crew assembled, they can certainly help promote your campaign. Strength in numbers.
Extra motivation: a reason to go big?
Besides the fact that sports movies cost a lot of money to make, and it’s going to be hard to pull this film off even on this budget — not to mention the fact that I’d spent a year and a half building an online following with this website — there was another reason I set such a high goal. Author Tim Ferriss, whose recent profile in The New Yorker includes the line, “every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves” — and I don’t interpret that in a negative way, nor did the author mean it as such, I think — blogged a while back about motivation, and the difference between more easily-attainable goals and “impossible” ambitions. In a passage titled Doing the Unrealistic is Easier Than Doing the Realistic, Ferriss says:
Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.
If the potential payoff is mediocre or average, so is your effort. I’ll run through walls to get a catamaran trip through the Greek islands, but I might not change my brand of cereal for a weekend trip through Columbus, Ohio. If I choose the latter because it is “realistic,” I won’t have the enthusiasm to jump even the smallest hurdle to accomplish it. With beautiful, crystal-clear Greek waters and delicious wine on the brain, I’m prepared to do battle for a dream that is worth dreaming. Even though their difficulty of achievement on a scale of 1-10 appears to be a 2 and a 10 respectively, Columbus is more likely to fall through.
That’s what I told myself going into this campaign, at least. I certainly don’t agree with everything Ferriss espouses: I’ve refrained to date from hiring the kind of low-cost overseas “virtual assistants” featured in his book The 4-Hour Workweek, despite the fact that I could’ve really used their help for this campaign (not to mention for running this website). I’m instead hoping to hire local personel at some point in the future with whom I can build a more personal relationship and help mentor on their own careers. But as with any information or advice relevant to your career, you take what you want, apply to your own life story, and leave the rest on the curb. By setting a $115k goal, it was easy for me to resign my nights and weekends to this campaign, knowing that it was going to take absolutely everything I had to make this happen.
The other reason to set a difficult goal, for me at least, had to do with personal development. I originally thought of trying to raise $20-30k for a different project, but it wasn’t a project I was as inspired by as Man-child. In fact, here I am in May of 2010 talking about launching a campaign “in July.” So even over a year later (and 18 months of building this website), I still had to convince myself to “go big or go home.” I’d learned that lesson in London in 2009 when I scrapped my showy pitch script in favor of something safer, and probably lost a competition as a result. In fact, everything I’ve done in the last two years is summarized in the last paragraph of that post. So if I was going to go for such an ambitious Kickstarter goal on Man-child, I was going to have to get over being camera shy. I was going to have to come out of my shell and step into the spotlight from behind this blog. I was going to have to learn to speak on-camera, “ums” and “ahs” be damned, and quite frankly grow as a person.
Facing your fears
Indeed, at one point while filming the pitch video, my Doubting Thomas told me that the second on-camera character was a stupid idea and that I was going to end up editing him out — but at least I could settle for a more traditional, straightforward Kickstarter video. This is what I was telling myself when, as I set up the camera to do the wide shot of the two of me side-by-side, and as the sky rapidly grew lighter (I filmed the video late on a Friday night), my memory card ran out of space just as the sun was coming up. I was out of CF cards and I wasn’t going to have time to offload a card, format it, and do another take, so I had to get my last few lines — and I wasn’t even sure what I was going to say — in one take. For someone who’s used to being on camera, this may not have been a big deal, but I’m not a performer, and I wasn’t sure I’d gotten anything usable as the card ran out of space and the sun came up.
It took me three days (and nights) to edit the video, but I was able to draw on 12 years of experience as an editor — much of which was spent editing people like me, who don’t know how to speak on camera — to edit myself. Finally, on August 16th, I launched the campaign, a day later than I’d planned:
The calculations behind setting a fundraising goal
When you see me — just one guy — raising $125,000 for Man-child, or Jocelyn Towne raising $112,000 with her brilliant campaign video for I AM I, or Freddie Wong raising $75,000 in the first day of his campaign for Video Game High School, it’s easy to start seeing dollar signs. But don’t forget that 55% of Kickstarter campaigns fail to make their goal — and that includes a lot of campaigns that, as seen in the video up top, are many times smaller than any of these larger campaigns.
So how big is too big? There’s no sure way of knowing, but I recommend doing some realistic calculations beforehand. Here’s the calculation I did before kicking off my kickstarter:
I’d seen in twenty of the crowdfunding articles I researched and compiled on this site (first ten, second ten) that the average donation on Kickstarter is $50 (which takes into account some very generous donations, averaged out by more common $5 and $10 backers).
Then I figured 1% of people who saw the campaign would back it. This number is much higher for family and friends (maybe 50% for family and 25% for friends) but lower for someone who casually sees it on Twitter or Facebook (odds are probably 1% that a Twitter user will click on a link as it scrolls past, much less actually back the project). Even though I did my damndest to make a pitch video that would be entertaining enough to hold the attention of someone who’s never seen my face before and who has no personal interest in my success, I thought 1% was a realistic number. Why? Because I’ve tracked every statistic over the past year and a half of running this site. And while friends and family are much more likely to back the project, there are very few of them compared to everyone who would end up on the campaign page one way or another, so 1% seemed realistic.
With a 1% overall backing rate and a $50 average donation, to make my goal I had to get the campaign in front of 250,000 people — in 38 days.
The only reason I thought this would be possible is because of NoFilmSchool. In 38 days I could predict based on past traffic that there would be roughly 140,000 unique visitors (with most visitors coming back multiple times, totaling over 650,000 page views). The actual numbers for the duration of the campaign, August 16 through September 23, are at left. I put a notice about my campaign in the header, sidebar, and footer of every page, so that even folks reading a post from a year ago would have a chance of finding out about the campaign. With a sizable mailing list, I could also email my readers more than once about the campaign (the newsletter, I hoped, would convert at higher than 1% since all of those readers had been given my 114-page DSLR guide for free). Even with all of these things in place — which, again, took me 18 months to build — and a campaign that I would like to think I executed as well as I could, as one person running it on my own — I only made the goal on the last day.
While I can’t say how many visits my Kickstarter page received (at present Kickstarter does not share those kinds of very helpful analytics with project creators), with $125,100 raised from 2,336 backers, the average donation worked out to be $53.
The final graph
As I said, Man-child made it on the last day, and was in fact behind for most of the campaign. In case you’re not familiar, Kickstarter campaigns are “all or nothing,” which means if you don’t make the goal, all pledges are canceled and you get nothing. So here’s the final 38-day progress chart, with an added line to help track of how far ahead (almost never) and how far behind (all but the last day) was the campaign:
I’m not sharing these numbers to discourage others from trying ambitious campaigns — but I do want to point out that it was 18 months of hard work that enabled my successful 38-day campaign. “Ten years to an overnight success,” as the saying goes. Plus, as someone who’s backed 60+ Kickstarter campaigns over the past two years, I’d been taking notes for quite some time in addition to building up an online following.
Let’s look a bit more closely at the graph above. First of all, after the boost from the initial launch I found that the needle would move “on its own” by about $500 a day. By this I mean, the traffic my website was forwarding to the campaign, along with my day-to-day Twitter chatter, and my own posts on Facebook — along with the considerable, collective efforts of my friends and family to email their own networks and share the campaign on Facebook, combined with the Twitter, blog and other sharing efforts of you guys online — had the campaign bringing in about $500 a day. Sounds like a pretty good daily wage, right? In a typical work year consisting of 250 days (365 days, minus weekends and two weeks of vacation), that would be a salary of $125,000! However, to make my goal of $115,000 in 38 days, I needed to average over $3,000 a day. Suddenly that $500/day rate does not cut it, and the enormity of the task becomes clear.
If the Man-child campaign was to be successful, it was going to take a good campaign video, it was going to take this website, the newsletter, over 10,000 combined Facebook and Twitter followers, and it was going to take a good amount of strategery.
So let’s take a closer look at the graph, and a few things I did to boost the campaign along the way. While I was constantly blogging about the campaign here, doing interviews and writing guest posts for other sites, as well as social networking around the clock, let’s focus on some specific strategic measures. An effective initiative can be seen as an increased slope on the graph immediately to the right of the yellow line (after which the graph evens out again, requiring another “bump”).
- First newsletter. As I mentioned in some early tips about the campaign, I launched the campaign late in the day, which is why day one is so slow. Day two was when I sent out my first newsletter, which had a huge effect (as you can see).
- Second newsletter. When you run a sizable newsletter, not everyone opens every email. This was my second mention of the campaign, but that bump is deceptive — most of that was from one very, very generous backer (a NoFilmSchool reader, not someone I’ve ever met offline… yet). Thank you! It’s also worth mentioning that I was linking to the campaign in the beginning of each of my weekly newsletters, in a non-intrusive way (this would get an extra couple of hundred clicks, though as I already mentioned, without any analytics from Kickstarter, it was hard for me to see which clicks resulted in new backers).
- Twitter outreach campaign. While this bump doesn’t seem so dramatic, it came at a key time. The midpoint of the campaign and labor day weekend had the campaign’s progress stalled — you can see the line is virtually flat at this point — and the twitter campaign re-energized the community and, thanks to you all, got legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson and Lakers executive Jeanie Buss on board, giving us more credibility in the basketball world. For more on this, see my press release and my guest post on Ted Hope’s blog.
- Kickstarter featured and new rewards. With one week to go and a lot of money to raise — at this point, everyone I know was contacting me with “you’re not going to make it!!!” — two things happened. One major boost came from Kickstarter, who featured Man-child in their weekly Projects We Love newsletter, which spotlights three projects and goes out to all Kickstarter subscribers. They also put the project in their homepage rotations and featured it as Project of the Day. This was unbelievably helpful, and I will just say this: if you’re fortunate enough to be featured by Kickstarter (their community folks curate these choices, and I had not had any direct contact with them before my selection), you can benefit way more than the 5% fee that Kickstarter charges. The 5% fee is already more than reasonable, but if you run an exemplary campaign and they take a shine to you, there is effectively no such thing as a Kickstarter “fee,” and as a result you could say they end up taking a negative percentage. The second thing that happened here is I doubled the number of reward levels, filling in the large gaps between backer levels (I wanted to keep the number of rewards levels low, at least initially, to avoid the paradox of choice), adding in a Blu-ray and other new goodies. I launched with 7 levels and added 7 more with a week left.
- Individual backer level upsells. Initially I announced the new reward levels with a project update, but backers did not upgrade in droves until I messaged the individual levels to let them know about the new rewards immediately above their current level. Be gentle about this. Do not give your current backers the “hard sell,” as they’ve already helped you. But because not everyone subscribes via email to project updates — but are more likely to get individual messages via email — I wanted to make sure someone who backed the project a month ago found out about the new reward levels before the campaign ended (imagine if you backed the campaign for a DVD, then found out after the fact that a Blu-ray had become available — and you missed your chance). In the last week alone, these new reward levels ended up upgrading or bringing in 814 new backers (out of 2,336 total backers over 38 days).
- Last newsletter. With just 12 hours left I sent out one last email to my NoFilmSchool subscribers. I mentioned that my free 114-page DSLR Cinematography Guide was by no means a quid pro quo — I didn’t expect anyone to help me make my first feature film in return — but I hoped people would consider backing the project for $5 given I felt the free guide was worth at least $10. I also included an inspiring email I’d received from a reader in Ireland (also included here), in an attempt to make my last appeal more about the community and less about me. And I invited everyone to a party in Brooklyn and to tune into a live video stream of the campaign’s final hours. The rest is history — the Man-child campaign raised over $18,000 in its last day. I should note that, as you’ll see if you watch the video stream of the last three hours, my parents showed up at the last minute (online) and accounted for $4k of that $18k — even though we were well past the “do or die” $115k mark at that point. They had been worried all along about whether I was going to make it, and even though I’d told them days earlier that my campaign was not going to go the way of the auto or financial industries and require a “bailout,” I guess they really want to see their son make his first feature after pursuing a film career for the last twelve years! Worth noting: in those twelve years, I have never once asked them for money. And they’re probably looking forward to me coming home for a good chunk of time to shoot Man-child in North Carolina (where I launched this blog in 2005, unemployed and sitting in the bedroom I grew up in). Nice bribe, guys, thanks!
Crowdfunding is just the beginning
I’d like to thank everyone — the backers, the sharers, the readers, and everyone who put up with the constant reminders, banners, and tweets about the campaign for the last month. I’m glad it’s over, too! But for me… now the real work begins.
As a final example of how far this campaign came — and how it was by no means a sure thing — here’s a screenshot I took right after hitting “launch,” as I took a deep breath:
Zero backers, zero facebook likes, zero comments, and a long way to go. When I hit “launch,” in fact, I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open — I was so tired from editing the campaign video — and it just didn’t seem possible at that point.
Thank you again and again for making this campaign a wonderful success. I’m going to do my absolute best to make a feature film that makes you proud.