timeshel transforms your iphone photos into beautiful prints and delivers them each month in a wonderful little box called the shel

15 Days to $50K on Kickstarter: One Story & Six Lessons

9th November 2013

Last week we wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign for timeshel, an effortless way to document your life story through printed photography. Launching a Kickstarter campaign should come with a surgeon general’s warning. It is not good for your physical nor emotional health, but is an absolutely fascinating social experiment. There’s not one right way to conduct a Kickstarter campaign and many people have had far more success than us, see The Ten Year HoodieBaron Fig, and of course Pebble. However, what I can share with you is how we approached our campaign and how it unfolded.

The logistics

There are two questions we were asked often. The first being, how did you decide on $50K? The second question was why only 15 days?  

How did you decide on $50K?

In determining the dollar amount we took three factors into consideration. The first was the actual amount we needed to raise as a business to continue moving forward without delays. The second was the viability of the perceived amount from a backer’s perspective. Third, we asked ourselves what’s the maximum amount that is realistically achievable? In order to stay on schedule with our product roadmap we needed to raise at least $35K (keeping in mind Kickstarter’s 5% cut and Amazon’s 3-5% payment processing fee). From there we looked to see if this number was believable from a backer’s perspective.  In other words, given what we were trying to achieve did $35K make sense? It’s hard to answer this question but our intuition said that we needed to bump this up a bit. $35K felt too safe. $50K quickly became the number that was aspirational yet achievable, the ideal pairing for a Kickstarter campaign.

Why only 15 days?

Kickstarter allows you to run a campaign from 1 to 60 days and the vast majority of people choose 30 days. In fact, all of the campaigns we researched in depth were at the 30 day mark. However, our analysis lead us to believe that most Kickstarter campaigns make their money in the first week and the last three days. We decided to cut out the middle man and just go for it, keeping in mind that there would be a likely decline in backing on weekends, hence 15 days instead of 10. Next, we figured that we could blast people for two weeks and the idea would still be fresh. There would always be a sense of urgency, both for us and for our backers. 

I also can’t overstate the value of momentum.  We could have let our campaign run for thirty days, and just collected backers as time went on, but there’s something built into our human psyche that wants to be part of something that’s moving. We equate value with movement, and thus showing accelerated progress was important to us, something we likely would have lost with a thirty day campaign. Finally you have to keep in mind your own capacity. We were exhausted after fifteen days. I remember one moment where I stood in my kitchen, staring at the sink for a solid five minutes, unable to think. There’s no way we could have pushed this campaign hard for a full thirty days while still being able to run the business.

The strategy

There are two major strategic components of a Kickstarter campaign. The first is creating a campaign in which you can gain deep insight into your customer and make product decisions based on their behavior. The second is attracting backers and ensuring you get funded.  

Customer insight

There were two hypothesizes we wanted to test through our Kickstarter campaign. Or more accurately stated, two product questions that we needed to explore. The first was related to our product offering and the second was understanding the customer life span. We’re launching with three unique features- single subscriptions (receive your own printed photographs), multiple subscriptions (friends and family receive your printed photographs) and gifting (give the service to someone else so they can receive their own printed photographs). We also hoped to gain insight into how long a customer would use our service (1 month, 3 months, or a year). Thus we structured our rewards to shed light on the demand for each of these services and time frames.  Given the structure of Kickstarter there was some pricing bias as we couldn’t offer multiple rewards at the same price so we can’t make any blanket conclusions. That being said, the insight gained was extremely valuable and will help shape our marketing efforts going forward.

Attracting backers 

Attracting backers is the crux of Kickstarter and what makes it compelling, frightening, exhilarating, and stressful. There are two tasks I highly recommend doing prior to launching your campaign. The first is building out your media list (start-up speak for the bloggers / media outlets you’d like to pursue). The second is going through all your personal contacts and segmenting those into different tiers of outreach.  My friend Mike Del Ponte, the founder of Soma Water, ran a highly successful Kickstarter campaign for Soma.  Tim Ferris wrote a piece on Mike’s Kickstarter experience that dives into these two tasks in detail. Tim’s post should be required reading for anyone thinking of launching a campaign so I will defer to him to provide instruction in this area.  

Having our media list, and personal contacts all set to go, we were ready to execute our strategy:

Days 1-3: Leverage Personal Contacts

Our Kickstarter strategy began with a gallery event on a Tuesday night, a celebration of the printed photograph, and an intentional mix of people we knew and people we didn’t. Midway through the event we stood up, gave a quick pitch, and let everyone know we were launching a Kickstarter campaign that evening. We didn’t ask anyone to back our campaign, only to share our campaign across social channels. The following day we followed up with our event attendees (about 200 people), and those who RSVPd but didn’t attend (about 40 people). We thanked them, sent them a link to our campaign and once again asked them to share.

Over the next two days we reached out to all of our personal contacts via email, segmenting them into two groups- those with prominent social influence, whom we asked to share our campaign through social channels and those whom we simply asked to back our project. We also invited all of our Facebook friends to like our page.

Days 4-5:  Blog write-ups

We had finalized our media list about six weeks in advance, reaching out to our selected authors a month prior to our campaign, and also a week before the campaign. Given that we had no positive responses, we decided to wait until we could leverage the backing of our friends, and then reach out one final time a few days into the campaign.  Unfortunately this still yielded no results. It must be said that our list of 20 targeted contacts was highly cultivated and our outreach crafted. Still, when doing a Kickstarter campaign there are many things outside of your control and positive blogger response is one of them. We were relying on blog coverage to drive significant traffic to the campaign, and push us into the next realm of backings. When this fell flat we moved to our back up blog outreach plan, a list of 100 small traffic blogs, in the hopes that we could still break through to people outside of our own networks.  We did get a couple write-ups on these blogs but it wasn’t enough to make a dent in attracting backers to our campaign.

So here we were- a major piece of our strategy yielding no results.  It was time to go back to the drawing board.  The clock was winding down.  It was time to hustle.

The hustle

The evening we realized that our blog outreach fell flat we changed course. To use a football analogy it was as if we had built a game plan utilizing both the run and the pass but then our two star receivers got injured. It was time to run the ball, and run it hard. So we did the first thing all entrepreneurs do when they need customers quick and original plans go awry. We grabbed all our left over marketing collateral and began handing out fliers. For us this meant the York Street F Stop in Dumbo, Brooklyn.  Dumbo’s a creative neighborhood and also the neighborhood we call home. We got up early and gave a flier to everybody and anybody who would take one on their way into the neighborhood for work. Two hours later and out of fliers we grabbed coffee and moved on to the next stage. From the best we could tell handing out fliers got us about four backers, and even a congratulatory tweet.

Simultaneously we noticed that email and Facebook were by far the major traffic sources to our campaign. They were also the mediums that yielded the highest rate of conversion. With this in mind we sent an update to all of our existing backers with the specific request to share our campaign on Facebook and also like our page on Facebook.  

By this point we also were able to get a feel for the types of people who found timeshel attractive. We then revisited all of our gmail contacts and made note of everyone who had yet to back the project. We sent personal, individualized messages to each person, providing reward options that we thought they might like. We continued to talk to and pitch anybody and everybody.  We were merciless yet tactful with updating our backers and leveraging them to keep pushing out the word, alternating between asking them to post something on Facebook and sending personal emails.  

The outcome

As we hustled a crazy thing happened- our friends and backers came through in a huge way.  They kept pushing our campaign and we started to get followed and featured by some prominent, influential people.  With 48 hours to go we were approaching the $40K mark, and then things started to accelerate. Our campaign had finally broken beyond people who knew us, or knew of us, into the realm of people three degrees away and they began sharing and backing our campaign.  With 24 hours to go we crossed our $50K mark, raising an additional $9K before the clock struck zero. Ironically it was in the last few hours when we received our first blog coverage, a post on Swiss Miss followed by Photojojo and Cult of Mac once the campaign was over.

The lessons

After two weeks and $50K+ here’s what I learned:

No. 1:  Your friends are your greatest asset

Your friends and those people that care about you are amazing. Use them. Thank them. Reward them. Our success was 100% grassroots and totally dependent on friends and friends of friends.

No. 2:  Create a compelling product

As awesome as our friends (and their friends) were, we would have never gotten over the hump if we didn’t eventually break out of these circles. Once we did we knew our idea had merit, and the funding followed.

No. 3:  There’s no substitute for hustle

Strategy and preparation are uber important but not sufficient. Going into a Kickstarter campaign blind, without a detailed plan is going to guarantee an unsuccessful campaign. However, when the game plan goes awry, be prepared to hustle.  

No. 4:  Step back

Kickstarter can be all consuming. It is not helped by the fact that there is a ticking clock staring back at you every time you look at the page.  This is made even worse when it switches from days to hours in the last moments of the campaign. There are moments when it is important to clear your head and step away. I took a trip upstate one afternoon to go hiking.  Good for the soul, and the mind.

No 5:  Acknowledge that your control is limited

No one succeeds without catching a break. I’m sure every successful Kickstarter campaign has a story of some person, or some outlet, that drew traffic to the campaign and pushed it over the hump. For us it was a combination of three small breaks that happened simultaneously (a tweet by an influential person that was then retweeted by other influencers, an Instagram post by another influential person that created the same behavior, and an email newsletter that went out to an entire New York neighborhood of women).

No 6:  Be yourself  

The internet is full of stories of successful Kickstarter campaigns and tactics for ensuring you get funded. Read them, learn from them, and use them.  However, at this stage in the game your brand is you and your other founders. Phil and I sent a personal thank you message to every single backer. We didn’t do this because someone else recommended it, or for any particular strategic reason. We did it because it was simply something we wanted to do and it felt right.

Onward we go

What a ride our Kickstarter campaign was.  It seems like ages ago that we were shooting this video when in reality only a month has passed. We cannot wait to bring timeshel to you so that you can relive the moments you treasure most.  Our stories truly deserve printed photographs and with Kickstarter behind us, we’re looking forward to making it happen.

// Sean


Post originally published on Sean’s personal blog:  Hey Hey, Here We Go

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