Within fourteen hours of posting his project on Kickstarter, a site that uses crowsdsourcing to fund creative projects, Andrew Plotkin had raised the $8,000 he needed for his idea. By the time credit cards had been charged and the money delivered a month later, those funds had risen past $30,000. Considering that his idea was give up his day job and dedicate his life to writing interactive fiction — the kind of text adventures that used to be played on mainframes — Plotkin’s achievement was all the more remarkable. So what does his success tell us about ideas that win funding on Kickstarter and delight investors in general?
Writing on CNNMoney.com, Plotkin himself puts his persuasive powers down to a number of factors. A great video, he says, is essential, but there are certainly better videos available for viewing on Kickstarter, and his own clip — mostly a talking head — lacked the smooth professionalism of his own products.
Creating a demo is also essential for game funding, he recommends, something he only realized at the last minute despite the use of demos in the game industry for years. And while other successful Kickstarter pitches show the products they want to create in their videos, few allow potential donors to play with them first.
I’ve Created Stuff Before…
While all of those factors might have contributed to the success of Plotkin’s use of Kickstarter then, what really made a difference appears to be a combination of two elements that turn up again and again on successful Kickstarter ventures.
The first is background. Answering the question “How did I do it, really?” Plotkin writes:
“First, spend 15 years working hard on projects with no reward but community goodwill.”
Fifteen years might represent a lot of spadework to pick up $30,000 but the background is important as a promise of the quality of future products. Schuyler Towne, who aimed for $6,000 of pledges and picked up a remarkable $87,407 to create a set of lock picks, describes himself as “a competitive lockpicker” who has been featured on All Things Considered, in the Boston Globe and on the History Channel. His video repeatedly showed him opening a padlock even as he continued talking to the camera, proving that he had the skills and the tools that he could deliver to backers.
Kickstarter then isn’t actually giving a kick start to people who haven’t done anything. It’s delivering an extra push to people who already have a list of achievements to their name and who need a little help to move ahead.
In the world of publishing, another area in which Kickstarter operates, this is platform. Just as the publishing industry is more likely to support an author who brings an audience created through years of professional speaking, so Kickstarter works best when the project owner is already known in their field. Andrew Plotkin’s promise to put more work into his open-source game engine was a pitch aimed directly at people in his niche, not potential customers who thought the idea sounded interesting. And as he put his pitch together, Plotkin also worked his contacts, ensuring that backers were ready with their wallets open as soon as he launched.
The rewards are vital too. Kickstarter is not a crowdsourced investment scheme so much as a sandbox in which creatives can test their concepts in a real marketplace before investing their own money. Backers don’t receive a share of the income, have no say in the production of the product and no claims on the product when it’s done. Instead, they get to choose a “reward” that corresponds to the level of their donation. For Andrew Plotkin’s project a $3 pledge landed a copy of Hadean Lands¸ the game he plans to create, for iPhone — a reward worth $5. Ten dollars added a collectable postcard with a quick reference on the back. Twenty-five dollars delivered an exclusive CD version of the game (inscribed with runes), while additional amounts added other goodies up to what Plotkin called “the traditional Kickstarter ‘I’ll fly out to visit your and bake you cookies!’ offer” for pledges of $1,000 or more. He sold both of those offers available.
Kickstarter as Pre-Order Store
Of the ten different rewards available, it was the $25 rune-inscribed CD that won the most buyers, with 358 backers contributing the cash compared to 119 people who were prepared to pre-order the iPhone game at a discount.
Perhaps the best example of the way in which products alone (combined with a good idea) can power a Kickstarter pitch though is Scott Wilson’s attempt to raise $15,000 to enable his design studio to create watch straps for the iPod Nano. With nine days still to go, he had already raised an incredible $630,789. Most backers were effectively pre-ordering the LunaTik conversion kit for $50, winning themselves a $20 discount. Unlike other sellers, Wilson wasn’t offering to fly out and bake cookies.
That emphasis on rewards makes Kickstarter very different from traditional fundraising. Unlike investment plans the risks are minimal. As long as the creative gets the money, the backer should get the reward he or she has bought. While there’s always the chance that the creative will take the cash and head for Cancun (or just fail in the production process), their background and enthusiasm help to give backers an idea of the risk involved. Try to hit up a venture capitalist or an angel, and you’ll need to do more than promise to create one copy of the product for everyone watching the presentation.
But the principles are the same. You still need to show that you can create what you promise to build. You still need to have a market ready to buy and contacts who can help to deliver the cash. And you still need to have a good idea. Venture capitalists will assess whether that idea is good enough; Kickstarter backers will tell you whether customers are actually willing to buy it. For both approaches, it’s a tougher test than trying to leave a locked room at the start of a text adventure.