Lessons on crowdfunding (a children’s book about surveillance)

Look at that handsome fellow
Boris the BabyBot on Indiegogo

Today is the last day of the crowdfunding campaign for Boris the BabyBot, a children’s story about corporate surveillance. Just over a month ago, when I clicked ‘publish’ on the campaign, I was honestly not sure if crushing failure awaited.

To my surprise and delight, it did not. The campaign reached its minimum target in less than 7 days, and it closed at 152% of its goal (just over $6000 / R90,000). In the end, 218 people from across the world pledged funding and countless others have sent messages of support, helped spread the word, or reached out to contribute in other ways.

I don’t know what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign, except to point to that magnificent mob of people and say “them.”

But I do know that most crowdfunding efforts don’t meet their targets (the reported success rate is about 37% for Kickstarter and 17% Indiegogo; I couldn’t find any stats for Thundafund.)

So, in an effort to pay forward all the advice and support I got throughout this process, I wanted to share just a few things I learned.

1. Start strong or struggle along

I didn’t know this before I started, but Indiegogo’s advice is to get the first 30% of your goal in the first two days, in order to create enough momentum to carry you through to your goal at the end of the month.

Why? Supposedly ot creates a buzz around the project, and pushes your campaign to the top of the ‘trending’ list on your crowdfunding site (attracting new backers, with any luck). It also creates a sense of confidence for potential backers that this project has a good chance of success. (Everyone wants to support the coffee shop that already has a long line.)

Because I’m impulsive by nature, I nearly launched my crowdfunding campaign very early — thinking I’d throw it up on the internet and build momentum as I went. Thankfully, after reading about the ‘early momentum’ effect, I ended up pushing back the launch date. I emailed close friends and contacts a week ahead of the launch, to let them know I’d be emailing them the moment the campaign went live to ask for their support. In the same way that casinos supposedly have a ‘soft launch’ (opening the doors early to let people mill around for a week or two before the actual launch) I also planned only to announce the campaign to the world on the Tuesday, once all those fine people had warmed up the pot a bit.

As it happens, within a few hours of the soft launch, those people had already come through with amazing generosity, and I ended up going fully public around lunchtime on the Monday.

By the end of day 1, the project had 40% of its funding goal, from friends and strangers alike, and by the end of Week 1 it was at 100%. However, you can really see how the momentum slows down over the course of the month:

Funds raised over time

I’ll talk more about those friends and strangers, but first…

2. Plan to keep the momentum going

I suspect the hooplah surrounding crowdfunding in its early days invited many of us (including me) to think of it like magic. You come up with an idea, put together a pitch video, and then send it up the tubes into that magical dream machine called ‘The Internet’. Voila, 30 days later the machine spits out money.

Nah, man. It’s work. It’s fun work. It’s thrilling work. But anyone who’s planning to crowdfund should know that it’s going to take a lot of labour to keep that magical dream machine turning.

In the nonprofit space, the “just do a crowdfund campaign!” solution gets thrown around for nearly every problem. Which is cool, as long as folks know that it’s going to take a lot of people working together throughout the month to pull it off.

Where’s the time go? I can’t say for sure, but a lot of it goes to crafting social media content, sending out marketing emails, writing up thank-you emails*, working with suppliers to get started on perks, etc. I remember watching a Thundafund video which warned that the first three days were going to be crazy. I sort of shrugged it off – I think of myself as super efficient under a deadline, I had all my content lined up, and ultimately we’re just talking about a few social media posts and some emails, right? THEY WERE RIGHT. Those first three days were ‘Oh crap it’s lunchtime already I should step away from my computer to eat breakfast’ kinds of days.

If I could do it again, I’d put a bit more time into trying to get the word out via media coverage in the later weeks of the campaign. The word doesn’t spread itself.

On a marketing note: there were interviews on CapeTalk and SAfm, and articles in the Daily Maverick, City Press and the Sunday Times. Some international coverage came via BoingBoing.net (which, if you haven’t heard of it, is the New York Times of digital mutants) and DuckDuckGo (the search engine of digital mutants). Here’s the analytics:

Note: these are aggregate stats from Indiegogo’s dashboard.

Note that Facebook is much lower in the rankings than you might expect (if you’re a digital marketer-type, which I’m not). I decided not to run anything on Facebook itself, although I did use some Facebook subsidiaries, which probably cost me quite a bit of traffic. But that was a personal choice.

Now, speaking of choices:

3. Choose your platform carefully

Of the platforms I looked at, differences in fee structure were pretty marginal (most take a 8%-10% cut). What it really came down to was a trade-off between the size of the audience and the quality of support.

I strongly considered going with Thundafund, the South Africa-based crowdfunding platform, not only to support a local enterprise, but also because they promise more hands-on mentoring and assistance than you’d find on a larger platform. (The A to Z of Amazing South African Women, by Ambre Nicholson, got published via a very successful Thundafund campaign.)

However, I ended up choosing Indiegogo because I wanted to make the book available to international networks. (Surveillance is global; I wanted the book to be likewise.)

I think it was the right trade-off for me; about 11% of the backing came organically from Indiegogo’s site, especially after it was featured as one of the ‘trending’ projects in Week 1. About 60% of the backing came from outside South Africa. Here’s a general breakdown:

(For anyone who’s looking into a major crowdfunding project: Kickstarter has a bigger ‘network’ effect than a platform like Indiegogo, but it’s not available in South Africa and most other regions. If that’s what you need, you either need a bank account in one of the current Kickstarter regions, or you need to pay the $500 it takes to register a US business with one of the applicable services. It wasn’t my vibe.)

And just so you know: Indiegogo has plenty of useful ‘how to’ articles, but the human support has been pretty lousy.

You know which human support wasn’t lousy? Let’s go onto my final point:

4. Your people are *the best*

People will do the most amazing things for you.

There’s obviously the 200+ people who financially backed the campaign. But in truth this campaign was borne by the goodwill and support of people beyond counting, and far beyond those monetary contributions.

My one friend, Natasha, created the most gorgeous lino cutting to make a limited-edition print as part of the campaign. My other friend, Becky, is creating these beautiful felt robot designs for baby onesies and toddler shirts. They both refused payment.

Boris the BabyBot perks

Matthew Kalil offered to shoot my pitch video, presumably because he realised that if I did it myself it’d look like a manifesto video filmed in the Boeremag’s basement. (On that note: Don’t skimp on your video. Indiegogo claims that projects with video raise four times as much as those without. Don’t wait for a Matthew to save you from yourself.)

Two separate people made Boris the BabyBot cakes for the party we hosted when the campaign hit 100%.

Ice cream cake on the left, carrot cake on the right.

And then there’s people who read the ‘test’ copy of the book to their kids. There is nobody on earth whose waking hours are more precious than the parent of a very small person, and if they’d invoiced me for their time there isn’t a crowdfund in the world that would’ve covered it. And there are so many other people, who did so many splendid things, that I can never list them here.

Thus, the teachings of Crowdfunding 101 is that you’re only as good as your network.

But to add to that, the thing that I don’t see written about in the crowdfunding literature is the emotional journey of being spirited along by all these wonderful people. In the days before I launched this effort, I was grappling with the fear of failure. What if it flops? Within the first few hours of launching, I found myself grappling with the fear of success. How can I possibly deliver on these expectations? What if the book’s not worth it?

The way I reconciled it — to the extent that I have — is just to trust my people. Strangers and friends alike, crowdfunders are not (by and large) consumers paying for a product. They are champions, backing an idea. If you have people who believe in you, and if you make it at least a bit easy for them, they will do amazing things for you. I can only counsel you to have faith in their judgement, and honour it.

Okay, TedTalk over.

Thank you, once again, for an absolutely exhilarating month. I simply don’t have the words for how grateful I feel.

— Murray

p.s. Okay, one last sell: You can still pre-order the book and some of the swag here. Ye beauties.

*Sure, you can use automated mailers but honestly, what would your mum say? Take the time to write a personal thank-you note!