Anatomy of a Book Kickstarter
But what does it take to prepare a campaign on Kickstarter? What are the pros and cons of using the platform to launch a passion project? How much of the money raised do you actually see? How does one transition from a successful Kickstarter to a successful product launch?
This article describes our motivations in running The Field Study Handbook Kickstarter, from preparation, mistakes, where we got lucky, to what we would do differently next time. It may be of interest to writers, creators, publishers and studios thinking about bringing their passion project to life.
If you’re only interested in the numbers, skip to the section on Data, below.
- A small, focussed, team with diverse-experience, and a product to sell, can can run every aspect of successful campaign with minimal preparation.
- Our campaign took three months to execute: two-weeks to prepare, three-weeks to run, and seven-weeks to fulfill.
- We identified four distinct core audiences, with some conflicting needs.
- The community drove sales, with established media contributing a distant second.
- While 1,776 people pledged, the momentum that carried us through the campaign was generated by less than 20 people.
- We minimised risk and stress (and forwent $6k profit) by printing the first 1,000 books prior to the Kickstarter launch, allowing us to comfortably start shipping within a month of the campaign closing.
- For a “book Kickstarter” the book provided only 62% of gross revenue, experiences 27%, other products 7% and patronage 4%.
- Of the $337k pledged: campaign hard costs consumed $90k. Of the remaining $247k gross revenue from books, experiences, products and patronage, we generated $108k net income/profit from books. We don’t break out profits from other products or experiences and this doesn’t include our labour costs.
- In the 12-months following the Kickstarter, we estimate an additional gross revenue of $380k: $170k from selling the Handbook and $210k from new experiences (retreats, workshops, expeditions). If the Handbook achieves evergreen status and warrants additional print runs, it will generate $135k or more in residual gross revenue per year.
And to put these figures into perspective:
- The initial investment was $40k in printing and production costs to push out the first print run, three unpaid years of waking up before dawn to write, edit and design the book, seventeen years of experience in running diverse international field work projects, to have something worth writing about.
- This project fully delivered a return on investment prior to the Kickstarter launch, from the enjoyment of dedicating six years to a passion project, taking the time to appreciate every step of the process, working with and getting to know some wonderful people, all with no personal expectation of financial return. Go figure.
- If I’d run the Handbook purely as a commercial venture, it would never had got off the ground. It’ll take a few years of sales to recoup “salary” for personal time invested.
The idea for The Field Study Handbook came in 2011, when I was writing my first book, Hidden in Plain Sight. For that project I had a book agent, a writing partner, and signed to an imprint of Harper Collins. I’m grateful for the experience, but despite selling over 70k copies worldwide, I had limited emotional attachment to the project and didn’t see much in terms of financial reward — such are the dynamics of big publishing.
With the Handbook I wanted to write a book from start to finish, on my own terms, and without deadlines. My day-to-day work, requires a lot of travel, going deep into projects, and doesn’t make it easy to maintain a writing rhythm. In 2014 I started the project in earnest, and committed to moving it forward every day regardless of timezone or altitude. By and large I’ve been true to that, working between one and eight hours per day, on top of other studio, client and family commitments.
In 2015, I decided to also edit and design the Handbook, as a hardback, and spun up a new studio imprint, Field Institute. In the final year before launch I hired two proof readers and an illustrator — the talented Lee John Phillips. The one year writing project became a three-year writing-and-design project.
Looking back, Craig Mod’s 2010 documentation of his Art Space Tokyo Kickstarter shone light on what was possible through self-publishing on that platform. Two other self-publishing inspirations were Kevin Kelly’s essay 1,000 true fans, and Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design that gave us the confidence to publish the niche Sustainable Data booklet at the same time. (I’d be remiss in not mentioning Timbuktu Labs Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, although I learned about it after launch). The benchmark for creating a well designed, self-published evergreen book is probably Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Graphic Press with series sales in the low millions.
My aim with the Handbook is to create an evergreen book that becomes an essential reference, and to provide other forms of value to the growing community of practitioners through assets, events and experiences.
Whether to Sign With A Publisher or Self Publish?
The business end of signing with a large publisher first became apparent when it came to marketing my first book, Hidden in Plain Sight. A large publishing house makes a spread bet by signing up a number of authors, and hones on which author to double down on (and consequently which to largely ignore) after reading the final manuscript and feeling out the sentiment in the market. I’ve experienced the best and worst of this approach: in the US, HarperBusiness committed very limited marketing resources for Hidden in Plain Sight, in South Korea, the local publisher Winners, secured end-caps in all the major bookstores in Seoul — where it became the #1 business book for five weeks — enough to drive 42k sales. Signing with a large publishing house doesn’t guarantee they’ll put any marketing muscle behind your book launch.
The big-publishing system is also designed to soak up all revenue after the initial advance, delaying the time when the author sees any royalties. The common argument for a specialist book like the Handbook is that “there’s no money in books, you make it from speaking engagements” is not true. There is money, it just doesn’t flow to the author. Will self-publishing leave us financially better or worse off?
The vision I had for the Handbook launch was far too esoteric for a mainstream publisher to take on since it included books, lifestyle products, field-ready technical equipment and experiences. In the words of an established agent I approached when feeling out publishing options, “I wouldn’t know where to start with this project”. Sometimes you have to find your own path.
Had I signed to a large publisher, the retail strategy would be taken care of. Once I decided to self publish, there were two complementary routes to market—Amazon (other online retailers just don’t have the same book reach) and through the Studio D store. Direct to retail, essentially cold-calling indie book stores to carry the Handbook, was impractical.
The initial plan was to self-publish and sell directly through Amazon. It took a bit of cajoling from friends, and discussions with my business partner Keiko, to seriously consider crowdsourcing the launch.
The most compelling aspect of crowdsourcing is that it’s a public spectacle, a declaration of intent with an unknown outcome. Will or won’t it succeed?
Kickstarter’s value proposition is that it’s a proven platform to launch a product, provides exposure to a community that is attracted by its platform dynamics, drive pre-sales, and logistical and back-end support. The cost of this service is five percent on total sales + shipping costs, plus credit card handling fees of between three and five percent. With a lack of time, I didn’t give other crowdsource platforms much consideration.
The stigma of using the platform to attract funds i.e. going cap in hand to the community, has largely dissipated, and there are numerous companies that have launched products off the back of successful campaigns, without detriment to their long term brand.
There are risks to using the platform. As a public spectacle, any failure, in funding, support, or follow through, remains in the public domain, permanently associated with personal and organisational brands. The platform is littered with the detritus of campaigns that didn’t go to plan. There is also the risk of overexposure of myself, Studio D, and SDR Traveller, given that we prefer to maintain a low profile.
The duration of the campaign, typically 21 or 30 days also risks fatiguing one’s friends and peers, with inevitable overlap as the communication ripples through mailing lists, social media and word of mouth. For all of its merits, crowdfunding skews to produce feature-rich products. Success on Kickstarter can be detrimental to long term goals.
In sum: Kickstarter had strong potential, but it would require a lot of work to ensure the quality of the offering, tone and seeing through delivery.
If the short term goal, was to write, edit, design and publish a large scale book project, the long term goal is to change the way people and organisations think about and engage the world out there. I want to grow the community of skilled practitioners, that is philosophically aligned to the principles in the Handbook. I believe that most organisations are consuming the data-equivalent of a high-fructose diet, at the cost of their long term health. I can show them a significantly better way.
The Kickstarter user experience focusses on the money raised as a marker of success. I see things a bit differently:
- The goal of our Kickstarter wasn’t to sell as much as possible, but rather to sell highly valued rewards to as few people as possible. Going back to our long term goals, I’d rather have 100 passionate advocates that will stay engaged long after the campaign is over than 10,000 people who couldn’t care either way.
- Minimal operational complexity: limited SKUs for physical products; and ensuring that experiences, build on existing in-house skills. Given where and how the studio operates, there was plenty of scope to be creative.
- To wrap the bulk of the shipments within seven weeks of the Kickstarter closing, so that the studio could focus on international consultancy projects and the little matter of setting up a new office in Tokyo.
- Build awareness and excitement for the launch. The book was first announced in 2014, at which time we started collecting email addresses, hence some of the Handbook mailing list was stale and would need reengagement.
- I enjoy exploring systems and running experiments.
We wanted to provide early backers with a copy of the book within a month of the Kickstarter closing, rather than decide on how many copies to print based on the pre-orders.
We set aside studio funds for an initial print-run of 1,000 copies of the Handbook, and 500 copies of the Sustainable Data booklet. Capturing pre-sales income from the Kickstarter was appreciated, but it wasn’t a prerequisite for launch. I attended the press check for the first print run at Oddi Printers in Iceland. Books were shipped to a warehouse in Maine, ready for distribution to our fulfilment center in San Francisco or Amazon, depending on the final number of pledges. The second print run of 3,000 units was initiated in the final days of the Kickstarter and would take five weeks to arrive in the warehouse, in time for our project cut-off date.
This might be the only crowdfunded campaign we ever run, and we decided to savour the experience. Our guiding principles:
- Enjoy the moment. It is possible to outsource much of the Kickstarter process, including copywriting, fulfilment, customer support and marketing. I treated the whole process as a learning experience and set aside 50% of my time for three months to appreciate its nuances from start to finish, with a hard-stop due to other commitments. Post-Kickstarter I committed another three months over the following year to deliver experiences such as the expedition to Afghanistan and stretch goals. BackerKit was the obvious candidate to outsource operations to, but was rejected for violating the no-asshole rule: they were tone-deaf, evasive on responding to cost estimates, and nagging in a way that only organisations that live and die by CRM systems can be. All told, we took everything on, except for the fulfilment of books.
- Keep it simple.
- Find the grain. Every platform has its own dynamics, assumptions, and possibilities. What is possible with Kickstarter that won’t fly elsewhere?
- Push boundaries. What can we bring to Kickstarter that pushes the boundaries of the platform, while remaining true to its DNA?
- Share the love. Respect those that helped make it happen.
- Deliver. Follow through with rewards and stretch goals.
We identified four primary audiences for the Handbook:
- Professional researchers, including many in the EPIC community.
- Professionals that need to understand people/customers in international markets, across strategy, design, product, service, brand, policy, community engagement, and spanning commercial, nonprofit and government sectors.
- Thoughtful travellers: people that want to experience more nuanced travel, and appreciate the value cross-cultural understanding. The strapline “Travel anywhere, make sense of the world, and make a difference” squarely set our ambition to reach this audience.
- Book project lovers: that appreciate the book making process and revel in the details of the final artefact. While niche, the intensity of engagement from that community was enough to warrant their inclusion.
The challenge was to appeal to each of these audiences in such a way that didn’t alienate the others. For example, professional researchers want to know if the content is technically sound while curious travellers want to understand if it’s sufficiently accessible to the layman — seemingly conflicting demands. (The extensive use of a technical illustrator, a nuanced use of information architecture, and partnering with EPIC worked well to bridge both worlds).
The Kickstarter reward format makes it easy to target each audience separately.
Professionals were primed a month prior to launch with a comprehensive table of contents. I also run an experimental heat-map version of the table of contents for those logged into Medium. It worked OK until someone highlighted the whole thing rendering the other highlights less useful. However the likes, comments and engagement lent professional credibility to the launch.
If rewards are a public affirmation of what you did last year, then stretch goals are a public declaration of how you would like to spend the next.
We offered 19 distinct rewards, from an entry-level $24 digital pack, to the $10,000 Short Walk — an expedition to the Big Pamir in Afghanistan. I recommend heading over to Kickstarter to see all the rewards in context.
We also provided a handy, aspirational overview.
The contents, name and price of each reward were tweaked right up until the night before launch. Once a reward is sold, it’s description cannot be changed, although the number of each reward offered can.
Our principles for setting the rewards:
- Inclusivity. Provide a meaningful reward for every price point.
- Patronage, to allow people to publicly align with the project.
- Accessibility, to appeal beyond the core professional researcher to those curious about how to travel differently.
- Tell stories that appeal to our different audiences through bundling.
- Appeal to utility e.g. save time, make money, and emotion e.g. become the person you want to be, attain a more desirable lifestyle.
- Clear value proposition. This started out OK, but there was some overlap between value propositions when we started offering new rewards, and people started up- or down-grading.
- Attainable: we adjusted the numbers of each reward daily, to ensure they were scarce but available. By the end of the campaign, only one reward remained: the final ticket for the $10,000 expedition to Afghanistan.
- Add-ons: by pledging an additional $24, the Digital Pack was added to other tiers.
- Sufficient discounts on our main bundles to obey Weber’s Law.
- A plausible rationale for a steeper discount the Bookshop Bundle, that also tells a story, even though every one sold went to corporations.
- Partnering: we lined up a launch partner, EPIC that represented the core researcher professional demographic (see below)
- Introduce SDR Traveller to a wider audience, while being true to what it stands for.
- Extend the Studio D offering by introducing experiences.
EPIC, a community of research professionals, was chosen as the conference launch partner. Our agreement included cross promotion of their conference, selling some tickets on their behalf, and in return they donated a number of tickets which we sold at 100% profit. The partnership worked well: the campaign provided us with exposure to their members and they reached a wider, complimentary audience through Studio D’s mailing lists. We considered other partnerships, but none were as clear cut and reciprocally beneficial.
The stretch goals mostly represent things I’d wanted to commit to, but that often fell by the wayside when attention turned to client projects. These were:
- $65k A trip for the illustrator, Lee to visit Studio D in San Francisco or Tokyo.
- $88k. The Field Study Template Kit, Education Edition is offered for free to colleges/universities.
- $100k. I’ll invite a writer-in-residence to join the Borderlands Expedition.
- $120k. A month-long mentorship, for one person.
- $150k. A mountain retreat, somewhere interesting.
- $250k. Up to $8k Studio D Grant + mentorship to run a month-long immersive research project somewhere interesting.
- $300k. I’ll offer my services gratis on a month-long project for a non-profit anywhere in the world.
The Launch Process
We mostly used existing Studio D assets for the Kickstarter launch, and shot the campaign photo on our kitchen table.
A launch video was art directed and produced by Timo Arnall. He’s an accomplished director, and the output was very basic by his standards. His spec was to “spend no more than a day in total”, with Timo having total creative control. I wrote the script over a few days, with one round of minor edits once it was placed in the video. Lee’s content made it stand out, and he contributed an additional video of himself illustrating one of the rewards. Timo licensed an instrumental track through MusicBed. The video length was longer than we’d originally planned, but worked well for that soundtrack, without any editing.
While the book launch was planned months ahead, we only decided to run the Kickstarter two weeks prior to launch. The limited time, helped us not overthink the campaign.
Two Weeks Before Launch
“Oh my, I guess we’re launching a Kickstarter.” Write up rewards and copy, refine, refine, refine until the tone and reach was just right. Shoot a few new photo assets. Produce video with Timo, with new illustration footage from Lee.
The Night Before Launch
Thirty “please preview our campaign” emails sent to a select group of friends, the night before the launch. We had zero media primed for launch, with a plan to reach out only if/when we organically hit our goal.
Complex emotions, not least because it had taken six years come this far. Made final edits, slept a few hours.
Made a cuppa, the campaign went live 5.49am San Francisco time, went for a Marin headlands ride. Reached the funding goal within 3 hours 28 minutes. Let it sink in.
Day to day activities included:
- Responding to comments, messages and social media.
- Personalised emails to friends and ex-colleagues to give a heads-up on the campaign.
- Tweaking reward numbers based on pledges.
Updates, mailed through the platform, were kept to minimum in order to minimise Kickstarter fatigue amongst friends and peers. Eight Kickstarter updates were sent over the course of the campaign, with a ninth to acknowledge the final funding. Unfortunately, a degree of campaign fatigue is inevitable.
The Good, Bad and the Ugly
- Small team of myself (devoting 50% of time for 12 weeks, mostly up front), Keiko from Studio D (15%, ditto), plus Lee and Timo for the video + misc assistants. We covered everything in-house except fulfilling books.
- Taking on the whole process ourselves, ignoring the increasingly high pressures sales tactics of BackerKit.
- Imaginative rewards and strong copy. Aiming for the broadest audience worked well—I think we pulled it off.
- An engaging video.
- The ~20 people who drove the momentum of the campaign, many of whom were drawn from the first email to 30 close friends, who were given a heads up the day before launch.
- 270 personalised emails post launch.
- The Handbook mailing list of 2,000, to be notified of launch.
- Podcast with Craig Mod on book design, a month prior to launch, did wonders to attract book project lovers. Received a boost from Gruber.
- Tailored mail outs through different channels, kept to a minimum to avoid Kickstarter fatigue.
- Printing 1,000 copies ahead of time allowed us to run through sanity check and quality issues at our own pace, and cost us a mere $6k in profit. The alternative was to print ~3,000, after the campaign.
- The sale of the $9,500 Field Methods Workshop within a few hours of launch sent a clear signal that the campaign might be going places, and gave permission for everyone to spend freely.
- Tweaking the numbers of each reward day to day, to ensure everything was attainable, but close to running out.
- Offering ‘patronage’ on the website (see below).
- Limiting major announcements, and having a weekly cadence for introducing new major rewards i.e. the retreats, the Studio D Edition.
- The video could have been shorter. It’s length was timed to the music track, with more time we could have found something more appropriate.
- Smarter segmentation on mailing lists.
- Should have systematically conducting outreach to media well ahead of the campaign, with a nudge once it hit the funding goal.
- Campaign promotions getting on the nerves of peers.
- More advanced review copies.
- The Field / Yoshino reward should have been priced $1,000 higher, to account for planning time. It’s a high-touch event, with attendee numbers capped low to ensure a high quality experience.
- Should have systematically used Kickstarter’s referral tracking tool and refocussed day-to-day activities depending on where the energy was coming from.
- Tighter control of content placement in media, i.e. FastCo Design.
- I shouldn’t have attended the PSFK conference in NYC mid-campaign. It was initially set up to provide a boost if required, but it coincided with two of the poorest performing days of the campaign, and my time could have been spent more wisely. As the opening speaker of the conference I was wary about over selling the Handbook and Kickstarter, but I shouldn’t have worried—almost every other speaker treated their slot as an infomercial. Fun being in NYC tho.
- More time to identify the right piece of music for the video.
The prevailing wisdom is that Kickstarter success is driven by media exposure.
We had zero media in place at the time of the launch. Post launch, and with the funding already met, we obtained coverage from Core77, FastCo Design, Backchannel/Wired. In addition the campaign was covered by two podcasts Monocle, Ueberproduct and the aforementioned On Margins.
Greater media exposure would have resulted in more up-front success, but I’m kinda enjoying the slow burn as people discover the book in their own time, by word of mouth and the occasional article.
The Handbook was categorised as a nonfiction book, with some overlap in audience to the EPA Graphics Standards System which ran a Kickstarter at the same time. The team behind that book have a brilliant track record with the NASA Graphics Standards Manual and NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual but despite cutting a deal to for daily exposure on the Kickstarter homepage they limped (by their standard) over the finish line. I suspect we benefitted from their presence in that they drove considerable traffic to the platform, some of which ended up supporting our campaign.
Pledges, Revenue, Costs, Profit
How much pledge revenue makes it’s way to the creators? And of that revenue, how much does the campaign eat up, and how much is profit?
The campaign had a strong start — clearing $70k on the first day, and over $30k on the second and third days.
- The average expenditure was $190.
- Eleven people pledged $1, wanting backer updates but nothing else.
- The highest pledge was $10,000, for the Short Walk.
- 1,613 people spent over $100.
- 65 people spent over $500 (13 of which bought the Bookshop Bundles for distribution in their organisation).
- 20 people spent over $1,000.
Where Did The Money Flow?
Net profits from Kickstarter book sales is $108k. The full figures, including post-Kickstarter estimates can be found in Book Financials (table, below). We don’t break out profits on experiences or other products. Note some experiential and product bundles include books, but are categorised as non-book. While there’s some overlap, we’ve avoided double counting.
A number of rewards including a “patron” option — paying a premium for “a little extra support” for the campaign, and in return having their name on the website patron page. The patron premium varied slightly per reward, but averaged at $36 with 300 takers.
Payment is not made at the time of the pledge, but instead, when the Kickstarter closes. 1.4% of all pledges, and 1.8% of pledge value failed to clear credit card authorisation.
Pledged via Kickstarter
How much additional revenue was generated by being on Kickstarter? Kickstarter uses the “pledged via Kickstarter” metric to highlight how the platform contributes to the campaign’s success.
It’s unclear how many of these “pledged via Kickstarter” leads would have naturally overlapped with our own reach. My rough calculation, based assumptions about existing social media and mailing list engagement, is that the real figure is forty to eighty percent of the declared total. Still comfortably more than the service fee of five percent.
Financial Value to Kickstarter
To flip the value equation for a moment: how many new people did our campaign attract to the Kickstarter platform? What financial contribution will these people make to the platform over their lifetime?
Consider three metrics:
- People for whom this is their first Kickstarter, signed up under their own name, reasonable likelihood of pledging again.
- People for whom this is their first Kickstarter, signed up as a guest, may be converted into a regular customer later if they have a good experience. They may also prefer just prefer to stay anonymous. Lower likelihood of pledging again.
- Lapsed Kickstarter member, burned or left uninspired by previous campaigns, reinvigorated by the Handbook campaign to rediscover the platform.
Of course if we delivered a poor campaign, we risk driving people away from the platform.
Some of the new customers are drawn to the platform, may in turn start their own Kickstarter later on. Curious how Kickstarter measure customer value internally:
- Pledges from guest accounts: 98 (8.2% of total, $27,662)
- 1st time pledges: 80+
- Lapsed Kickstarter members: unknown
- Lifetime Expenditure Per New Customer: unknown
We obtained quotes from three printers, and settled on Oddi Printers in Iceland. They have a deserved reputation, and were competitive compared to US printers, even when including flights to attend the press check in Reykjavik.
The first print run for the Handbook was 1,000 copies. We sold that number in the first week of the campaign, and cued up a second edition/print run of another 3,000 copies, 600 of which were bought by the Kickstarter community, the remainder of which are available through Amazon and Studio D channels. Kickstarter sales fell just shy of paying for the entire second print run.
To put these figures into perspective, the first year’s net income from the Kickstarter and Amazon book sales is the equivalent of gross revenue of a small to mid-sized, three month Studio D project. Another way of looking at it: over a thousand people, many of whom would not consider themselves “book buyers”, paid over a $100 for a book, which begs the question, what were they buying?
We could have printed more copies, but the profit margins per book don’t rise significantly after 3,000 copies, and it carries the risk is having stock idling in warehouses. To put these figures into perspective, in a larger publishing house such as Gestalten or Taschen, the initial print run is in the region of 8,000 to 20,000 copies, although the Handbook is priced three time higher than their mass-market hardbacks. [Note: does anyone have comparable data from a publishing house?]
We estimate that the second print run will take a year to sell out. The size of future print runs depends on demand. If it achieves evergreen status (conservatively, selling 3 copies per day) it can generate $135k residual gross income/ $60k net income per year.
We currently have no plans for a digital or paperback editions, even though a digital edition would make sense, it being a field-guide and all. Good things take time.
Experiential Reward Pledges
We offered two experiential rewards at the Kickstarter launch (A Short Walk, Borderlands Expedition), and two retreats once stretch goals were reached (Field / Yoshino and Field / Sichuan). Given the price range, from $2,000 to $10,000, and that it was our first time offering this, we had no idea of demand. Our hunch was that, at a minimum, they would add a buzz to the campaign, while remaining aligned to the values of the studio.
It took a week to sell out Field / Yoshino, with a couple of tickets selling in the first hours, and the final three tickets going in a two-hour window on day seven. We immediately redirected people to a wait list on Studio D. The momentum was such that we could have sold twice as many tickets.
This gave me the confidence to run a second retreat, with slightly higher capacity, a little more edgy, up in the mountains of Sichuan. However, this time we wanted to offer it at a more sustainable price for the studio, sold two tickets on Kickstarter and redirected sign-ups via to Studio D site and to the retreat mailing list form.
Most Kickstarters aim to minimise risk. We flipped this equation and made embracing, and learning how to mitigate risk on a journey to the remote regions of Afghanistan and Tajikistan an active part of those rewards. This aligns well with The Field Study Handbook, that devotes a whole chapter to risk management, whether you’re crossing borders or operating in a hostile environments. Read the risk section at the footer of the Kickstarter page for the fuller story.
People & Places
Rewards shipped to forty nine countries, with sales dominated by the US and English speaking countries (EN) and countries where English is frequently well spoken as a second language (EN+).
- United States (EN) 973 pledges
- Great Britain (EN) 89
- Australia (EN) 77
- Canada (EN) 75
- Germany (EN+) 39
- Singapore (EN) 26
- Netherlands (EN+), Sweden (EN+) 22
- Spain, Japan.Switzerland (EN+). France less than 20
- Austria, Belgium, Brazil. China. Denmark (EN+), Estonia , Finland (EN+), Hong Kong, Hungary, India (EN+), Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway (EN+), South Korea, Taiwan less than 10
- Thailand, Latvia, Russia, Israel, Serbia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, Chile, Bulgaria, Iceland, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates. Sri Lanka 1 each
About 1 in 90 shipments were lost or returned without reaching their destination, and required follow-up support to reship. Where fault lay with the receiver, they were charged the additional shipping. From our experience of running SDR Traveller, the most common issue in shipping overseas is items held up in customs — it can take weeks before this becomes apparent to the shipper or receiver.
About 1 in 150 shipments were damaged in transit, unsurprising for a 3lb book. For light damage we offered free access to the digital pack. For more significant damage we offered a free replacement and suggested they gift the damaged copy to someone that couldn’t otherwise afford it, with their and our compliments.
Based on delivery addresses our sales were strong in the following large organisations: Accenture, Airbnb, Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Boston Consulting Group, Capital One, Dahlberg, Experian, Facebook, frog, Gallup, Google, Hulu, IDEO, Method, McKinsey, Microsoft, Mozilla, Nike, Shopify, Steelcase, Tumblr, Uber, PricewaterhouseCoopers, UbiSoft and The World Bank.
Dedicated Email Addresses
29 people (1.6%) set up dedicated email addresses for Kickstarter e.g. email@example.com.
Mailing List Sign-ups
Three of our mailing lists featured the Kickstarter:
- The Field Study Handbook (2k sign-ups pre-launch, +500 during the campaign)
- Studio D Dispatch (Studio D mailing list)
- Borderlands (my personal mailing list)
Between them, these mailing lists received another 1,000 additional sign-ups over the course of the Kickstarter campaign. That these are not large mailing lists is a healthy sign. It also went out on Twitter and Instagram. We ignored Facebook because we don’t use it to engage our social network, and because it’s a bottomless pit of distraction.
Comments / Communication
During the Kickstarter we received 15 direct messages and 26 comments, most of which were congratulatory, requests to purchase additional rewards, and questions about the retreats. We’d expected more logistical questions.
Post delivery, another 41 email conversations, mostly shipping queries. All in all, relatively light.
Kickstarter doesn’t collect shipping address information at the time of taking pledges on the assumption that it may change before the products ship. (Most Kickstarters ship months or even years after being funded).
A survey requesting shipping addresses was sent out to all reward tiers within three days of the Kickstarter closing. We staggered the surveys, starting with high tier rewards, to understand the response dynamics.
After sending out the surveys:
- After one week, we still had 173 (11%) missing addresses.
- After two weeks, we still had 69 (4%) missing addresses.
- Today, we still have 12 (0.7%) missing addresses.
Delayed responses require additional support.
Shipping, Packaging and Handling Fees
Our principle was to break even on actual shipping costs over the lifetime of the campaign i.e. including support and replacements. Including packaging, the book weighed nearly 4lbs, and is relatively expensive to ship overseas. Miscalculating shipping fees can kill the financial viability of any Kickstarter, or going the other way, upset customers who feel they are balked. We got it just right.
For operational efficiency we opted for one fulfilment center (that we use for SDR Traveller), based out of San Francisco. Rewards that included SDR Traveller products and books were pre-packaged and shipped from the studio. This approach provided considerable peace of mind, compared to using a fulfilment center elsewhere in the country. The cost of a single screwup, such as mis-packing a shipment to Australia, quickly kills profit margins.
To simplify the value proposition to customers, we baked US shipping, packaging and handling fees into the reward cost, and subsidised the shipping fees for overseas shipments by the same amount.
Book-only parcels shipped as media mail in the US i.e. for a relatively low flat fee, while other rewards such as the SDR Traveller bundle, shipped at a regular rate.
Actual customs duties are impossible to calculate, because it is hit or miss whether a parcel is pulled aside for inspection. Thus, customs duties were the responsibility of the customer, and were included in the FAQ. We fielded four complaints related to customs duties — two from Germany.
The books were fulfilled by a team with significant experience of overseas fulfilment. This gave us confidence in understanding actual shipping costs, likely support questions and issues such as tracking, customs duties. If you’re looking to outsource fulfilment, as a working principle you should be on good terms with the person heading up the warehouse team.
Surprisingly for a campaign of this scale, there weren’t any major disasters, although there were a few things we’d do differently next time around.
We had few customer support queries during the campaign. Forty-one customers reached out once we started shipping, mostly to find out where their package was—typically it was en route, returned to sender after multiple delivery attempts or stuck in customs. A few books were damaged in transit, so we offered a discount or in a few cases, to replace it. One customer detested the book and we suspect she damaged it herself to initiate a return. Life is short, we refunded the book and gifted the damaged copy to someone who could not otherwise afford a copy.
Customer support queries were spaced out, and responding to emails was a daily, if light task. Having digital rewards allowed us to provide an easy-to-share upgrades in the event of smaller issues. Communication occured through the Kickstarter messaging platform and via direct contact.
Media & Social Media
Given the number of times the media have been burned by crowdfunding campaigns, our strategy was to only reach out to established organisations after the funding goal was met. This helped the campaign have a more grassroots, rather than manufactured feel. However, we should have identified ~ten writers in highly relevant media/news organisations ahead of time, so that when the time came to give them a heads up, everything was in place.
One podcast was recorded ahead of the Kickstarter:
- OnMargins with Craig Mod
After reaching the funding goal, tightly aligned social+media that drove traffic, interest and sales:
- Monocle 24 / The Entrepreneurs with Daniel Giacopelli
- Newsletter Ben Evans
- Perspectives by EPIC
- Jason Kottke
- @IDEOorg on Twitter
There are many others I’m grateful to for putting the word out, too many to list here, but those listed created the bulk of the momentum.
While there were 1,776 pledges, I’d estimate that the campaign momentum was driven by up to 20 people, some of whom were given a heads up ahead of time, and some that discovered the campaign organically. Most had followed or touched upon my work and career over a number of years, some already had a reciprocal social relationship i.e. I wasn’t just cold-calling and asking for a handout.
The characteristics they shared is that they either had a broad reach, a strong reach into a niche community that was receptive to the content, deep wallets, or all of the above. With deep wallets, it’s not so much that they are able to spend, but rather that they signal to others that this is a Kickstarter where money will be spent — it elevates the campaign from one where people are lending their support, to one where the campaign becomes entertainment — much like a spectator sport.
The more loosely aligned media, Core77 and FastCo Design both may have maintained awareness of the campaign but didn’t drive any meaningful traffic. The content is a drop in the ocean to both platforms, it would be interesting to know whether posting it warranted their investment too.
It’s worth noting that FastCo Design positioned the content as an “exclusive” (it wasn’t), and that their site is designed to keep people on their platform, rather than “lose” ad-eyeballs to the campaign. It didn’t help that they published the excerpt with poor quality clipart of generic creatives (since corrected). That FastCo article drove the sale of five books ($615). By comparison, a single unsolicited post by Jason Kottke yielded $17k in sales, and Craig’s OnMargins podcast and tweets generated more than $20k in sales.
If you’re thinking about a Kickstarter three years from now, who are the people who inform and inspire you and how, in turn, can you inform and inspire them with what you create?
I committed to speaking at four events around or during the Kickstarter, with a view to building interest in the campaign. I’m not convinced that they had any meaningful impact on sales, but conversations at those events made it easier to calibrate the tone of the content.
- Struktur Event (outdoor apparel design), just prior to launch
- A workshop on field methods in NYC, mid-campaign
- PSFK 2017 (advertising, trend forecasting), mid-campaign
- CCA Talk on Side Projects, final week
Post Kickstarter the aim is to smoothly transition to other sales channels, primarily Amazon, and the Studio D Store. Continued interest in the Handbook was apparent through the continued mailing list sign-ups, so there’s a sense of anticipation and urgency.
We waited until all rewards had shipped before launching online. A handful of Kickstarter backers complained that we had started selling before they had received their books, which were still en route, requiring some appeasement. Given that the shipping times vary from two days to a month, there will inevitably be some overlap between the campaign ending and the retail launch.
It was our first time selling through Amazon and it took a few days to figure out the dynamics of the platform. The bulk of the 2nd Editions (2,400 copies) were drop-shipped directly to Amazon. The process was painless, and took about two weeks.
- Amazon’s algorithms favour established sellers, so even though we are the official source of the book, the ‘Buy Box’ on which most buyers rely on for the best deal, consistently shows a $4,000, used copy of the book, rather than a new copy of the book for its original price, $125. This may change over time, but results in lost sales from confused consumers. This is motivation enough to shift inventory to our own sales channels or, if you’re not aiming to build your own channel, to sign with an established seller. (If you want to increase our likelihood of winning the buy box and making this a more sustainable endeavour, please review the fulfilment by Field Institute and review the book).
- Amazon US does not ship to Canada since it pushes sellers to set up a local store, or New Zealand.
- There’s no integration between Amazon and Facebook+, so it’s impossible to know the effectiveness of Facebook or other non-Amazon ad platforms.
- I’m fine with critical reviews, since they help a book find the right audience, but it’s less satisfying when the first review (two stars) is from a troll. That said, success attracts trolls. ✌🏽
- The natural propensity to review books is low, unless you resort to underhand methods.
We have a worldwide tour of Field Study Masterclass workshops scheduled November through January, and will expand our line-up of retreats in 2018. The Kickstarter and book launch also raised interest in speaking engagements, elevated SDR Traveller and generated an uptick in inbound project requests.
We are currently A/B testing ads on Facebook. The lack of Amazon/Facebook integration makes it difficult to gauge their effectiveness. Open to trying other ad platforms (Google AdWords, Amazon Ads) and shifting inventory to channels where the effectiveness of the funnel is easier to track.
Follow Through On Stretch Goals
All but one of the stretch goals are in place. The winner of the Studio D Grant and Mentorship have been announced. The first retreat is cued up for late September. Craig will join the Borderlands Expedition as writer in residence. Lee has been given the funds for a trip to Japan, we’re going to see whether we can set up an exhibition to showcase his work.
All that remains of the stretch goals is to find the right nonprofit with whom to volunteer. And the little matter of taking a Short Walk.
I have no regrets in choosing Kickstarter over other crowdsourcing platforms. Their community is respectful, engaged and the platform works as advertised. For a improved campaign experience, Kickstarter needs to provide, and charge for:
- More evolved back-end tools for tracking pledges, rewards, including integration with fulfilment partners.
- Add-on sales.
- Better community management tools.
The main issues going forward are:
- How to nurture community? We offer discounts on bulk orders to book clubs and colleges, and the Field Study Template Kit, Education Edition is provided for free to educators. For now we’re emphasising high-touch events such as retreats, workshops and public engagements, bolstered by applicants from the grant and mentorship applications. We also hire practitioners onto projects.
- Whether to drive sales and reviews on Amazon, or to emphasise the Studio D sales channel, where margins are higher, and we can more easily measure the impact of advertising.
- Whether to invest in fulfilling from Amazon Europe, now complicated by Brexit.
- Iterate advertising campaigns.
- The impact on sales of the global workshop tour, scheduled for November, December 2017 and January 2018.
I’ve written about the dynamics of public versus private success, and I hope this lengthy article provides a more nuanced understanding of the effort and skills required to pull this off. Was the Kickstarter a success? How could we have improved? What did we miss?
Thanks for reading. Welcome your comments and questions below.
About The Author
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While there are 150k words in the handbook, it is the 20 chapter headings that set the tone of the book and make it accessible to the layman. Just flipping to Chapter heading pages will take you on a journey from my desk to circumnavigate the globe.
I’m frequently asked why there are no photos in the Handbook, given that photography is such a big part of the studio’s work. The reason is that a photo is clearly taken by someone who is not the reader, whereas an illustration allows the reader to place themselves into the story, and take ownership of the journey.
All that travel? I use a D3.