Ko-fi.com the Story So Far

Ko-fi.com helps creators receive support from fans of their work in the form of small donations. Illustrators, podcasters and creators of all persuasions using Ko-fi are now $2.5m richer thanks to the micro-donation platform.

I’m Nigel, I started Ko-fi.com and this is the story so far…

Coding for cash and the idea for Ko-fi

Back in 2012 I was living in Bangkok, working as a freelance developer. Sometimes it was impossible to tell how long a project would take or what technical hurdles might come up. Clients usually demand a fixed price, so you estimate how long a project will take and then just work the rest out as you go.

One project had become a real nightmare. I had underestimated the project and was starting to feel the pressure. The deadline was approaching fast, yet I was stuck on some obscure issue.

Desperate for a solution, I scoured the web and stumbled upon a Stack Overflow post. Someone else had had the same problem and posted the full solution. This turned days of work into 20 minutes. The developer that posted the solution was my new personal hero. Because of his willingness to share, I’d managed to complete the ‘project from hell’ and move on.

Yet something didn’t feel right. How could I show this person my appreciation? The only option on Stack Overflow was an ‘upvote’. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t human.

In the real world a show of appreciation might buying a coffee for a co-worker as a token of appreciation. These gestures are more meaningful. Why couldn’t I buy this guy a coffee online for helping me out?

There should be a way to send a thank you and a few dollars to someone for doing a good turn. More than a ‘like’, ‘retweet’ or ‘upvote’, but less formal than a ‘‘fee’. This idea stuck with me and a good friend Javan challenged me to hack together something over the following weekend.

Ko-fi.com v1

Appropriately caffeine fuelled, I searched around for a short, sharable domain name. The cafe I was in had one of those black and white Yin and Yang looking wi-fi logos on the door which gave me the idea for the name Ko-fi. I registered the domain and coded like crazy to build the first version, which was a glorified PayPal button generator.

After two days, I published the one-page Ko-fi v1, which allowed a visitor to choose from three tiny, pixelated brown button designs with the same ‘Buy Me a Coffee’ text on them and input a PayPal email address.

A different use-case

I had thought Ko-fi would be used as a way of saying thank you for an online ‘good deed’. However, it turned out most coffees were being bought by fans of creative people. Donations weren’t being made to show gratitude for a personally received service like the coder on Stack Overflow, donors just wanted to show appreciation and encouragement to someone putting up niche content they were interested in.

For a couple of years I didn’t do too much with Ko-fi. A steadily increasing number of buttons were being created every day and shared around the web, but it was a while before I sat down to spend some time updating the service.

Mobile, colours and counters

In late 2015 I finally managed to get some headspace to get back onto Ko-fi. I had an inbox full of requests from users over the past few years asking for everything from the ability to change the coffee to a beer, or even a ‘cup of noodles’. One worried lady was concerned that her husband had received 50 coffees in one day and couldn’t possibly drink that many.

Ko-fi.com early 2016

I settled on an updated mobile responsive website, button colour selection and the ability to change the Buy Me a Coffee text. I was working with Simon (now my partner at Ko-fi) on some commercial projects and he helped me update the logo from the wi-fi inspired, dated logo to a more shareable icon.

Buttons here, buttons there, buttons everywhere

More and more people started hearing about Ko-fi. One of the more memorable calls came from Chris Messina (inventor of the hashtag and then at Uber) who told me he had found the site and liked the concept.

An example of one of the early users was TransitMaps.net, a Tumblr site dedicated to maps of metro and subway lines. The designer Cameron Booth had this Tumblr blog dedicated to maps of transportation systems. The guy is super passionate about these maps and so are his followers. Cameron still represents a typical Ko-fi user, someone who knows everything there is to know about a subject most of us have never heard of.

Cameron offered us some feedback about Ko-fi and why he uses it to request donations from fans of his work.

“I use ko-fi because I want a way for loyal readers to express their thanks for what I do and maybe give back a little. I looked into Patreon, but it’s just too full-on for my needs. I really like the ‘buy me a coffee’ metaphor of ko-fi. It resonates well with potential donors.”
Cameron Booth, Designer, transitmaps.net

Pages, profiles and discovery

It was 2016, and still inspired by feedback, friends and the call from Chris, I started to take Ko-fi more seriously than just a side project. I had a flood of ideas from fans of Ko-fi about how to expand the service and now I had time to focus. I felt like Ko-fi had addressed the practical nature of showing support via a financial donation, but hadn’t quite got it right on the more emotional side. It was still transactional. I wanted to create a place where messages and money could flow between the donator and the creator, I wanted there to be some history and context to donations and I wanted Ko-fi to become a destination for supporters to discover new creators.

The next six months led to the Ko-fi ‘Page’ — a profile for the creator to introduce themselves and link to where they create online. I built a messaging system for supporters to leave notes of encouragement alongside their donation which could be displayed on a live feed. Donation goals gave context about how creators planned to spend their donations while the gallery lets creators display images of recent creations. An ‘Explore’ section was added allowing creators to be found by browsing supporters with trending users being promoted to the category spotlight.

Some recent screens from Ko-fi.com

Growing and growing up

With unanimously positive feedback and user growth at an all time high it is time to expand the team. I have worked with Simon for over 7 years across commercial projects and he has always been a great sounding board for me about Ko-fi. With Simon on board our mission remains to help creators get discovered, get paid and get feedback from their fans. Our goal is to keep the site free for creators and supporters alike and we rely on our own Ko-fi support page to pay the bills and fund the service. If you would like to contribute to Ko-fi then you can at https://ko-fi.com/supportkofi