‘Failure Won’t Sink Me’
How a failed project made Elly Blue a better Kickstarter creator.
I’ve learned a lot from running 38 Kickstarter projects. For example: there’s no substitute for having a clear, concise project description, a personable video, well-thought-out reward tiers, and tons of images. But I didn’t truly gain confidence in my skills as a project creator until I ran my first failed project, for a book called Amica’s World.
A little backstory: in 2016, we at Microcosm fell in love with the subject of Amica’s World, a six-foot-tall flightless bird living in a family’s living room near Portland, Oregon. We launched a project to print a full-color photo book about Amica, featuring a foreward by Dr. Jane Goodall.
I knew within 48 hours of launching the project that we weren’t going to make the goal. We did all of the things we normally do to promote a project, but the backers were only trickling in. We continued to put effort into the project even after it was clear that it would fail without some kind of lucky break. That break never came. We gained 57 excited backers, but at the end of the 30-day campaign, the project had raised only 21 percent of its funding goal.
Though we didn’t reach our goal, we did walk away with a few practical lessons on the art of running a Kickstarter campaign, a better sense of who we are as a publisher, and, most importantly, a vital shift in attitude. Here are a few things I took away from the experience.
Avoid making emotional decisions as a publisher.
Though we were personally invested in Amica’s World, its passionate authors, and its charismatic hero, it ultimately wasn’t the best fit for Microcosm. We’re an independent publisher, primarily of non-fiction, and we specialize in relatively edgy books on topics related to self empowerment—from mental health to bicycling to punk rock. Our readers were mostly confused about why we were publishing a nature photo book, which is far from our core competency.
Not every project should be a book.
As Kickstarter’s Director of Publishing, Margot Atwell, pointed out to us as we were struggling, the book’s content — photos of Amica alongside stories about her unusual life in a family home — was more suited to the internet than to print.
Big names don’t (necessarily) sell books.
Celebrity primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, a friend of the authors, wrote a glowing foreword for the book and a nice blurb, and her name was on the cover and in the Kickstarter short description. That didn’t matter one bit; if her name moved the needle, it did so only very slightly.
Setting a realistic goal is key.
Normally we set relatively conservative goals for our projects — just what we expect our printer’s bill to be, or a bit less. We do this so that we don’t stress too much. This time, we had just run our most successful Kickstarter project to date and were feeling pretty sure of ourselves. We launched with a lot of confidence and set a goal of $10,000, which, in retrospect, was far too high. I think that if we had asked for $4,000 we could have hustled and made it. In the end, backers pledged just over $2,000.
An unsuccessful project isn’t the end of the world.
I’ve always told myself that if a project failed, I wouldn’t publish the book. Microcosm did still publish Amica’s World, but we took what we learned from the Kickstarter campaign and ended up printing half as many books as we originally planned. We also changed our marketing language to focus on the bird’s personality rather than the famous name associated with the project. The people who fell in love with Amica like we did could still buy the book from our website, and about 10 percent of our Kickstarter backers did.
It’s tough to fail, especially when you devote work and hours and hopes to running a Kickstarter campaign, but we also learned all of these lessons that have made us better publishers. In fact, we’re working with Amica’s World co-author Meadow Shadowhawk on another book. This one is about nontoxic housekeeping, which is much more in line with our existing list.
Failing made me a better Kickstarter creator.
I used to get deeply invested in the emotional rollercoaster of each Kickstarter campaign, feeling victorious at each pledge and despondent at each doldrum. The calm I felt after realizing that this project wasn’t going to fund has stayed with me. Now I can look more realistically at how a project is doing overall. If it’s going well, I take three actions per day to promote it. If it’s struggling or in the first and last few days of the campaign, I take seven to ten actions. I make check marks instead of freaking out, because now I know from experience that a failure won’t sink me.