How we failed in our first Kickstarter campaign, only to nail it with the second

This is the picture more than 63% of Kickstarter projects won' see.

If you are into tech startups, you might have heard about us. We are one of the few teams of lucky bastards who raised more than 100k USD, putting us in a category representing 2.4% of successfully funded Kickstarter projects. That might look impressive but sometimes it’s sheer luck and it mostly involves lots of hard work… and one totally fucked up campaign before this one in our case. Here’s what we learned and changed for the second attempt.

The article is divided into 5 parts, the main takeaway is always below the headline and a TL;DR section is at the end. So feel free to scan, jump or scroll all the way down.

I. What we do (intro)
II. The campaign itself (your page on Kickstarter)
III. Media (how we organised communication around the project)
IV. After the campaign (It’s over. Now what.)
V. TL;DR (scroll all the way down)

Part I: What We Do

To give you some background we created a multi material 3D printing pen which you could call ‘an entire makerspace in your pocket’ (as Atmel puts it on their blog). Here’s the evolution of the product:

On the left, you can see the first prototype we call ‘Duck’. This was before hiring a product designer and putting the first 3DSimo (third from the left) on the market. On the right you can see the final design of the 3DSimo mini pen.

3DSimo mini

The actual star of our campaign is a 40 gram multi material 3D printing pen with exchangeable tips, which allow you to completely change its function. It features a shine-through LED info display and buttons for setting basic functions, and Bluetooth connectivity to do some fine tuning or firmware upgrade via your phone. It’s incredibly cool if you are into DIY projects.

Part II: The Campaign

1. Community

Establish a community well before the campaign and maintain great communication with them for feedback and to snowball success.
Please please please, be our friend, we desperately need your email and we hope you will buy the pen in the campaign.

I can’t emphasise enough how vastly we underestimated this aspect the first time we tried Kickstarter. We didn’t have a big user base, or a good variety of contacts, quite the opposite to be honest. One month before the start of our first campaign, we started collecting these on our homepage. Also, thanks to paid support on Facebook we managed to collect around 1000 email addresses. Unfortunately we didn’t make good use of these to consult with the community.

You need to start with people that are thrilled about your product. They can give you feedback to perfect your campaign before launch and they will help create traction once you are live. Totally worked in our second attempt.

This how to do it:

  1. CollecCollect people interested in your product. That requires showing it to them. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit threads. Collect their emails.
  2. Show them the pre-launch campaign. That’s why Kickstarter has this feature.
  3. Collect feedback, make reasonable adjustments.
  4. Launch.
  5. Use your fanbase to generate traction and also communicate during the campaign.
  • The ideal amount of contacts is around 10k. We had around 2k, but boy if we had more…

2. Target amount

You can ask for less than the amount you really need to crack the Kickstarter promotion algorithm but it’s not worth the risk.

We saw other projects (which were to our eyes not that advanced) raising millions of Dollars so we naively thought that we can make at least a significant portion of that. Wrong.

The ideal amount we needed was around $150k, but we knew that this could discourage many potential backers. We were confident that we could make much more (again, absolutely wrong for the first campaign) so we asked for $75k, and only saw a mere $40k pledged at the end of the first campaign. So for the second campaign we took a bigger risk and set the target price at $35k.
This little gamble turned out pretty well for us, but if you can, please state the target amount you actually need to deliver the product. Succeeding with the funding goal but falling short of your actual requirement could destroy your credibility, damaging future campaign attempts.

We hoped a lot of people from the first campaign would pledge again and they did, helping us to surpass our goal on the first day. While we can’t be sure, this probably helped with Kickstarter’s decision to promote us, generating lots of organic traffic. Everyone loves projects way beyond the funding goal, right?

Bear in mind that if we passed the goal but did not actually get enough to fund production, we could have covered the remaining amount with alternative sources (because not delivering on a successful campaign is unforgivable) or, as a last resort, stop the campaign before the end (which would still make everyone upset and practically destroy our brand).

Side note: You can never rely on a big mob buying your product and thus decreasing production costs. Know your expenses, multiply those by 3 and this should be your minimum price. Everything takes longer and costs more than you anticipated.

3. Thumbnail picture

Use a picture that stands out among other projects and don’t be afraid to use text.

It may seem obvious but it’s worth getting the most out of this. Initially, we used a photo with a blurred background, badge, logo, and description at the bottom. It looked great, but it didn’t really stand out that much. In our second campaign, we used more colors and contrasting text.

Just take a print screen of projects on the category page and insert your project photo. Does it stand out?

Yup, this should do.
  • You can also update the thumbnail image during the campaign to notify people of status (remaining quantity, interesting stretch goal, etc.)

4. Video

Make it professional and use narration because people can’t always make sense of what are they are seeing.

Though our first video was pretty professional, we underestimated one thing; visual communication can be powerful, but people might not completely understand what they see — especially if you show a complicated product with lots of functions like 3DSimo. So the second time what we we added narration to clearly describe what’s happening in the video.
Also, if you already have a product on the market, really emphasise this! It’s enormously helpful in to prove that you are trustworthy. One of the biggest things stopping people backing a project is worrying about how reliable the creators are.

Our first video — though we were showing the functions in context (creating a product with it), people wouldn’t necessarily understand what they were seeing.
Second video with narration

5. Pictures

GIFs are great! Use them to display more complicated features.

If picture is worth a thousand words then a GIF is worth… well lots of pictures at least. We recommend using GIFs as they make your product way easier to understand (and appreciate!). It’s also a good idea to add a watermark (logo/website) in case someone shares the picture.

How do you explain a 3D drawing with a static picture? Here, this is much better.
  • Note that KS hates renders of hardware (especially in the technology and product design categories) so make sure you use real photos.

6. Copy

Don’t be afraid of longer text. The better you explain everything, the less questions and more conversions you will have.

In the first campaign, we made the text concise. But as it turned out people are ok with a longer read if they want to understand more, otherwise they will just flood the comments section with questions. Even worse, if they don’t understand your product, they might just leave. So we were a little more talkative the second time.

7. Stretch Goals

Choose these wisely to motivate people. If you are unsure, you can just start with just a few, then add more in the future. Listen to the community for ideas!

We fucked up with stretch goals in the first campaign time big time. We showed all the functions of the pen in the video and then made them part of the stretch goals. Great motivation: “pledge more, we will develop more features”, right? Nope.

Good point Karl, we apologise for being stupid. This was actually one of the nicer comments…

The community felt that we were holding features back from them. And they didn’t believe we would be able to reach an amount that high. Never make intended stretch goals a part of your video, or at least not in the way we did. The second time we made all the pen functions part of the core product, and added other bonuses for stretch goals.

The original stretch goals are on the left. This was a major deal-breaker for our community.
Big surprise! Our third stretch goal was a wooden stand.

At the beginning you usually have a very vague idea of how much you can make with your campaign. That’s perfectly ok! Start with one interesting stretch goal and add others as you go — just edit the campaign. Our third stretch goal was a ‘surprise’ because honestly we had no idea what we should do. The community told us what they wanted during the campaign. They were asking for a stand or a transport case so we chose the former (looked amazing, totally doable, and surprisingly cheaper).

8. Pledges

Get these right, validate with the community, add more later if you feel like you should but keep them simple.

This one can be tricky too. It’s good to make pledges as understandable as possible. State what’s included in the package and how much cheaper backers will get it compared to the post-campaign price. It’s hard to make this perfect because once you start the campaign, you can’t modify the pledges tiers once someone has backed them (though you can add new ones easily).
It’s always good to make an early bird for the community. And make sure you have enough early bird pledge stock available (I recommend having almost enough to reach your goal if you can make it profitable). Next create a few interesting packages and/or some multipacks.

9. Action buttons

Do you want people to go somewhere, share your campaign, follow you on social media, or download a media kit? Tell them!
Come on! Click here. There you go…

Buttons are great because they look so clickable and people are used to clicking on them. So if you want to direct people somewhere, buttons are a great way to do it.

10. Upsell

You can sell more than the pledges themselves — usually complementary things (gift package, refills, a transport case, etc.).
Want some add-ons? Anything for our backers!

This idea came to us later, but turned out to be a great strategy to increase the funding total. A lot of people asked, “can you add extra material?” or, “can you add a stand?”. Sure, why not. It was too late to edit pledges, but we created add-ons that can be purchased on top of the pledge tier itself simply by adding a specific amount to the pledge ($29 for extra material, $39 for a battery pack, $19 for the stand). This strategy can’t be used for everyone (it makes the logistics after the campaign a little messy), but it worked well for us.

Even though the stand was part of the 3rd stretch goal, we allowed people to buy it as an add-on at the end of the campaign when it became obvious the stretch goal was out of reach. More than 200 add-ons were sold, helping us raise another $25k and increase the average pledge.

Part III: Media

1. Should you hire a PR agency?

If you have a native english speaker on the team, have an amazing product, and also some time on your hands you probably won’t need a PR agency.

We don’t have a direct answer to this. For our first campaign we had no clue what to do, no experience with the US market (which we wanted to target), and we had no native speaker on the team so we wouldn’t be able to produce text without mistakes or external correction. Therefore we decided to work with a PR agency which also took care of our social media channels allowing us to focus on other parts of the campaign.

The cooperation went well but the main task wasn’t accomplished — we were not mentioned by any of the big media sources (to paint a complete picture here, we were not able to achieve this during the second campaign either). For the second campaign we decided to do everything by ourselves, partially because we didn’t have the money to hire someone external again, and partially because we had learned a lot about what methods were successful.

  • If you have any mistakes in the text or a strong accent, some people might not talk to you at all. Personal contacts in the media are a huge advantage.

How to coordinate without a PR agency

  1. Industry news — it’s usually quite easy to get in there. Most of the 3D printing media wrote about us but ultimately didn’t generate many leads.
  2. Bloggers and youtubers — incredibly influential. When we last checked we had more than 5 million plays compared to 80k plays on Kickstarter. People will look for reviews and videos so be prepared.
  3. Big guys — Mashable, Gizmodo, Wired. etc. can generate lots of traffic but won’t probably talk to you easily. You need to have a really breakthrough product or show interesting traction.

A brief summary of our PR communications

We looked for people that might be interested in what we do (and have the right audience) then tried to connect with them. If we could be personal we were, but it was pretty hard given the amount of contacts.

  • We sent out 37 3DSimo minis (22 to youtubers and the rest to bloggers and journos)
  • Youtubers: 4500 contacted, 600 replied, 150 co-operations, 60 videos produced, 5.5 mil. views in total (vs. 80k on Kickstarter)
  • The media — no significant impact (140 people contacted, 5 published)
  • Bloggers: 300 contacted, usually only shared our campaign on social media
  • Forums gave us no significant results

2. Teaser Campaign

Don’t do this unless you have an amazing breakthrough product which everyone would want to share (you probably don’t).
This was not a good idea so don't play it.

“We’ll get everyone hyped before we announce the product so they’ll be waiting for it!”. Yeah, not really. If you are quite new on the market, the problem is that nobody gives a shit about you. Even if the other 3D pens got some publicity in the past this wouldn’t have guaranteed attention. But still, maybe we should’ve made a direct comparison to products currently present on the market.

3. Events and Personal Presentations

Don’t go to events, it’s better to schedule personal meetings with the media.

As there were some scams, or at least very underwhelming campaigns on Kickstarter in the 3D pen sector, we knew we would have to show a working prototype to the public to be believable. We chose a media only event called Pepcom (a whopping $7.5k for a booth) because we needed media output. This generated 50 leads but almost no traction. A lot of people were there not to make a great story, but just to sell us an appearance elsewhere. Simply put, Pepcom was a total waste of money. Personal meetings with the media and pitching to them directly had a much bigger impact for us. So schedule your interview.

4. Paid Traffic

You can use it but don’t rely on it in case you can’t make it profitable.

Let me get this straight — paid traffic is not gonna do it. You can use it to get some early supporters and create a community, to get the attention of their friends et cetera, but you can’t use it the whole time to drive traffic with a positive ROI. There might be some exceptions but there won’t be many. You need organic traffic. People sharing your content, talking about you on forums, media writing about you, blogs, youtubers, and so on…

YouTube

We ignored this channel in our first campaign but in the second, we aimed to cooperate with youtubers. Some wanted really nasty money which we couldn’t afford so we worked solely on sending out the product to those who were interested. We sent out 22 pens and directly generated 2% ($5k) of the total funding — more than through Facebook.

Facebook

Simple and effective; $20 per day, 40 orders, countless shares, fan base, engagement.

Twitter

Didn’t work for us, possibly because we haven’t had much experience with campaigns here so it’s probably us, not you, Twitter.

AdWords

Generated a lot of traffic but almost no conversions. Maybe we are bad at this too.

5. Kickstarter Magicians

Never trust people offering to help with your campaign unless they are from Backers Club or Funded Today.
Yeah, thanks Staci (or Tami?) but no, thanks.

Once you start your campaign you will get a lot of messages from people who ‘helped other campaigns fundraise millions’, who are experts in this and that, and who are so incredibly kind that they want to help you (for a small fee of course). These guys never ever deliver anything. Period. And if you look at their profile they usually have zero backed projects.

The only things that worked for us was BackerClub and Funded Today.

BackerClub ($300)

This somehow works but once it synced with our contacts, 85 were shown as BC members (hey, we had those before even without you!). The increase was roughly worth the investment.

Funded Today (success fee from the delivered increase)

These guys know what they are doing and you are paying only if you get a good result, but boy the contract was a mess. It took 14 days to clear it up, because no, we won’t give you part of our company! Their campaign ran for the last 4 days and helped deliver around $20k.

Part IV: After Campaign

  1. You won't get all the money
Remember that there are things to pay so you won’t get the exact amount you ended up with on the campaign page (more like 88% of it).

Some people won’t pay for their pledge (around 5%), and you have to pay some percentage to Kickstarter and Amazon for securing the payment (around 8% in our case). Oh and did I mention taxes? I’m not sure about in the US but if you also happen to be in the EU like us, things are a little bit complicated.
Basically from $229k we got $202k before taxation.

2. Pre-orders

Your fundraising period doesn’t end with Kickstarter, so ensure you have some continuity.

Your fundraising period doesn’t end with Kickstarter, so ensure you have some continuity.

Once the campaign ends, you can do some final edits before it’s archived. We strongly recommend adding some pretty strong calls to action (remember that part about buttons?) like “Pre order” or “Buy now!”. Make sure the price is a little higher than the price on Kickstarter because you don’t want to make your backers angry do you?

You can use Celery for your website or the Indiegogo InDemand program.

3. Communication with your community

Make sure you keep your backers posted. They got you here.

It’s easy to rest on your laurels after the campaign is over, but this is really important. Periodic updates on the progress of design, manufacturing, and distribution are necessary to keep your little gang happy and warm before reaching distribution.

Part V: TL;DR

No one reads these days. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered.
  1. Collect a community to discuss the product and campaign before launch, and to create early traction. Listen, but don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. 90% of problems can be avoided this way.
  2. When presenting what you have, choose personal meetings with the media. You don’t have to pay for trade shows.
  3. Create a nice video with narration. Prototypes need to look like the final product.
  4. Pledges need to be understandable (content, delivery, MSRP), avoid paralysis by choice.
  5. Stretch goals need to be motivational and reachable. If you have no idea at the beginning, you can add these as you go according to the campaign performance.
  6. Use rich media like videos and GIFs to explain more complex concepts.
  7. Never waste time with people who offer you magic increases to your sales. The only things that worked for us were Backer Club and Funded Today.
  8. If you can, create add-ons to increase the pledge. Once someone has purchased, they are open to buy more.
  9. Don’t be afraid to adjust. You won’t get everything right but you can change a lot even when the campaign is live (add stretch goals, pledges, add-ons, change copy, add media mentions, etc.).
  10. If you fail in your campaign (like we did previously) consider it a dry run and learn from it as much as possible. Leverage your community for the next try.
First time in New York. Hi mom!

Brought to you by:

Jan (left) — currently works for Rockaway Capital (VC)

David (right) — CEO and inventor of 3DSimo pen

Henry — thanks for the help with grammar!