Launching a Business through Kickstarter
Turning a student project into a small business through the glory of crowd funding and the kindness of strangers
I’ve had a few folks ask me for advice on running a Kickstarter, so I’m posting a talk I gave on the subject here. I used my own experiences to walk through the steps and pratfalls of the process, and go over what I learned and what to watch out for on your own crowdfunding adventure. Hope it’s useful!
To introduce myself, I’m Bethany Heck and I’m a designer. I got my BFA in design from Auburn University (War Eagle!), and as a part of your final semester in Auburn’s program, you have to present a senior project. That could be a publication, a website, a restaurant; anything you can sell as a viable undertaking and that can support a semester’s worth of work. I had been itching to do something baseball related, so I took a look at the things I loved and found most interesting about baseball, and found a common thread for them under the idea of “baseball minutiae.” I called it the Eephus League, and I went on to create a website, a book, posters, buttons and fatefully, as a last minute toss in, a scorebook.
I was a girl from a tiny town in Alabama with no connections trying to raise 10 grand from strangers for something that even hardcore baseball fans didn’t use and no one I knew could figure out how to say the name of my company. It doesn’t get much more improbable than that.
So, how many of you are familiar with keeping score at a baseball game? Not a lot, right? Scorekeeping originated as a way for fans to keep track of stats as they watched a game, and fans still do it today as a way to fill up the slow moments at a ballpark, but it’s fallen out of favor with most fans, and the majority of fans who do it are really intense about it. The practice was completely lost on more casual fans. When I was doing my research for the Eephus League I’d seen some images of really tiny, pocket-sized scorebooks, and I thought that was one barrier that was preventing people from keeping score now: You either had to buy an ugly, spiral-bound monster of a book or you had to buy a single scoresheet at the ballpark, and that was covered with ads. I kept looking at the Moleskine notebooks we were encouraged to use as designers, and how we all had one even if we didn’t use it, and I wondered if I could make a smaller scorebook design that would make scorekeeping seem like a cool things to do. It was a fun side project to give myself — taking a convention that needed some design attention and reinterpreting it, and it was one of the pieces I enjoyed making the most. But in the end, I didn’t think it would have a life beyond being a funny little piece for my last school project.
After graduation, I was curious about whether or not any of the things I had made for the Eephus League would actually be viable products for baseball fans, and I contacted Paul Lukas, who writes a blog called Uni Watch, which focuses on sports uniforms. Paul seemed like the kind of person who would be very interested in what I was doing: a baseball fan, nostalgic, who had a clear appreciation for good design. Paul has a deep love of old baseball sweaters, so I knew he’d like at least one of my posters. Paul was kind enough not only to respond to my email, but to interview me and feature my designs on his site. A few hundred emails later, I knew there was at least some demand for what I was making, and surprisingly to me, the piece that most people were interested in was the scorebook.
So, I had a product idea, and I had a small group of people who very passionately wanted to see it become a reality, but how was I going to get it produced? I contacted a lot of local printers and got quotes, and it was going to cost around $14,000 just to get the books printed, and I wasn’t in a situation where I could take that big a risk. I was extremely discouraged about the whole endeavor. I posted my findings on the Eephus League site in the hopes that someone would have some kind of connection or idea for how to raise the money to make it happen, and fortunately for me, someone suggested Kickstarter.
What is Kickstarter?
Remember, this was in 2011! I’d heard of Kickstarter before, but I was nervous that they wouldn’t be interested in my project, because it was so entrepreneurial. “Kickstarter is not a store” is something the site likes to preach, and I didn’t know if my funding of a product would break that mantra. I presented my scorebook as an attempt at a “scorekeeping revival,” and crossed my fingers. Two days later I received a message from Kickstarter saying that my project had been accepted, and I could launch on Kickstarter whenever I had everything in place. Now I was on the hook, and I had to try to make these books a reality. I was a girl from a tiny town in Alabama with no connections trying to raise 10 grand from strangers for something that even hardcore baseball fans didn’t use and no one I knew could figure out how to say the name of my company. It doesn’t get much more improbable than that.
The submission process
Getting through the line
When you start the submission process for Kickstarter, they will ask for an overview of what you’re trying to do, what you’re hoping to raise, and what types of rewards you’re hoping to offer to get you there. Your project needs to fit into one of their existing categories, there has to be a clear goal that will be met if fundraising is completed, and you need to produce something as a result.
I would recommend doing all the research and planning into what it’s going to take to make your project happen before you even submit your project to Kickstarter. Personally, it took less than a week to have my projects approved for launch, though I can’t speak for other types of projects. Once you’ve been approved, you’re allowed to build out your project page and add pictures, video, reward tiers, and a FAQ section.
When should you launch?
The days that you launch and close your Kickstarter are very important. Think about your audience and what days they are most active online. Don’t start your project on a holiday, or on a weekend, like I did (President’s Day! Sneaky bastard.) Start it at the beginning of the week, and at the beginning of the month, when people are more likely to have gotten their paychecks. If you can start or end on a payday, all the better.
Prepping your page
Make sure that your goals, your product and your timeframes are all clearly stated. Post estimated arrival dates for all your rewards, and make sure you have imagery to accompany everything you are offering.
Shooting your video
This was the thing that held up me starting my first Kickstarter for nearly a month. You don’t have to include a video for your project, but Kickstarter strongly encourages it and it’s easy to see why. It humanizes what you’re trying to do and allows people to put a face and a voice to your product. It’s a much more personal pitch than just reading a description. You’ll see a lot of Kickstarter videos that have really high production values, and if you’ve got a buddy that can help you make that happen, by all means, call in that favor (Personally, I’m suspicious of the overproduced Kickstarter video. If you can afford to get that made, why do you need crowdfunding, huh??)
I decided to shoot my videos in pieces, getting product shots, still images, and showing the books actually being used. I wrote a script for a voiceover and recorded it in Garageband, then overlaid it with the iMovie clips. I not only had to sell the scorebook itself, but introduce the whole idea of scorekeeping and why it was worth saving. I asked fans of the Eephus League to draw out how they score a single in a scorebook and included those images in the video, which I think helped personalize it even further, and showed I had some support from baseball fans. I am eternally grateful for the fact that they took the time to help me out. My video was not well made by any means, but it got the point across and did its job.
Planning your Kickstarter
What do you want to make?
Have a fully developed, clearly thought-out goal for the end of your campaign. The endpoint needs to be clearly defined. In my case, I knew I wanted to make these scorebooks, and I knew what production techniques I’d have to use.
How are you going to get it made?
After getting four different printing quotes I chose to go with a printer in Montgomery because of the relationship I was able to build with the printer rep there. Because I had a completed mockup of what I wanted, I could be very specific with him about how I wanted the book to be produced, what papers to use and other production nitpicks. You need to know exact costs and timelines for every piece of your project before you move forward, and it’s very important that you have a good relationship with whoever is going to be working with you to make this campaign happen.
My original scorebook is a really complicated little thing. It’s got stickers, a large foldout explaining the basics of scorekeeping, a reference card with common shorthand used when keeping score, a die cut on the cover, a pocket in the back to hold all the extras and a band to keep it all together. It’s a production nightmare and I needed to be 100% certain it was going to be made well. As a side note, the stickers were by far the most expensive single element in the book. The sheets of stickers had to be printed, then kiss cut with a die that would keep them all in one sheet but allow you to pull up each individual sticker. Arguing with my printer rep over the cost of kiss cutting stickers for a baseball book was one of the most adult conversations I’ve ever had.
How much money do you need?
Once you have the complete picture of what you want to make and how you’re going to produce it, you should have a reasonable idea of what it’s going to cost. Take into account your time spent, production costs, shipping supplies and estimated shipping costs. Is your pricing structure going to change if the project takes off and has more backers than you anticipated? The economies of scale can work in your favor or against you, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your campaign. Don’t get greedy with your goal. If you set your goal too high, potential backers might see the attempt as hopeless and leave without backing, because it seems too big a mountain to climb.
For my first Kickstarter I asked for $10,000, knowing that would pay for the majority of my printing costs and get me going. In retrospect, this was a bad move. If I could only generate enough sales to cover $10,000 of my costs, I’d have a successful project, but I’d have a very small customer base and I would have put myself in the hole for a project that I could only get a couple hundred people excited about.
One way to look at your potential project is this: If I can’t get x number of people excited enough about this to back it, is it a worthwhile idea? Kickstarter is a great way to market test product ideas, just make sure you are prepared to meet your obligations as a creator if your project just barely meets its goal, or if it’s wildly successful and you have thousands of backers to please.
What can you offer as rewards?
Thankfully, I already had designs and examples ready for a lot of goods that I could create in addition to the scorebooks to offer as backer rewards for the project, and I’d taken photographs of them as well. People want to see the things they are pledging for, so good photography or renderings of your rewards is a must. Ideally you want to cover a broad spectrum both in the rewards you offer and what you can ask for them, from $5 knick-knacks that speak to a broad base of people to big ticket items for devoted backers that can push you to your goal faster. Kickstarter is a little iffy about the idea of selling bundles or multiples of a reward as a reward tier option, but in my case, because they were printed books and it made sense to offer them in sets, they allowed it. Some people will have $1 to $5 reward tiers that will give backers a credit line somewhere on a book or a website, but I wanted to keep my rewards as actual objects that they would receive.
For my first Kickstarter I had the scorebooks, 2 shirt designs, 6 poster designs, a set of buttons, and a hat. That’s a lot of possible shipping combinations, but it gave me reward options from $10 to $150. Only 31 people backed at the 3 highest reward tiers, but that accounted for $4,000, or 16% of the money I raised. That’s a lot of bang for your buck. Work to create high dollar rewards that your #blessed backers can pick up on in their eagerness to see you make your goal.
What will your rewards cost?
You want to have a good price range for the rewards you are offering. Kickstarter says that $10-$15 is the sweet spot for your lowest priced rewards, as it’s a low enough amount that people don’t think twice about spending that money. Don’t make backers feel like they are getting ripped off by offering overpriced rewards! Remember, oftentimes the people who back your project aren’t going to be receiving anything in exchange for their money for months, so you want them to feel like they are getting a good deal that’s worth the wait. If you’re offering things like shirts and posters, work in limited colors to keep production costs down so you can still offer a quality design at a reasonable price. If your t-shirts cost $30, make sure they are special enough to warrant it. At the same time, you need to be sure you’re making profits on anything you offer as a reward. The rule of thumb when making your own goods is that you want to at the very least double your profit on anything you sell. If a shirt costs $7.50 to make, you need to sell it for at least $15, and take into account what shipping supplies and postage are going to cost.
How will you distribute your rewards?
Be sure you have all the costs and logistics for distributing your rewards sorted out before you launch your project. You and your backers don’t want any surprises when it comes to getting the rewards out to their backers. If you are offering physical objects, how much will they cost to ship? Are you going to be shipping them from home, or having a service handle it? If so, what’s their cut? Where are you going to be storing the rewards once you have them? What about the shipping supplies? If the reward is something that’s going to be distributed digitally, or through an app store, how does that process work? If you do this research up front, backers will feel more confident in knowing that you know what you’re doing and they are going to get the rewards you promised them.
How will you promote it?
There’s nothing sadder than going through Kickstarter’s archives and looking at the projects that failed to meet their fundraising goal. It’s a graveyard of bad ideas and failed promotion. Even the best idea is going to fail on Kickstarter if you think you can just launch the project and post about it on Facebook and Twitter and let the platform do the rest for you. There are thousands of Kickstarter projects going on every day, so the odds of them picking yours to showcase are very low. Speaking from experience, Kickstarter usually waits to see if a project has any kind of fundraising momentum before they slap it on the front page (They are total bandwagon fans. Kickstarter was not your fan before you were cool.) Kickstarter alone isn’t going to make your idea a success, you’re going to have to let people know about it all on your own.
Kickstarter was not your fan before you were cool.
When I was planning my Kickstarter, I thought I could sell a few hundred scorebooks, but I had no idea if I could sell the few thousand I’d need for this to be a real success. Paul Lukas agreed to link to the Kickstarter when it went live, so I knew I could get some traffic that way, and I used what little social media presence I had as well and begged my little Eephus community to spread the word and hoped that would be enough.
Reach out to people who write about and promote things that are related to what you are hoping to create through your campaign. You might not hear back from many people, but every voice that’s spreading the word about what you’re doing is important. Also, don’t just blindly email people with a link to your Kickstarter and ask them to promote it. You need to build relationships with these people before you ask them to share your ideas to their followers. A few years ago, I heard from a guy who had launched a baseball-related Kickstarter that was struggling a little bit. He contacted me to ask me for tips. I mentioned that I had contacted sites that were of related interest to what I was doing, mentioning a few places that had written about me in the process. Then this guy just up and emails all of them out of the blue, asking them to talk about his Kickstarter. Bad move. There are a lot of people crowdfunding now, and you have to assume people have been asked to promote similar things before. Take the time before to reach out and build connections with people before you ask them to broadcast what you’re doing. Don’t be just another person with a grand vision, be someone they can put a face and a story behind and you’ll have a lot more luck getting people to talk about what you’re doing.
GO GO GO!
So, I launched near midnight on a Sunday night because I just couldn’t stand to wait. The first backer was a guy who was a Cubs fan, and he wrote me a lovely note wishing me good luck. When I woke up the number was at a few hundred, and I was feeling pretty good about it. The people from the Eephus community were tweeting about it and it was raising money at a steady clip. By the end of the first day I was nearly halfway to my goal, and I remember my mother and I looking at each other, wide-eyed, as it started to sink in that this could actually happen. After three days, my project met its $10,000 goal, and thanks to the press it got from baseball sites after it became a sure thing, there was another spike in funding and I finished fundraising with just over $27,000 from nearly 900 backers, none of which were people I knew from my everyday life. I’d done something I never could have imagined thanks entirely to the kindness of strangers, and that’s a beautiful thing. Kickstarter allowed me to tap into something that was neglected in baseball fandom. When I started this campaign, the question I wanted to answer was could I change people’s behavior and revive a dead hobby with good design. The answer was a resounding yes.
So you’ve reached your goal! What now?
Beware feature creep
If you are lucky enough to see your project reach its funding goal, as you raise more and more money, there’s a chance that you could get pressure to add on to your project with “stretch goals,” utilizing the “extra” money that you’ve earned and encouraging people to keep pledging after your initial goal is met. This is a very risky situation, so think long and hard before adding anything outside of your initial plan. Sometimes the economies of scale can lead to lower production costs and better your profit margins, but the bigger the campaign gets, the more work it’s going to be for you, and it’s going to take up more of your time. Every perk you add as a stretch goal actually makes ALL pledges slightly less valuable to you, because now instead of paying 15 bucks for a book, they’re getting a book and a sticker set you should be charging 3 extra dollars for. You see this a lot with games. If you just planned to include that multiplayer arena in your original pitch, you could have justified charging $20 a pop instead of $15. Now you’re getting more people at $15, but you have to give all of them more game than you budgeted for, because you tried to use stretch goals to keep momentum going. Don’t fall into that trap. Present the best possible version of what you’re shooting for and sell that to everyone.
Get everything ready for production
Now that you know you’ll be receiving the funds, get everything prepped and ready for production. You won’t be able to access the funds until after the campaign is over, and you can’t end a campaign early without forfeiting the funds, but make use of the time to make friends with the post office, prep your files, get in touch with anyone involved in production and let them know when you’ll be able to get started.
You’ve been funded!
Wait, where’s my money?
Just because your project is successfully funded and the funding period has ended doesn’t mean you immediately get to access that money. When your project ends, the payments system attempts to charge all of the backers’ credit cards and they make you wait 14 days before you can transfer your funds to a bank account. Make sure you’ve taken that 2-week delay in having that cash on hand into account when you’re planning out your project.
Be prepared for credit card issues
The final amount you raise through funding is very rarely going to be the actual amount you receive from backers. Credit cards will fail or expire, parents will realize their child got a hold of their account info, etc. I lost around $1500 between the two Kickstarter projects I’ve run because of payment issues, so prepare yourself for that possibility.
Keep your backers up to date
By the time your project has successfully funded, weeks will have passed for some backers from when they pledged for a reward to when the project has completed. You need to be sure to give them updates regularly to let them know how things are going now that your campaign has been successful. Don’t spam them daily, but weekly or bi-weekly updates will be appreciated by most people who are waiting on their hard-earned rewards.
If your project scope or timeframe has to change, be honest with your backers. Stringing them along with false promises is only going to lead to them feeling hurt and betrayed when you don’t meet the deadlines. Remember that your backers are passionate enough about what you do to take a risk by supporting you, and many are going to feel like they paid for their reward months ago, even though their card wasn’t actually charged until the funding period ended. They are going to be anxious and impatient in many cases, so try to understand where they are coming from and keep them in the loop.
Kickstarter doesn’t allow you to see, access or utilize your backers’ shipping information. You have to collect that and any other information, like t-shirt sizes, on your own, through Kickstarter’s survey system. Be careful when you’re constructing your surveys, because you can’t resend them. If you forget to ask for critical information, you’re going to have to use Kickstarter’s message system to try to contact them all individually.
Stay on top of reward distribution
When I completed my first campaign, their reward system was… lacking. I didn’t get notifications when someone had responded to a survey and the .csv file for each reward tier they offered was next to useless to me because I didn’t have any shipping software. I had to create my own documents for each of the 17 reward tiers and I was creating shipping labels myself using templates and copying and pasting in names, marking them off another list when I’d sent the order out. It was an awful system, but thankfully Kickstarter has done a lot to improve its backend interface. It’s now a lot easier to keep track of which rewards you’ve sent. You also get a notification when someone responds to a backer survey, instead of having to check the site every day to see if there are any new names on the list.
Get ready for damages and wrong addresses
When you’re shipping out hundreds of packages, you’re going to have things get lost or damaged, or people who have moved since filling out their survey. Be as courteous to your shipping provider as possible and prepare yourself for those losses. If the shipping provider is responsible for the package getting lost or damaged, you can file a claim, so keep track of that as you ship your rewards out.
The second time around
Once my Kickstarter pledges were filled, I was left with a lot of product that I could keep selling at my online store and a brand that people in the baseball community recognized. The original scorebook was very appealing to casual fans, parents, and people new to scorekeeping, but a lot of fans wanted to see a book that was more tailored to serious scorekeepers. They wanted more space to write, more stat columns to keep track of, and they wanted to be able to score more games in a single book. After taking this feedback into account and using the community on the site as a sounding board, I decided to try to go back to Kickstarter again to try to fund the HalfLiner scorebook. It scored a half a season of games instead of 20, it was bigger, but not so big as to be as bulky as traditional letter-sized books, and it was much more cost-effective for people who wanted to score a lot of games in one season.
If the first scorebook was a niche product, the HalfLiner is a dining nook within the niche, so I was not at all confident I could get it funded. It was going to be a more expensive product for a smaller subsection of an already tiny group of people. Once again I set my sights fairly low and asked for $14,000. which would cover my printing costs for the book, and planned on using the profits from my other Eephus sales to cover anything else I’d need. Because this was my second time around with a more niche product, I knew I wouldn’t get the wave of press and excitement I’d been able to get the first time around without some extra work, so I made a little one page site to show off the book and sent it in to a lot of website showcase galleries. Because the site got a lot of attention, so did the book by extension. I launched the HalfLiner Kickstarter in late April and it funded in 3 days, just like the original scorebook, and went on to raise nearly as much money. Here are a few things I learned after the first go-around:
Watch your profit margins
If you’re using Kickstarter to launch a line of products, you want to be sure that you’re making enough profit on each sale so when your current supply runs out, you can fund the next set yourself. You won’t have that wave of Kickstarter money coming in every time you sell out of your stock, so don’t cut things tight just because you want to get funding. Think about the long and the short term.
Limit reward tiers
For the love of god, don’t offer multiple versions of the same object in one reward tier. It’s hard enough to manage t-shirt sizes, but when you throw in different shirt/poster design options into your variables when shipping rewards it gets hectic in a hurry. Also, try to limit the number of reward tiers you have available. More tiers means more reward combinations which means more lists of backers to keep track of, more shipping estimates to get, and more box sizes to purchase and store. If you can keep things streamlined you’ll have a much easier time fulfilling everyone’s order.
Set shipping deadlines
There’s always an initial wave of people who fill out their surveys within the first few days of receiving them, but you’re bound to have people who aren’t checking their email or forget to fill out their survey. If you’re lucky, 80% of your backers will have responded by the first week. To encourage people to go ahead and get their survey completed, set deadlines for “waves” of reward shipment. If backers don’t get their surveys in by a certain day, their rewards won’t ship by the date you specify. This frees you up from any possible complaints about shipping timeframes, and it also lets you sit back and let the responses accumulate instead of trying to send out each individual package as responses come in. Let them build up to a point, then ship them all out in bulk.
Get shipping software!
After going through the experience of shipping out nearly 900 packages with no postage scale and no automated shipping software, I knew something was going to have to change for the second go around. I bought a scale to help me figure out weights and postage costs, and after doing a lot of research I settled on using Endicia as my shipping software. Endicia could take the .csv files that Kickstarter generated for each reward tier and could automatically generate labels and postage for them. It was a godsend and saved dozens of hours of time, and was certainly worth the $15 a month fee.
Set expectations you know you can meet, then surpass them
One tricky problem I ran into with my first Kickstarter was that because I started it in early spring, people were dying to have their books by opening day. I’d unwittingly set up an unrealistic expectation for when the books could arrive, and even though I didn’t initially promise books by opening day, the backers’ enthusiasm and excitement for the product created an expectation I couldn’t meet. Production delays set me back and the books didn’t get out in time for opening day, though a lot of fans were able to get theirs by their team’s home opener, which was a huge relief to me.
That unrealistic deadline also put me in a situation where I had to order shirts before collecting backer info, so I was guessing on sizes and quantities. Not only did I not know what sizes people wanted, I didn’t even know which of the two shirt designs they would prefer. Give yourself time to collect reward surveys, get your funds from Kickstarter, get your product produced, and get everything packaged, then shipped.
For the HaflLiner, I set a shipping goal in July, knowing that a lot of orders would probably be able to go out in early June. I also didn’t tell people when I was shipping their orders initially, because I used media mail to send the first wave of scorebooks. Media Mail is a service that the USPS offers for books and school materials, and it’s significantly cheaper than standard postage rates. But, the downside is that it can be very slow. By not telling my backers when I had shipped, they weren’t worried about the longer time period their rewards were in the mail, and they were still pleasantly surprised when their books arrived well in advance of the ETA I’d given them (the midpoint in a baseball season).
Kickstarter let me launch a small business that I never could have gotten off the ground alone. I’ve been able to connect with thousands of people I never would have met otherwise, and know that I got to contribute in some small way to their ballpark experience. It turns out, you can in fact change people’s behavior with good design. Hundreds of people who had never considered keeping score have now experienced that art form because of the Eephus League.
The Eephus League has been featured on Wired, Gizmodo, ESPN, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation and New York Magazine. I used the Eephus League as a creative playground and was able to create side projects through the brand that had a lasting impact. If you’ve ever read one of SB Nation, ESPN, or Pitchfork’s long-form online articles, you have the Eephus League to thank, in part. None of that happens without crowd funding, even though it wasn’t directly a part of my campaigns.
Crowdfunding is a very humbling process, one that will force you to learn on your feet and will help you learn to appreciate other people’s kindness in a really unique way. As you see pledges coming in, the sensation is less about the money you’re recevining and more about the acknowledgement that you’ve created something that resonates with people. I am truly grateful for the opportunities it provided me, and I wish you the best of luck in your own crowdfunding adventures.