Last year, my family of three spent the summer in Tokyo, squeezed into a tiny apartment, riding hundreds of trains, and eating the best food of our lives.
It was a great and surprisingly relaxing vacation, but I was also at work. Every day at 7am, I sat down with my iced tea and flipped open my laptop at the Starbucks on Nakano-dōri in western Tokyo. I finished a draft of my travel memoir, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo, in January.
The publisher of my first book turned it down, and my agent told me—also predictably—that a quirky little book about Japanese food probably wouldn’t appeal to any other major publisher.
I decided to self-publish the book as an ebook. But I wanted major-label quality, with a great cover and professional copy editing. Those things cost money: together, at least $2,000. According to a survey by Taleist.com, half of self-published authors earn less than $500.
Sure, I’m proud of my book, but I’m also a financial writer. Putting $2,000+ into a project that has slim odds of earning it back is exactly what I get paid to tell people not to do.
So I turned to Kickstarter. I put up my campaign page on February 21 and asked for $5,000. Three weeks later, I’d brought in $8,101 from 381 backers, enough to pay for the book production and a national book tour. The book will be out in June.
Maybe, spurred by the success of high-profile Kickstarter campaigns from Amanda Palmer and Rob Thomas, you’re thinking of crowdfunding your own project.
Well, I didn’t make $1 million, but here’s what I learned from running a successful Kickstarter campaign. For more advice, I asked a couple of creators whose campaigns are, as of this writing, still running and likely to succeed.
Building a campaign is real work
The best Kickstarter pages tell a simple story. The video and text are brief and to the point, and the rewards are uncomplicated. This kind of simplicity is hard work.
Take the Nice Laundry project. (Disclosure: I backed their project and they backed mine.) Ricky Choi and Phil Moldavski want to manufacture fashionable men’s socks to compete with likes of J. Crew, and sell them in 6-pair sets at a fraction of the name-brand price.
Their Kickstarter page consists mostly of photos of socks. Easy, right?
“Everything takes way more time than you think it will,” says Moldavski. “That’s been a consistent theme for us, and it was no different with the copy, the page, and the video. It took us something like 40 man-hours.”
That doesn’t include time spent developing the product itself, of course, just the Kickstarter page.
That jibes with my experience: it took me a full work week to put my project page together. If you think you’re going to slap your page up in an afternoon, think again.
Make a video, but don’t overdo it
Kickstarter doesn’t require you to make a video for your project, but they highly recommend it, and most projects without a video fail. That doesn’t mean you have to hire Scorsese.
Unless your project is a video production, a fancy video is counterproductive. “I think some people put a lot of money into the video, and it comes off as a little bit disingenuous, because it doesn’t match the tone of the campaign,” says Choi.
Shooting your video on a smartphone is fine. You’re trying to tell your story in a genuine, relatable way. For my video, I put together an animated slideshow of photos I took in Tokyo, and then my daughter and I recorded a voiceover about the book.
It runs 60 seconds and took three hours to make; I got unanimously positive feedback on the video.
The rewards are the hardest part
In general, there are two good approaches to Kickstarter rewards. If you’re making a physical product, the rewards should emphasize the product.
“We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarters do things like, ‘Hey, we’re making teakettles, but we’ll also make an awesome reward for a teakettle plus this t-shirt,’” says Moldvaski. “Why are you making a t-shirt all of a sudden?”
To that end, Nice Laundry’s rewards consist of socks, socks, and more socks.
That won’t work for Rei Kagetsuki’s project, Phantom Open Emoji, which aims to make an open-source set of cute Japanese emoticons and give it away for free to software developers. (Disclosure: Yep, I contributed to Kagetsuki’s project and vice versa.)
Nobody has to donate to get their hands on the project; they can just wait and download it for free. So Phantom Emoji’s rewards are all about getting backers involved in the project: you can request custom emoticons and custom sets.
“We’re simply offering a customized virtual project which won’t involve a lot of time to separate out and send,” says Kagetsuki. Or, for $5,000, you can rent a space in their office in Nagoya, Japan.
I spent more time designing rewards than on any other part of the campaign. Coming up with good ebook rewards is tough, and Kickstarter doesn’t allow you to give away rewards not directly related to the project. I thought about offering a package of my favorite Japanese snack foods. Not allowed.
I bent this rule slightly by offering Japanese tea blended by the Seattle tea shop where I finished the book; this was a very popular reward. The vast majority of my backers, however, pledged $10 (for a free copy of the ebook) or $25 (get your name in the acknowledgments).
The shotgun approach of offering dozens of rewards at every possible contribution level is unnecessary and probably harmful to your project’s success.
“We counted one that had over 100 different pledge levels,” says Choi, who compared this to a burrito place he frequented that served 30 different burritos. “Every single time I would go there, I felt like I wasn’t getting the best burrito, and I ended up not going anymore.”
Kickstarter is not a magic money machine
“This is not a place where if you build it, they will come,” says Moldavski. “You can have the greatest idea in the world, but you definitely have to have a plan of how you’re going to get the word out about your project.”
Kagetsuki agrees. “Kickstarter is an interesting platform that gets a lot of media attention,” he says, “but that has nothing to do with how much attention your project will get.”
I announced my campaign on Facebook and Twitter and via a podcast I host. I sent personal emails to people I know in the food writing and Japanese-American communities, asking them to publicize the campaign. Many responded by not only helping to spread the word, but also contributing themselves.
When I hit my initial goal, I thanked people via social media and promised not to spam them further. A friend told me, gently, that this was a dumb move: After you hit your goal, publicize your “stretch” goals.
He was right. I ended up bringing in 60% more money than I asked for.
Kickstarter is R&D, not your paycheck
With few exceptions, Kickstarter money will help get your project rolling, but it’s not enough to live on, and it’s not supposed to be. “Kickstarter is not a sustained funding platform—it’s to get the funding to start something,” says Kagetsuki.
I’m thrilled with the success of my Kickstarter. Aside from the money, I now have a network of 381 people who cared enough about my book to, in essence, preorder it at well above the cover price.
The big question, however, is whether I’ll sell any books at retail. Did everyone who wants the book already buy their copy via Kickstarter?
I’ll be out on book tour this summer meeting backers and looking for the answer to that question. You’ll recognize me by my fashionable socks.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.