Kickstart My Heart

I was recently asked to give a presentation/talk about crowdfunding (Kickstarter specifically) to a small group of artists. The majority of the focus was on how to prep for a campaign, how to run the campaign once started and what to do once a campaign is completed. I was asked to put special emphasis on “how to know when you’re ready.”

I had a moment’s hesitancy in agreeing because I worry a lot about the advice industry that’s popped up around Kickstarter and crowdfunding. I know it sounds cynical, but I think there are a lot individuals out there making money off of the dreams of desperate artists. There is a lot of snake oil out there being presented in a bottle labeled “expertise” and, honestly, I don’t want to be one of those people selling it.

To be a little fair to the hustlers out there, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of presenting yourself as a “expert.” It’s guerilla marketing 101 to do so. The problem is that even true experts suffer from the fact that all advice is anecdotal. What works for one person in one situation may not work for other people in different situations. The true measure of an expert, to me, is the ability to show examples and let the audience choose what they need from it.

Basically, it became important to me to present myself as a guy who has run some Kickstarters, as opposed to the guy who is going to make your Kickstarter happen. To do that I came up with a little “tale of tape” so the artists would have a decent idea who was giving advice and whether or not it applied to them and their work:

  • I’ve run 12 Kickstarter campaigns total

  • 10 were successfully funded for amounts between $546 and $8,223

  • Those ten campaigns had between 19 and 203 backers, averaging about 86

  • The 2 that weren’t successfully funded and had goals of $25,000 and $11,000

  • Individual pledge amounts have ranged between $1 and $700 with about $33 per pledge being average.

  • Strategically my goal is generally to pay my artistic collaborators and printing costs with my Kickstarters, and attempt to pay myself on the back-end.

  • I am not a very aggressive salesperson for Kickstarters and generally take my foot off the gas after reaching goal as opposed to adding stretch goals or using similar tactics.

After singing my own praises and admitting my own limitations, I got into what seemed to be the core question to be addressed. How does an artist know when they are ready to run a Kickstarter? I started with the very basics. The three elements that are required for success in my mind, even if they aren’t guarantees of success. (I underlined to my artist friends that there are no guarantees.)

Have a Strong Vision of the Final Product: By strong I mean comprehensive. It’s only fair. If an artist is going to ask someone for money, they should have a pretty good idea what they’re going to do with that money. That entrails being able to answer any who-what-when-why-how questions that are posed to them. Who are the artists involved? What format is the comic book going to take? When will it be delivered? Its not enough to have a cool idea. You need a fully formed idea.

Be OK With NOT Hitting Goal: Nothing is for sure except that tastes are fickle. It takes resources to launch a kickstarter. Sometimes those resources are money, but often they less calculable but nonetheless limited and valuable commodities such as time, energy and emotional wellness. Kickstarter is always a gamble and so it’s important that a Kickstarting artist not risk more than they can afford to lose.

Be Ready To Work (Hard and Smart): Duh. Right? This is probably the most obvious of the three basic elements of being ready to run a kickstarter. Everybody knows you have to work hard. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be emphasized. A lot of the time, though, they don’t realize just how hard. That planning a Kickstarter campaign often takes longer than actually running it. That the work of printing and mailing comics requires a different set of skills than writing and drawing a comic. That there are going to be things to learn.

Experience has taught me that usually when people ask if they should run a Kickstarter what they are really asking is “will my Kickstarter succeed?” I’m a firm believer that the only honest answer to that questions is “I dunno” followed by a “probably” or “maybe” or “I don’t think so right now.” I guess an occasional “fuck no” is appropriate, but nothing quite so certain on the positive side should be proffered. An educated guess based on the available information is all I’m ever willing to personally commit to.

This may be a little abstract, but my process for making that guess is based on visualizing three three different sets of criteria as separate streams that wind through a virtual landscape. Those streams are personal resources (money, time, skill, etc.), opportunity (the resources available in the community), and interest (the desire to see a project happen or to be part of the outcome). If I can see those three streams converging at a single point, I think a Kickstarter has a chance of succeeding.

Money: It seems counterintuitive in a way to ask artists looking to crowdfund to have money on hand, but it’s a good idea to remind folks that it takes money to make money. Things that an artist might save up to pay for in advance of a Kickstarter: Paying artists for the graphics used in the Kickstarter (if not the whole project), printing a mock up of the final project to take pictures of and/or to weigh to estimate shipping costs, Facebook or Twitter ads, promo posters or handbills, etc.

People: The vast majority of Kickstarter pledges come from social media, or at least that’s my experience. The people you know are going to be the first people you ask for help either by pledging or helping you get the word out. They are the force that helps guide your resources stream towards connecting with Interest and Opportunity streams.

Time: You know the old saying “if you got the money, I got the time?” The opposite is true for running a Kickstarter. An artist has to have the time to commit to all three stages of a Kickstarter (planning, running, and fulfilling) to be successful.

Skill: Going into my first Kickstarter I was lucky to have been running a records mail order site for many years at that point. I knew how to figure out shipping costs, purchase bulk mailers and how to quickly and effectively pack up rewards for shipping. I also had experience estimating transaction costs and other expenses. I didn’t, and in many ways still don’t, have a great idea of how to market my products. Artists need to take stock of what they know and what they don’t know going in!

If it were just a matter of an artist’s own existing resources, Kickstarter wouldn’t even be a thing. Obviously, the goal is to tap into the resources that are available in your community. That means taking the time to examine what that pool of resources looks like.

On a basic level, can people afford to pledge to your Kickstarter? How many folks in your immediate network are employed? If most everybody you know is struggling to make rent, maybe hold off until the world seems a little more stable. Be sensitive to when times are tough. Wait until the time is right.

The same goes for the less tangible resources like time and skill. Are the people you know on-line a lot?

Even if they have money, they may not have the time to pore over your Kickstarter campaign. If you need help with something out of your skill set, do you have a friend who can help? Do they have time to help?

Interest can be the hardest of the three streams to navigate because it is the least quantifiable. Confident artists in love with their own work will tend to over estimate interest (been guilty of that myself) and less confident artists will have a tendency to limit themselves.

It is important for crowdfunding to remember that there are two basic reasons someone might pledge: they are fans of the artist’s work and fans of the artist. The former is interested in what they see in the body of Kickstarter campaign and want to see more. They want to see a project come to fruition for the sake of the project. The latter are people who want to see the artist succeed and progress professionally/socially/economically. The project is sometimes secondary to them. And yes, of course, backers can be both to some degree. A main difference between the two types of interested parties is the amount of control you have. You don’t have a lot of control over whether someone digs your artistic style or chosen genre or other elements of the project itself. You can, however, to some extent make people interested in you with your actions.

The down side to that is that you can also cause disinterest in your campaign. Remember that reputation is a double-edged sword. Be nice and be honest. Work hard and work transparently. The people who care about such things will reward it. Be a jerk and people will reward that as well and accordingly.

So, I know this a bit of an academic model…. Very abstract. I do think, though, it gives a good basis for deciding whether or not a Kickstarter possibility or pipedream. It lets an artist know if there is potential.

What the confluence doesn't show, though, is how much potential a campaign would have. Can the artist achieve a $500 goal? $5,000? More? Again, I think it would be irresponsible to flatly answer this question but I do think the three stream model can be built out to help think the answer through.

What the initial three-stream model doesn’t take into account is that each stream is likely to be different in size. An artist may have a lot of resources and need just a little bit of interest and opportunity to get over. Or an artist may have limited resources but a lot of interest in the form of friends and fans who want them to succeed. Some artists may be lucky enough to run a Kickstarter at a point where they have a lot of resources, a lot of interest in their work and overall opportunity is high! The size and shape of all of these streams changes the size and shape of the artist’s potential.

Basically, that confluence point has a shape and size. In the case of the above graphic, all three streams are equal and potential looks like a squishy hexagon. You can’t really directly equate that squishy hexagon to a dollar amount, but you know its relatively small. You also know it’s a little complex. (You know how to calculate the area of a hexagon? I’d have to look it up!)

What this tells you that if you feel that you need a large sum of money to finish your project that you need increase the size of one or more of your streams. It also tells you that since your potential is complex that increasing one of your streams may make your goals simpler by changing the shape.

To visualize this, take the three streams in the previous example, but increase the size of the resources. For the sake of this example, say your original plan was to use a Kickstarter to pay your artistic collaborators and for printing the final comic. Instead, you decide to save up some money and pay for printing costs in advance and now only need to pay artistic collaborators. This act increases the size of your potential (you are more likely to reach your goal) and reduces the complexity of your potential (the shape is now a squished rectangle instead of a hexagon.)

Just keep in mind the limitations when you are visualizing these elements. Notice how adding more resources at this doesn’t grow the size or change the shape of your potential.

If you change the size of one of the other streams in addition to adding resources, that may change the size of potential but it also may send you back to a more complicated Kickstarter.

Like the basic three-stream model for evaluating whether or not to run a Kickstarter, the beefed-up version for gauging overall potential is admittedly abstract. Does a big black overlap square-shaped spot guarantee an artist that their campaign will rake in $5,000 and be a smooth ride? Naw, of course not! It should, though, help an artist visualize what they might need to work on to reach that goal.

On to some more practical tips about running a Kickstarter campaign!

I imagine that most artists who are making comic books have taken the time to figure out what all that creation entails. It could be through an educational process like taking a class or reading a how-to book. It could be a deconstructive process, looking at comics they like and studying them to back out the creation process. It could even be simple trial and error, sitting down at the drawing table and figuring out problems as they come up. The first two methods are applicable to running a Kickstarter, but the last is a recipe for disaster. Remember… people are giving you their hard-earned money in good faith that you have a plan and a vision. They may not be so understanding if you fall short because you didn’t bother to foresee obstacles.

In my mind there are three distinct parts of a Kickstarter campaign.

Planning: Artists need to establish what it is exactly they’re trying to make, how much it will cost to make it, and what they will need to do to get the money to pay that cost.

Selling: Make no mistake, it may use language similar to a charity drive, but running a Kickstarter campaign is a business venture. An artist needs to convince people that your project is worth their money and that they are a trustworthy person. It’s an exercise in salesmanship.

Fulfilling: Once an artist has taken money for a project it becomes imperative to finish it and get the project in the hands of the people who paid in to make it happen. Its hard work that is often out of the wheelhouse of artists, but imperative if they want to keep a good reputation and continue work in the field.

Planning Part One: Asking For Help If an artist has never run a Kickstarter before, the most important step they can take in the planning process is asking for help. There are a lot of moving parts and they need to make sure they have the right tools keep them moving! Since all Kickstarters are deadline based, artists need to gather those tools before they start.

The most basic need is to create the text and graphics for the campaign. A video to introduce the artist to backers is also important. These elements don’t need to be “professional” quality but they do need to convey the spirit of the project and give backers confidence that there money is going to an earnest and responsible person. If the artist is uncomfortable creating these elements, they need to ask for help from someone who is more experienced. Depending on the level of commitment asked for and professional status of those helpers, an artist might want to set aside a little bit of cash to pay them. (i.e. don’t ask a professional to volunteer time and skill unless you can avoid it.)

Kickstarter will provide a preview link for the campaign. Artists should send it to their advisors, asking for ways to improve it better. If the advisor’s comments revolve around the nature of the project itself, that is a good indicator that the artist needs to take steps to make the campaign clearer. If the suggestions involve taking the artist out of their comfort zone, this is an indicator that the artist needs to find someone who fills in their skill gaps.

Artists will also want to start recruiting friends and fans to pledge early. Let the people who are most likely to chip know that a campaign will be launched soon and that it’ll need their help somewhat urgently. A good first week is critical to success…. ideally reaching 50% funded within that time.

Artists need to remember, though, the bit about all advise being anecdotal. When told by a helper that an element of the campaign isn’t working for the helper, that statement it’s 100% true. When advisors suggest a way to fix the problem, though, they only may or may not be right. Build on their input, but don’t take it as gospel.

Planning Part Two: Setting Goal

While the three-stream method of deciding whether or not an artist has the potential to succeed with a kickstarter, it is an admittedly poor tool for calculating an actual goal amount. The artist needs to total up all expected expenses and base there goal on that. Here are some tips on making those estimates: Paying collaborators: It does not need to be a formal contract, but do have a written agreement with any artists you are working with about their compensation and deadlines. Make sure that all collaborators know how much and when they will be paid if the campaign if success. (Or if you have agreed to pay them for work on the campaign regardless of outcome.) State whether or not any collaborating artist’s compensation will scale up based the amount that a campaign might exceed its initial goal. Also have deadlines for when you will need the work completed.

Printing: A comic artist needs to know in advance how much manufacturing the actual physical book will cost. This means familiarizing themselves with the technology, terminology and available services. Ask for recommendations from other artists, get quotes in advance based on desired print run size, make sure shipping is included in those quotes if the printer isn’t local. (And definitely look for a local printer! If they can price match an out-of-town quote then you won’t need to pay shipping at all!)

Shipping: Artists should consider signing up for a service like Something where you can cut and paste your backer information into your shipping label, offers a discount on shipping rates, and saves tracking information. There may be a monthly fee, but the amount saved on postage will probably make up for it.

If possible, also consider making a mock-up package for all award levels, including versions of the actual items and the mailers you intend to use. Weigh the mock-up packages and use the on-line estimation tools for the desired shipping service to help decide on how much to charge for shipping.

Shipping is in some ways the toughest thing to budget within the constraints of a kickstarter goal. The dollars paid for shipping count towards the goal without contributing towards the budget for actual creation. Artists should do their best to account for this discrepancy.

The 11% Rule: Once an artist totals their expected expenses of paying collaborators, printing, and shipping, 11% should be added to the total. This is essentially backing out the 5% that Kickstarter keeps as a service charge and the 5% that they charge to process the payments.

Non-Monetary Expenses:

Plan for the time it will take everyday to first run the Kickstarter and then to create and send out all of your awards after the campaign ends. Keep in mind that you should be ready to pay off any favors you called in and should take the time to thank anybody who helped you out.

Running the Campaign: If planning has been done with some consideration, running the campaign itself is a daily chore for its length, but should not be an onerous one. Basically, the artist should be committed to doing at least one thing a day for a month, or however long they’ve chosen the campaign to last.

Let People Know About the Kickstarter: Its somewhat disappointing to some artists, but posting once on Facebook or sending out a single email isn’t likely to get the job done. Artists, particularly those with ambitious goals, will likely need to work at contacting people every day that the campaign is running. The trick becomes walking the fine line between being too polite for one’s own good and being so obnoxious that people tune you out.

When it comes to posting on social media, I suggest twice a day on each platform you use. The algorithms used by Facebook and Twitter will likely filter out these posts to some degree, so there isn’t a lot of worry about over exposure. Posts should be made at different times of day, mixing it up day to day. Post to groups and lists as well, but remember to read any rules the admins of those groups have for self promotion. Make your posts short and to the point. For example: “Please help me bring this comic to life! A single copy is only $8 with shipping. (link)” “This great piece of original art would look great on your wall. If you pledge for it I will be 5% closer to goal! (pic)(link)”

You will also need to contact people individually by email, direct messages, phone, or in person. Keep those contacts conversational and friendly. Don’t just shoot people links to the campaign, that can have more of a negative impact than positive. Treat your backers like people, not bank accounts.

Many Kickstarters collect a list of press contacts to send a press release to for the campaign. The number of outlets for that has shrunk in recent years, but it doesn’t hurt. Take the time to create a press release that is informative and looks nice. Go easy on “teaser” language and hyperbole for your press release: just the facts! Also create a cover letter/email body text for your press releases. (Like a real letter with complete sentences and paragraphs!)

Good and Bad Tactics: Mind Your Voice

One of the downsides of the Kickstarter process is that its based on creating a sense of urgency. The main driver of all Kickstarters is that there is a limited amount of time to reach a specific goal. If the goal isn’t met, all of the effort can feel wasted. This is easy to get caught up in as the person running the campaign. This can lead to some unintentionally shitty behavior if an artist don’t check themselves. Here are some good tips on language to maintain:

  • Ask for help, don’t demand it; be friendly about it.

  • Remember that backers don’t NEED your comic; tell them why they should want it.

  • Along those lines, remember that no wants to read post or get an email that’s a guilt trip.

  • If someone says “no” or for some reason objects to your asking, politely move on.

Basically, its about working hard on reaching out to people in a congenial matter and listening to our better angels when things aren’t going our way.

Fulfilling the Campaign:

The operative part of the name “Kickstarter” is “start.” Once a campaign has been completed the real beginning of the project starts. Artists who have taken the time to plan this part of process should be able to hit the ground running, placing orders, paying artists and mailing out rewards in short order. The artists who have skipped planning this step will likely struggle, which can be a real emotional burden. To reiterate the planning elements of fulfillment, make sure you have time scheduled to do all the work you need to. You might justifiably want to take a few days off right after the campaign ends, but make sure you have the time set aside. You know that comic books don’t just magically appear, they take hard work. Also remember there is an obligation to treat to respond to the generosity of backers in kind by being generous with your time and getting them their stuff as quickly as possible.

That all said… shit happens. no one can plan for every possible snag. The key to dealing with problems and delays is twofold: 1) Put the ol’ head down and work through the problem, 2) Let your backers know that you’re having a problem.

As long as they feel like an artist is behaving in a responsible manner, they’ll likely stick with that artist in a supportive way.

I don’t want to harp, but I do really want to drive home that after a campaign ends, an artist’s responsibility begins. Its easy to dismiss the individual pledges, especially if the amounts are relatively low. An artist should take the time to think about what most backers have to do at their day-job to be able to afford even that small award level. Especially think of backers who may have jobs that are physically and emotionally demanding but low paying. Then treat every backer as if they had to do that job to pay for the award.

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