10 Lessons Learned From Running a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

This past month has been incredibly inspiring (and exhausting).  Over the past four weeks, I ran an Indiegogo campaign for my first book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, a handbook for twenty- (and thirty-) somethings looking for meaningful work. The campaign raised $12,790 (140% of our goal) from 518 funders, received 1,200 likes on Facebook, and was featured in Fast Company,GOOD MagazineEverest Journal, and on the Indiegogo homepage.

The campaign was an overwhelming success, and I could not be more grateful for my friends, family, and backers for supporting this project—which, as you’ll soon find out, twice came close to not happening. So, while the dust is still settling, here are 10 lessons learned to help you launch your crowdfunding campaign in the coming weeks or months.

1. Disconnect to reconnect

A week before I planned to launch, I woke up in my sleeping bag, in a tent, under the redwoods of Anderson Valley, California. I was wearing shiny purple tights, a pink shirt, a whistle around my neck, and a yellow bandanna on my forehead with a huge frog on it. It was the last day of Camp Grounded—I had just been a counselor at a Digital Detox adult summer camp, and had not checked my email or Facebook for four days.

As I woke up that morning, my body exhausted but my eyes surprisingly rested from not staring at a screen for over 100 hours, I thought: there is no way in hell I can launch this thing next week, I spent the last four days hanging out with people named Topless, Kitten Little, and Honey Bear—I haven’t even heard a person’s actual real name in four days—let alone written my form emails, or invited friends to like my Facebook page, or planned my launch party! I started to freak out, and nearly flinched. “I’ll launch in August or September when the book is closer to being finished,” I said out loud in the tent.

Yet, on the drive home from camp through the redwoods and rolling vineyards of Mendocino, a surprising calm came over me. I said to my friend Ducky, who was driving, “Fuck it, I can do this. It’s gonna be nuts, but I got this.” “Yep,” Ducky answered, “You got this, Smiley.” 

Running a crowdfunding campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. Take time a week or two before you launch to disconnect, to step away from your email contact lists and Facebook. The break will remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place, and you’ll come back to your work fresh and inspired, ready to go. The last thing you want to do is cram for two weeks straight before the launch, and feel like you are already wiped on launch day.   

2. Don’t flinch, be flexible

My plan was to launch on June 27, two days before my 30th birthday, so that I’d already have some traction before the big day. On Thursday, June 27, I woke up giddy with excitement, and checked my email, anticipating that Kickstarter would (obviously) have approved my project. 

Instead, I received a message from Kickstarter that said: “Your project, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, has been declined.”  I figured I probably just needed to change one of the perks, or change some language on my page. But, when I read the email again, my heart slumped. I learned that, as of two days earlier, Kickstarter no longer accepted self-help projects (for good reason, assuming this was in response to Kickstarter’s  failure to pull an abhorrent “seduction” guidefrom their site).

I had wanted to use Kickstarter because I felt like it had the best brand recognition of any crowdfunding site (even my parents knew what it was), and numerous authors I respected had used Kickstarter to self-publish their books (it had a proven cachet). 

After pacing back and forth in my apartment for twenty minutes, freaking out, and again contemplating postponing my launch for a month or two, I took a deep breath, chugged a cup of coffee, and went to indiegogo.com.  Within four hours, I had the majority of my project uploaded on Indiegogo. I asked my videographer to edit out the parts of my video where I said, “Please support my Kickstarter!”

Because I was flexible and willing to adapt, I went from receiving the Kickstarter rejection email to pacing back and forth in my apartment to launching my project on Indiegogo, all within about six hours. Four days later, I was halfway to my goal, and had already raised over $5000. By the second week, I had been in the Indiegogo blog, the Indiegogo newsletter, and on the Indiegogo homepage.

3. Focus on the project, not the platform

There are numerous crowdfunding platforms available, but which one works best for your project? Kickstarter seems to be favored by well-known artists (Spike Lee, Zack Braff, Seth Godin, Amanda Palmer…), as well as technology and product designers, while Indiegogo caters more to non-profits, cause campaigns, and projects with international scope (and, apparently, self-help books).

You can set-up your Indiegogo project almost instantly (a nice asset)—with Kickstarter, it takes 3-5 days for your bank account to be confirmed, and then another 2-3 days for Kickstarter to approve the project. Also, Indiegogo allows for flexible funding campaigns, so you can keep all of the money you raise, even if you don’t hit your funding goal.

Ultimately though, it’s all about whether your story and your project resonates with others; are you giving people something they actually want? If so, you’ll be successful regardless of which platform you choose.

4. Video = $

When I asked friends why they liked my campaign, they often answered, “I loved your video, the outtakes were really funny!” Spend time producing an engaging high-quality video for your project. Make it unique, funny, dramatic, and inspiring. My talented videographer, Kara Brodgesell, and I, spent several days refining the script and shot listing, figuring out the most powerful way to tell my story on camera. It’s worth spending some money to pay a professional videographer who has made crowdfunding or short web videos before. Use the video to show your story, show people why you’re passionate about your project.

5. Make your project about the funder, not about you

I made it explicitly clear in my campaign that this book wasn’t about me writing a book, it was for others to achieve their own breakthroughs. I think this went a long way towards engaging supporters. The less you’re project says: “Help me do this project, I really want to do this,” and the more it shows: “This is why this project will help you,” the more successful you’ll be.

Per the advice of my friend Sydney Malawer, a crowdfunding expert who worked on campaigns for GoldieBlox ($285,000) and Kuli Kuli ($52,000), I also tried to involve the funder in the campaign perks through virtual hangouts and in-person coaching services. The more a potential funder feels agency and participation with your project, the more likely they will contribute.

6. Be very clear about where the money is going

On the campaign page, I specified exactly why my goal was $9,000, and listed my estimated costs for editing, cover art, book design, photography, and illustrations, book marketing and publicity, campaign video and promotion, campaign shipping and fulfillment, and printing costs for the first run of the book. When I reached my goal, I set a stretch goal of $12,000, and detailed where the additional funds would go.

The clearer you can be about why you need the money, the more likely others will want to support you.

7. Artists should prototype too

As artists we are particularly harsh on ourselves; we tend to wait until the last moment, until our work is 100% “perfect,” to share it with the world. Unlike product or software developers who revel in frequent beta testing and user experience research, we often treat our manuscripts, canvasses, and studios as caves, and rarely emerge to ask the public if they even like what we’re working on.

With my project, I decided to be less a writer and more a product entrepreneur; using the Indiegogo campaign as a soft launch for the book, a practice run to prepare for a future formal book launch. By treating the campaign as a beta launch and testing my product before it was finished, I learned two invaluable lessons:

 1) YES! People want the book. The idea resonated, there was demand for my product. People I didn’t know were sharing it on Facebook. At least 50% of my 518 funders were people I had never met before—they were from Lincoln, Nebraska, Bowling Green, Kentucky, Calgary, Alberta, and Portugal, India, and Iceland. People wrote comments on the Indiegogo page like, “This project lifted my spirits today,” and “I need this book right now, can’t wait to read it.”

2) NO! People don’t want the current version of the book. People were asking for more of a self-help book, and less a personal memoir. In all my conversations, my funders wanted something different than my first pass at the book. Knowing this now, while my book is still in development, allows me to make essential changes in my second draft that will end up increasing the book’s impact (and sales) six months from now. 

I would encourage other artists to use crowdfunding as a proof of concept and to prototype their ideas in development. Testing a work-in-progress is an excellent way to find out whether your audience wants what you’re working on, or something different. If you’re curious about when to launch your crowdfunding project, check out this insightful post by Nelson de Witt, author of A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter.

8. If you build it, they (might) come

Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is incredibly challenging. You can have a good idea and a good video and great perks, but you still have to get people to come to your page, and get them to contribute.

Anyone preparing to launch a crowdfunding campaign should read this post by Mike Del Ponte of Soma on 4-Hour Workweek Blog, which provides successful strategies and email templates for how best to increase traffic, contact press, and reach backers.

For The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, after direct email, Facebook was by far the largest referral of traffic (and sales generator), and Twitter was a distant third. This makes sense: whenever I support a crowdfunding campaign, it’s usually because I’ve seen it on a friend’s Facebook wall.

Even though I was fairly relentless about posting on Facebook during the campaign (I don’t think I could have physically done much more self-promotion), if I were to run the campaign again, I would hire a social media manager to help increase visibility on Facebook and come up with more creative ways of engaging the Facebook community.

Now that the campaign is over, I’m still exploring ways to best engage this community of people who refuse to settle for mediocrity—if you have creative ideas for how I can do this through online platforms or in-person discussion groups/events, please contact me!

9. Passionate press is the best press

Press was another area where I learned a valuable lesson: don’t necessarily go for the large publications, instead find blogs that have a passionate following about the particular area you’re working in. Getting featured in the Indiegogo newsletter led to hundreds of dollars in contributions, because the Indiegogo community is so passionate about supporting creative crowdfunding projects.

Likewise, I wrote a piece in GOOD Magazine about my project that generated loads of traffic and contributions, because the GOOD community is so passionate about taking action on social issues. The post sparked an online hangout about finding meaningful work, which 100 people signed up for.

If I were to run the campaign again, I would focus more energy on getting featured in twentysomething blogs, career and lifestyle blogs, with a smaller reach, but a more avid readership than large, mainstream business sites.

10. 518 reasons to be grateful

A little over a month ago, I was in the woods, cursing Facebook-induced FOMO, and celebrating taking a break from digital technology. Today, I actually want to thank Indiegogo and social media—not simply for being effective fundraising tools—but for making me believe in myself. Crowdfunding is an exercise in community-building; your project no longer is about you, it’s about the people who support you, and believe in what you’re creating.   

Since the campaign ended, I’ve been avoiding the one place I know I need to go: the library—to work on my second draft, and finish writing the book. But yesterday morning, I finally looked at the list of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough’s 518 supporters, printed the list, stuck it in my backpack, and brought it with me to the library. Now, every day I try to avoid writing (which is to say, every day), I have a list which stares back at me with fierce, hungry, eager eyes: “I need this book right now, can’t wait to read it.”

And I will sit down, with 518 reasons to write.  

Author's note: This post was originally published on my first blog (whatsupsmiley.com) on August 1, 2013.