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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I learned from running my own Kickstarter

Opinion by Matt S.

As followers of Digitally Downloaded will know, we recently ran a Kickstarter to try and get enough money to publish a book about games.

The Kickstarter itself was wildly successful in that it essentially became a pitch; after a publisher read it, they were prepared to take the publishing of the book on themselves. So, while we didn't hit the goal that we were looking for from backers, it's hard to consider the process anything but a very positive project.

With many other game developers out there considering Kickstarter to realise their own dreams, I thought it would be worthwhile reflecting on my own learnings on the process, because it can be soul crushing and difficult work indeed;

  • Kickstarter is clearly hitting the trough of disillusionment. 
I didn't make that term up, for the record. Enterprise technology and business analyst firm, Gartner, has come up with a concept that it calls the hype cycle. The hype cycle describes the process by which a popular technology or concept matures, from a cool idea that everyone wants to be a part of, to a lull as people realise the limitations of it, and then a stabilised response from customers when people understand what the solution offers and what to expect from it.

So to explain that with reference to Kickstarter; when Kickstarter first burst on the scene a couple of years ago (thanks to the likes of Double Fine and Ouya), it was seen as a world of opportunity for consumers and producers alike. Consumers would be able to directly support ideas that they liked, and developers would be able to bypass the stuffy traditional publisher system. 

Except it isn't the nirvana of free form creativity and financial support that people had thought it would be. Products have either not lived up to their potential, or been delayed, or run into further financial difficulty, meaning that customers haven't been given what they expected. The people who have run Kickstarters, meanwhile, have discovered that fulfilling such massive demand makes a publisher seem like a good idea, and they don't necessarily get the full amount of money that is pledged to them, meaning that they don't quite get the funding they had anticipated. 

So in other words, on both sides of the coin, Kickstarter isn't quite the opportunity that people had thought. I saw that in my own campaign, where many people that I spoke to would be keen on the idea, but then because they'd been burned by previous projects they had backed, they were no longer Kickstarter users.

  • A Kickstarter campaign needs star power
A good idea or a good campaign isn't going to get you over the line a Kickstarter with anything more than the most modest of goals; you're also going to need to have the direct involvement of someone whose name holds enough star power for people to break out the pocket book to support on mere principle. 

This does make sense from one perspective. People aren't going to trust you unless you've got a proven track record. So it's not surprising that they're going to be unwilling to back a project from someone who they're not familiar with.

While understandable, people looking to run Kickstarters need to understand that it's perhaps not the opportunity to get their dream idea off the ground. You might want to file that idea away for after you've got enough experience in your field to have a name and reputation, and then run the Kickstarter.

  • A Kickstarter is soul crushing hard work
By the time that I had prepared the Kickstarter to start running I'd spent a solid two months preparing it. I needed to have a list of game developers that would be participating in the series of interviews for the book. I needed to build the idea for the book itself, record my video, and go through the admin side of things to get myself ready for launch the project. I completed this process over Christmas, meaning that I didn't get much of a break, but it was the only time when my day-to-day work quietened down enough that I could sit down and focus on the Kickstarter. 

Coupled with the fact that this is something that I've wanted to produce for some years and I was very personally attached to this campaign. Once the Kickstarter was launched I lived on that site, constantly checking to see whether there were new backers or questions for me. For any day where I didn't see enough backers come through, I panicked that little bit more. 

Then I found myself answering questions for interviews (thank you to the gaming media community for taking the time to support me!). All up I would have spent 18-20 hours per day on the Kickstarter, with the ever-looking threat that the work would be for nothing. 

For anyone who is planning on running a Kickstarter - be prepared to have your resolve tested. It's a horrible process.

  • The most valuable asset you have when running a Kickstarter is a solid PR campaign
After launching our Kickstarter there were two periods where we saw the greatest boost in pledges; immediately after the campaign was launched, and then a week later, when our PR campaign went live. A formal press release was sent to a broad range of publications (both in and outside of the games industry), and those media outlets that reported on it were responsible for our largest contributions. 

If you are running a Kickstarter, then invest in PR. People misunderstand just how difficult that side of promotions can be, and so if the team of people who is running the campaign doesn't have PR experience, then strongly consider recruiting someone to help out. The chances of your idea going viral to enough of an extent to sustain itself is, unfortunately, almost zero.

  • On the other hand Kickstarter is a quick way to learn the value of your idea
While the nature of my Kickstarter (being run by a person who hasn't previously been a published author, and having a very large goal) meant that the project didn't reach its target, the process reinforced my belief in the idea of the book. The average pledge for the book was in excess of the minimum cost of the book; where you could buy the book for $60, the average pledge was $86.56. This told me that people weren't just interested in the book; they were fully supportive of the idea behind it.

People often say that Kickstarter can be used as a way of gauging interest in a project. Even though mine ultimately wasn't successful, I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. If the project hadn't had the success that it did I suspect that I would have simply scrapped the idea. 

In the end I am very glad that the book is successful, and all of our early backers were instrumental in getting us over the line. I'm glad that they're going to be able to buy a copy of the book after all. 

So, if you do have a great idea and lack the finance to make it happen? Kickstarter is a heck of a difficult way to go about it, and I do get the impression that interest in the platform is waning, but, still, it's a useful process to go through if you're able to prove that you're able to deliver what you've promised. 

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
What I learned from running my own Kickstarter
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