If you have been looking at Kickstarter or Indiegogo as an option to fund your new business venture, you are likely to have come across one piece of advice again and again: start building a targeted email list well before the launch of the campaign. So, once you actually launch it, you just need to send out an email blast - this strategy helps you set up the initial momentum which is then carried forward by Kickstarter to eventually help you succeed in reaching your goals. But email list-building takes time. I run a newsletter for entrepreneurs and I know how tough it can be to build a significant number of subscribers. Even if you are going to succeed, it takes quite a bit of time. So are there alternatives to this at all?
Over the weekend, I talked to Ross Currie, an established Identity Management consultant from Perth, Australia. But between September to December of last year, Ross did something completely outside his comfort zone. He launched a Kickstarter campaign for his project Squishy Forts - the world's first Pillow Fort construction kit. Ross's goal was to reach $25,000 in crowdfunding. Instead, he was able to push the overall funding past $67,000.
I wanted my conversation with Ross to be more of a step-by-step guide for my readers, than it being just a plain vanilla interview. So I have tried to segment this chat into multiple segments. Hope you find this useful. So here you go - all words below are from Ross.
Stage I : Idea Conceptualization & Validation
So like most ideas, the Squishy Forts thing was a combination of a few different things that all came together in a Eureka moment. I guess the first thing that planted the seed in my mind was an article I saw in the New York Times about Pillow Forts. Specifically, the article was about the fact that an architect had published an article on his company website critiquing the architectural design of some pillow fort pictures he had found on the Internet. And then his website just blew up because it went so incredibly viral.
The second thing that really kicked off the idea was when I was at Startup Weekend Perth in September 2013. I had put together a team around the idea of "Addicted2Learning" - a series of games that integrated addictive gameplay elements into kids games. The idea was to exploit the "Tablet babysitter" that parents typically use to get them to learn.
Anyway, Startup Weekend is all about validating your idea. It follows the Lean Startup Methodology. And after we had spoken to a number of parents, what we realized was that the way to solve the tablet babysitter problem is not with an actual app. As I was sitting there, I began to think that it would be more valuable in terms of winning the competition if we had something physical that kids could play with. I thought of this idea of a pillow fort construction kit which I suggested to the team. But we kinda laughed it off.
But the idea stuck with me and a few weeks later when I had to come up with a business idea for an entrepreneurship unit I was taking as part of my MBA, I thought "Hey, how about I use this idea?" It was also right around the time Kickstarter was opening to Australian projects, and that played into the thought process as well
Once I had the idea, I began looking into this whole thing of pillow fort building and realized it was this massive cultural phenomenon - it's something that almost everyone has done. It's been featured in a ton of memes, TV shows, there's even an Ikea ad out right now where a kid builds a fort using Ikea furniture. As I spoke to people, everyone had this awesome nostalgic reaction. But when I looked around for products catering to that experience, there really wasn't much. There were a few fort products for kids, but they didn't have that "Squishy" feel that pillow fort construction did. And there were a few similar-ish products on Etsy.
So now I had spoken to people and got validation of the concept. But I don't believe a business/product can really be validated until someone is prepared to give you money for it. Your family and your friends are going to tell you it's a great idea, but it's the customers that really matter
So the month gap was spent working with the students in my entrepreneurship class developing the prototype/MVP (one of which had a young child who helped play-test). Then the thought was to put the product on Kickstarter with a few weeks before we were due to give our final presentation - the thought was that we could stand up there and say "Look, instead of just making up a business idea, we actually started a business"
Stage II : Building The Prototype
Well, there were two stages to development. Stage 1 was the proof of concept, and stage 2 was developing the prototype. For the proof of concept, I had this whacky idea of sticking magnets in foam and making a fort out of it. But I didn't really know if it was feasible, I didn't know what the construction blocks would look like. So first, I went down to my local Clark Rubber (retail foam supplier in Australia) and bought a bunch of foam offcuts of various shapes and sizes. Then I found an old knock-off snuggy that I had gotten as a prototype somewhere, found a sewing kit I'd grabbed at a hotel and made the first cover.
You have to understand that I'm an IT guy, so while my mom is a passionate quilter, I am not a guy that normally makes things with his hands. So there were a couple of times that I sewed a cover to my pants, and I think I had blue fluff on my fingers for about a week at one point after almost gluing myself whilst testing how I would affix magnets. As the proof of concept started to take shape, I went down to a local craft store and got some proper fabric and sewing supplies. And of course I went to visit a magnet supplier and got a heap of different sized magnets to try out.
I did most of this work myself, though was bouncing ideas off the my assignment group as I went. One of the best things that came out of that was the idea of an ottoman case that the pieces could pack away in. A few friends of mine with kids commented that toy clutter was a major concern, and so the idea of a case it packed away in, to become functional furniture, was a real game-changer.
Eventually the proof of concept was done and it was time to get a proper prototype made. So I dragged my magnetty-foam and tattered hand-made covers around to a bunch of foam suppliers and upholsterers here in Perth seeing if somebody was willing to make me a single prototype, with the idea that I would come back and order a heap more if the Kickstarter was successful.
But after 2 weeks of that, I was pretty frustrated. I'm sure some of them get a lot of crazy people in, so I can't really blame them too much, but it seemed like none of them wanted my business. They'd either take forever to get back to me with a quote, tell me they couldn't do anything for 6 months because they were too busy, or they'd tell me it was "out of my budget" - which is pretty stupid, since I was actually willing to pay what it took to get it done.
One Thursday afternoon I was driving home after another waste-of-my-time meeting with a local manufacturer, and I said to myself, "You know what? I could probably jump on a plane, and get this done over the weekend". Living in Perth, we're kind of fortunate that Asia is so close, and sure enough, when I got home I took a look on the internet and found some cushion cover makers in Bali who seemed like they could do it. $300 return with one of the budget airlines, $90 a night in a cheap hotel and $300 for the samples. 36 hours after leaving Perth I was back with completed prototypes. All I had to do was glue the magnets in. I flew to Bali on Nov 7 at 8:30 AM, got back to Perth on Nov 9 at 4:10 AM.
Stage III - Preparing For Campaign Launch
The video was home made, by myself. I bought a GoPro to do it, not realizing until later that they fish-eye things. I (later) used my DSLR with a crappy built-in mic for some parts.
In developing my campaign, I'd looked at a number of successful campaigns, such as Pebble, and looked at what they did well. I'm big on the concept of 'modelling' - I figure if it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something, then that guy has probably written a blog article that I can read to get the top 10 tips. In the case of my Kickstarter page, and the video, I basically used this principle - what did others do well, and how can I apply and recreate that success for my own project. I knew that launching a campaign in November was kind of risky, as people want to buy presents for Christmas, not the promise of a present but I set my campaign to end on December 24 at 11:59pm (US EST).
Then I knew I had 6 or so weeks to market the campaign. First of all, I went and did some traditional marketing analysis. I focused on two key things leading up to my campaign:
1) Why would people want to buy this product?
2) Who and why would someone talk about this product?
I figured that this product really appealed to two key demographics: "Grown up adult man children" and "parents with kids". On my own observation, my thoughts were that the people who most regularly back and talk about Kickstarter projects were from the first category - and this really falls into the whole online nerd/geek culture. Part of this was just my own opinion, but some of it was also based on how I looked at who was sharing pillow fort memes. Also (it was decided based on) what websites I personally saw Kickstarter projects (being) shared on.
There was also a third category which I called "Australian start-up community" - I thought these people would be excited by an Australian Kickstarter project. So then I went and identified key websites that I had to get listed on in order to make the project successful. The first was ThisIsWhyImBroke and the second was Gizmodo. My thought was - if I make it on these two, I've made it. And I thought my product had appeal to them.
Stage IV - Launch & Marketing Buzz
ThisIsWhyImBroke was easy - I sent them a PM on Facebook and they replied almost instantly, saying they'd add my product - but that it would take a week or so (doh!). Gizmodo was another matter - almost freaking impossible to get listed on. And they're an Aussie company, so I thought they'd love this project (they'd even listed Pillow Fort articles on the site before)
I used every contact form I could find, stalked the editors on Twitter, did everything I could think of to try and get on Gizmodo, but nothing was working. So at the same time I went and made a list of blogs/websites that I considered "Secondary", that I thought might want to carry a story on my site. Loosely these were:
1) Sites like ThisIsWhyImBroke
2) Other nerd/tech gadget sites
3) Parenting/kid/toy blogs
4) Startup/Entrepreneurship sites
I sat down and Googled and made a huge list of these. Then I ran them through a bulk Page-rank checker to take the top 100 from each category. Then I setup SquishyForts.com with a Press page that contained three press release (1 for parents/toys, 1 for nerds/tech and 1 for entrepreneurship/startup). And I added a zip file of high-res photos - trying to make it all as easy as possible for anyone who wanted to write an article.
Then on the main page of Squishy Forts I created a big picture link that pointed to the Kickstarter page. But after two weeks I was starting to get a bit disheartened. At the one week mark, I'd had almost no backers, but I'd managed to find a Chinese manufacturer who had allowed me to drop the price. People don't often do this in Kickstarter, but I actually changed all my backing levels at that point.
Shortly after that, the page got listed on ThisIsWhyImBroke. But this didn't have nearly the impact I thought it would. People just weren't backing the project. That site is awesome! And they'd generated a ton of views, but still not many backers. I think around Day 22 (December 10) I was still at $2900. Some (of the funding) was from friends - when I dropped the price and introduced early bird and even Black Friday specials, I'd managed to get some of my friends to back the project. My dad chipped in $10 to get a Pillow Fort Architect badge and my mom said she was holding her bid until the very end, to help me out if I needed a bump (I tried to tell her backing early helped more, but that's okay). But I had received some backing from strangers through ThisIsWhyImBroke.
I'd managed to build a bit of a Facebook/Twitter following, and a few of the "secondary" blogs had written stories for me. But it just wasn't going anywhere and I literally sent a message to my girlfriend saying it was almost time to cancel the project; that I'd spent enough time on it, and it was time to move onto the next thing.
On December 11, Gizmodo US featured a story on Squishy Forts. After all my attempts to get in through their Australian arm, one of their US editors had seen the project on ThisIsWhyImBroke and wrote a story. I found that pretty funny, but I was quite happy to see my strategy of ThisIsWhyImBroke was paying off. By the end of the day, I was over 10K and by the end of the next day over 26K. I was just sitting there staring at my phone, waiting for the notifications to come through.
I couldn't go to bed at night because I was just excited to see if more would come through. And then first thing in the morning I'd be out of bed and racing to my computer. And my strategy was dead on - once Gizmodo picked it up, it got shared like crazy. I had a heap of people like CNET, NineMSN and even Huffington Post write stories about the project. And some of them I could see using information straight out of the press releases I'd prepared.
Once the big outlets picked it up, there were articles everywhere. This idea of "surround sound" had hit. Everywhere people went it was Squishy Forts. That shot me up past my 25K goal and it didn't start to level out until Dec 17, by which time I was on my way to visit family in Canada. It was sitting around 46-49K at that point.
So you can imagine I'm pretty excited at this point. Squishy Forts had kind of started as a bit of a crazy idea, and now people were loving it. I felt pretty vindicated. But I didn't like that things were leveling out. Now in a new timezone, I was chatting with one of my friends, Mark (he deserves from credit for this), and I was musing about how I could get it going again. The Gizmodo press was good, but it took ages to setup and I knew it would be hard to recreate that before the campaign ended. And so Mark suggested I try and hit the front page of Reddit.
Easier said than done. But I began looking into it. I'd used Reddit a little during my campaign (there's an /r/forts and an /r/pillowforts), but it hadn't done me much good. So I began googling around to see how people get to the front page. As I said before - modelling how others have done it.
So what I came up with was the idea of a shareable photo, posted in the /r/pics group. I knew from before the campaign even started that the Internet was rife with pillow fort memes, so I had been using them to gain Facebook/Twitter followers. But now it was time to design my own. So Reddit is a community that kind of frowns on marketing, but I really thought this was something that people would love. So I made this image and posted it.
As per the guidelines, I kept the marketing on the image to a minimum. A simple logo and URL at the bottom, with a link to the Kickstarter project in the description. The image went viral almost instantly and in addition to making the front page of Reddit, I generated another $17,000 in the final days of my campaign. That specific URL has now been visited by over 530,000 people, and I'm sure it's been shared around a lot too.
Analyzing The Modus Operandi Of The Campaign
I think it's important to acknowledge the role that ThisIsWhyImBroke played. Twitter and Facebook probably had a higher conversion rate, because I was more directly interacting with people. But if you look at the actual % breakdown in Kickstarter, Facebook was only about 3% of funding. Gizmodo was around 28%, with 19% coming from SquishyForts.com and 14% hitting the campaign directly (which I imagine is from the Reddit link).
For Twitter, I went a bit black-hat. I went searching for the term 'pillow fort' and found anyone and everyone that was mentioning it in their statuses. Surprisingly, there are a lot of people that build pillow forts to eat pizzas and watch movies with their boy/girl friend. With every conversation about Pillow Forts I found, I tried to engage in real conversations.
For Facebook, well, really it was just a matter of funneling people there through my website and then having people share stuff that I shared. I shared a lot of pillow fort memes early on.
Pinterest has also been a gold mine for me. It seems to be the number one social network for moms looking for neat stuff for their kids. So I have one image that's been pinned into something like 60 different albums. And that's with almost no marketing. Just posting the photo and linking from my website.
Final Words Of Advice
At the end of the day, crowd-funding isn't about getting your friends and family to give you money. It's about reaching out to a global market of potential backers. I've had a lot of people in Perth approach me about crowd-funding recently and one of the things I always tell them to do is to rethink their strategy, and whether crowd-funding is really right for their project. The two things I'd say people need to ask one question: Does this have global appeal and why would somebody overseas back this project?
And most local projects don't have a good answer for that. A guy in the USA isn't going to give somebody in Australia $10 to attend a viewing of your film. But they might give you $10 if they can watch it online. At the end of the day, people support a project because they get something out of it - either a product, an experience or merchandise.