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How to Suck at Kickstarter

[The above track is from a tribute album by Witness for the legendary Nujabes, who many refer to as the “Godfather of Jazzhop.” I posted this track along with my final backer-update on Kickstarter. Yea — I’m a bit melodramatic.]

For those who don’t know, I recently ran a kickstarter for a Progressive-House EP that barely hit a third of it’s funding before tanking.

While that’s a bummer, I’ve learned a ton from this experiment.

First, let’s talk about how to fail.

1). Don’t have a fan base

I don’t have a fan base. Simple and clear — I haven’t ever released anything substantial in the Progressive House world (or anything, for that matter. I have a 3-song EP out called “Tokyo Rails” but that was pushed so I could experience the process of releasing a music product).

As of writing this, I have 35 likes on my facebook artist page and 51 twitter followers. My EP, Tokyo Rails, has a total of about 10 purchases. My point — no significant following. The amount of legitimate fans I have is incredibly small. Most of the likes and followers I have are close friends and family. While that’s fine, you can’t count on your friends and family as your only source of pledges.

As Brian Trifon of Trifonic said in our recent conversation, “You only have so many people that are your friends and family who will throw in $100 or $50.

See, fans are like piles of wood — ready to be sparked and set ablaze. With them, you can start fires and then have them spread. The more it catches on, the hotter the fire, the larger your spread and reach will become.

I was trying to collect firewood the whole time.

It’ll be a significantly easier endeavor if you have your fans ready to go.

2). Have incredible amounts of self-doubt (and let it get to you).

I know this isn’t just me because I’ve spoken to countless other artists of all shades and trades that agree — we’re all doubtful that our work is good (although I like to think my self-doubt is of titanic degrees not seen among most mere men).

Almost every other day, I’d doubt that I’d be able to succeed. I did things to distract myself — and I wouldn’t even acknowledge this in the moment either. I played way too much League of Legends during my campaign. I spent an inordinate amount of time with friends. I was slightly delusional — afraid of the truth. Afraid I wouldn’t succeed.

I mean, I quit my job to do this. It was scary. It took balls.

You know how they say, with confidence, “fake it till you make it?” Well you have to be 100% confident — even if deep down you’re not. You have to commit to your campaign days full-force. Anything less is foolish.

You have to be confident because your moves and actions will be different. The results of my self-doubt are unfortunately vague, but ultimately, by not believing in my ability to succeed, I definitely didn’t push as hard as I could have. I cut corners and was lazy about it.

It’s interesting to note that this self-doubt was strongest the first couple of days, as well as the last third of my campaign. In the middle, when I was doing things (like publishing my essay, “Is Indie Music Dead?”) and actually gaining traction, I was confident.

My point here is this: the self-doubt was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because I had thoughts I wouldn’t succeed, I didn’t. It’s that simple.

I mean, I could’ve walked around San Francisco’s Union Square with a boombox over my shoulder, blasting my house music, dressed up like a Final Fantasy character, handing out business cards with my kickstarter link on it… but I didn’t. I literally thought of doing that on the second to last day, but by then I was already defeated, which is funny, because those last 2 days were when I realized how much more I could have done — and the ideas I came up with were insane (if I see anybody dressed up like Cloud, Tifa, or Tidus running around with a boombox, I’m calling you out).

3). Don’t update often

This is something that never occurred to me during the entire process. It wasn’t until after, in a comment from the first non-friend or family member to back me, that this was brought to my attention — and he literally spelled it out for me. Nothing quite like direct customer feedback, eh?

Here’s his comment:

This project could have been a bit more lively. Only 4 updates is very little, and one of them was to announce a change of direction… Not all updates need to be earthshaking, propose new stuff or stretch goals. When it comes to music, they can be more personal. Let the backers know what’s in your mind at the moment, a bit like a blog (though maybe not 1 post per day) where you could say what you’re working on, share music from others that inspire you, musing on contemporary music and/or art, etc. Make us know you better, make it personal, and more people will feel motivated to share the word on social networks. For “new” artists trying to make it, word of mouth is the single most powerful tool at their disposal.

Self-explanatory and from the most important source — the fan [read: customer].

The funny part, to me, is that I’m all for building relationships with fans — and I made no attempt to do that. It completely blew past me. These people were as invested as any fan could be (with actual money on the line) and I didn’t deliver on my end.

Acknowledge that people want to come along the journey. They want to witness the moments of doubt — the struggle. They want to witness the bouts of success and breakthrough.

4). Ask for rent

I pulled a sly move and buried this half-way during my campaign, but at the beginning, I made it clear that the Kickstarter funds were going towards rent and food — I.E. Time. I figured being completely honest was the way to go.

Unfortunately, this made people think they were just “paying my rent.”

I understand how that’s an unattractive proposition — but it’s actually an awful argument.

If I release a CD, and you buy it, there’s a good chance I’m using that money to pay my rent (Album –> Money –> Rent). Using Kickstarter, I proposed doing this in a different order (Money –> Album –> Rent). Considering the response, I assume this is confusing for people or perhaps my strategy of explaining this was poor.

Now, let’s look at the things I did right:

1). Advertising

So, this was pretty surprising.

I ran a super small Facebook ad as a test. I’d never done a paid advertisement in my life.

I started with an ad about a video game remix album. After this ran overnight, I decided to target my audience even further. I changed it to “Chrono Trigger” specifically and the click-through rate (CTR) increased a lot. You can see all this on the graphs below.

With $25 as my total budget, I set up an ad on facebook targeted specifically to Males (because, gamers) of ages 18-30 (because, they have to know what Chrono Trigger is) in the United States (because English), who like “Chrono Trigger” and “OverClocked Remix” (which is the largest video game remix website).

As a result of this $25 ad, I received a pledge for $50 and a pledge for $25

That’s solid. I made a 3x return on my investment (it’s important to note that the return was in Kickstarter pledges so I actually never got the cash). If it maintained that rate of return, at about $900 investment on my part in Facebook Ads, I could have made the $3500 I was looking for.

Now, I ran this experiment around day 20. With 10 days left, and not a lot of personal savings, the idea of throwing $900 at an ad campaign was an enormous risk and I truly didn’t even consider it. It wasn’t until the last couple of days, again, that I looked back and regretted not engaging this experiment further.

A smart person, unlike myself, would take that $900 and partition it into smaller investments to see if the return on investment persisted. Run a campaign for $50. If the 3x remains, do another. And another. And so on — until you see data supporting either a failing or stable return (or increased, for that matter).

Furthermore, and surprisingly enough, I ran a Google Adword that did not do as well as Facebook (contrary to my expectations). I received 0 pledges from Google. I think this was a mistake on my part though — I ran the same Chrono Trigger ad, but most of the impressions came from Final Fantasy search results.

I wonder what the results would have been if the ad was catered to Final Fantasy, instead of Chrono Trigger.

2) Bug Everybody

Yes, I know no one wants to be “that guy.”

I have to pre-face this section by saying that, yes, there’s tasteful ways of bugging people and poor ways.

Do have conversations with everyone. Do tailor your message. I literally typed my message every time, and while the message was 95% the same, the little changes you make depending on the person you’re talking to do — in fact — make a difference.

Don’t sound spammy. Don’t ask someone more than once. Don’t ask directly for money.

The bottom line is don’t be afraid to be that guy. This is your chance to do it.

I personally messaged almost every single one of my 400 Facebook friends. I also e-mailed many close family friends and family members.

It paid off. The bulk of the pledges that I did receive were from friends and family (including my sweet grandmother who I never even asked. Thanks Nona!)

The downer? Out of everyone I asked, about only 30 of them pledged. One of them my brother and another my aunt.

Let me repeat that — out of a total of around 400 people personally asked, only 30 backed me — that’s 6%.

A funny thing is, I had a lot of buddies tell me “I’ll back you when X” or “When X happens, I’ll totally back you.” I now understand how this relates to sales. If someone isn’t ready to give you money, they probably never will. And let me state that I have no ill thoughts for any of these people. I still love each and everyone of my friends (thanks for reading peeps). The main benefit of this was perspective — if it’s so hard to get my friends to support me, imagine someone I don’t know…

It’s important to note that not many of my friends are into Progressive House music. A majority of the ones who pledged did so because of my message.

Another interesting note is that the friends who did pledge seemed random. I wasn’t able to guess if someone would back me or not. It was a lottery — a hodgepodge of close friends, acquantainces, and people I rarely talk to.

You never know who’s willing to support you (which is why bugging everyone is important).

A fun sidenote — as a result of my all-encompassing bugging, I ended up reconnecting with a few friends who I hadn’t spoke to in awhile. Always a fun bonus.

3) Video Game Remix Pivot

Although my Kickstarter page currently reads of a Video Game Remix Album, it was initially an album of entirely original content. The video, image, and text body were completely different until I made a “pivot.”

The idea of the pivot comes from a book titled “The Lean Startup.” [Note: This is an affiliate link. If you decide to the book purchase the book through here, I’ll get a percentage of the sale.]

The definition of a pivot, from Wikipedia, is a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.”

For me, I noticed an increased amount of traction and interest in the Chrono Trigger – Corridors of Time remix that I released during my campaign. That song quickly became more popular than any of the original material I put out and I took that as a good enough reason to switch directions towards a completely video-game remix-based album.

Now, doing this sort of thing on Kickstarter is definitely a gamble. Your backers may believe you’re unfocused — perhaps doubtful. No one wants to support a fickle man.

The way I rationalized my pivot was through 2 reasons:

A) Most of the people who pledged weren’t in it for the music. Since most of my backers were friends and family looking for me to succeed, they really didn’t care what I did.

B) For those who were in it for the music, the content was fundamentally the same thing. I was still going to be making Progressive House music, but it would be in the form video game remixes instead of original content.

What this means, is that the backers who don’t know the original source material will still enjoy the music. To them, it’ll simply be sweet tunes.

While everything listed above is pertinent, the most fundamental thing I gained from this Kickstarter experiment was perspective. I came out with a concrete understanding of how difficult it can be to get people interested in your product. This is something I think you need to try and see for yourself.

I’m all about taking action. You learn from your mistakes.

As I wrote in my final, backer-only update:

As it looks, my Kickstarter project isn’t going to succeed.

Through the process of trying to get this funded I’ve learned so much. I’ve put myself against the fire and definitely came out more resilient.

It’s insane how much I’ve learned by making the effort. It’s funny, you can read a thousand books on a topic but the true test comes when you make the leap to do it. I don’t mean this to be some self-help mumbo jumbo, but I definitely recommend taking a leap if you’ve been waiting on it. Action and experience are invaluable.

And I want to repeat this part for those who did back me:

Thank all of you for pledging. I know many of you could care less about the music and just want to see me succeed. From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate the support.

For those of you who don’t even know me, I sincerely thank you. I was ecstatic every time one of you pledged for my project. My brother and I smiled and high-fived each and every time you pledged.

Man, I’m tearing up a bit… that Witness track really gets to me haha.

Really. Thank you all. You fucking rule.

Farewell,

-Zac Citron, aka Zencha.

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