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The 6 Variables Behind a Kick-Ass Kickstarter Project

Slava Menn's company raised $75,000 on Kickstarter. Here's how they did it, and how you can, too.

My company, Gotham Bicycle Defense Industries, launched a theft-resistant bike light on Kickstarter. We hit our $18,000 funding goal in one day and have tripled it since.

To do that, we spent six months researching Kickstarter projects; studied storytelling methods and video production techniques; and interviewed Kickstarter entrepreneurs from the top 10 most-funded list. Along the way, we learned six essential variables for a successful Kickstarter project.

Start with the story. In the book Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath write, “a credible idea makes people believe, an emotional idea makes people care.”

But how can you make your idea emotional?

We struggled with that question. Riding in front of a seven-ton bus with a honking, angry, driver is emotional. Speeding past cars stuck in gridlock traffic is emotional. But we needed to connect our project to the emotions of urban cycling—and communicate that connection simply. As the Heath brothers write, “If you say three things, you don’t say anything. The more we reduce the amount of information in an idea, the stickier it will be.”

We had our Eureka! moment when my cofounder, Brad Geswein, recounted a story from last summer. "[My friend] Dave had his bike light stolen. Riding home that night, he got hit by a car.” We knew the idea was sticky when we overheard friends retelling it verbatim.

Plan a friend-fueled viral launch. When I asked Kickstarter rockstar Justin Jensen, inventor of Cineskates, for advice, he said, “If you look at top Kickstarter projects, they launched with guns blazing.” Many hit their funding goal within a day.

Great Kickstarters like Justin create a movement. And all movements start with a core group. In our case, it was our wonderfully supportive friends. But we added a (not-so) secret weapon: We created a super-simple “Launching Soon” page with Launchrock. Our friends took it and spread it like crazy. We had hundreds of signups within weeks.

Make your own damn video. Unless you have money to burn, don’t pay for a video. Do it yourself. It will give you more time and control over the process. Cofounder Brad unlocked the secrets to making almost-professional video for free. Brad goes into detail at a MIT guest-lecture.

The key to your video is to make it concise. As entrepreneur and author Jason Fried says, "cut it in half, then cut it again." We studied 20 people while they watched our movie. Within 30 seconds, they got the idea. Within 60 seconds, attention was fading. When we do our next Kickstarter video, it will be 90 seconds, tops.

Create and experiment with rewards. There are three types of Kickstarter backers: Casual Supporters, who just want to throw a few coins in your tip jar; Core Customers, who just want your product; and Early Evangelists, who love your product, love you as entrepreneurs, and are generous in their support.

Create rewards to target these three levels. We made cycling water bottles and T-shirts for casual supporters and bike lights for core customers. For early evangelists who contributed $100 or more, we offered customized and limited edition bike lights. Peter Dehring, creator of the Capture Camera Clip System, reached initial evangelists with an early-bird reward. The first 100 backers who gave him $100 got the product a few weeks early. “That was a fast $10,000,” he told me.

Lastly, experiment with rewards. When we offered $100 tickets to an upcoming Gotham party, it flopped, so we dropped it. But we saw lots of people asking for two bike lights, so we released a two-pack on discount. It sold really well, so we released a four-pack at a further discount. Then we tried an eight pack. No one bought it and we dropped it after three days.

Get lucky with media. Getting picked up by the press is one part connections, one part persistence, and one part luck. There’s not much you can do about the first and third, but you can be persistent. We started early and talked to bloggers, tweeters, and bigger media outlets. But don’t spam them; instead, craft a concise email about why your story is relevant to their audience. Tech blogs and design blogs and sustainability blogs are not the same. Your story should vary depending on the publication’s audience.

Most importantly, there’s a fine but important line between being persistent and being annoying. Don’t cross it.

Prototype! Prototype! Prototype! Your product is the exponent in the equation. It’s the most important variable. If you don’t nail the other variables, you can still have a great campaign if your product is strong. Without a solid product, you automatically join the 54 percent of projects in the Kickstarter graveyard.

Creating strong products is another topic in itself, but the key is to prototype relentlessly. Our first Defender bike light was sandpapered out of foam and it was hideous. But it took $1.50 and 30 minutes to make it. The next prototype was wood. Then steel. Then aluminum. Each version took a little more time and money to make. But we refined the idea at every stage. If we had started with plastic or steel, we would’ve wasted a lot of money on the wrong design.

Start with the quickest, dirtiest prototype you can make. You’ll learn from it, refine it, and create something better.

Put the equation to work. The Kickstarter Equation looks like this:

(Story + Friends + Video + Rewards + Media) ^ Product

One of my favorite Kickstarter projects is Twine, by Supermechanical. Their story, video, and rewards are barebones. But they hit $557,000 because their product is a gamechanger. Had they invested in the other variables, I bet they could have broken $1 million.

Contrast that with The Present, a project by Scott Thrift. Scott’s story and video are works of art. I love the product, but when I bought it my friends said, “Who needs an annual clock?!”

So what do you get when your story is superb, your friends are a cult, your video is professional, the media goes crazy, and your product is awesome? Doublefine Adventures and $3.3 million in funding.

What's your favorite Kickstarter project? What makes it great?

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