Kickstart My Art

Published:  December 3, 2013
Josh Vann

Since my first day of art college, I’ve always had side projects. And over the years I’ve lost a lot of money self-funding my design hobby, attempting things that no client would ever agree to. I’ve had a T-shirt label, I’ve put on exhibitions, produced niche illustrated books and letterpress calendars featuring tasteful nudes. All of which I’ve paid for out of my own pocket, occasionally leaving little or no cash for necessities like food and rent.

I won’t lie—once you’re in your thirties, moving back in with your parents while you follow your dreams makes you question your priorities. So when the concept of crowdfunding was first presented to me, I saw an opportunity to perhaps lose someone else’s money for a change.

I love the phrase ‘Creativity knows no bounds’, but anyone who has ever been to a bank looking for a loan so they can finance a crazy artistic project knows that there ARE bounds. And the toughest hurdle to leap is usually a balding man in a blue tie named Jason. (The man’s name is Jason, not the tie’s). Banks aren’t charities and they only indulge in safe investments with guaranteed returns. Your illustrated novella about local typographers and their mistresses probably doesn’t fit into that category. And no matter what font you use to type up your business plan, Jason at the bank won’t see the merits of your project.

Crowdfunding sidesteps this completely, and puts passion before profitability. Websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Pozible make it possible for passion projects to get up and running, and reward ingenuity and excitement over the promise of huge returns. I’ve heard crowdfunding described as ‘The democratisation of creativity’, and that’s a pretty good way of defining it. It’s a whole new shopping experience, where consumers can decide what they want made, as opposed to just choosing from things that already exist.

In that way, there’s a primal, Darwinian aspect to crowdfunding, because only the strongest ideas survive. And the better the idea, the higher it’s chances for existence. But just like evolution, a few pandas slip through, and skew the data. My collaborator Simone is an illustrator, and he frequently sends me links to Kickstarter projects with the subject line: “WHY ARE THEY RICH AND WE’RE NOT?” Which is a comment on the quality of some very successful campaigns.

What you start to realise is that those campaigns have established their audiences over months and years. Comparatively great campaigns fail because they realise too late that you can’t do it without an established audience. Kickstarter is a popular website, and it’s true that people trawl it for great projects, but that audience isn’t enough to fund your project. You might get 50 percent of your pledges from Kickstarter, but the rest of your backers need to be driven by you. That means you need to cultivate an audience of enthusiastic fans who want your product. You need to find them and you need the time to let them find you. And despite what you think, 30 days probably won’t be enough time to create that audience.

Like any good advertising, a good campaign needs to engage and mobilise the consumer. The interactive nature of crowdfunding means that the consumer is changed from passive to aggressive, and they become intimately involved with that product. It changes the dynamic completely, and helps to make them feel involved. This involvement means they’re going to feel more passionate and invested in its success, and at that point they are more likely to spruke it on Facebook or Twitter, and tell friends about it in conversation. The better the product, the easier it is to explain, the more likely it’ll go viral. Good campaigns are ones that take advantage of the new breed of trendsetting early adopters, and their desire to be in on the ground floor of cool new things, so cool that they don’t even exist yet.

While it’s true that some underdogs find their audience on the site, the most successful campaigns are raised up on the backs of established audiences. Kickstarter success story The Veronica Mars Movie, which raised $5 million, had a passionate cult following based on three seasons of a high-profile TV show. If you’re an unknown newcomer, you can’t be surprised if your own pledges end up with less zeros.

A lot of campaigns fail despite their potential for success because they don’t cultivate enough trust from the audience ahead of time. If it’s your first project, and you have no visible history, there’s no precedence for the project to follow through. Backers will be skeptical about whether they’ll see a return on their investment, which is exactly the same skepticism that creators get when they visit a bank asking for a loan.

This lack of trust will hurt your promotional plans as well. You might be counting on celebrities to retweet your campaign, the way you’ve seen them do for other projects but unless they can link you to something that already exists, you’ll struggle to get that free exposure. It might not always seem it, but endorsements are hard to come by. No one wants to be the guy who recommended you build your house out of asbestos.

Without an established audience, crowdfunding is like busking. You put on your rabbit costume, strap on your guitar, and head out into the streets. If the public like what you’re doing, you might get a few coins in your hat. If they don’t dig it, they’ll keep walking. And at that scale there’s less opportunity for financial loss than if you booked a stadium and no one turned up.

It’s much better to find out no one likes your idea for a button-up T-shirt while it’s still just an idea, than to spend your life savings making hideous shirts that you can’t sell. But even though it’s much cheaper, there’s still an investment to make. It might just be your own time, but depending on where your skills are, or aren’t, you might need some help making your campaign sparkle. If you’re a graphic designer you should be capable of making your page look fancy, but how are you going to go with the video? Are you going to need someone to edit your rambling into a coherent story? While I’m confident behind the camera, I’m not comfortable in front of it. And I shot my campaign video four times before I was comfortable enough to share it with the world.

Kickstarter is a simple idea, but it’s worth noting that it’s a deceptively simple idea. And once you start delving deeper into the intimate details of a campaign, you start to realise why. Just because you have an amazing idea, doesn’t mean you have the necessary resources or know-how to follow through on that idea.

Overlooking the execution and details of the campaign is a huge issue creative people face when crowdfunding. They get so wrapped up in the idea, they underestimate the logistical problems that might potentially occur. Which is why only eight of the top 50 Kickstarter campaigns have shipped, and shipped on time. When your focus is on ideas, the logistics of international shipping costs won’t seem important or interesting. But shipping is a huge issue for crowdfunders, and the there’s plenty of stories about successful campaigns raising buckets of cash, but still ending up with a loss. Like Sullivan’s Sluggers, a book by Mark Andrew Smith and James Stokoe, who raised $97,000 but couldn’t fulfil their rewards because they didn’t take international shipping into account.

Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t meet your goal. A campaign failing sucks real bad, and watching it fail over a month is like watching your hopes and dreams shatter in slow motion. But if you don’t reach your goal, it’s not the end of your project. Once it’s clear that you’re not going to reach your target, you need to regroup, and look at what worked, and what didn’t.  Consider it market research, and take the time to talk to the people who did pledge, and ask them what drew them in, and how they found out about your campaign. A high percentage of those backers will come back when you re-launch, harder, better, faster, stronger.

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Image by Rafaël RozendaalStagnation Means Decline

One Response

  1. Scott

    Nice article, and good advice. There are so many useful resources now for Kickstarter (or Pozzible, or Indiegogo, or any of the other); I’m amazed that people start campaigns without reading at least a few of them. I’m sure lots of people do read them though, because there is now what I’d describe as a Kickstarter ‘style’ that’s noticeable in people’s videos and campaign text… they’ve read the guides (which mostly say the same types of things) and followed the ‘recipe’ and you can see it. Not that that’s a bad thing, per se.

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