How Kickstarter campaigns find success

Having a successful Kickstarter campaign is easier said than done. Some find that hook and go viral -- others flop. But creative and prepared entrepreneurs can find success even in failure.

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    The Grafighters video game failed to meet its funding goal of $2,000 on Kickstarter, but the creators received an investment 10 times the amount a few months later.
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Kickstarter is perhaps one of the only places where a rainbow-striped, marching band glove turned cheap, computerized instrument would get funding.

Sure enough, Scott Peterman’s campaign for Imaginary Marching Band gloves gained attention within the Kickstarter community and raised the $10,000 he needed to expand the concept.

“People at the time of the Kickstarter were so nice,” says Mr. Peterman, an adjunct professor at The New School in New York. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, cool! You’re crazy!’ and were really supportive of just craziness. It’s almost kind of nonsensical in a way.”

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But Peterman’s success story is not so common on the crowd-funding website. Kickstarter statistics show that only 43 percent of campaigns are successfully funded. While many projects stall out after a fruitless Kickstarter campaign, some projects have found great success even after failure.

Take Grafighters, a fighting game where the player draws a creature by hand, uploads the drawing, and watches the doodled gladiator come to life for battle. Eric Cleckner and Dave Chenell, the two Syracuse University students behind the game, spent the summer before their senior year refining the concept. They had a small entrepreneurial grant from Syracuse, but they wanted enough to go into full-time development.

Mr. Cleckner and Mr. Chenell turned to Kickstarter, launching their campaign in August 2009. Grafighters got the attention of some backers and even the staff at Kickstarter, but it raised only $3,000 by its deadline, far from its goal of $20,000.

“Ultimately, we did have a failed Kickstarter,” says Mr. Cleckner. “I think a lot of it had to do with what we saw from some of the projects that had been successful, and it appeared that there had been enough people visiting the site … and it turns out that’s not the case. It takes a lot of work to do a Kickstarter campaign and keep up with the promotion.”

Cleckner and Chenell forgot about Kickstarter after the campaign ended, at least until they received an email from a man in Germany who saw their video on Kickstarter. He offered them $200,000.

“He sent us an email on Christmas Eve and it was just like, 'Father Christmas here. I'd like to invest in your company,’ " Cleckner says.

With the new funds, they hired some additional developers and released the game a year after their failed Kickstarter drive.

Even with funding, however, the team faced some obstacles. They encountered several programming limitations and, a few months after their launch, shut down the website to recreate Grafighters for smart phones. The team has spent the last six months developing a series of mobile Grafighters games to release this summer.

Despite the ups and downs, Cleckner says, he has never regretted a single part of the experience, not even the ill-fated Kickstarter campaign.

“It was so interesting to see the ups and downs of having an idea and getting super psyched about Kickstarter and all these possibilities,” he says. “I think it's always been something we've wanted to do, and that's been very helpful for us."

Kickstarter done right

If you want a model for a success, take a look at Planetary Annihilation. This large-scale real-time strategy game by Uber Entertainment, based in Kirkland, Wa., had a funding goal of $900,000 and closed its campaign with $2 million.

“I knew that we had something that was going to be pretty cool, but I had no idea that many people would notice this. I was really just blown away,” says Jon Mavor, self-proclaimed "tech commander" for the company.

Planetary Annihilation brings players to an intergalactic arena, where you build massive armies to destroy your enemies (and, yes, annihilate entire planets). While the industry has released great strategy games, many of them work on a much smaller scale, he says. Mr. Mavor wanted a large-scale game for a change, with massive battles and action.

What’s in a successful Kickstarter campaign? Mavor names three key ingredients: Credibility, a great pitch, and a hook.

“Kickstarter’s a weird beast,” he says. “You just can’t have some wild idea and go on the site and get it validated. The community’s a little resistant to original, crazy ideas, especially in games, if you want to make a substantial amount of money.”

One challenge with a Kickstarter is setting a budget. Mavor says one of the biggest misconceptions is that the funding goal is the actual cost of the project. While this is Uber's first Kickstarter campaign, the five-year-old company has made popular games such as the third-person shooter Monday Night Combat. With this background, Uber knew that a game like Planetary Annihilation would cost well more than a million dollars to make. But the company asked for only $900,000. Asking for the full amount, he says, can deter people from investing. An accurate estimate may seem insurmountable.

“The last game that I worked on cost $10 million to make," Mavor says. "Our 2 or 3 million dollar budget is not actually juicy and ripe, as I would say. It’s more like, let get this done."

Mavor hoped the $900,000 asking price would attract at least $1.5 million. The campaign exceeded his expectations, but the hard part is keeping the game’s budget low while satisfying the backers.

Lessons learned

If there’s anything to keep in mind before launching a Kickstarter campaign, it’s that the projects take an unbelievable amount of work from start to finish, Peterman says. Despite the success of the IMB gloves, he says, he might not have pursued the project had he known how much work and money it would take, though he does not regret the experience.

“Kickstarter was a really great place to start [the project] and see if that was a sustainable model,” he says. “It made me realize I don’t want to do product design. I’m more interested in the performance aspect.”

Part of the extra work came from the 75 pairs of IMB gloves he promised select backers. Peterman wanted a personal feel to each pair, so he made them all by hand. It takes a few hours to make each pair.

Peterman created the IMB gloves while in The New School’s master's in fine arts program for design and technology. He wanted to make a statement about the lasting archetypes in present-day technology from centuries-old instruments to the qwerty keyboard. 

“The iPhone's great, but we all now interact the same way,” Peterman says. “I don't think that's necessarily bad, but I don't think it's the only path."

Some of the money went to his campaign, which involved conferences and middle-school workshops for building IMB gloves (boys and girls worked on the mechanics as well as decorative aspects like sewing). Another chunk of the money went to materials for the gloves. 

When it comes to more conventional projects, however, funding can be tough. That’s what Harvard University professor Gregory Norris found when he launched a Kickstarter drive for the Handprinter app. The smart-phone app would determine your handprint (your positive impact on the environment) from the information given and suggest ways to increase your handprint.

Before Kickstarter, Mr. Norris approached a number of foundations about his idea, only to find that those that were interested could not give funding because the concept did not meet their grant requirements.

After coming across Kickstarter, Norris and his team launched a month-long campaign last November, but they received only $2,000 of the $30,000 they needed.

Norris says the team could not pinpoint what made their project fail, but acknowledged that they lacked connections and viral material. They also offered very few prizes beyond simple name recognition, such as a free dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club for those who donated $1,000 or more. (No one did.)

"We learned anyway that the idea and the prizes and their costs didn't catch on," he says. "Evidently the idea of getting your name on this [project], it wasn't cool enough."

The team continued working on the app with funds from two donors. In the meantime, Norris, who works in life-cycle assessment, has been getting the word out at conferences like the recent International Conference of Life-Cycle Assessment in Argentina. The team has continued soliciting donations through nonprofits like Network for Good and New Earth.

"The things we proposed to do in a Kickstarter campaign, even though we don't have the funding, we still need to do," he says," but we're still definitely working at it."

For more tech news, follow Steph on Twitter: @stephmsolis

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