From February to March 15, we ran a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for protocols.io – our free, up-to-date, crowdsourced repository of life science protocols. Launching and running this Kickstarter campaign was simultaneously one of the smartest and one of the hardest things we did in the two years of our startup. In this post, I would like to share our experience and insights into what it takes to pull off a campaign like this.
It seems that ours was the first crowdfunded campaign aimed specifically at scientists. Many have reached out to me since March to see if crowdfunding is a good way to validate an idea or raise funds to launch a new startup. In all such cases, my answer is an unambiguous “no”. We had considered a Kickstarter campaign as a way to get initial funding for protocols.io, way back in 2012, before we even incorporated ZappyLab. It is clear today that had we attempted it two years ago, we would have failed spectacularly (if you are too busy with your startup to read all of this, skip to the bottom for 6 specific questions that will help you to determine if it’s a good idea for you).
There is a misleading perception that Kickstarter or Indigogo is a good way to market something. It is just plain wrong, for the vast majority of possible projects. Kickstarter is not an advertising platform. It does not promote your project and bring viewers to your page. That is your job. Kickstarter is a platform that enables crowdfunding – it provides the structure, the trust and security for the backers, the payment processing, and a flawless interface for communicating with your supporters and for promoting your project. But it is up to you to bring the backers to your page. And by the way, Kickstarter makes no secret of it; it tells every project creator very explicitly to reach out to friends and followers, making it clear that the success relies entirely on the outreach efforts of the people launching the project1.
Here are important things to keep in mind about ZappyLab’s Kickstarter. This is applicable to many crowdsoucred projects that aim at a specific niche demographic, like life science researchers, rather than the entire world population.
- We raised half a million dollars in angel investments and have been building free and amazing tools for scientists for two years. The science community knows about us and likes what we have done and are attempting to do. We have thousands of users of PubChase and we leaned on their support repeatedly throughout the month of our campaign, asking them explicitly to back our protocols.io effort.
- I have worked very hard and have slept very little since we founded ZappyLab. But nothing in the past two years comes close to the sustained effort that was required during our Kickstarter marathon. I literally slept 3-4 hours per night for the entire duration of the campaign.
- Serendipitously, a blog post that I wrote about academia went massively viral (100,000 views) in February and brought many visitors to our Kickstarter campaign.
- Science companies Mendeley, Figshare, and PeerJ agreed to help us before we launched. They offered memberships for their services as rewards and they blogged and tweeted about us.
- Hundreds of people blogged, e-mailed, tweeted and advocated tirelessly on our behalf, with an explicit call to fund our project because of what it can do for life science research.
All of us at ZappyLab are amazed, touched, and humbled by the community’s support of our project. We have recently begun to send the promised rewards to our backers. I will soon take a few days off work to bake gene-shaped cookies for the sweet-craving scientists out there. Yet, these are just tiny symbolic tokens of appreciation. I honestly do not know of a proper way to really thank everyone who supported and continues to support us. Perhaps, delivering on the protocols.io promise will come close to appropriately thanking everyone.
It is not an exaggeration when I say that there is no way we could have succeeded with our campaign without the tremendous effort of the community to publicize and encourage the funding of our project. And that is the main point of this guide – Kickstarter is not a way to build the community; rather, if you have built the community, it is a way to tap into the community’s support.
Here is a list of questions you should answer before launching a crowdsourcing campaign.
- Do you expect Kickstarter to bring attention and visitors to your project? It might happen if they feature you on the homepage or in their e-mail to users with the “projects we love” list, but this is not something you can count on. Assume that no one except you knows that you have launched this campaign.
- Are you trying to fund a device or object that everyone craves? Is your project funding the creation of a product that will itself be the reward that you will send to your backers? If yes, you have a shot at going viral.
- If you have a nascent idea and no prototype or proof that you can deliver, assume that the only people backing you will be your friends and family. How many close relatives and friends do you personally have? If each one of them contributes $50, will that be enough?
- If you are trying to raise an amount that goes beyond your friends and family, how will you publicize the fact that you are running the crowdfunding project? Assume roughly a 1% conversion rate. That is, if you will need approximately 500 backers, you’ll have to somehow let 50,000 or more people know that you have launched the project.
- Do you already have a community of supporters likely to back you? Do you have mass media contacts, bloggers, and famous people who have promised to bring you visibility? Don’t bet on media coverage to help your Kickstarter project go viral. It works in reverse – if your project goes viral, you are likely to get media coverage. And for every article about you in a major media outlet, assume that you are likely to get only a modest bump of 50-100 backers.
- This may be the most important question of all – are you doing this full time? Are you going to be able to devote every waking second, for the entire duration of the campaign, to promoting this?
- Kickstarter 101 FAQ: “Where do backers come from?” In most cases, the majority of funding initially comes from the fans and friends of each project. [↩]