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Behind the scenes of a failed Kickstarter project

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A little more than half of the projects on Kickstarter fail, and when they do it can be hard to find them as was reported earlier this week. But understanding those failures can help others avoid the same fate and may indicate areas where the Kickstarter platform or the crowd sourced funding model falls flat. So I spoke with Jan Dawson, whose family did its first Kickstarter last month.

The Dawsons, a family of five, created a Kickstarter project last month to raise $30,000 for a series of films aimed at children. The films, called “Clara Tales” were aimed to creating positive, family fare that would inspire kids to create their own work, complete projects associated with the videos or just provide some entertainment. The plan was to make five more and post them all on YouTube (s goog) with accompanying educational activities.

Why pay for something if you can get it for free?

The first video, posted as part of the pleas for funds, is a well-done story that my own five-year-old loved. She and I watched it, but we didn’t contribute. And that’s part of the problem. Jan Dawson figures that one of the key reasons that the project failed — the family raised $4,727 in pledges — was that people who didn’t contribute would still benefit if others did. From our emailed conversation:

Not to get too nerdy about it, but it’s a classic public good / free rider problem – everybody benefits just the same whether they personally pay for it or not, as long as someone does and it still happens. … This is in stark contrast to some of Kickstarter’s huge success stories, which offered the actual paid product at a discount if you pledged over a certain amount – Kickstarter became simply a channel for pre-orders, and with a popular product that gets you a lot of funding.

He also said that the emotional toll of supporting and monitoring a Kickstarter project was hard. While listing the idea and getting the Kickstarter in place was easy, making the original video to show people what the family was doing, as well as asking friends, family and strangers for money wasn’t something the Dawsons were used to.

What made it hard was that putting yourself out there in this way and repeatedly begging people for money is emotionally draining. We sent countless numbers of emails to friends and family, posted repeated updates on Facebook and Twitter (as you saw) etc. Even though we knew lots of people wanted to pledge, they never quite seemed to get around to it, so that sort of reminding was key. (It’s also made me view our local NPR station’s pledge drives with a little more sympathy!)

Despite their pleas the original Kickstarter closed far short of their goal.

If at first you don’t succeed….

So the family went back to the drawing board, found ways to cut their production costs and came back with another Kickstarter project, this time for $3,000 instead of $30,000. Staying small helped, especially since they had managed to raise more than that the first time around. The second Kickstarter is funded and the family is working on producing more videos. Dawson said that backers from the first project collectively gave the family 90 percent of what they gave us the first time around. Many of the smaller pledges, especially from people the Dawson’s didn’t know, didn’t re-up for the second effort.

Some of the previous contributors pledged larger amounts (perhaps in hopes of seeing this come through) and another $700 or so came from new backers, some who were strangers to the Dawsons. The first project attracted 75 backers while the second raised more and had 69. The Dawsons managed to get some publicity for their efforts thanks to getting a few parenting blogs to pick up the project, but neither of them are some kind of Ze Frank or Louis CK- level of celebrity.

So a few possible lessons one can draw from the Dawsons’ experience is that funding a Kickstarter is possible for anyone — it just requires a willingness to ask people for money. Freeloaders exist on Kickstarter as they do everywhere, so offering an actual product or more tangible rewards might help someone doing a public project get the pledges he or she needs.

And finally, if the first project doesn’t work, maybe your second one will.

For more on the Kickstarter phenomenon see Om’s epic interview with Co-founder Perry Chen.

7 Responses to “Behind the scenes of a failed Kickstarter project”

  1. We did a Kickstarter program that succeeded BUT…we spent a boat load of time on it. I mean a TON of time. It consumed us. We wrote to every journalist, blog, website in our particular area and it still added up to almost nothing until we blessedly got a NY Times article about us. The whole begging thing makes me queasy and I wouldn’t do it again. Art should not be put in this position frankly but as it is Kickstarter is fine. It’s just not a be all, end all.

  2. Bruce Dov Krulwich

    Why is a 55% or so failure rate a sign of the crowdsourced funding model falling flat? I’d say that a 45% success rate is pretty amazing.

  3. Sam Entwhistle

    I agree with Noah. This is obviously a family film and an exercise in ego.

    As a person who has had decades in the media industry, you can not start your project as a way to promote your ego, even if it is vicariously through your spoiled children.

    Do they realise that they need to concentrate on what their market wants? Sounds like a marketing exercise, but if you do not put an emphasis on what your end viewers want to watch, then they will not be interested. I have young children, I am not interested in their project, and my youngest was not interested enough to sit in front of the first video for more than five seconds.

    Lastly, they seem to have no idea that every idea to screen takes months to decades to preproduce. You don’t just dress your kids up and put them in the play room with a first edit one day script. A good show is built on dozens of layers of ideas layered over months or years. Most shows have thrown out dozens of ideas as good as or better than the single idea of this show before they get to sewing up princess costumes for their princesses. Oh, and they use the best talent possible available at the time… not their own kids (with the exception of Will Smith). Using your own kids reeks of low standards and low end nepotism.

  4. Noah J Nelson

    I’d actually say this is a case of the system working.

    1) Their pitch video devolved into an academic argument within 36 seconds, as opposed to focusing on what they were delivering right from the start. I wanted to turn it off. (I didn’t, for the record.)

    2) It is unclear from the pitch video just how long these films are going to be. Looking at there site the first one they did was just over 5 minutes. Which means the reward tiers are offering downloads of a 5 minute film for $20 a pop.

    3) It may not be what is intended, but by having the entire family participate in the first video the whole pitch comes off as if they are asking for $30K to fund their home movies. Really. Take a cynic’s view for a second.

    Reducing the scope of what they are doing in order to establish a track record isn’t a Kickstarter failure story: it’s a Kickstarter success. They did it wrong, and now they are doing it right.

    And as for that article about Kickstarter “hiding” failures: it doesn’t take much effort to dig up the losers. It may not be as easy, but it isn’t exactly storming fort knox.

  5. Matt Eagar

    I think most people are extremely uncomfortable about asking others for money to fund a project. We view it too much like begging a favor. We can rationalize that we are offering something of value, but to most of us, it still feels as if we are becoming indebted to the investor — even if we are working hard and actually providing a lot of value (after all, that’s why people usually invest — because they can get more value than they would otherwise out of the same money). The fact that there are people who shamelessly ask for money and then squander the funds makes it that much harder for conscientious people to screw up the courage to pitch.

    I view this just like performing on stage or public speaking – you have to practice to be comfortable. But until you reach that point, it is important to remember that as the maker/creator you are making a significant contribution.