Crowdfunding projects fall on a continuum. On one side, projects are pure community and altruism: donate to my dance performance and I will send you a letter of thanks. People back the projects because they want to bring something into the world that doesn't exist today.
On the other side, we have the naked preorder. There are no pretentions of creation, participation, or collaboration: you pay the money to get something, and if the something doesn't meet your expectations, you're unhappy about it.
Great startup crowdfunding campaigns tend to be 80% preorder, 20% community and altruism. At the core is a transaction — you're creating something they want, and your backers are going to (pre)pay you to get it. But it's a little more than that. There's a story that grabs them. The thing you're doing is important; special; it's something that they want to exist, above and beyond their wanting one.
The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that broke Kickstarter records before being snapped up by Facebook for an incredible ten-digit sum, was a great example. The people who backed it wanted one, sure, but they also wanted VR to succeed. They wanted to see gaming evolve to the next level of immersive reality. If you doubt that, just look at the backer blowback when the Facebook acquisition happened and the dream of an independent VR company was quashed!
It was the same with my Kickstarter project, Robot Turtles. People pledged to get the game, but they also pledged because the game was something that they wanted to exist. There's been a vigorous debate in the public sphere about teaching programming in schools, but it's generally been about high schools and perhaps middle schools. Programming fundamentals for kids who can't read yet just tickled people's desires.
In the movie City Slickers, the wise and cantankerous cowboy Curly (played by Jack Palance) asks the titular city slicker Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he knows the secret of life:
Mitch: "No, what?"
Curly: "This." (holds up one finger)
Mitch: "Your finger?"
Curly: "One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean shit."
Mitch: "That's great, but what's the one thing?"
Curly: "That's what you've got to figure out."
Crowdfunding campaigns are the same way. They are best when they're about one thing. Pebble was about a watch. Gustin was about a pair of jeans. Shadowrun Returns was about a video game. Robot Turtles was about a box of cardboard.
I learned this from my friend (and now colleague at Glowforge) Dean Putney. He inherited a spectacular set of photos from his great-grandfather and thought long and hard about how to publish them on Kickstarter. Prints? Postcards? An album? He finally developed the "Curly's secret" rule, which he shared with me — and successfully raised over $100,000 for his photo album.
Crowdfunding is a great way to launch a product, but it's not so good for launching a company or product lineup, or other broad-stroke projects. The most successful campaigns are about one thing.
One of my closest friends, Elan Lee, was visiting Seattle from his home in Los Angeles. We met up with mutual friend Eugene Lin and agreed that there was only one option for dinner: Din Tai Fung. For the uninitiated, DTF is a Michelin-starred Taiwanese chain restaurant that has a few international outposts and is renowned for its xiaolongbao – epic soup dumplings, made by hand in the window of the restaurant, each one filled with piping hot broth. Unfortunately, DTF does not take reservations.
As we sat nearby waiting for a table to open, Elan pulled out a deck of cards and a scrap of paper with some notes on it. He explained that it was a game he'd invented with a friend of his, Shane Small, called Bomb Squad. He explained the rules. We played. It was fun. He asked if any of us had a better name than "Bomb Squad", and none of us could come up with one.
Fast forward a few months and Elan sent me a draft Kickstarter campaign for feedback. (Little known but immensely valuable Kickstarter feature: you can build your campaign page and then share it privately for feedback before you launch it). He'd partnered up with a mutual friend to illustrate it, Matt Inman of web comic The Oatmeal, and renamed the whole thing to Exploding Kittens.
It was an awesome name. The art was terrific. The game was fun. Matt has a huge following. But, in Elan's words, "That 'only' got us the first million".
You see, Exploding Kittens was a ridiculous success. A never before seen, off the charts phenomenon that broke almost every record. They raised more than eight and a half million dollars from more than two hundred thousand backers in 30 days, making it the most-backed crowdfunding project in Kickstarter history.
The thing that put it over the top was the story.
As Elan tweaked, iterated, and refined the campaign, he didn't improve the photography. He didn't explain the gameplay better, or add more detail about the product.
He refined the story.
Take a look at the Kickstarter page for the campaign. Elan and the Kittens team did an absolutely masterful job of reaching out and connecting with their backers. They told the story of the game. They shared their excitement and enthusiasm. They made the campaign about something more than the game – they made it about a journey that they were taking with their backers. All 220,000 of them.
Crowdfunding campaigns are not about telling your backers a story – they are about making your backers a part of your story.