Lessons learned from the first crowdfunding campaign

One month ago, I was struck with inspiration and needed money to make an idea I had a reality, so I embarked on my first crowdfunding campaign. Today, it reached goal. I’m about to get busy working on turning all that money into a successfully completed project, but I think right now is a good time to reflect on the things I learned along the way so far.


I attended The College of Wooster for my undergraduate studies, and Wooster’s mascot is the Fighting Scots. Our marching band featured a bagpipe corps, and wore kilts in the MacLeod tartan. I guess that’s what got me started on liking kilts. More recently, the “modern kilt” came into existence, and became popular among certain people. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting one on and off for years, but never went ahead with it because I wasn’t sure I’d wear it enough, or how to size myself, or where to get one — I really wanted to try one on in person rather than just order one from a website.

So a month ago, I bought a british commando sweater from a military surplus store online, and the day it arrived, I was trying it on in my bedroom. I happened to be wearing just a pair of plaid boxer shorts when I put the sweater on, and when I looked in the mirror, at a glance it looked like I was wearing a kilt, and I really liked how it went with the sweater. Immediately, my interest in getting one spiked. I started looking around at various kiltmaker websites, and discovered that some of them had a feature to design your own custom tartan. I got to playing with the widgets and experimenting, and then I remembered a numberphile video that I’d watched maybe a year ago, about the fibonacci sequence and a tartan that they had designed based off of it. I decided to try a design of my own based on the sequence, and when I saw what I had come up with, I was struck by how beautiful it was, and I felt like it would be a shame not to produce it.

Then, I looked at what it costs to produce a custom tartan in enough quantity to produce a kilt, and it was into four figures. I considered saving up the money and doing it, but it just wasn’t in the budget, and if it was going to happen that way, it wouldn’t be able to for quite a while.

Then I got the idea to try a crowdfunding campaign.

Things I learned

I had no idea if it would work or not. But I thought that it wouldn’t hurt any to try. So I did. Trying things that probably aren’t going to hurt anything is a wonderful thing, and I encourage everyone to do it. Do things! Be a do-er! You get to have experiences, and learn things, and it’s awesome! Everyone should try doing things — don’t just get ideas and say “yeah that’d be great if someone did it” — be the one to do it!

It was surprisingly easy to get started – way easier than I had expected. I opted to use GoFundMe after looking at a few of the existing crowdfunding services. Getting set up on GoFundMe was super low barrier, and easy. I don’t remember how long it took to set up my accounts and get the page up, but it was probably only an hour or two, and most of that was spent writing up the description for the campaign, not registering.

Depending on the nature of your project, another service might be a better fit, but for me GoFundMe worked out pretty well. That said, there are many options. There’s more crowdfunding services than I knew about when I started looking — the big names, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, GoFundMe, Patreon, all work slightly differently and have different things to offer. I still don’t know about them all! But knowing which to use for what, and why, may be important if your goals are high.

People didn’t need rewards to donate, but rewards still are nice. At first, when I started creating my campaign, I thought that rewards were obligatory, and I figured I’d write up most of my page and then have to wait to make it live until I had come up with some good rewards. But when I got to the end of the page creation process, I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be any way to offer rewards through GoFundMe! (It turned out there is, I just couldn’t find it at first.) So, surprised and somewhat skeptical of myself, I went ahead and published, and in the first five days the campaign had raised over $300, without offering any rewards at all.

GoFundMe relies heavily on your own social media contacts as primary sources of contributions and marketing. A GoFundMe campaign isn’t even findable by the site’s search until it has reached $500 in funding. So if you want your campaign to work, you need to have a lot of good friends who are generous and believe in you. Their vote of confidence in you probably serves to make GoFundMe campaigns more reputable, since if your friends don’t believe in you enough to get a campaign to $500, no one else will either.

I felt rather sheepish — almost guilty — about asking everyone for money, as it’s very uncharacteristic of me to ever ask friends for favors, much less money. But in the end I was surprised by how much my friends were willing to help out. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to give anything at all — I half expected that a month after I started the campaign, I’d have like $15 raised and all my friends hating me for asking them for money, and much to my surprise it didn’t work out that way at all. Most people were very supportive, whether they had money to donate or not, they gave encouragement and support in terms of helping to get the word out.

A share was worth about $2-3 in donations on average in my case. Your mileage may vary, but I received somewhere between $2-3 in contribution for every social media share. Most of the shares were my own — exactly how many I can’t say, but I’d guess probably at least half. My friends were pretty good about re-sharing, and also about not getting annoyed from all the repetitive posts.

Having a cool idea and a well delivered pitch is really important – the most important. If you don’t have a good idea, and aren’t capable of explaining it, then you’re not ready for crowdfunding.

Knowing exactly how to do everything is not essential, but confidence that you can figure it out and actually do it is critical. Being able to deliver, knowing that you can deliver, and proving to your audience that you can and will deliver, is super important. Every crowdfunder bets their reputation on their project.

Make a spreadsheet and use it to track donations, shares, etc. They make great factoids for your promotional updates. The information can also help you analyze what worked and what didn’t during your campaign

Also use a spreadsheet to calculate your costs to successfully complete the project. Don’t forget to include overhead for fees, taxes, rewards, and unforeseen setbacks. If you’re starting a business venture, you should try to raise enough to fund not just the costs needed to make your project a reality, but also your salary, and your NEXT project. But make the next project be your stretch goal, for if you’re overfunded, not your main goal. It’s a very common thing with overfunded Kickstarter campaigns to go overboard with excitement of having so much extra money, and start over-promising things to achieve stretch goals. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to keep to your original idea, and stick to what you know you’re capable of delivering. All that extra money can be profit, which you can use for seed money. If you earmark all that overfunding to producing a super hyper ultra mega version of your original idea, chances are you’ll burn through that money without delivering, and all that hype you bought into because of the excitement of seeing all that money roll in will turn into disappointed backers.

Enthusiasm and sincerity is really important. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, and aren’t excited about it, you can’t expect anyone else to be.

Regular updates to keep signal up is really important.

Your fears that no one likes you or that someone will shout you down as a moocher are (**probably**) unfounded.

No matter how much you think your friends like you, you really feel it when they give you actual money to do something cool just because you believed in it and asked

Your first donation from someone you don’t know will blow your mind. For me, it felt really nice to see friends making donations, showing that they liked me enough and believed in me, or just thought that my idea was good and that they’d like to see it happen. But it was hugely validating to receive money from people I didn’t know, strangers I had never met.

Facebook shares have less reach than Facebook Event invites. Invites reach people when you name them on the invite. General wall posts are only visible to a few people out of your many friends. After posting general wall updates for the first week, I more than doubled my fundraising to that point by creating a public Event and inviting everyone I knew to it.

Your immediate network of friends may be great, but they’ll only carry you so far. I received over $600 in donations from friends who I knew immediately. I’m still blown away by that fact. It was really nice of them. But, after about two or three weeks of campaigning, contributions from them slowed to a trickle, and then ran dry. Fewer than 10% of my Facebook friends donated — which is pretty good, considering I was pessimistically expecting that may 2 or 3 friends would give me anything at all. Once I’d reached everyone, and they all gave what they were willing or able to give, that was it. And really, if you have an idea that’s worth doing, it should be supported by people who like the idea, not just people who like you. Friends are great and can help you get off the ground, but to really succeed in the world, you need to be able to get strangers to believe in you.

I don’t think that my social media pull on Twitter had much effect if any on the campaign. I’m almost 100% certain that all of my donations came through my facebook network. Maybe that’s because I use facebook way more than I use twitter. Maybe it was due to the specific nature of my campaign. Maybe it’s just the nature of twitter that people ignore spammy tweets asking for money, unless it’s something really really cool, cooler than my project.

When the fundraising phase is over, the project is only just starting. So many people consider a crowdfunding campaign to be a “success” if it reaches goal. Funding is not success. Funding is what enables you to try to be successful. Delivering what you promised when you asked for that money is what success is all about. Everyone who is involved with crowdfunding, from the fundraisers to the backers to the media who cover it, should all keep this in mind at all times. Raising $8 million dollars in 30 days can seem like a miracle overnight success, but if that $8 million doesn’t get turned into a realized vision, it’s wasted.

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