Behind the scenes of a failed Kickstarter project

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 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.

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