So you’ve invented and prototyped a really cool new thing and you’re going to run a Kickstarter campaign – Congratulations! If you’re like us, you might be thinking that once you’ve twisted the last wires and run the final tests, the hard part is over. Boy howdy, are you wrong.
We are Mebotics, LLC., and we invented the Microfactory: A hybrid 3D printer and milling machine with four print-heads, a full on-board computer, custom software, swappable hardware and a chassis built for rugged portable manufacturing-on-the-go. We built and tested five versions of our “Machine shop in a box”, out of pocket and in our spare (ha ha) time. We’re industrial designers, engineers, and (obviously) unstoppable superheroes….but putting together the Kickstarter almost drove us all completely insane. Here are some tips and pitfalls we encountered that may help you survive where no engineer should go: The marketing-infested world of campaigning for money.
1. What do you mean, listing the features isn’t good enough? So hey, we just described the Microfactory to you – isn’t it awesome? So…why haven’t you bought one yet?? One of the temptations you’re going to run into is to write exhaustively about your cool product’s super-fabulous feature-set and then wait for everyone else to see the light and start throwing money at you. Sorry, dude. People give money to things that can communicate how cool they are to them, and most people don’t communicate the same way engineers do. Get ready to pull your hair out trying to think – and re-think, and re-think – of clever phrasings, super-non-technical analogies, and fun examples of why that thing you sweated over for a year is worth someone’s five dollar donation. Having at least one really creative reward, catchphrase, or marketing tactic will really benefit you here, so start thinking about them early. Getting “outside the box” is way harder than it sounds.
2. You’re on call more than your doctor. Inventing, building, and testing cutting-edge technology, especially if you’re doing it on the side, already feels like an extra full-time job. But there’s a difference between emails and calls from your co-conspirators on your project and the ones you get during your Kickstarter campaign, and it’s the same difference between caring for a hamster and babysitting newborn twins: The former can wait a few hours, while you bathe, sleep, or think about your reply. The latter cannot. Your Kickstarter will get not only messages, comments, and emails (plus Facebook and YouTube comments, Tweets, etc.,), but also emails from distributors in countries you’ve never heard of, students who want more information for a term paper they’re writing, marketing companies who are sure they can solve all your problems (for a fee), and awesome blogs and publications who’d love to help you out by letting you spend a few hours writing them an article (cough). And none of them can wait — not if you want to maximize exposure and give your baby the best possible chance of getting the funding it needs to grow up strong and healthy. Someone very wise told us, “Kickstarter is a marathon, not a sprint” – and that’s great advice. Do pace yourself, but also be prepared to look up exhausted from email number four hundred and twelve, and realize that you’re only on day three.
3. And you’ll need to bring your best manners. Let’s face it – sometimes there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. Sometimes there are people who simply find it easier to question by criticizing, or who want to make you detail every possible spec that you can’t know yet because you haven’t done a manufacturability study — that’s what you need the money for. And sometimes there are perfectly good questions from perfectly smart people who nonetheless lose their shine after you’ve answered them six or seven or twenty times. But DON’T LOSE YOUR COOL, no matter what – this is utterly key. It helps to have several people rotating the responsibility for answering questions, comments and emails, so that as one of you gets tired or frustrated, someone else can swap in. We’ve done some things right with this one: Make use not only of the FAQs on Kickstarter (and your own website, if you have one), but also, keep a shared document of replies to common inquiries that you all consider acceptable. You’ll need to tailor them a bit for every response, but having most of the information copy-pastable will lighten the load a lot. Also, always be as transparent and honest as you possibly can be – admit when you don’t know something, or can’t reveal something for business reasons. It’s better to be nice and fallible than to try to control everything and get caught fudging even a tiny fact. Remember the crucial lessons of the Streisand Effect: On the Internet, positive messages are tough to spread, but negative ones go like wildfires. Oh yes, and always, always say Thank You.
4. The end is the beginning, grasshopper. While it’s tempting to think that you “have finished making” your Kickstarter campaign when you click the Launch button, you’ve actually only just started. Your potential backers and the community you reach are going to give you a lot of feedback, and it’s important to listen, to respond, and to be ready to take advice on your stroke while you’re mid-lap. This isn’t a late-night infomercial when You Talk, They Listen: Kickstarting is a community, not a one-way street. So all that writing, photographing, and video-making you did to get to this point? Be ready to do it over, to tweak it, replace it, and update it – yes, while you’re hearing and responding to and engaging with the community that’s giving you all the great feedback. As an example, we had to modify our pricing and rewards structure quite a lot in the first week – hours of work that we’d done already, undone and redone while we were at our breakneck busiest! – but it was completely worth it. We had neglected to provide a pre-order option at a low enough price point – something we couldn’t have really guessed at on our own. Only your potential supporters can tell you what you need to do to get their support, and while it’s good to do early outreach and talk to your community before you get to the point of asking for launch money, sometimes you just can’t reach them until you’re already mid-campaign.
5. You’re a writer too, right? No doubt your team is full of excellent engineers, but unless one of them is harboring a hidden desire to become the next Great American Novelist, you’re going to need the help of a writer. Writing is tough work, and running a Kickstarter means doing it both constantly and perfectly – grammar and spelling mistakes are deadly, but so are errors in tone, degree of detail, length, colloquialism, and (over or under use of words like) etcetera. Filling out the Kickstarter and creating a webpage is just the beginning – you’ll need to spend time writing longer responses to media inquiries (giving much of the same information as in your Kickstarter, but tailored for different audiences), and doing lots of brainstorming to come up with the perfect short, catchy phrases and invented words (::cough::Microfactory::cough::) that’ll describe your device perfectly at a glance. If your team is like ours, the last substantial writing any of you did was probably a book-report – and if that’s true, buckle down and hire a writer, or at least a proof-reader. And make sure it’s someone you like, because you’re going to be talking to them an awful lot.
6. A picture’s worth a thousand words (which makes a video worth 24,000 words per second). People will want to see what your invention can do, and why it matters to them, which means coming up with as many creative applications for your work as you can…and then a few more. Thinking up cool ways to use your machine may sound easy, but in reality you probably know that it’s cool because you’re a tool / hardware fiend and you know cool when you see it – but your supporters are going to be interested for reasons beyond just technical wow-factor. You made it, so of course you love it; they need to see how it connects to their lives. As the creators of a device that incorporates a nearly-unlimited toolset, can print in more simultaneous colors and materials than any other, and that combines additive and subtractive machining in one feature-packed unit, you’d think we would have been bursting at the seams with possible-use ideas…but when Kickstarter time came, we really wished that we’d been keeping a list of every time someone said, “Oh, you know what’d be cool?” It would have saved us a ton of time and effort to just have those things written down – we could have then simply taken a ton of photos and videos of the machine doing them, for use in our Kickstarter and updates. As it is (thanks to the community’s advice – see #4), we’re catching up and brainstorming tons of cool applications with our supporters, and catching them on video and in pictures for dissemination as we continue.
But take heart – we’re not insane yet, and chances are good that you’ll survive too. Running a hardware Kickstarter is a bit grueling, it happens when you’re probably already feeling overworked, and it relies on some skills that may not come naturally to your team — but seeing an email from someone at 2:30 in the morning saying, “Your project is simply awesome!” (thanks, Andrew!) makes answering the next thirty or forty messages a lot easier. And of course, Kickstarter is worth the effort for the opportunity it provides, for projects like ours (and yours!) to get off the ground and on with their job of making the future awesome. Best of luck to all of us!