The two most common questions I get when I'm sitting on a panel or giving a talk are, “How do you do it?” and “how can I do it too?” No one wants to hear statistics, theories, or one size fits all advice, and I don't blame them. People want real guidance, real stories from the trenches, and real takeaways. They have ideas—whether it's an incredible new product, a brilliant, documentary, or a gorgeous piece of design—and they want to know how to capture the attention of the crowd and convince complete strangers to fund their dreams.
I've raised over $20 million (and counting) for clients' crowdfunding campaigns around the world, and I have a lot to share. My clients pay me a considerable amount of money for my guidance and expertise, but I'm giving away all my best advice in these pages. Why? Well, crowdfunding has given me a lot—my career, my company, my sense of purpose, and knowledge of how great it feels when an entire community is eager to get behind what you're doing. I love the egalitarianism of crowdfunding—I love that it's available to all, and not just the privileged few. I want to give back to the crowdfunding community that has given me so much. That's why I'm here. So hi! Welcome. Let's get started.
Since I first started freelance managing crowdfunding campaigns in 2012, and after launching my company, Vann Alexandra, in 2014, I've worked on an incredible range of projects. I spent my early days funding indie documentaries, and now I've grown a business that runs major campaigns of all kinds around the world.
So here's how it works: Clients come to me with an idea, and we build and manage the entire crowdfunding campaign for them from beginning to end—from copywriting to pitching press, influencer strategy, video production, donor engagement, design strategy, messaging, email marketing, all the day-to-day communication and handling of ongoing details. Some of my projects revolve around big names (Dr. Maya Angelou, TLC, Neil Young, Joan Didion), while many others come from everyday people with great ideas. One of my recent campaigns was to reissue an out-of-print NASA Graphics Standards Manual with two twenty something graphic designers. It raised just shy of $1 million.
I'm here to tell you with complete confidence that there are thousands of people out there who are eager to put money towards projects they believe in. In 2015 alone, the global rewards and donation-based crowdfunding industry helped generate a staggering $5.5 billion in funding—not a penny of which will ever have to be paid back.
But before you get the idea that crowdfunding is basically money for nothing—or that it's easy to raise money online—think again. The harsh reality is that the majority of crowdfunding campaigns fail. Just look at one of the most successful rewards-based crowdfunding platforms in the world, Kickstarter. As I write this, there are more than 6,000 campaigns live right now, and less than 40 percent of them will meet their goals. And recent research reveals that those success rates will continue to decline as the market grows. Plus, failing on Kickstarter means failing hard––if you fall short of your goal by the deadline, you won't see any of the money you've raised, and you might actually tarnish your shiny idea. Why? Launching a crowdfunding campaign is very public. So, if it fails, your backers might be gun-shy about giving you another chance.
The truth is, if you want to fund your idea, you'll need to be prepared to invest blood, sweat, tears, hundreds of hours, and a ton of strategizing to ensure your campaign succeeds.
The good news is this: if I can be successful at crowdfunding, so can you. These days, I'm known as The Crowdsourceress because of my extremely high success rate, with some of the most successful (and some of the most famous) campaigns under my belt. But back when I first started, I was pretty much clueless. The first time someone asked me to help him with his project, I had to Google “Kickstarter” to find out what it was. But I learned on the job, figuring things out as I went along. At first I saw crowdfunding simply as a sideline gig, something I did in my spare time. It wasn't like I had a guidance counselor at college telling me I was perfectly suited to the role of “crowdfunding campaign manager.” It took people continually asking me to run their campaigns before I began to think, “Well, maybe this is a thing I can really do.” In time, crowdfunding became my full time occupation, and I eventually realized I could make it my life's work.
Throughout this book, I'm going to show you how to get people so excited about your big idea that they'll give you the money to make it happen. I'll show you what not to do, too. I've made a ton of mistakes along the way, and I can help you avoid them. Above all, I'll show you how to connect with the crowd in the digital age, how to get people to pay attention to you, and beyond that—how to inspire them to action. This is essential for any business nowadays, whether or not you even decide use crowdfunding.
This book covers it all—real strategies, real stories, and real how-tos. I've also included a Resources section in the back of the book with a pre-launch checklist and timeline, real examples of press releases and emails, a list of great sites to use, and more. I recommend reading the book beginning to end, since it covers everything you'll need to do for your campaign, but you can also skip around if you need to focus on a particular issue or phase.
Okay, let's dig in! To get you started, here are the top ten questions you need to be able to answer before you run a crowdfunding campaign:
Who's my target audience? The answer to this question will inform how you tell your project's story—from the video to the campaign page to the rewards. Knowing who you're speaking to will determine how you speak. This is the foundation of your project's success. It will also determine your outreach strategy—who might be likely to cover you in the press, support you on social media, and beyond.
Chapter 2 is the story of how I learned the value of tapping into a built-in audience.
Chapter 5 covers how to optimize your campaign page.
Has there been a market test? Crowdfunding, in many ways, is a market test: you get to see how the market responds to your idea. It's pretty amazing. But I have seen that some of the most successful projects often have some kind of market test well before the crowdfunding phase. Your pre-launch test could be a website that goes viral, press pieces that start a conversation on social media, customer surveys that show positive results, or lots of buzz in a community asking for the very thing you're making.
Chapter 4 tells the story of how I first discovered the power of a market test.
Chapter 7 includes an important warning: social media followers do not necessarily equal dollars.
How will I reach my target audience? You might have a great product and a great campaign, but all your hard work and preparation won't matter if your audience can't find it. Do you have an active mailing list? Are you engaged with people online? Do you have a network of contacts, from family, colleagues, and friends, “influencers” (respected industry individuals with a large, loyal fan base online) and maybe even a few big names involved? Have you secured any coverage in the media outlets your target audience reads?
Chapter 9 covers everything you need to know about press and social media.
What's my timeline? Please, please don't launch before you're really ready. I usually tell my clients that at least eight weeks to prepare before launching is ideal, but it totally depends on how much you have done so far. If there's no urgency, focus on building a super strong mailing list well before that. Another rule of thumb I always go by is to never launch a campaign from November to January. It's the holiday season and many people are away from their computers. Not to mention, unless your product is ready to ship immediately, backers don't want to pledge for a reward that will come to them months after the holidays. I like to do 30-day campaigns (30 days or less perform better per Kickstarter) that start on a Tuesday morning (I find we can better capture people's attention early in the week).
The Resources section at the end of this book includes a full pre-launch sample schedule.
What's my budget? It's not just the amount you need for your project; there are also the costs of building the campaign itself: making the video; producing all kinds of written and visual content; working with a designer; spending time on press research, social media, and audience-building; creating and shipping rewards; campaign platform fees; taxes; and a buffer for anything unexpected that could go wrong.
Chapter 7 explains how to budget.
The Resources section includes a budget worksheet.
Are my video and campaign page optimized? Competition is tough, no matter what industry you're in. Your story needs to be communicated in a way that's clear, concise, compelling, and visual. Creating a crowdfunding campaign is an exercise in branding: you need to know your mission, voice, style, and visual identity. It needs to look and sound exceptional.
Chapters 3 and 5 are dedicated to showing you how to do all this and more.
Chapter 6 is a great story in how a pre-campaign rebranding exercise set us up for success.
What rewards will I offer? This is a huge component of your project, and an all-too-common stumbling block for many creators. It's so important to consider who your audience is when determining appealing rewards—and budgeting for rewards production, shipping, and the logistics involved is a big undertaking.
Chapter 7 will give you tips and ideas for rewards.
Chapter 10 has campaigns with some awesome, unusual rewards.
What's my social media strategy? In addition to creating social media accounts, building up an audience, and planning engaging content to share, we always develop an influencer strategy where we enlist individuals with large social media followings for support online. It's extremely effective.
Chapter 4 goes into depth in how we created our first influencer campaign.
Chapters 9 and 10 break down exactly how to do this.
What's my press strategy? Press can really get you the eyeballs you need. Planning and researching a press strategy is a big pre-launch necessity. You'll want to create a wish list of press that might cover the campaign and make sure to find actual email addresses to pitch journalists directly.
Chapter 9 will lead you through how to develop a press strategy.
Am I prepared for the fulfillment phase? It's said the real work begins when your crowdfunding campaign ends, and it's true. I almost always recommend working with a fulfillment partner who can handle shipping and product manufacturing. But you'll need to do some calculations first and understand what makes sense for you and your campaign.
Chapter 7 dives into the challenges of fulfilling a campaign yourself.
Chapter 7 will also help you budget and come up with feasible, creative rewards.
Before we go any deeper––how did I even get here? I grew up in Miami in the 80s and 90s. My dad owned a company that created anti-money laundering software for banks and financial institutions and my mom owned a company that did marketing for radio and television stations. I remember going to my mom's office almost every day after school with my older brother and doing our homework in the conference room surrounded by ringing phones, meetings in progress, and the controlled chaos of people working hard toward production deadlines. Looking back, I know I absorbed some of my parents' entrepreneurial drive. It's worth noting that I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from my parents. Not everyone gets that chance. But ultimately, what I really learned from my parents was the value of hard work. When they met, they had nothing, and built their companies from scratch. A big part of running a successful business is the head-down work involved, and a critical component of a successful crowdfunding campaign is the same.
While I learned the value of hard work from my parents, this didn't really help me when it came time to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Like so many young people I got all the way through college without a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I liked writing, so I had gravitated toward Spanish literature and philosophy classes where I was able to spend a lot of time discussing and reading books, analyzing theories and literature, and having long conversations with my Philosophy thesis professor. If you want to know how confused I was at this point in my life, you only have to look at the title of my honors thesis: Existentialism in Contemporary Drug Cinema.
My inclination towards writing seemed to point naturally in the direction of journalism, and when I graduated, I got a paid internship at New York magazine, and then went on to my first freelance position as a fact-checker for WSJ magazine. But when the internship ended I found that I was still stuck. I loved the company, the people, and had an incredible amount of responsibility, but the experience taught me that I wasn\'t interested in journalism as a career.
By now, my philosophy thesis professor had moved to New York for another job, so I would to take him for drinks to get advice on what to do next. I also started to meet with colleagues I admired, to ask their advice about what I should do next (I highly urge you to find people you can talk to as you are searching for what you want to do). After lots of thought, I decided to take a totally different tack. I liked studying film in college and a friend of a friend worked at a documentary production company. I went in for an interview without knowing anything about production (in fact, I didn\'t even know what the word “post-production” meant) but I was eager to learn and hopeful that this would be my path. Somehow, I managed to get hired.
But once I got there, I realized it wasn't a fit either. I worked as a production manager, overseeing multiple projects, and writing tons of grant applications. Grant, after grant, after grant. So many tedious grants. I found the grantwriting process so grueling, but I wanted to stick with it if it would eventually lead me to higher positions in the film industry. I thought I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker.
But, dear readers, this is the part of the story where the clouds parted and it all started making sense. One day an office mate I barely knew named Tim, who was trying to raise money for his documentary about the radio station WFMU, asked me what I knew about Kickstarter.
The short answer? Pretty much nothing. Tim had seen me writing all those grant proposals and probably figured I would be a good person to help him get funding for his documentary. I think he thought if I was good at fundraising in general, I would be good at crowdfunding too. I didn't know what crowdfunding was, or how it worked; still, I told him I was game to help.
So we dove in. Tim made a video trailer and set up a Kickstarter account. I drafted the campaign story. We came up with rewards and wrote a press release. We tried to cover all our bases, planning the campaign on our lunch breaks and after work. When we launched, we tapped into the radio station's incredibly passionate audience who responded to our campaign and leapt on board as backers. Meanwhile, we worked around the clock sending personal emails to friends and family (I must have written about hundreds of emails within the first three days) and pitching press to cover the campaign so we could close the gap. By the last day of the 30-day campaign, we had surpassed our $50,000 goal by more than 160%, ultimately raising over $80,000.
I don't remember sleeping much those 30 days, but I do remember watching the computer screen as donations came in, from kind friends and family members and strangers who felt that this project was worth supporting. Talk about validation––people wanted to bring this film to life. It left me feeling that, despite the constant doom and gloom we read in the newspaper headlines, there is a huge amount of goodwill in this world. It was my first experience of the so-called “trust economy” and the whole thing was invigorating and humbling.
Crowdfunding was a game changer for film production. Until then, the only way I'd known to raise money for a film was through grant writing. But the Kickstarter campaign was empowering. We didn't need to conform to anyone's standards, and we didn't have to sit around and wait. We could take matters into our own hands, and we were engaged and in control from the start.
After that first campaign with Tim, I ran a campaign for another documentary. After my success with the first Kickstarter campaign, I was really hopeful we'd see the same results, but it was much, much harder than the first campaign. When we launched, it did not take off like wildfire. It stagnated. I had tried approaching this one the same way I approached the campaign with Tim—emailing friends and family, internal networks, even press—but we just didn't have the audience of immediate fans that we had the first time around.
This is how I woke up to the reality that every crowdfunding project is different. But thankfully, we got a lucky break. Kickstarter named us as one of their “Projects We Love” and included us in their huge newsletter. The donations started pouring in. Sites like Kickstarter don't just have a platform to collect funds, but a massive community. I also realized the importance of having a large, loyal mailing list, and how far that can go in reaching potential donors. We raised almost $20,000 from strangers around the world thanks to that newsletter. Beyond that, I discovered that the socially conscious message at the core of the documentary was really resonating globally. We shifted our strategy, reaching outside of our networks, pitching the project with a focus on the relevance of the film from a cultural and political perspective. The campaign began to get covered in publications, and more donations came in. It was an incredible learning experience and not only were we successful, we ended up overfunded.
It was such a rush and I loved running those campaigns. But it still hadn't occurred to me that this was something I could do for a living. I still believed I wanted to be a filmmaker. I hadn't let go of the fact that I wasn't actually a great filmmaker but it turned out I was a great online fundraiser. Then about 6 months after that second successful campaign, I got a phone call.
\"I heard you're the girl that knows how to raise money for documentary projects on Kickstarter,\" said the woman on the other end of the line.
\"Yeah,” I replied, taken a bit off guard. “I guess I am.\"
That phone call turned into my first freelance gig as a crowdfunding campaign manager. The film was called Changing the Game, and it was about kids living in poor and violent communities who were competing in a street soccer competition run by the World Cup. Again we focused on the socially conscious message. We pitched it hard, sent targeted emails, and tried to get as many eyeballs on the page as we could. And again, by the end, I was totally wiped out but had an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride when we exceeded our goal. I had helped another filmmaker get their film funded and out into the world.
During the campaign a local blog wrote about me in an article titled “Crowdsourcing with The Crowd Sourceress” followed by a short write up about me. It read: “A former magazine journalist, she changed career paths two years ago to become a producer, and soon found her calling: being the person who finds filmmakers money to complete their projects.”
A blog had just told me I had found my calling. Had I? I barely had a moment to consider this because as soon as that campaign ended, more potential clients were calling me. Soon I wasn't just working on campaigns for documentary films. I was being introduced to more campaign opportunities with top creators across the board.
A big part of my job was connecting meaningfully with my creative clients, gaining their trust by leveraging—or at least projecting—my growing expertise and confidence. I had to figure out what was at the essence of the product or creative work so that I could talk about it effectively to potential backers. Then I had to frame the campaign pitch to those people sitting at home online or swiping away on their phone in a way that was so compelling, they couldn't ignore it. I needed to give backers a feeling of real investment in these campaigns, and a sense that they were going to feel good about their donation.
Over time, I was getting better at what I was doing, but with each job I had that familiar feeling in the pit in my stomach that we could fail if I got it wrong. There were moments where the fear of failure was paralyzing. There was always that voice in the back of my head saying, “What if I don't make the goal this time? What if my client comes out of this without raising a dime?” There were so many nights where I struggled to fall asleep worrying about letting my clients down. But in many ways it was the fear that pushed me, made me work harder and smarter, and each time, when I reached the funding goal, the adrenalin rush made everything worthwhile.
As word got out about my success rate, I became busier and busier, and I found myself with a double life: filmmaker by day and campaign manager by night. As far as I could tell, no one else was really doing what I was doing. By now it was 2013 and Kickstarter had been around for four years. You might think the people at Kickstarter would want to run campaigns in-house, but they are so committed to providing a democratic platform that they don't want to privilege some projects over others. There was an obvious niche for someone like me to manage campaigns, but whenever I got a call from a potential client, they would say something like “I couldn't find anyone else out there doing this with your track record!” How was it that I was basically the only one succeeding at what I was doing? People kept encouraging me to make a business out of my crowdfunding gig, but how can you follow a career path that doesn't really exist yet? It actually made it harder for me to take the leap of faith and embrace crowdfunding as my full time career, because it felt like such uncharted territory.
It wasn't long until my film producing jobs started to take a backseat as I focused more and more on crowdfunding, working from early morning to late at night at my kitchen table in my small Brooklyn apartment. Then one day, I got a text message that changed everything. It was from a friend asking if I could take a meeting to crowdfund what ended up being by far my biggest campaign yet.
The project came from someone who had worked at a design studio called Pentagram based in Manhattan. Pentagram had recently been hired to design the logo for a San Francisco based company that was planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign once everything was in place. Unsure of how to run a crowdfunding campaign, they turned to the designers at Pentagram and asked them to run it.
But of course the team at Pentagram doesn't offer those kinds of services; they are a design firm, so they reached out to their networks to find someone who might be able to help. That's when I got the text from my friend about handling the campaign. The product was a high-resolution digital music device called the PonoPlayer, and the client was Neil Young. Yes, that Neil Young.
I got the job and had to start immediately, as the campaign was launching in just over a week. It was the spring of 2014, almost two years after I had first Googled the word “Kickstarter.” Over a period of 35 days, I managed Pono's Kickstarter and helped them raise a whopping $6.2 million. At the time, it was the fourth most funded Kickstarter project ever.
It was after the Pono campaign wrapped that I finally realized it was time to launch a full-time, full-service agency. I sublet a couple desks at an office space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and hired a freelancer. And then another. We grew fast, and a year later we moved to our current office in Tribeca. With time and experience, we've become a little crowd of our own.
Since my first campaign, I have helped run more than 50 crowdfunding campaigns in varying capacities, nearly all of which have met and far exceeded their fundraising goals. My crowdfunding consulting company, Vann Alexandra, officially incorporated in April 2014.
Crowdfunding campaigns can be really rewarding (literally and figuratively) but I'm here to warn you that they are also a potential minefield. Crowdfunding has changed so much in the short time since Indiegogo and Kickstarter started out (in 2008 and 2009 respectively). We've gone from the era when it was all about mom-and-pop indie creatives and visionaries raising a few thousand dollars online, to a point in time when crowdfunding platforms are being flooded with campaigns from major celebrities and even Fortune 500 companies. It's no longer possible to throw up your idea online and to expect the money to magically begin to flow; there's too much competition for that. Now, you need a serious plan.
More importantly, you need a guide—someone who's been in the trenches and helped her clients come out on top every time. Since officially launching, I've spent every working day running campaigns, and I've learned what works and doesn't. More than anything, I've mastered how to communicate and connect with people online.
This is a space that's getting more crowded all the time—not just with projects but with funding platforms, too. Most of the campaigns I've managed have been on Kickstarter, where I got my start. Kickstarter's all-or-nothing funding model can be a scary and risky, but it also reflects real life: you can't raise half what you need to manufacture your product and still succeed; you need the full amount you set out to raise. It's a daring prospect, but it resonates with people and that's why it's still the most popular.
I've also run my share of Indiegogo campaigns. While Kickstarter has declared that they're not a store (their mission is to help bring creative projects to life), I find that Indiegogo embraces the e-commerce side of crowdfunding. Over time, they've added features designed to help people use the platform as a “go-to-market” strategy (an action plan to reach customers and gain a foothold in an industry). As their “InDemand” feature gains more traction, allowing successful campaigners to accept contributions even after campaigns end, indefinitely, I expect more creators to use this to maximize sales over time.
There are so many other platforms: GoFundMe, Tilt, PledgeMusic, RocketHub, CrowdRise, to name a few. But while crowdfunding platforms continue to evolve (and new ones continue to crop up), the heart of crowdfunding remains the same: it's all about making an authentic connection with your crowd. That's become my specialty, and it's what I'll show you how to do in this book, so you can take these lessons and apply them to any launch on any platform––well beyond crowdfunding. That includes a launch on your own platform, like your company website.
What I have learned over time is not just how to raise awareness for projects online, but how to actually turn that awareness into money. Once you\'ve read this book, you\'ll have no hesitation about how to kickstart an idea of your own. You\'ll know how it works and have the capacity to maximize your chance of success beyond what you've even imagined.
My hope is this book will give you the tangible tools not only to run your own crowdfunding campaigns, but also to launch, grow, and build your brand identity and your business. You'll know how to connect with your audience, promote yourself and your ideas, and stand out online, on social media, and in the press. You'll have an understanding of what it takes to establish your brand and find your niche in the world. You\'ll feel expert at connecting and communicating with people online. And perhaps most importantly, you'll have gained the inspiration and confidence to forge your own path. My hope for this book is to empower you, to show you that you can start something from scratch, and that really, anything is possible.
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