Lessons from a failed Kickstarter

Last week, I launched Particle on Kickstarter. Today, I pulled the plug and canceled the campaign. We had 50 backers and were 5% funded. So why would I do this with 25 days left to go?

The fact is, this campaign failed before it started, and it was all my fault. I became so consumed by building and running the Kickstarter that I lost my focus on the product I was creating. Here are some of the things I did wrong and why I terminated the campaign early.

Not building a following #

The most important element to a successful crowdfunding campaign is reaching people. Not just anyone, but people interested in what you have to offer — potential backers. Before launching on Kickstarter, I was well aware that many campaigns spent months or even years building a following prior to launching.

This was my fatal mistake. I thought I could bypass this requirement because I had a network of online properties geared towards web designers and developers (to the tune of 200,000 visitors a month). I went all in hoping to cross promote Particle to people who didn't know what the hell it was and people who weren't even looking for it.

The results of this obviously weren't favorable. In hindsight, I would have been better off buying ad space on the back of milk cartons. Or maybe not...

Relying on advertisements #

As a SaaS owner, I'm no stranger to buying banner ads to promote my services. When I realized my first plan of action wasn't performing very well, I figured I'd try a paid advertisement. I knew this was a bad idea, but surely people would see how great my unreleased Kickstarter product was in a 300x125 banner ad and start throwing dollar bills at it!

Yeah, what was I thinking? It only took a couple days to confirm this mistake. Even with a million impressions that ad wouldn't have come close to paying for itself — and this was a highly targeted website too. Fortunately, I was able to switch it to point to my other service so it wasn't a complete waste of money.

In short, if you rely on ads to drive traffic to your crowdfunding campaign, you're gonna have a bad time.

Falling for kickstarter spam #

Something I didn't realize until after my campaign launched is that you'll receive a ton of spam through Kickstarter's messaging system. You'll get messages from people who seem legit, but obviously aren't when you look closely at their profile (hint: a signup date of today is a dead giveaway).

People will offer to write and submit press releases for you, "enhance your SEO," send out "social media blasts," and more. They'll promise to boost your campaign's numbers and they'll boast about how successful their services have been with similar crowdfunding campaigns. One clever spammer even took the time to locate my email address and message me outside of Kickstarter's system. Nice try, dude!

These offers may seem tempting, but most of them are scams — some more obvious than others. I only fell for one called BackerClub, which costs $379, but you only pay if you receive $379 or more from backers in their network. Sounds too good to be true, right? It is. Here's how they scam you.

BackerClub pretends to be exclusive. You have to "apply" to be featured in their network. Soon after, you'll receive an email telling you that you've been accepted, but due to some bogus algorithm, they need $79 up front to make it worth their while to feature your campaign. If you're stupid enough to pay it, they'll send out a couple emails (probably just to you, who knows) that will drive pretty much zero traffic to your campaign.

It's amazing how crowdfunding has spawned an entire ecosystem of scumbags who feed off creators that are trying to raise money for projects they've put so much heart and soul into. Trust me, no matter how desperate you are or how good it sounds, it's bullshit.

Promoting via social media #

This goes hand in hand with not building a following, but I did have a little bit of success promoting Particle on Twitter. Obviously, your results will be better if you have a strong network established and you maintain proper etiquette.

The problem with Twitter, however, is that you can't really reach out to people without spamming them. That's sort of the nature of their platform, but it's still freaking spam. Although some backers did originate from Twitter, the whole social media thing went south rather quickly.

It starts with an innocent post that you pin to your profile. Then you reach out to a few people who follow you but you only sort of know. Then you try to insert yourself into relevant conversations with people you don't know. Then you use Advanced Search to look for derogatory things about your competitors and feed on peoples' frustrations by trying to save the day with — guess what — a fucking Kickstarter link asking them for money!

You start crapping out links to your project with every tweet and your whole social media strategy turns into a total shitfest that you're embarrassed to look at the following day.

Don't "promote" your campaign like I did. While I did recruit a handful of backers from Twitter, it wasn't worth the effort or the dent in my reputation. There's a right way and a wrong way to promote things on social media. That was the wrong way.

Hoping for a break #

If your Plan B involves sending emails to everyone at TechCrunch, Mashable, and every other big name blog you can think of hoping to get picked up, don't fucking launch a crowdfunding campaign.

I knew this from the start, but I figured I'd try anyway. I spent two days sending out personalized emails inviting journalists, bloggers, or whoever else I thought would be interested in a private, prerelease demo of Particle. Crickets.

It's not that they don't give a shit about Particle, they just have a million emails a day flooding their inbox. You really have to stand out, and even that's probably not enough if you haven't actually launched your product yet.

Honestly, who wants to write about a blogging platform that hasn't launched yet? Not TechCrunch or Mashable, that's for sure.

Not having a shill #

Crowdfunding is a tough nut to crack if you're a new creator. It would have helped a lot to have the support of someone reputable openly supporting the project. In Particle's case, a well-known blogger, for example, could have helped spread the word and instill more confidence in potential backers.

Quantum Chess is a great example. They managed to get Paul Rudd to make a comedic video of him and Stephen Hawking playing the game, and that propelled them to exceed their funding goal by almost $3,000. Really, almost $33,000 for a digital chess game (that I'm also guilty of backing). You need a shill.

Letting it consume you #

Those are all things I failed gloriously at in terms of promoting the campaign, but that's not the reason I pulled the plug. Even if Particle wouldn't have met its funding goal, it would have been fun to see just how much it would have reached.

By far, what I hated most about running a crowdfunding campaign was how it completely consumed me. I knew it would be a lot of work, and I'm OK with a lot of work, but I wasn't aware of how it eats your soul, shits it out, and then eats it again.

I spent a month and a half building Particle's campaign, obsessing over each and every little detail. I filmed the video twice, then bought a new camera and filmed it at least four more times trying to get it right. I rewrote the script countless times. I added closed captions to both videos. I spent hours looking for the right music, budgeting, planning out rewards, tweaking content, and crafting images to make Particle as sexy as possible on Kickstarter. I did everything except what I actually like to do, and I wasted a lot of time doing it.

I remember looking at the launch button last Tuesday. After so much preparation, was it finally time? I knew I wasn't prepared well enough, but I couldn't afford delaying any longer. Or maybe I just couldn't stand being away from the code as long as I'd been. Maybe I was just fed up with staring at myself and watching screencasts of Particle for hours on end. That stupid music still plays in my head.

With an audible "fuck it," my finger clicked the launch button.

That's when I should have realized I made the wrong decision. I didn't prepare well enough, but I was so ready to be done creating that stupid campaign that I just couldn't stand it any longer. I just wanted to get it over with.

Particle launched when it shouldn't have launched. In fact, it probably never should have been on Kickstarter. I became too consumed by the magic and allure of crowdfunding that I completely lost my ability to think straight. Now, just five days into the live campaign I'm beginning to lose my mind. What has this circus act turned me into? This isn't me. This isn't Particle.

What's next? #

I spent a year and a half building this software, so I'm obviously not giving up on it. Particle is a great product. In fact, I'm using it to write this very post on my iPad and it truly is the best blogging experience I've ever had. No bullshit. Inline editing is awesome!

But I've realized that trying to jumpstart this project by crowdfunding isn't as appealing as it once was. Yes, the software is fully functional, but there are still things I'd like to improve before I send it off into the world. Having a big chunk of money isn't worth the added stress of deadlines to meet and backers (micro-investors?) to answer to. More importantly, wasting another month trying to get that chunk of money seems more and more ridiculous with each day I spend emailing Mashable and pissing people off on Twitter. Particle will be ready when it's ready, and that's how it should have been all along.

I would still like to open source Particle and turn it into a sustainable business. On the other hand, I have a family to feed and a lot of time vested in this project. I can't afford to give away nearly two years of work with absolutely no way to monetize it. That would leave us with no food on the table and no money to continue working on Particle, which means we starve, the project fizzles out, and everyone loses.

Particle needs a premium service or some alternative way to make it sustainable before it can be open sourced.

There's a light #

I do have some great news: I've teamed up with a good friend who also happens to be one of the best developers I know. After studying Particle's code, he's decided to come onboard to help out with development. This will definitely help speed things up! We'll be taking some time this week to discuss the best approach for releasing Particle, be it open source, SaaS, or a combination of both. Anything is game at this point. Except fucking crowdfunding.

For those of you who backed Particle, please get in touch with me on Twitter or email (cory at this domain) — I have some stickers for you. For everyone else, you can either follow Particle on Twitter or signup for the mailing list to stay up to date.

Even though Particle wasn't a good fit for Kickstarter, we're still going to bring inline editing to blogging. It's coming. It's just a matter of time now.

— Go forth and create!

Update: Particle has been renamed to Postleaf and is now available at postleaf.org.