Diary of a Kickstarter: Postmortem, Part II. In which I open the kimono. Again.

(as a reminder in case this is your first exposure to The Hawaii Project: The Hawaii Project brings you books and book news you’d never have found on your own, by tracking hand-selected sources of great books, uncovering things that match your favorite authors, personal interests and current events, and bringing them to you daily. 10% of our revenue goes to 3 great literacy non-profits. Check us out:http://www.thehawaiiproject.com. You can see our Kickstarter page here. This is Part II of the Post Mortem. Part I is here. As before, the TL/DR version is in bold.This is a LONG post with lots of juicy details. You may want to fortify yourself with a cup of coffee or a glass of Scotch. You’ve been warned.)

There’s a million Kickstarter success stories out there. I call it success porn. I wanted to write a post about one that didn’t make it. Failure is often more instructive than success. This post is mostly about how I went about promoting the Kickstarter after the material was developed. We’re going to cover Stakeholder Mapping, a model for Kickstarter goal setting, how to get press, when to launch your kickstarter, how to manage spamming (uh, I mean emailing your supporters), Social Media, Tools and some tactics and final learnings.


In part I, I made the point that Kickstarter isn’t likely to generate a lot of audience or potential donors for you, you get the audience you create (about 10% of my pledges were generated by Kickstarter, vs. by me). So you need to figure out who all the people are who’ll care about your project, and why they’ll care about it. This will form the basis of how you approach them and why they’ll end up contributing. Some folks call that Stakeholder Mapping. The Stakeholder map for the books space is pretty multi-faceted, books are a big industry. Here’s my set of stakeholders, and a rough pitch I would give them.

  • Family & Friends (“Help Mark with his new project – it’s a good cause”)
  • Readers (“find great books (and articles about them) to read”)
  • Authors & Publicists (“use The Hawaii Project to help promote your author’s books, and keep up with what’s going on”)
  • Libraries & Librarians (“Help your patrons find great books”) – and, they just love all things Bookish
  • Physical Bookstores (“Create a location-based presence inside The Hawaii Project to connect with book buyers in your city”)
  • Publishing Houses (“Promote your books; keep up with what’s going on; who’s writing about what”)
  • Startup community (“New startup from Boston / Hawaii entrepreneur Mark, the co-founder of goby”)
  • Non-profits (mostly my literacy non-profit partners, but others as well) – “help promote THP and get more money”
  • Book Bloggers (“get your blog included in The Hawaii Project”; “your readers may be interested”; and the most avid of readers)
  • Book Clubs (“The Hawaii Project can help you find a great next book for your club”).

As you can see, it’s lots of folks and lots of potential angles & pitches. You should build a Stakeholder Map for your company. Think of every person, company or organization who might have an interest in what you’re doing. For almost all of these stakeholders I devised some method of approach to get them interested in the Kickstarter. You can also see it’s a lot of work to try to get in contact with that many people. If you’re a small team or a solo team, I’d suggesting building a stakeholder map but only focusing on the top 3 or so. I was also fortunate to connect up with a program at Emerson College, where a small team of marketing students work with a company on a media campaign as interns, so I had a great team of 6 students helping craft pitches and send emails (thank you!). But I was still spread too thin. Pick a few and focus. I tried to do too many.

Our key channels to reach people were email, press, social media and some online advertising. I’d like to dig into each channel I used and share a few tidbits, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Going back to the “how much to raise question”, I built a model for how much I’d raise, based on how many people I could drive to the campaign. You can see the spreadsheet here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1mEw-_Rso7xU2mswREQMEDn6tP17ALo3fcb_f4ZqWWqs/edit?usp=sharing. The key assumptions are how many people (in a variety of buckets), and what % of them would “convert” – i.e. hear about us and pledge. Your conversion rate is likely to vary a lot based on where these people come from.

My model said I’d raise ~$35,000 so I set that as my goal. I got pledges of ~$11,500. Way short. Here’s why:

Key takeaways: Pledges were uniformly higher than I modeled (average pledge was $77), and generally far fewer in number. I pretty much matched my model on “Friends & Family” behavior, and my extended network did ok too – the place I really fell down was on pledges from people I didn’t have a relationship with – i.e. pledges generated from press to social media. Authors did convert, but at a lower level than I expected. The personal shopper reward surprised me – even though I got less than my model, it was an invented thing at the last minute and indicates to me there might be a germ of a product or business model there.

Press generated about 10% of my pledges – the rest came from direct outreach. My model for press was that I would generate ~50,000 visits to my Kickstarter @ 1% conversion rate. That’s why the campaign didn’t succeed, ultimately. I think the main reason it worked out that way is most of the press I got was either “startup” oriented (“here’s a cool new startup”), or “location” oriented (“cool new Hawaii / Boston startup”). The readers of those articles aren’t necessarily avid book readers, my key target. In retrospect I should have focused much more intensively on book bloggers and press in the literature community, rather than the startup community. But, that community is where my relationships are, and much of my press came from people that I had a pre-existing relationship with. Because I botched the analytics (note above about including Google Analytics tag in your Kickstarter page), and because there’s no real way to know how many people read an article on a 3rd party website, it’s hard to measure conversion here, but the volume was way low.

Lining up Press.

A full tutorial on how to work with press is beyond the scope of this article. This is good starting advice. This is also good, especially: Robert Scoble’s answer. Key: have/make a relationship before you need coverage, be valuable to them outside your need for coverage, and be a nice human being. Just emailing a cold pitch to somebody who doesn’t know who you are generally doesn’t work very well.

To get press, you need to deliver an “angle” for them to write about. Why are they writing about you? I can’t be just “this is cool” – unless it’s INSANELY cool. Like,a Robot Bartender that makes Cocktails via a mobile phone cool. The Hawaii Project is cool but not that cool! In my case, the main storyline was usually location-based. The Boston community wanted to write about it because I’d previously done some very successful startups, the Hawaii community wanted to write about it because there aren’t that many Hawaii-oriented startups. That led to most of my press. You need to find your own angle, and “look how cool/great this is” isn’t enough. You have to connect to something bigger, whether it’s a hot current trend, an upcoming holiday (like an exercise machine coming just in time for New Year’s resolutions or something).

I started working a few press outlets about a month before I launched, but most of them I approached with the story about 1-2 weeks before launch. I’d recommend at least 2 weeks before your Kickstarter launch. These people are BUSY.

Put together a media kit. Key ingredients: Short Overview, Company Logo, Product Screenshots/Photos, Founder(s) Bio and HiRes Headshot photos, and links to any short product videos, and make sure journalists know where to get it. Make it easy for a writer to make an attractive article with some nice media. Video is awesome for this, if it’s high quality. (Here’s my video btw: https://vimeo.com/122595153)

You need to pick a day (and time) to launch your Kickstarter. Don’t do this randomly. If you’re trying to get press to cover your launch (and you should), you’ll want to have some press lined up before you commit to launch. And you’ll want to launch on a press-friendly day. Monday, everybody’s recovering from their weekend; Friday they’re getting ready for their weekend. Don’t launch on those days. Press folklore is that Tuesday is the right day to get press; I’d don’t have any better advice. In my case, I had some schedule constraints making me launch in early April. Couldn’t do April 1 – no end of trouble launching on April fool’s day. So I did Thursday April 2. Facepalm! Duh! It’s Easter weekend! By Friday noon, the internet is empty. Nobody’s home. Crap. Don’t be like me! Pick a good date when people will be able to pay attention! Also: a few folks recommended to me to launch very early in the morning (like, 5am east coast time) – the first 48 hours is critical, and this way you pick up European web traffic on the first day.

If you are able to get press, stay on that article. Respond to anyone who comments. Those comments will often be negative, there’s a lot of snark out there. Be Civil Stay positive, outline your point of view. You aren’t likely to change the mind of the person commenting, but your response will be out there for everyone else to see, and you’ll be In The Arena (my Rule #29). It’s also respectful to the author of the article – they took time to write, you take time to engage their community. And SEND THEM A THANK YOU NOTE!

A last note on press. Press and it’s step-child “backlinks” are critical for SEO(SEO is the art & science of getting your pages to rank well in Google searches). Google uses those back links to determine the importance of a site or page. In my case, when the Kickstarter began, our home page for The Hawaii Project was on page 10 of a search for “the hawaii project” on google. Seriously. After the Kickstarter was over, and the press had come out, linking to our site, we were on the 1st page of results! The Kickstarter page is the #1 result – I’d rather it was my home page, but it’s still us in some sense. This leads to one major difference I have with the Four Hour Workweek / SOMAWater approach. They suggest building a custom bitly link with + sign in it, so you can get analytics – e.g. bit.ly/somawater. I advocate this instead: build your own link on your own domain (I used http://www.thehawaiiproject.com/kickstarter), put google analytics in the page, and then redirect to the Kickstarter page. This way, all those links that get posted around the web link to YOUR site, not BitLY or Kickstarter – and a year after your Kickstarter, they’ll be sending traffic to YOU, not Kickstarter. You get the SEO value. (details: I created a web page with the Google analytics script tag, followed by a javascript call like 

“window.location = “https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/51424615/the-hawaii-project-find-your-perfect-beach-book”; that way the google analytics tracking fires, then the user gets automatically sent to the Kickstarter page).

Your Mileage May Vary.


I’m old. OK “old” is relative. But I’m over 50 – which means I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I built a master email list as follows: first, you can export every single email address you’ve ever mailed with from gmail. I did that for my personal email account as well as my “goby” account. That added up to about 5000 people; after I removed the random junk and only included people I’d crossed paths with more than once, and combined that with my LinkedIn and Facebook contacts, I had about 2500 people with whom I had some kind of relationship, however tenuous. Yes I did this by hand, 1 by 1. Yes it was a pain in the ***.

That’s why they call it work.

I segmented them into how I knew them, took the email templates from the SOMA water campaign which raised $100k (you can find it here), and customized them for each of my audiences. I did mails on days 1,2 and 9 as they suggested. I also followed their suggestion (and their web templates) for the sharing page. That worked well and I got a lot of shares from that. Make it easy for people to help you.

I also wanted to reach authors, agents and librarians. I found a few websites that listed contact information for literary agents, and scraped them for names/emails. I wrote my own scrapers but if you’re non-technical Import.IO is a good choice for a tool to do it for you. I also found a site listing the email address for every librarian in the state of Massachusetts, so I scraped that too. (In my next life I’m coming back as a spammer). I sent mails to 1300 literary agents (some by hand, mostly by SendGrid, see below), 25% of them opened the mail and 3.75% of them clicked to the Kickstarter. 2 of them converted to pledges, and 10 or so became beta testers. The conversion rate was terrible but I learned a great deal by talking to those who pledged. I sent about 500 mails to librarians, but I botched the tracking (I send plaintext instead of HTML mail) so I don’t know the open rate on the mails, but about 10 librarians turned into beta testers and one looks like they may to license our software for their library. Takeaway: I learned a lot, but open rates and conversion from email that probably seemed like “spam” to the recipient, isn’t the way to get lots of funding, and least for my project.

A note on email tools. Most email providers (e.g. Gmail) will only let you send a few hundred mails a day from a personal account. That’s not enough for this kind of work, and if you’re sending large volumes of mail (aka “spamming your friends”) you may not want to risk your personal email account. In my product I use Mandrill for programmatically generated, personalized emails. It’s a great tool, but the mail mostly ends up in people’s “Promotions” tab in gmail, where I suspect it’s often not even seen, much less opened. I paid $80 / month for SendGrid during the campaign, and SendGrid seems to land the emails right in the primary inbox every time. If you can afford it, I’d use SendGrid. It’s a much less mature tool than MailChimp or Mandrill, especially for developing marketing-oriented (ie. non-transactional) mails, but the deliverability/visibility seems worth it to me. My day 2 mail I sent to all ~2300 people at once and got a 50% open rate; I’ve never seen anything that high with MailChimp or Mandrill, even for recipients with whom I have a good relationship. Your mileage may vary.

Social Media

The Hawaii Project is on Twitter and Facebook. I posted pretty aggressively on Twitter, less so on Facebook. I didn’t see much tangible outcome from that. I’d pick one social media channel as the place where you build your brand and stick to it. Buffer is a great too for making Social Media posting more efficient. If I had 2,000 friends on Facebook the way younger folks seem to, I would have leaned more on that. Center yourself on whatever social media platform you have the most presence on.

A friend suggested I do a daily blog post of what happened each day of the Kickstarter. That turned out to be a really good idea. I did that and posted on bothmy personal blog and LinkedIn. LinkedIn turns out to be a great idea. Over the course of the Kickstarter I picked up ~1000 followers on Linkedin, and gained 6% of my pledges from that source alone.

Online Advertising

I ran ads for the Kickstarter on both Google and Facebook (at small $ levels, to test).TL/DR: it didn’t work for me. you might be able to “arbitrage” your way to Kickstarter success I suppose (i.e. where the cost of the ads is smaller than the pledges received), but I wasn’t able to. On both Google and Facebook I used targeting to select only either bookish sites or people with bookish interests. Stats:


Cost: $50
Clicks: 161
CPC: $0.31
Reach: 14,432 views/impressions
Effective CPM: ~$3.50
Conversion rate: 0.

I got “likes” on Facebook, but no pledges.

Google had a lower CPC and more reach, but also didn’t convert. It’s possible that my spend was too small and that if I’d kept going I would have started to see conversions, but I wasn’t encouraged by my initial results and didn’t try any more. Another potential approach might have been to go to a Sponsored Content provider like Taboola or Outbrain; I didn’t try it.

Tools & Costs

Here are the key tools you shouldn’t run a campaign without:

SendGrid  for sending high volume email campaigns (Mailchimp or Mandrill are fine, I just found SendGrid has solved the gmail “tabs” problem, for significantly higher open rates)
Buffer for automating social media posting & analytics
Text Expander – typing automation. You’re going to find yourself doing a lot of repetitive typing during a Kickstarter, sending mails, responding, typing out links and stuff. Text Expander is a life (and wrist!) saver.
KickTraq – Kickstarter 3rd party tracking tool – multiple folks recommended I embed the link to this in my campaign on Day 1, claiming it lends higher credibility (not sure about this) and good analytics (true). YMMV. My Kicktraq page is here.
VistaPrint – for printing physical marketing material – I used it to print branded Bookmarks and distribute them at local bookstores and libraries. Can’t track any pledges to it, but can track beta testers to it.
Google Analytics – or other web tracking tools like MixPanel, etc. Make sure all your web pages are instrumented and tagged so you can track performance and see what’s working. Make sure you put a Google Analytics tag in your Kickstarter page configuration.
Prefinery – if you’re going to be providing beta access and need to manage your beta tester list, Prefinery is awesome.  You may want to try a marketing landing page generator/optimizer like Optimizely or LaunchRocket or ….. etc. I didn’t.
Import.IO – you may find you want to collect a large volume of semi-structured information from other people’s web pages, for example to collect email addresses. Import.IO is a great tool for that if you don’t want to write your own scrapers.

Costs: I spent about $1000 on the Kickstarter – for video production, stock photos, costs for various tools like SendGrid, and for custom bookmarks I gave out at bookstores. Obviously if the campaign had been successful I would have had more cost involving in delivering the rewards.

What I learned about my product

Running a Kickstarter is a great way to get feedback, even if you don’t get the $.

I heard from a lot of people that they have trouble finding great books to read and are hungry for a solution. And that Amazon, GoodReads et.al. weren’t the solution. That was encouraging. I also heard from people that Amazon and Goodreads were just fine for that, so continued sharpening of the pitch is called for. And getting it out there so they can just try it. I am thinking of playing up the “news / content” aspect of The Hawaii Project – i.e. it’s not just book recommendations, it’s also a sort of “bookish magazine” that gets you fun books-related content –  as further differentiation.

“The Hawaii Project” as a name is a double-edged sword. It got me a lot of attention and fun stuff, but it also caused a periodic “Why is it called The Hawaii Project” question. In the end it gave me something to talk about, and adds some color to the project, so I don’t regret it. I may consider rebranding at some point in the future. (dangit – right after I built up that SEO value in the domain name). But not sure yet. I’m emotionally attached to the name.

I had trouble gaining pledges from outside my personal circle. That could either be because a) there isn’t demand in the market for this, or b) I didn’t get to the right people in the campaign. Option a) deserves due consideration and evaluation, but I lean towards b) as the explanation. In retrospect I wish I’d spent far more time getting book bloggers to write about the service, because their audience is my audience – people who want to read about interesting books. And I wish I’d found a way to energize authors more to evangelize the platform to their readers. I plan to spend much more time on book bloggers between now and my public launch. The authors I spoke with were enthusiastic, but the question is whether I have enough users to actually help them. Authors, I think, will come along once I have more of an audience.

Finally, and I’ve said this in previous posts, the project will go on even though the Kickstarter wasn’t successful. I hope you’ll join me along the way.

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