But the campaign succeeded in spite of myself. I made a lot of mistakes. There are many things I would do differently if I were to launch it again, and will do differently for the next campaign. As I reflected on the mistakes and lessons learned, however, there was commonality with general best practices for implementing a project, and in particular, software projects.
So here are my mistakes (at least, the ones I know about) with the resulting lessons learned.
1. Rushing the Launch
Many of the mistakes that follow sprouted from impatience. That’s why this is first. If you don’t make this mistake, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.
There is such a thing as analysis paralysis, or fear of launching because you are scared to fail. But that was not my problem. My problem was pure impatience. I had worked on the book for months, on both editing and requisitioning sample illustrations. I had spent almost another month crafting the kickstarter page and putting together the video. By the time the video was done, I just wanted to get it out there.
However, I would have benefited from sitting down and doing more intentional research, and pulling in some advice from people I trust. I could have tested the video to see if it spurred people to action. I could have looked for the ideal time to launch a children’s book Kickstarter, and then actually waited. I could have spent some time and effort collecting a list of media contacts and prepared a message to send them on launch day. I could have set up a social media campaign to capture email addresses and test initial copy. I could have...done so many other things.
Instead of having a methodical plan to follow, I just started throwing things at the wall to see what stuck, desperate to try anything. It caused some unnecessary stress and worry, especially when the momentum started to slow down after the first few days of launch. I knew I hadn’t done everything I could to ensure a better chance at success, and at that point, there was less and less that I could do about it.
Don’t be haphazard with your launch. If you feel sick of working on something and just want to get it out...stop. Think. Sleep on it. Your whims and emotional health are not the most important factors in a launch strategy. Take time to plan the launch and the weeks following the launch. Be intentional about establishing a calendar that makes sense, and do your best stick to it.
2. Underestimating Time and Cost Involved
The consequences of this mistake can be severe. If the funding of your Kickstarter doesn’t cover all of your costs, the remainder comes directly from your own pocket. If you can’t afford the overage, you risk breaking your promises to your backers. Or a potential lawsuit.
It is critical that you count the cost and attempt to measure possible risk. An unfunded, failed campaign is disappointing. Possibly heartbreaking. Worse, though, is a campaign that leaves you burned out, destitute, with the residue of broken promises polluting your wake.
Some things I underestimated or ignored:
- The time required to finish illustration. I originally wanted to ship books to backers by April 2015, but ended up being over 3 months late. This is no fault of the illustrator, but rather myself forgetting about my own nitpicking tendencies, and the vast amount of back and forth communication that it required.
- The time required to manage the campaign, both during and after. Posting updates, reaching out to blogs, the packing and shipping of the products (so many trips to the post office. So, so many.) Since I wasn’t paying myself anything for labor, this didn’t have a direct impact on costs, but it did have a negative impact on timelines.
- The price of international shipping. This is always more expensive than you think it is, and it varies heavily from carrier to carrier, country to country. Total package weight and size matter much more, and a slight increase can mean a big bump in cost. I literally lost money on every single international shipment, even the ones to Canada. If you think you are charging enough for International shipping, you probably aren’t.
- The cost of shipping materials. It turns out that a 9.5x9.5 book needs larger envelopes than a book that is just one inch narrower. Packaging a print so it doesn’t bend during shipment requires some extra materials. And on and on. The small things add up.
- The cost of marketing. I found some niche newsletters to advertise in. Did I plan and budget for these ads? Nope.
I ended up spending a decent amount of my own money to cover the extra costs. Since it was a passion project for me, and additional amount needed was not astronomical, it wasn’t that big of a deal...but it could have been a disaster.
Measure twice, cut once. Estimation is hard, and if you are at the mercy of other companies whose prices can change, be sure you under-promise so you set yourself up to over-deliver. Make sure you are accounting for as much as possible, and then add some more to your estimation to take into account possible risks and other uncertainties.
3. Rewards Didn’t Align With What People Actually Wanted
I thought I knew what potential backers would want. I myself was a connoisseur of children’s books, and so I had a lofty view of my own opinion. And while my desires intersected somewhat with what people wanted, I missed the mark badly on many rewards. This was either because the reward itself was undesirable, the price for the reward was too much, or a combination of the two.
For example, an original sketch from the illustrator was a reward that some people obviously wanted, but at only three takers, the price point probably kept many from claiming it. Instead of setting it at a round number that “felt” right, I should have taken the time to see if the numbers worked for a lower price point.
Likewise, I didn’t really highlight signed books as a potential benefit. This was me being oblivious and living inside my head too much. I personally don’t value signed books that much, even from my favorite authors, and so I didn’t expect others to care about my own sloppy signature. But that was stupid. Nearly every other book project on Kickstarter offers signed copies, and I should have taken the obvious hint.
While I did take time to see what rewards other successful campaigns had offered, I didn’t open myself up to learning everything I could. I had already chiseled some ideas in stone, as if they were footnotes to the Ten Commandments.
Is your project actually offering what people want? Does your marketing message accurately reflect the benefits that your target users are looking for? Remember, most of the time, you are not your target audience. Do not assume you have the authoritative opinion on your product or service. Get some empathy, talk to people who aren’t you, and don’t ignore what other successful projects (in the same domain space) might have in common. Perhaps do some organized user research. Be prepared to change (or kill) your darlings.
4. Not Properly Determining a Minimum Viable Product
I aimed too high. If not for generous friends, family, and coworkers, I would have turned out like Icarus, with melted wings pushing me down toward Poseidon's ambivalent embrace. Or like something much less melodramatic, but equally disastrous.
If I was going to publish a book, I was going to do it right. The best materials, the best hardcover binding, book dimensions usually reserved for a ping pong table. Oh, and a dust jacket, of course. At one point, I’m sure I even entertained the idea of gold foil on the cover with blinking lights, or some such nonsense. Thankfully, the realities of book printing held me in check.
In my mind, this premium, sewn-bound, 9.5x9.5 hardcover book was the minimum product. I assumed that people would be more likely to back the campaign if they were getting something that could be showcased. That might have been true for some. For the most part, however, I projected my own excitement and gilded assumptions, and it hampered the campaign.
What should have been my minimum viable product? Something much cheaper to print, for starters. An 8x8 softcover book would have cut the print cost by at least 35%. This would have allowed me to set my campaign goal much lower, and have a much lower-priced reward tier where a backer would still get a physical copy.
I could have still offered the premium upgrades, but as stretch goals. If the campaign reached a certain amount, the softcover would be upgraded to a hardcover. Another could have added the dust jackets. I suspect I would have had a higher total, with more backers, and would have still been able to deliver a premium hardcover at the end.
But even if not, more people would have had my book in their hands, even if it was a more mundane softcover version. Instead, I outpriced my market a bit, and discouraged impulse backers.
Make sure your Minimum Viable Product is actually your Minimum Viable Product. Are the features you think of as “minimal” actually required for people to extract value from your product or service? Be brutally honest over what are “nice-to-haves.” Otherwise, you might spend time and money chasing the wrong things, limiting both future growth and agility. Extra features and luxuries can be added later, once there is more demand.
Successful projects are hard to bring about. They don’t happen by accident, though you may get more luck than you deserve, like I did. Any one of the above mistakes has the potential to wreck a project, to leave the ruins scattered into the well-populated landfill of failed intentions. I hope some of my experiences can help you avoid some of these mistakes in the future.
Have you made a project management mistake that has resulted in a valuable lesson? Let us know!