In August 2012, I raised $37,406 via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to fund a documentary that my husband had been working on about people who travel the world and work remotely.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Christine Gilbert, who runs the travel blog Almost Fearless.
The film is coming out this spring, after many delays.
But as I am putting together the spring film tour, I have some thoughts about Kickstarter, how other travel writers and bloggers can use the platform, and some of the hype and pitfalls around the concept of crowdfunding.
Why did we succeed when others failed?
I’ve been through two rounds of funding for this film. The first round was on my website in 2010. I raised a little over $10,000 to buy the video and audio equipment for the film.
At that time, I had several advantages: crowdfunding was relatively new, it was a project that was very close to the subject of my blog, I had already written three eBooks (one of them was specifically about how to work online and travel and had appeared just before the crowdfunding effort) and I had a large mailing list.
Kickstarter started in 2009, but when I raised our first series of funds, it was entirely through my website. We didn’t have a video and it took me two months to raise all the funds.
Back then, my blog had around 100,000 unique visitors a month and 10,000 subscribers.
Do I think I could repeat that success again today with that same-sized platform? I am skeptical.
There have been so many campaigns since then. There are so many more travel blogs now.
We succeeded in raising money years ago because it was our first attempt and people had been reading me for two years and just wanted to support the site.
In fact, the way I went about raising funds in that first round was very naïve. I just asked for the money. Then I hoped it would come.
Because of my timing, the topic of the film and just good luck, I made my goal.
Second time around, three times as much
Two years later, we raised the additional $37,406 via Kickstarter and it was completely different.
Just a year earlier, two popular travel bloggers tried to raise merely $6,000 via Indiegogo for their film. They only raised $1,200.
Their film is very similar to ours and they write in the same niche. While I had slapped up a campaign on my website a year before and raised $10,000, it was clear how quickly the tide had turned in just 12 months.
In the summer of 2012, we completed the filming for the documentary but still needed to finish editing it. Software costs, licensing music, and mixing audio were starting to add up.
We also wanted to tour the film but the costs of creating a master film were quite high. Then, there was entering film festivals, renting locations and so on.
We had the material for the film but to properly finish it was outside what we could bankroll on our own. When I started looking in Kickstarter, I followed popular projects, I read the notes from successful campaigns and I tried to deconstruct what made a project successful.
Your video and project page will make you
I worked on our Kickstarter page for a month and got feedback from other people. I asked everyone I could think of that had any kind of expertise.
I reached out to people who had successfully funded campaigns, to video and film professionals, to other bloggers in my niche. I ruthlessly edited and massaged the page until everyone was happy with it.
The key thing I was told over and over again by the people that ran successful campaigns was that you needed a story. People aren’t just funding your project, they are funding an idea. It’s like one of those Simon Cowell talent-finding shows.
The emotional drive on Kickstarter isn't purely about creating art, it’s also about getting the chance to help someone who has a great idea, has put a lot of work into it, and just needs a leg up -- to nudge them into greatness.
People fund Kickstarter projects not solely because they want your film, or book, or installation art piece, but because they want that thrill of discovering something unknown and having a part in making it happen.
Ultimately, I took our original video and recut the entire thing, one week before launch. The story we told was about this new trend, working from home, and not only how it had grown, but also how the trend had made a new type of travel possible.
Our page talked about what we had done already and how we needed the funds to bring it to a larger audience. The shift from my original crowdfunding messaging was simple: instead of “fund me” I was asking people to “fund the idea”.
It’s extremely hard work
Even though my blog audience had doubled in the intervening two years, my husband and I worked non-stop for 30 days to get our Kickstarter funded.
In a time when anyone can just send out an email to 5,000 of their Gmail contacts, mass email simply won’t work.
Yes, we did send out a few large emails, simply because we couldn’t contact everyone individually. But we spent the better part of each day doing two things: pitching our project to media outlets and personally contacting everyone we knew.
During our fundraising month, we also individually contacted each and every contributor (more than 600 people) and simply thanked him or her personally (which then led to many backers increasing their pledges even though we didn’t ask).
Where the funding came from
Your personal network will be more important than you realize.
-- 20% of our funding came from the Kickstarter community and that is largely because I made it a priority to keep the traffic to my Kickstarter project page high enough that I was listed in the top three results for the documentary category every day.
-- About 40% of our funding came from my blog audience
-- Another 40% came from our personal network. My husband and I both emailed everyone in our LinkedIn contacts... thousands of people including coworkers from my days at GE, the University of Texas, and Seattle Medical Center... and my husband's days working in animation for Vivendi Universal and a subsidiary of Gannett.
If I had just relied on my blog audience I would have raised $15,000.
What really made our campaign was our personal network, and as I look at other campaigns I can see this trend playing out as well.
It was especially helpful that my husband had worked professionally as an animator: he knew lots of creative types in LA, often those who were making good money or were just interested in seeing someone they knew make a film.
Our average contribution was more than $50.
I see a lot of bloggers attempt projects that ultimately fail to make their funding goal because I think they underestimate how other people got there. It’s easy to look at someone’s project and assume that money came flooding in from their readers, but the reality is that there are a lot of factors at play.
For example, we got a write-up in Mashable, but that resulted in only .4% of our total funding.
Meanwhile, a single blog post from a small but highly engaged community resulted in ten times more funds.
If you are going to attempt a Kickstarter campaign, you can’t be shy about reaching out. It’s not enough to just blog about it.
It’s a huge mistake to simply create a page in isolation, launch it and sit back.
Here’s an example: just a few months after our campaign, another travel blogger tried to raise a similar amount.
He was traveling while the campaign ran and it was only in the last few days that he reached out to me and asked me to help him promote it. He raised $15,000 but because of the Kickstarter all-or-nothing model, he didn’t get any of it. His writing was well-respected and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have been successful.
But, from what I could see, instead of taking the time to build a list of contacts up front: bloggers, editors, readers, friends, coworkers – and getting in touch with those people early and often during the campaign, he relied on his personal brand to carry him. It didn’t work.
(As a side note: I think he could have retooled his page, re-launched a few months later and raised at least $20,000 if he had wanted to do that. I see many projects fail and re-launch with a goal just above their last funding amount and succeed on the second try.)
Things we would have done differently, given hindsight
One of the biggest mistakes we made was in the way we structured our Kickstarter and rewards. Instead of focusing on a deliverable we could definitely control, we set it up around the film festival tour.
After we received the Kickstarter funds, we finished editing the film, purchased music, did color correction and sound editing. Then we started to send the film out to festivals.
The festival year starts roughly in January and February with Sundance (we didn't get into Sundance).
Then you apply to festivals across the calendar year. There were two things that held us up: first was that we had to wait to apply to many festivals as the application process was only open in the months leading up to the date and we didn't get into ANY of the major festivals.
We spent an entire year applying to big name festivals. This tied up everything.
Our DVD and digital download rewards couldn't be sent out because festivals won't screen a film that has been publicly released (and many festivals specifically mention Kickstarter rewards at this point).
It put us back an entire year. Naïvely we had never said, "What if we don't get in?"
We were ultimately invited to a few smaller festivals but we decided to switch gears. We had seven cities listed in our festival tour on Kickstarter and we needed to hit all of those.
Some cities like Seattle and Boston didn't have additional festivals we could apply to, the only way to screen the film there would be to organize a screening at a public venue.
So that's what we did. We are screening the film across the US starting in Seattle on Feb 5th, doing a new city every two weeks until we do the final screening in New York City on April 30th.
While this works, if I had to do it all over again, I would have structured it completely differently.
Can you raise money on Kickstarter?
I sometimes hear that it’s now impossible, or more difficult to get funded. I think it’s always been the case that about 60% of all projects fail to meet their goal.
But if you have a good video, an interesting hook, a large personal network, the ability to work your ass off, it’s definitely possible.
Here's some recent examples of crowdfunded travel documentaries:
August 2014, $11K; May 2014, $15K; March 2014, $33K; and March 2013, $25K.
When can you see our film?
From February to April of 2015 we will be touring the US and showing the film. After that it will be available via DVD or digital download. You buy tickets or sign up for updates.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Christine Gilbert, who runs the blog Almost Fearless, chronicling her globetrotting with her husband Drew.