Lessons Learned from an Unsuccessful Kickstarter

About a year ago, I launched my first Kickstarter called Habitat, a smart home automation platform that takes everyday items in your home and connects them to the Internet and your mobile devices.

Habitat prototypes.A couple of Habitat prototypes.

We only raised 24.6% of Habitat’s funding goal (which was $80,000 CAD), so it was not successfully funded.

Here are some lessons I learned from the experience.

Ideally, You Should Already Have a Minimum Viable Product

I love this infographic on how to build a minimum viable product (MVP):

Fast Monkeys MVP infographicSource: Fast Monkeys

What it boils down to is that your MVP needs to be something that provides value, no matter how different it is from your final product vision.

When Habitat launched on Kickstarter, it was not yet a viable product at any level.

We might be stretching the truth to say that it was even a prototype.

Did we have the product development and design planned out? Yes. Could we have taken it to market by our deadline? Absolutely.

Did it look like we didn’t have a product yet? Definitely.

We had a lot of comments along the lines of Do you have any footage of the actual product working? No. We didn’t. We had bits and pieces of it working, but we hadn’t yet invested the time to bring them together as a product, minimum-viable or not.

Building an end-to-end product reveals so much you hadn’t thought of. It reveals user interaction problems you haven’t solved and features you hadn’t considered.

How minimal your product is when you launch can vary, but it has to be a product before you launch.

Somebody Has to Own It

It doesn’t matter who it is, but somebody has to own the project. I launched Habitat with a team of incredibly talented people. But they all had full-time jobs and were working on Habitat in their spare time.

Although it was a great team, the lack of ownership meant a lot of things slipped through the cracks. Although all of us liked the idea and wanted Habitat to be successful, none of us felt the ownership required to make it successful.

This lack of genuine ownership revealed itself to people looking at the Kickstarter campaign as a lack of product vision, a lack of refinement, and a lack of discipline when it came to attention to detail.

For example, when we launched, we had a number of different pledge levels, but we failed to notice that some of the levels didn’t make sense. Also, some desired combinations of features couldn’t actually be purchased because we had failed to notice that a user could only pledge once.

I don’t think there is any problem with launching a Kickstarter with a part-time team, but it is hugely beneficial to have at least one team member who’s on it full-time. This person can lead the project and the team. Just one person who truly lives and breathes the product being developed can make a world of difference.

Have a Proper Strategic Plan

When we launched on Kickstarter, funding from the platform was our plan A, plan B, and plan C. There was no fallback. There was no long-term plan that Kickstarter was a part of. Kickstarter was the whole plan.

We assumed that we would be able to adjust based on whatever happened on Kickstarter, and just go from there. The problem is that the lack of a long-term vision and plan was evident to the potential backers looking at our Kickstarter campaign.

The content on Habitat’s Kickstarter page was lacking, the product video was missing something, and so on. The people looking at our Kickstarter page wouldn’t have been able to put a finger on it, but I think they would have felt there was an overall lack of planning, which made them hesitant to get behind us.

Even if Kickstarter is your plan A, the effort spent thinking through alternatives help you refine your vision and strategy in subtle but significant ways that will seep into your marketing copy, your video content, and your visuals.

Don’t underestimate the value of strategic planning.

Be Honest with Yourself and with the Kickstarter Audience

If you’re thinking about launching on Kickstarter, ask yourself this question:

How much will it matter to me if my Kickstarter fails?

If the answer is “not much”, you’re unlikely to be successful. Without a deep desire to see your product succeed, you won’t have the motivation to hone every last detail.

A Kickstarter failure should be devastating. But I wasn’t devastated when Habitat failed to reach its funding goal.

It’s also important that you’re honest with the Kickstarter audience. For the most part, we were. But there were sins of omission in some cases. We were “dishonest” simply by not telling the whole story.

For example, when we launched Habitat we had probably written 5% of the software required for the product we envisioned. A lot of the major software challenges had been solved, and there was no question we could do it. But we still weren’t completely upfront about the amount of work still to be done.

I genuinely believe that potential backers aren’t expecting a polished product before they are willing to pledge, but they are looking for a team they can trust. Be honest with them. Transparency is key.

Proof-read Everything

Because nobody felt ownership of the project, nobody took the time to go over (and over, and over, and over) the content on our Kickstarter page. Immediately after launching, we realized we had typos, grammar issues, inconsistencies, and holes in the product descriptions.

The importance of proof-reading.Can you spot an error?

It may sound silly, but we really didn’t realize how important content is.

You’re definitely going to have some friends and family that back your product, no matter how bad it is, but the vast majority of your pledges are likely going to come from people browsing Kickstarter or coming in from Web publications covering your launch.

The coverage you get and the pledges you receive are going to be heavily dependent on the quality of your content. Typos and bad grammar reveal the fact that nobody on your team is paying enough attention to detail.

Take Your Time

There are lots of articles out there on how to time your Kickstarter campaign, how to get good coverage, and other advice on launching your Kickstarter project. The only thing I’ll add to the body of Kickstarter tips that already exist is to take your time.

We decided to launch in December and run through to January. This decision was made for no other reason than because we didn’t want to wait any longer. In hindsight, we should’ve waited until after the holidays. And we should’ve invested time up front setting up media coverage.

The desire to launch quickly ultimately led to a less polished, less visible, and less covered campaign launch. So, now, I sometimes wonder if just a bit more patience would have landed us our $80K goal…

Your Turn

If you’re thinking about launching a Kickstarter, tell us about it in the comments. If you disagree with things I’ve said in this article or if you have tips for launching a successful Kickstarter campaign, why not share?

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Ryan Brink is a software developer at LiveQoS, a mobile/Web developer, an entrepreneur, and a musician based in Canada. His latest project is GA.TODAY, a Google Analytics widget for iOS and OS X. Visit his site and connect with him on Twitter, GitHub, and Dribbble.