Four ways I made my (successful) Kickstarter harder than necessary

10.25, Monday 26 Feb 2024

As it stands, the Kickstarter campaign for Poem/1 is 109% funded so it’s definitely going ahead. Woo hoo! There are only two days to go. Check out the campaign! Back it now!

But in many ways, I didn’t make the campaign easy for myself.

The campaign video is kinda dumb

There are tropes: high production value ads rattling off features. Or high design, long pans and ukuleles. Maybe Apple keynote-style black polo necks.

Instead my video was… me at home talking at my webcam.

Halfway through it goes wrong. The tech prototype composes a poem that ends on the word teason. Which doesn’t exist.

But I can’t pretend to be what I’m not, right?

And I want to set expectations correctly. If I make out like I’m a big corporation, then I have to maintain that voice in all the comms and replies to Kickstarter backers. Hard work.

My first version of the video did attempt to talk about features, design decisions, and so on. It was boring.

So, when I re-shot, I committed to the bit, recorded 16 minutes of footage then edited it way, way down. The “teason” moment is totally legit, by the way. I didn’t plan for that to happen, although I knew I wanted to mention AI hallucinations.

I actually really enjoyed doing the edit.

I’ve never edited video before. I found my voice by cutting as soon as a point is made, even in a middle of a word, then I collaged those pieces into a story that has decent pacing and structure.

But yeah it’s a dumb video. The sound is terrible. It’s fun though, I hope people enjoyed it.

No ads

Here’s one way to do a Kickstarter hardware project:

  • Raise a bunch of money
  • Set a low campaign goal
  • Buy ads and have a knock-out million dollar campaign

I didn’t do that. My Kickstarter doesn’t have external funding so the campaign isn’t just about awareness. The target is the target and I can’t set it low because I need the margin for the production budget.

Here’s another way:

  • Set a sensible campaign goal
  • Kinda mostly get to the goal with organic backers
  • Buy ads for the rest

Well I didn’t want to do that either.

I didn’t want to get close to the goal and then be thinking, _”oh if I buy just a few more ads then I’ll hit the target.”’ It’s a slippery slope.

Because my goal for Poem/1 is not just to hit the Kickstarter campaign target. It is to hit the target with enough margin to:

  • pay for the development costs
  • have enough units left over that I can experiment with sales.

I would love to do another batch of clocks after this first one. That means retail and e-commerce. But retailers won’t place larger orders until they’ve seen an item perform for themselves, and I can’t have any confidence in online sales until I’ve run a bunch through the funnel. So I need extra units to play with.

i.e. if I want even the chance of batch #2, then I have a budget to stick to. I have become very, very protective of the budget.

Now, had the campaign hit its goal after, say, 7 days, instead of with 5 days to go, would I have used ads at that point? Yes. I have the margin to allow for that, beyond the campaign goal. I’m not ideologically against ads.

But it didn’t, and having my planned-out budget made the decision easy.

Community over media

My one piece of planned media was in Fast Company: This whimsical clock is the playful gadget AI needs right now.

It marked the start of the campaign. I wouldn’t have hit go without it. And I will be forever grateful that the FastCo Design folks saw something in my pitch and decided to run with it.

But in terms of driving awareness, I relied on community and a gameplan.

The community has been amazing.

Some folks at Kickstarter shared some numbers with me, and they’re super reliable. You’ll get 20% conversion from a newsletter of organic signups (so I pushed the AI Clock substack in the run-up, 1.6K subscribers); you’ll get 5% conversion from your own socials (probably 20K cumulative), and so on. But also: you need to have clear sight of how you’re going to get to 80% of your target. I didn’t have that.

Instead what I did was divide the game up into three parts:

  • First 48 hours – build energy of fans in the run-up, launch with a single news article, then smash it. Result: 58% funded in two days
  • Middle overs (this is a cricket term, sorry…) – slow and steady. Be adaptive but continuous.
  • End game – line up additional attention for a sprint finish.

It took 3 weeks to climb from 58% funded to 95% funded. It was vital to get within reach of the finish line.

I built a number of narrative hooks into the campaign to use over that time. I didn’t know what would grab people’s attention:

  • The cable is “A.I. green.” I thought that might start a conversation, not so much.
  • The clock sometimes fibs about the time to make a poem work. I’ve actually fixed this with a neat generation/validation architecture, but I played it up a little. Then it got out of hand, the news articles focused on it too much, and I got eviscerated on one of the big social networks and long story short I can never go back. I wrote a technical explanation of the fix; it didn’t get much traction.
  • The style of the campaign video. This could have started some discourse I think, had I pushed it a little harder. A bit meta though.
  • The time in the hero image poem, 9.41 AM. It has a certain mythic resonance in some quarters. Only one person noticed that to my knowledge.

Then I had other moments planned, and I used these whenever the conversation slowed down.

  • Time lapses
  • Best poems
  • The live simulator at
  • Talking about the API and the fact you can change the backend server URL
  • Announcing stretch goals.

The value of the community is shown with the stretch goals.

I held back the announcement of what the button on top of Poem/1 does. It was always intended to be for a “Send yourself notes” feature – actually that feature doesn’t get unlocked till the campaign reaches 111% funded, and it’s close whether we’ll get there or not!

But then a couple of people suggested that the button should be used to fave poems.

So I was able to add that! (It unlocked at 101%.)

The evening we got over the line was wild.

I knew that I was due to appear in the main Kickstarter newsletter, so I was paddling, waiting for the wave, wanting to be in a position to push hard as soon as it was send out.

At 6pm the newsletter landed in my inbox and I went hard on all socials. Other people joined in, and it became a true community effort to carry the Poem/1 campaign to 100% and past it. I’ve never felt such energy and support, it was so, so wonderful.

There were also, other serendipitous moments: I launched an unrelated app, and it was definitely a consideration in doing so that extra attention could only help. I thought it might tickle a few people. I didn’t expect that Galactic Compass would go viral.

That app is now at 17k installs. I shipped a quick v1.1 that added an ad for the Kickstarter on the About screen.

No shipping outside the US and UK

Mostly you want as wide a pool of backers as possible, which means shipping more or less globally.

And really, I should have done that. Driven by setup costs and minimum order quantities, my campaign goal is $100k which is… punchy. Especially given no ads. Statistically it’s on the edge between “usually funded” and “usually not funded”.

But most hardware projects have a team which means that they have capacity to think about logistics. I don’t.

A principle of mine, all the way through this, has been to keep complexity as low as possible. I will only promise something if I have clear line of sight to how I’ll achieve it.

I am aware that there are a ton of people in the EU, Canada and Australia who would love to back Poem/1. But there’s the paperwork, the import tariffs… all those unknowns. The more I dug in, the more I found there was more to learn.

So I’m going to keep some clocks back from the initial batch and figure out how to sell globally at that point, not when I have the pressure of delivering a campaign hanging over me.

High passion, low attachment

All of these made the Kickstarter campaign harder.

But I didn’t want - I couldn’t want - a campaign that succeeded in any other way. That meant that I went into the campaign with a high chance of not making the goal.

So the most challenging aspect has been attachment.

I discussed this in an interview with Workspaces newsletter over the weekend.

But really the most challenging aspect is attachment. My studio is Acts Not Facts and though I hope to grow it, it’s just begun. And bringing connected hardware into the world as a one person studio is very unlikely. It’s a long process, you can’t push it. You chip forward, chip forward, chip forward. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. In any long project, you develop emotional attachment. You want it. Yet at any given moment, it probably won’t happen.

How do you maintain looseness in the face of that want and fear? How do you keep soft hands and an open ear to possibilities and suggestions? It’s hard!

So it sounds counterintuitive but I worked hard to cultivate high passion, low attachment and sense of humour during the development of Poem/1. I think that comes across in the Kickstarter campaign!

(You can also find a picture of my desk setup at that link.)

Knowing how unlikely this whole process is, I’ve worked hard to make the project “worth it” at every stage. If it doesn’t get past prototype, it’s worth it. It stalls out just past industrial design? Still worth it. If the Kickstarter campaign didn’t make it? Well as long as I did the best by myself and everyone else who has invested their energy in: worth it.

From that comes lightness.

Something else I did right

Work with great people.

I’m very lucky to be working with London-based industrial design shop Approach Studio and also long-time friend, collaborator, and creative hardware engineer Tom Armitage.

Then there’s everyone who has been generous with their advice, old friends and new. Working on the AI clock, more or less in the open, has meant that I’ve found my way to great folks.

Of course the London hardware scene has an astounding depth of experience. There is a WhatsApp group called literally London Hardware Mafia and it’s true.

In true clickbait style this blog post is

  • look at all the things I did wrong
  • well they were right actually haha bragging.

But I don’t think the way I’ve run this Kickstarter campaign would be right for all Kickstarter campaigns.

It has worked for me and my particular constraints. It’s set up the production stage wonderfully – there’s now enough in the budget for me to make a China visit. But that’ll be its own marathon.

What I find heartening is that the Poem/1 Kickstarter campaign has got what friends have called 2012 vibes. I leant into an old-school vibe, out of necessity really. It paid off.

It’s so awesome that Kickstarter still works for that.

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