Originally published in Philadelphia Magazine.
A few months ago, Yasmine Mustafa and Anthony Gold launched one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns that the Philadelphia tech community has ever seen. It generated 3,800 pre-orders in 47 countries, as well as 159 news articles and 18 radio and TV interviews over four weeks. It easily smashed through its goal of $40,000 and raised a whopping $267,000. In this article, they share advice for other startups aiming to crowdfund.
Would people actually purchase our product? That was the $64,000 question that kept haunting our dreams for months. We were developing an awesome product — or so we thought — and everyone we spoke with said the same thing: “It’s a great idea, I’d buy one.”
At ROAR for Good, we create fashionable safety jewelry to help reduce assaults against women. And we are a social-mission B-corp that’s donating a percentage of proceeds to non-profits that teach empathy and respect — programs which have been shown to reduce violence in adulthood. But there’s a world of difference between a person saying they would buy it and actually making a purchase. So we launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to confirm or deny our value hypothesis. The night of go-live, we agonized over pressing the “Launch Campaign” button. This was the moment of truth. The next 30 days would reveal the market’s true feelings about ROAR for Good.
But it didn’t take 30 days. We knew in less than 30 hours.
Our expectations were blown away. We had set a target of $40,000 to raise. We hit it in less than two days, and within a month we surpassed a quarter of a million dollars. We had pre-orders from 47 countries, got a ton of press, and received almost 900,000 views on our YouTube video. Check it out:
Were we brilliant crowdfunding experts who knew exactly how to achieve success? Far from it. This was our first campaign ever, and we made many missteps along the way. We also got incredibly lucky in a few areas.
Here are nine factors that allowed us to achieve such remarkable success:
1. Develop a targeted message. For us, this was the easy part. The only easy part. The key is making your message compelling for your audience. If you try to develop a message that will resonate with everyone, chances are it will have little impact. Our message was primarily focused on women in urban areas — and the people who care about them. So we honed our message around that target market. Even though our product is applicable for men, children and seniors, we kept our messaging focused on our initial target market — women. This made it much easier to resolve the multitude of decisions that arose such as which images we should use in our campaign and how we should promote on Facebook.
2. Study successful campaigns — and failures. Tolstoy famously declared that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In the realm of crowdfunding, it’s a bit inverted. Each failure (at least the ones we studied) seemed to have a lot in common, whereas each crowdfunding success story seemed to be unique in its own way. We met with several happy and unhappy crowdfunding “families” and probed deeply into what worked and what didn’t.
3. Establish an engaged community — before you launch. Testing our assumptions, validating our ideas, and obtaining feedback from our target market was important to us from the beginning. As a result, we started building our community from day one. First, we sent a survey to our friends, focused on learning as much as we could about their perception of existing safety tools. We provided those who responded the option to sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on our progress and participate in future sessions. Once we progressed to our design and prototype stages, we lined up meetings at local sororities to collect their feedback. This helped us build our community to about 500 members.
From there, we focused more on evangelizing our existing members to help us build our email list. Spreadsheets from Indiegogo allowed us to estimate the ideal email list size before our launch. We had to grow by 6 times. That’s when we learned about Harry’s, a men’s grooming brand that had run a successful list-building campaign. (Tim Ferriss’ blog post, “How To Gather 100,000 Emails in One Week” has more.) We set up a pre-launch page specifically focused on social sharing by providing prizes for our community. This helped us triple our list.
Outside of building our social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we also leveraged events continuously before, during, and after the campaign, collecting email signups at every juncture.
4. Ask for help from the platform experts. We engaged with the team at Indiegogo, and they were incredibly helpful in providing advice every step of the way. They helped us hone our strategy, provided feedback on our page flow, message copy, video formatting, perk selection and email strategy. Some of the most valuable tips were to set an achievable, realistic campaign goal (we chose $40,000 to allow us to build momentum sooner) and to turn our email list into contributions with a sequenced campaign before our launch. For the latter, we sent exclusive updates and included teasers of an early bird campaign to build the demand and get our community to act fast once we launched.
5. Don’t launch until you have 30 percent committed. Why? Because crowdfunding campaigns work best if you can show momentum. When people see traction, they’re more likely to want to contribute. And studies indicate that campaigns achieving 30 percent of their target within the first couple days have a high probability of reaching or exceeding their overall goal.
So we personally called or emailed individual people in our networks who had previously expressed an interest in contributing. Then, once we went live, we sent them a reminder and most of them contributed within the first two days — helping us get off to a fast start.
An important factor for us was to identify many people who wanted to purchase our ROAR device versus just a few people willing to purchase many devices. Why? Because the primary goal of our campaign was to validate our market hypothesis that there was a large and broad interest in our offering. If we lined up a few people willing to contribute a lot of money, we would have done ourselves – and our campaign — a great disservice.
6. Produce a decent video. It doesn’t have to be great, but it needs to be good. The first thing most people do when they visit a crowdfunding campaign is watch the video. So, your video needs to be good: short and compelling. By the time the video is over, the viewer should be left with this one thought: “I like this product and I believe in the team behind it. Let me read on.”
So, why do we say a good but not great video? Because this is one of those cases where great is the enemy of good. And another area where we got lucky. We thought we needed a “Hollywood-like” polished video to showcase our message. We interviewed countless video production houses weighing the pros and cons of each. But then at the last minute, we asked ourselves these fundamental questions: Do we want people to buy our product because our video blew them away? Or, would we be better off simply sharing our compelling message and why we are building this company and our product?
Since we wanted to use the crowdfunding campaign to validate that there was a market interested in purchasing our solution, we decided to go forego the Hollywood script approach and make a simple, genuine video about what we’re doing and why we’re so passionate about it. We also ensured our empowerment message was reinforced by inviting key women influencers to partake in it such as Melissa Alam of Hive Philly, Kiera Smalls of City Fit Girls, and Laurie Satran of The Art of Breaking Bread.
This is what we ended up producing and we’re honored that over 1.5 million people have watched it.
7. Establish clear roles for team members during the campaign. We were told by several people that running a crowdfunding campaign is like a full-time job. At first we didn’t believe it — what could possibly take up so much time after the campaign launched? We were completely wrong.
There were so many questions and comments that came in — not just on the campaign page — but also across social media and email, and we needed responses pretty much 24/7.
We created templates to make responding much faster and consistent. Even though we had an FAQ, many people didn’t read that and kept asking the same questions. And we wanted to continually enhance our page copy and graphics — again based on user feedback. We also had ongoing requests from press for interviews — many of which required a fair bit of back-and-forth scheduling. Having clear roles enabled us to function as smoothly as possible within an incredibly dynamic, frenetic environment.
8. Throw a launch party mid-campaign. During our conversations with others who had run successful and unsuccessful campaigns, we learned that everyone hits a slump midway through. The newness of the project dwindles and less contributions come through. We decided to use this time to throw a launch party to show our appreciation for our local community. It allowed us to thank early backers, keep them excited about what we were doing, and motivate them to keep sharing our campaign and press news.
We had it after dinner to keep it low-cost. We took advantage of peoples’ love of photo booths by inviting our guests to use our #HelpUsROAR hashtag and share who they roared for. Finally, we also offered everyone a special offer if they wanted to pre-order additional devices.
9. Heed the power of the press. No matter how good your product is, nothing drives pre-orders more than press. We were very fortunate that the local Philadelphia press had an interest in our story. Nearly every paper, TV and radio station in Philly talked about ROAR. This is both a testament to our mission of reducing assaults and empowering women — and the passion of Philadelphia media to support its startup community.
We had a few people on our team reaching out to local and national media, and we took every interview that was brought our way. Much of our tactics were derived from another Tim Ferriss article called Hacking Kickstarter which has fantastic tips and templates you can utilize to help. It took so much of our time, but it never gets old talking about something you’re passionate about – especially when that can truly make a difference in the world.
But this is another area where we got lucky. A few people with very large followings started writing about ROAR without any request on our part, including Ashton Kutcher, United Nations Women, UNICEF, famous politicians, best-selling authors, and even one of the stars from The Jersey Shore (Sammi Giancola). And national media began promoting our story such as Mashable (this alone spiraled many others), The Huffington Post, MTV News, Fortune, TechRepublic, Bustle, The New York Times, Fast Company, Inc, Jezebel, Little Things, Brit + Co, and so many others. By starting with a very compelling message and making it easy for our story to be shared, we positioned ourselves for scalability if the opportunity arose. Thankfully it did.
Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is indeed a ton of work and really is like a full-time job. We were very fortunate to have good guidance from others (both those who succeeded, and perhaps even more powerfully, from those that failed) — and we were very lucky to have captured the attention of so many people in the national press. While we are thrilled by the response we’ve received, we are very humbled by the responsibility ahead of us. Our crowdfunding campaign has given us the opportunity to touch many lives, and each one of us at ROAR wakes up every day thinking about how we can make more of a difference. Hopefully these tips will help you as you consider a crowdfunding campaign to launch your business.
Yasmine Mustafa and Anthony Gold are the co-founders of ROAR for Good.