Top 10 Kickstarters swim in the same gene pool

pebbleThey say one million dollars isn’t what it used to be. It definitely isn’t enough to get your company on Kickstarter’s Top Ten All-Time Funded Companies List… not even close. Doubling that amount still doesn’t do the trick but it at least gets you in the ballpark, as the magic number to join this elite group is $2,229,345.

Feeling lucky and want to shoot for the top 5? The membership fee is a mere $3,336,372. Lookin’ out for No. 1? We’re talking eight digits here. Unseating the Pebble, an iPhone-friendly smart watch, requires acquiring $10,266,846 in investment.

Perhaps you are not ready to hit the big-time yet but you have an idea in development and, like most start-ups, you are learning as you go. In any field you’ll get farther faster by copying the A students rather than following the mediocre, so let’s take a look at the Kickstarter All-Time Top 10 Funded Projects and see what lessons we can glean from these companies.

1. The Pebble Smart watch $10,266,845 Pebble Technology
2. OUYA Game console $8,596,474 OUYA
3. Project Eternity RPG $3,986,929 Obsidian Entertainment
4. Reapers Miniatures Game models $3,429,235 Reaper Miniatures
5. Double Fine Adventure Adventure game $3,336,371 Double Fine/2 Player
6. Form 1 3D Printer $2,945,885 Formlabs
7. Wasteland 2 RPG $2,933,252 inXile Entertainment
8. Homestuck Adventure game $2,485,506 MS Paint Adventures
9. Oculus Rift VR headset $2,437,429 Oculus
10. Planetary Annihilation RTS $2,229,344 Uber Entertainment

1. It’s a high-tech world

All 10 of these products are hi-tech in nature, or closely related to the hi-tech world. Five are video games, four are technology-related products (smart watch, 3-D printer, game console and headset) and the final one makes game models. While Kickstarter has several categories in the creative arts that visitors can support, with a few notable exceptions they are asking for, and receiving, far smaller amounts from the Kickstarter community than the technology and gaming communities. See the similarities in the above list? Kickstarter supporters have clear areas of interest, which leads us to No. 2:

2. Know your audience and prepare

You’re not visiting your grandmother, sitting on her plastic-covered couch while she puts Perry Como in the Eight Track and makes you tea as you ask for some cash from her cookie jar. These people know your medium and will be able to spot a poseur miles away. Know what’s current and what the population wants, and market directly to them, which is the point of Kickstarter in the first place. Just make sure your knowledge level is up to the task, and whatever you do don’t talk below them. Chris Avellone, Creative Director at Obsidian Entertainment, the producer of No. 3-ranked Project Eternity says, “The great thing about Kickstarter is that we can go directly to the people who love to play RPGs as much as we love to make them. Plus, we don’t have to make compromises with a publisher. We make the development decisions, we market the game, and we don’t have to answer to anyone but …our fans.” Marketing directly to the consumer has several advantages, such as precision demographics and taking out the middle man, but the risk is that instead of being able to get by with generic and sanitized information that won’t cause the willing but unknowledgeable to tune out, you have to flip that process on its ear and get into the guts of what you do, or as Double Fine’s Tim Schafer puts it, “how the sausage gets made.”

3. Be a name dropper

Who hasn’t been at a party where some boor tries to impress everyone by crowing about who he knows. The difference here is that, unlike the boor, the Top Ten and big names in the industry are working together so they are one and the same. Again and again the Top Ten took special care to let visitors know what big name personnel or companies are associated with their project. Much like a Fortune 500 company lauding the fact that their new hire was a key player with several successful groups or a baseball team trading for someone who has previously won a World Series, these organizations cater to the Kickstarter community’s knowledge level, knowing that the proper names add credibility to their project. If you have enlisted personnel or companies with a track record in the industry, position them prominently. If you don’t, be on the lookout for such linkages.

4. Encourage and expect audience participation

Pebble Technologies provides an open SDK so users can design their own apps. OUYA invites hardware hackers to link their own external devices and to create their own peripherals. They even playfully dare people to request their hardware design. InXile (Wasteland II) and MS Paint Adventures (Homestuck) invite fans to provide creative suggestions on their message boards. This leads directly to No. 5:

5. These people have passion. Use it to your advantage

One of the greatest benefits to the open and collaborative history that marks the internet age is the passion and loyalty consumers bring to the table. Several of the companies stoke that fire by evoking memories of playing games on the rec-room television with your friends. OUYA does this better than anyone. “There’s something about a big HDTV and digital surround sound that fills up a living room. Shooters, platformers, sports games, arcade classics and experimental indie games just feel bigger on a TV screen. It’s how most of us grew up gaming… Deep down you know your best gaming memories happened in the living room.” Create a link to a positive experience. This is another way to show your supporters you understand them, that you are like them.

A certain percentage of the fans in any medium crave as much information as they can – no detail is too small. Tap into the group and you are hitting the ones most likely to support you if you give them something special. Double Fine and 2 Player are producing a serial that follows every stage of the game development process. Tim Schafer conducts online “Ask me anything sessions.” No. 10-ranked Uber Entertainment, makers of Planetary Annihilation, acknowledge this passion by “revealing much more than we normally do during this process.”

6. Offer great swag

Unique items are always coveted by collectors. Reaper Miniatures offer original molds of specific figurines and Kickstarter-exclusive items. Project Eternity supporters can name buildings in the game. How about a personally engraved OUYA? Many of the Top Ten provide launch party invitations or private gathering opportunities for their largest supporters. Some get first editions of the product or a certain volume of that product based on their level of support. Don’t worry T-shirt fans, plenty of those can be had.

7. Make it as simple to use as possible/fill a need

Is your device iPhone and Android friendly? Can users access the most popular video and music content? Can people add on their own hardware?

In one way or another every one of these entries seeks to meet a need. Many of the games’ designers want to address a shortage of the types of games they most enjoy. Others seek to take the technology up a notch. The hard products have to have correspondingly more concrete differences to attract investor dollars. The Virtual Reality headset Oculus Rift aims to deliver “a truly immersive gaming experience”, with features rivalling military and scientific quality devices but for a fraction of the price. Formlabs, maker of the Form1, 3D Printer are up front about why they are making this: “There are no low-cost 3D printers that meet the quality standards of the professional designer.”

The stereotypical meeting at a potential funder could go something like this: Dress up in your Sunday best, sit at a boardroom table in a make-it-or-break-it session where you are describing a project that you have poured your heart and soul into for a seeming eternity, while across the table the internal calculators are busy calculating ROI and the potential for a mass market. Hopefully these two disparate worlds can somehow collide and find common ground. After the meeting, as the tension eases away from various body parts you think, there has to be a better way.

Contrast that to Kickstarter, where individuality, fun and personality are the hallmarks of every Top Ten member’s presentation. They strived to reach you on an intimate level, by connecting with your passion for the topic, by showing you what the future can be. They were fun and creative, just what one should expect from companies on the cutting edge of their fields. Learn from their pitches and make yours just as interesting.

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