Audio/Video, Business, Hardware

The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Technology Kickstarter with Simon Solotko

I?ve been friends with Simon Solotko for many years, and Simon originally comes from the confines of the technology company AMD. My first experiences with Simon have been primarily involving enthusiast computing the insane overclocking of computer components, usually in live or massively broadcast online events. Simon is now a serial entrepreneur and technologist, and he has worked on some of the largest technology Kickstarters ever.

One of the problems with most Kickstarters is that most people do a single Kickstarter and then if they?re successful, they continue to groom that company into a larger and larger company. Simon has the perspective of driving many Kickstarters, and just announced the launch of four wearable computing Kickstarters. His musings and projects can be found on his Twitter page where he can easily be asked about virtually anything, Kickstarter related or not.

I thought we should ask Simon about the major factors to consider in planning and running a high-tech Kickstarter. If you want to start a campaign, this is a must read before you even THINK to announce it.

How did you start working with Kickstarters?
It?s an avalanche story. I am on the Board of Advisors at Sixense and we were working on MakeVR and planning a Kickstarter. The Oculus RIFT started to create a wave on interest in VR, and I met Virtuix and we took the Omni to Kickstarter. Afterward I worked on the Sixense STEM Kickstarter and we continue to move forward with MakeVR which will utilize the STEM. I began to work with a number of related projects where there was some synergy with my own technical interests and marketing style. I stay close to projects that share common technology and audience DNA.

What?s the pulse of the technology Kickstarter?
I am surprised by the number of failures. The tech Kickstarter scene feels slow because the projects just aren?t there. If you?ve got a great project, you are going to stand out. Kickstarter has an unparalleled user group, an organic audience and I don?t think it is saturated or waning. The people mostly likely to back you are people already familiar with Kickstarter, the lurkers and prior backers. If you?ve got the innovation and are ready to tell your story, the audience is ready and the channel has room.

Which Kickstarter categories are likely going to do well in 2014?
There are a lot of up-trending categories I like right now: wearables, mobile sensors, tech apparel, electronic tools, smart toys, creativity tools, laser-based 3D printers, things that fly, virtual reality, and augmented reality. All of these have an established or near-proximity audience already on Kickstarter.

How far along in product and technology development does a project we need to be before they launch?
Make sure your prototypes clearly demonstrate you either have a breakthrough innovation or that you have what it takes to deliver. Innovators have projects with ugly prototypes delivering a breakthrough innovation. Finishers have awesome prototypes and deliver a sublime experience, ready to deliver. Either is a winner. Ugly protoypes that don?t change the game or solve an unsolved problem create problems for your campaign. So wait, wait until you are an Innovator or a Finisher.

What are the ingredients for success?
Passion with pragmatism. Start early, get the word out, and drive hard the whole way. Having an audience before your launch is an advantage, even if it is dozens of people or a few hundred. Email addresses, Facebook fans, local support are critical. Be prepared to ask people to back your project, one on one, and create opportunities to do so before and during your drive. Keep your funding goal and anticipated number of backers conservative.

What?s the marketing playbook for a Kickstarter?
It varies; let me give you some key words. Email Addresses. Facebook. Promoted Post. Pre-Marketing. Great Photos. Videos. Established Audiences. Storytelling. Press. Advertising. Awesome Incentives. Attention to Backers. And occasionally, Relaunch.

Kickstarter has a remarkable audience with many well established communities of backers who have already done the work to understand Kickstarter. Crowdsourcing still has not touched the average person, and many have trouble getting it and completing a transaction. Having an existing user account reduces the friction and helps complete the transaction.

The Kickstarter audience is the key to success; give them something awesome without making major mistakes in the structure of the project. You?ve got to have a gameplan for, at worst, getting to 50% your first week, best 100% your first week. You want a quantitative plan for getting there, one that assumes about 30% to 50% of you backers come from Kickstarter and the rest from the outside through views you generate.

Is there any secret to marketing a Tech Kickstarter?
Yes. Choose to do a Kickstarter that will be easy to market! Build a project that appeals to existing audiences, drips with innovation, tells a great story, looks good on video, and solves a big problem. Now, if your Kickstarter has some of those attributes, go big with them. Similar projects on Kickstarter are the best guide. You want to be close or adjunct, even to build upon the value delivered by existing projects.

People talk a lot about the video. I think a lot about the structure of the project, and then I try not to mess up the video. Video is hard, but nailing the basics ? good sound, good story, good demeanor, revealing illustrations, extemporaneous dialogue ? are all important and create the opportunity for great moments in the video.

What?s the most important thing anyone can do on the Kickstarter page?
Show the world what your project will do for them. With crystal clarity show them the ways they can use your technology innovation to do awesome things for them in realistic use cases. They should look at your page and think, this is awesome, and I can imagine exactly what I am going to do with it.

How do you get a Kickstarter project approved in the first place?
A Kickstarter application is simply a complete Kickstarter page that follows written and unwritten guidelines. Tech projects need to be particularly transparent about with their backers about where they are in development so that backers can make a realistic assessment about the risk they are taking. You have to show the real prototype, that?s the rule. There are established categories which have flourished on Kickstarer, so those, or the branches that naturally follow are fair game. Projects should be innovative, solve people?s problems, and make the world a better, more interesting place.

The Kickstarter team seems open to giving everyone their fair shot. These people have taste and know their audience, shying away from projects that are business to business, lack an innovative flair, or are not wholly delivered through the pledge. I have seen some cloud service plays but I generally worry about their viability and their acceptance. Kickstarters cannot be charities; but they can contribute to creative and impactful projects delivered by committed individuals.
Tech projects should solve a real problem in an innovative way. The great projects on Kickstater have created high expectations. Projects that are earlier in development or more obscure can be successful as long as they are transparent, set realistic goals, and have an easy-to-identify target audience.

How do you set the right funding goal?
Considerations vary but I encourage project champions to ask how much money the team would be willing to leave on the table while being able to meet the Kickstarter commitment. It?s that simple, what would your team walk away from knowing they absolutely, positively have to deliver?

The Kickstarter drive is only one phase of your overall effort. Funds come from money you already have, pledges in the campaign, and sales post-campaign. Think about that entire lifecycle as you ask the question, can we deliver?
A lot of people have addressed the pain of delivery so I won?t go there. But you have got to continue to drive sales after the Kickstarter ends to make sure you?ve got the funds necessary to follow through and overcome inevitable hurdles.

How much can someone expect to raise?
Tough question but there are some hard realities. Kickstarter has grown a fantastic, organic audience in some great categories. It has become the de facto online store for virtual reality, innovative games, Arduino, 3D printing, tech for makers, and more. These organic audiences create a significant portion of the traffic you will receive and past backers are the most likely future backers. If you are close to these existing categories, Kickstarter is going to be working for you, like riding a wave. If you are pioneering new categories of questionable interest to these people, you are in trouble.

Quantitative factors include the size of your potential audience, the average expected pledge, and a forecast of the quantity of backers. Kickstarters get in trouble when their audience is too small, their dollars per pledge is too low, and they cannot draw enough page views. If you have a project with a narrow focus then it acts like a filter that significantly diminishes your potential number of backers. If you choose a niche that does not have an established Kickstarter audience, you will have more difficulty winning backers and you need to set your expectations accordingly. Projects that do well have a higher average pledge and require few backers, while offering a really compelling solution to a real problem. Kickstarters that have trouble generally have unrealistic expectations for the number of views they can drive and backers they can win.

Think about the lifecycle of your project. The best Kickstarters have a modest goal relative to their projected audience, allowing them to meet their goal in the first week so that subsequent visitors have confidence in the project. Everyone is busy and generally they are making a pledge because they want your project to succeed and they want to get the reward. Reducing uncertainty helps projects move past their initial goal. Failing to take a big chunk out of the project early reduces confidence and the project dies psychologically, well before it really done.

What is the most common mistake that you see among inexperienced Kickstarters?
Failing to properly size your audience against your funding goal. You should be able to figure out what your average pledge is going to be, but you need to be realistic about how many people or organizations will buy.
Kickstarters that are primarily for business customers need to understand that it?s hard to get a PO for a Kickstarter. Kickstarters that are for consumers need to have wonderful ideas about how to create incentives that appeal to consumers without crowding them with stuff that is expensive to deliver and doesn?t create a lot of value for your backers. I?m not a fan of t-shirts, I am a fan of innovative rewards that complete the experience delivered by the primary object. If you are smart you will fund your project and the major, critical accessories.

Do you advocate for any other Crowdfunding methods other than Kickstarter? IndieGoGo? Etc? Or is it your favorite? 
The organic audience Kickstarter draws is tough to beat, and their bears out in the Alexa rank. Even great Kickstarters rely heavily on past project backers and the specific projects I work on have been a natural fit for Kickstarter due to the audiences that have grown there. Now, if you have a project where that audience isn?t going to help you, but is nevertheless magnetically drawn to your project because of your own marketing effort or strong digital or realspace community then alternative platforms or self-starting without Kickstarter can help. If your project isn?t going to do well because of Kickstarter guidelines (the no photorealistic rendering rule, for instance) then it may start to make sense to go outside the box.

What would you say is the proper level of communication that a Kickstarter campaign should have during their fundraising phase? Project phase?
I haven?t seen a project over-communicate, and most project drop the ball post-drive. You have got to keep the story rolling for a tech project, particularly if you are going to retain the spirit of crowdsourcing as a part of your company ethos. I think it?s really valuable to be once a crowd sourced company, always a crowd sourced company on some level. Companies start acting big too quickly ? stay young, stay loyal to real consumers who continue to take a chance on your company by buying your product.

What?s the most overplayed Kickstarter project that you think that there are more than enough of right now? (type of product, etc.)
I think well populated categories like 3D printers, multi-tools, and most games face a challenging life after the initial drive due to competitive forces. You want to Kickstart an innovation that will continue to be able to source customers after the initial spotlight of Kickstarter. Being distinctive matters. It?s a catch-22, you want those established audiences, but you don?t want to live in an overcrowded world with no route to market after delivery.

What are, in your opinion, the best projects that haven?t yet been done?
This is one of my favorite drinking games. I would like to see Arduino for Estes Rockets, anything approaching a TriCorder (Qualcomm?s X-Prize?), Jetpacks for GI-Joes, a camera I can put on a boomerang. But the best Kickstarter project is one you can get done and believe in. Do something simple, set a realistic goal, tell your story and you?ve got a shot.

That concludes our interview with Simon Solotko, we want to extend a big thanks to Simon for participating in our Q&A and you can find him here on BSN* as well as on Twitter and hopefully you?ve learned something about running a Tech Kickstarter and are more equipped to start one.