This guest post is by Robb Hill. Read his first post on Tiffinbox: “Homelands: A Documentary Project in Southern Indiana.” He is a Maryland-based documentary photographer. Connect with him on Twitter.
A few weeks ago I was here writing about a project I have on Kickstarter.com. Seshu and I have known each other since college and as a long time follower of his, this, blog I thought posting on it would be a good way to get the word out about my project. Now that the fund raising window has closed on my Kickstarter project (I was able to raise more than my goal!!) we thought it a good idea to write about my experience, hopefully for the benefit for all.
I had never heard of Kickstarter.com until a friend and fellow photographer, Nelson Chan, told me about it a few months ago. Nelson has watched me struggle with HomeLands over the years and has been supportive. He thought Kickstarter and my project would be good fit.
The first photos I took for HomeLands was back in March of 2005. When I began I lived in Chicago and my business was doing well. Which meant I had the time and money to get down to Southern Indiana to work. Now I live in Sliver Spring, Maryland and it has been a struggle the last two years to keep my head above water. As much as I wanted to return to Indiana to photograph, my priority had to be financial stability.
Since starting HomeLands I have applied to 15 different grants and received none. For a previous project I won three grants and felt confident about my understanding of the grant writing/application process. Now, for whatever reason, I was getting no traction in the grant world. Trying to secure funding via Kickstarter seemed like a good idea.
After reading all the FAQ and application pages I submitted a proposal. The first piece of advice I have is edit, edit, edit. The initial proposal to Kickstarter is only 1500 characters. Yes, that’s characters not words. It is very important to write as concisely as possible. I don’t think Kickstarter is looking for a certain kind of project, if you look around on the website you’ll see a wide range of projects. What I think they are looking for is clarity of thought in the proposal and uniqueness of project. But I don’t know for sure.
If you are accepted – I am curious to see what they turn down – you next have to create your Kickstarter page. This is a longer written proposal, video, and whatever else you can get on a web page. Here is where you have to start selling your project.
For my video I decided to use still images, music, and voice-over. I did not want to be on camera because, although I was looking for support, I wanted people viewing the video to think of the project not me. For me this is key. Get people interested in what you’re doing not yourself. This may be obvious but the tone and feel the video should match the tone and feel of your project.
For the written portion Kickstarter recommends not only describing your project but explaining how you plain to spend the money you raise. I didn’t publish a specific budget but did generally explain how I plain to use the money. It could be helpful to be very specific about your expenses but for my project I didn’t see it as necessary.
Even if you don’t publish a budget it’s very important to create one because it’s completely up to you to set the dollar amount you want to raise. I set my goal at $7,000, an ambitious amount but not overly so. I examined budgets from various grants proposals I’d written and calculated a comfortable amount of money that would allow me to work unrestricted. By unrestricted I mean I will be able to cover materials like, film (yes, I’m shooting my project on film), processing (doing it myself), scanning, flights, etc. as well as meet my financial obligations at home while I’m away photographing. The only real advice I have about the budget is; be thorough and honest about your costs. And don’t be afraid of the total.
Look around on Kickstarter and you’ll see people who successfully raised far more and far less money than I did. Kickstarter is very up front about the fact they are an all or nothing proposition. This means if you don’t meet your dollar goal, you don’t get any of it. Which I think makes sense because it forces two things to happen. The first is, as I alluded to above, artists are forced to really think about what they need financially to do their project. The second is, it makes the larger public aware of how expensive the creation of art can be.
There is no cost to post your project on Kickstarter. But, and Kickstarter is very upfront about this, they take 5% of your goal as their fee, but only if you reach your goal. This is completely reasonable. Also be aware Kickstarter uses Amazon Payments as their money handler and Amazon takes 4.5% as their fee. This is also clearly stated but was a little harder to find. If you need a very specific amount for things like, studio rental, printing, etc., make sure you factor in the 10% you’ll loose in fees.
Then you need to set how long the pledge window will be open. The FAQ’s have much to say about this. But it boils down to this; the maximum length of time to pledge to a project is 90 days and longer isn’t necessarily better. I set my window at 45 days.
Once I had my project page ready I nervously hit the Launch Project button.
After the Launch Project button is hit you are far from done. Now it’s very important to do the one thing almost every artist I know is horrible at, selling yourself. While people do search Kickstarter for projects that interest them, you cannot rely on Kickstarter alone to raise your funds. I can’t stress this enough, it’s very very very very very very very important for you to get the word out about your project.
Immediately after hitting the launch button I posted a link on Facebook and sent emails to damn near everyone in my contact list. In the first week a good number of people, mostly family and friends, pledged to my project. Also, many people reposted my link on their Facebook page, some I asked, and some just did.
As the dollar amount in the pledged column increased that first week I was pretty happy about how the fund raising was going. When the first complete stranger pledged to my project I suddenly felt the power of Kickstarter. Here was someone I don’t know who pledged $250. I was very touched. With this person’s pledge I felt I could reach my goal.
Then it was time to get the word out even farther. I asked Seshu if I could post about it on his blog. I asked an old high school friend who is a booster for our hometown to talk up my project on his website. I have close connections to the digital media staff at NPR and they were kind enough to feature my project on the NPR Picture Show blog, with links to my site and Kickstarter page.
With all that attention I didn’t see the amount of pledges I thought I would. Because of my personal real estate situation I am very aware of how bad the economy is. But bad economy or no, I had to keep putting the word out. I then started trying to get posted on other photography oriented websites. Most sites I contacted posted a link. But I still wasn’t seeing much of an increase in pledges. This was partly because in today’s world asking photographers for money is like expecting Bob Cratchit to come up with the Christmas goose by himself. It’s not that we aren’t a supportive, generous bunch; it’s just that the industry as a whole is in a tough way.
As the days passed there was little movement towards my goal. With two weeks left I was less than half way to my goal. I talked to my sister, a professional grant writer, about things I could do. Her advice to me was very simple. “The only way to get people to give you money is to ask.”
With just over a week left I started a direct email campaign. I went through my Facebook friends and wrote a personal email to everyone I thought would donate to my project. Like everyone, I have Facebook friends who I’ve not actually spoken with in twenty years. But I really wanted to make my goal and I didn’t let that stop me from asking for donations.
It worked. Pledges started coming in immediately. Also, something of the ebay effect happened, meaning strangers also pledged to my project in the last few days. With 72 hours left I had done all that I could think of, the only thing to do now was wait and see what happened.
With 48 hours left checked the total before going to bed and notice it had gone down. Someone, who I don’t know, reduced his pledge from $250 to $5. Kickstarter allows people to reduce or cancel their pledge. Here is what they’ve written about it on the website, “By pledging, you are committing to supporting that person’s project; canceling that commitment is discouraged.” But it does happen and I went to bed crestfallen.
For some reason at 4:30 the next morning I was awake. I read for a little while and decided to check the status of my project. It was $7,131 dollars. I rolled over and told my wife the good news. But knowing that people could reduce or cancel their pledges I didn’t allow myself to celebrate until Kickstarter told me it was over.
In the end I had 110 backers, 24 of whom are total strangers to me. Two weeks earlier I felt there was no way I was going to reach my goal. But by taking the bull by the horns and asking people to help me, I raised $7,326.
I was happier than I’ve been in a long time.
Kickstarter encourages you update backers about your project. Which can be done from you project page. Here is the last paragraph of a thank you letter I posted on my blog:
Even in good economic times it’s hard for artists to find the money that allows us to create. Watching the number in the pledged column on my Kickstarter page grow was exciting, gratifying, and very moving. I am incredibly thankful and honored that so many of you out there respect me and or my work enough to donate to my project. Last Sunday when the pledge window closed with my goal being exceeded I was happy beyond measure. I feel a responsibility that goes beyond making good work. I feel responsible to the 110 of you who helped me be the artist I want to be. Thank you for giving 105%.
Are you inspired to use services like Kickstarter? Comment below to tell us about your efforts to raise money for your photography project.