Our project creators make good teachers. Once a week, we ask one post-success project creator to take a break from the packing and shipping, put pen to paper, and give us their best lessons learned for making and running a great Kickstarter project. Today we talk to author Jacques-Jean Tiziou of the dance project How Philly Moves.
1. The most exciting part about launching my Kickstarter project was finally having tools available that would let me work the way that I’ve dreamt of working since 2002.I began my career as a photographer during the first half of the digital revolution. What the transition to digital really enabled was a practice of photography as public art. As an artist and media maker, I have both an opportunity and a responsibility to create images that uplift my community and promote positive change. Changes in technology made it possible for me to create work for and share directly with my community. As an artist, business owner, employer and family member, I also have a responsibility to myself and to my community to operate sustainably.
When I’m out shooting, there’s a beautiful two-way thing that happens: I share my creative energy and skills, and the people that I’m photographing share of their lives with me. The big challenge is that shooting is just a small part of being a photographer: there wasn’t a way for me to share the cost of that replacement camera, or the countless hours spent on postproduction or admin.
The realities of doing photography for a living has generally meant working within the constraints of a media market whose values don’t always mesh with my own. Here's the rough reality: everyone is photogenic, but not everyone has a photo budget. I can support some level of community work on my own but there's a limit to that, especially when I'm competing in such a tough market as the photography industry. It always seemed like a fine line to walk with an abyss to either side: Sell-out or Burn-out. Kickstarter opens up a third option: Thrive with the support of your community. Crowd-funding is helping to bring about the second half of the digital photography revolution. I hope that in my own special way, I can use this change in my work to help catalyze other needed changes in the world.
2. My approach to making a project video was to be clear, open and honest, and let the project speak for itself through its participants. (And to work with a great videographer/editor... Thank you Ellen Reynolds!) Which worked because it’s a project that is all about bringing people together and celebrating community, so it’s very appropriate for crowdfunding.
3. I started to experience some anxiety about three days in, because the funding sort of leveled out. I raised $5k almost right away, but then it really looked like my ambitious goal didn’t have a chance. I did a big outreach effort with about a week remaining, and that bumped it up some more, but heading into the last 48hrs, it looked on target to hit about 80% or so. It was amazing to have raised $20k in pledges, and was going to be sad to see them all vanish into thin air…
4. But then there was one heck of a last minute rally. A few people upped their pledges. New ones came rolling in. The graph spiked, and that was so great!
5. One thing that I really didn't expect was how challenging it was going to be to actually reach people. While my goal was ambitious, I had a bit of a naïve idea that the pledges would just come rolling in. I have a pretty big and supportive community, and thought that they would all chip in overnight and push me over the threshold in a few days.
JJ Tiziou Photography has about 1500 fans on Facebook, How Philly Moves had about 800 at the time, and I had over two thousand “friends” on that network, and five thousand addresses on my mailing list, so I figured that I might be able to do it with two thousand people pledging twelve bucks each… but in reality it was a lot of work to reach the 617 people who ended up actually backing the project.
If the 1,634 people who “liked” the Kickstarter project had actually backed it, I could have hit my goal with average pledges of $15 each. As it was, I was very fortunate to have the larger support from many that allowed me to hit the target.
Reality check: Communicating with people takes work. If you’re going to get $25k from one big budget client, or $25k from one thousand small donations, I guarantee you that the latter option will involve a lot more time on email, phone calls, face to face, etc… and that’s all work that you’ve got to budget into this kind of project. Fundraising is a whole other skill set to learn on top of photography (or whatever kind of project you’re trying to fund).
6. The one thing I wish I had know before launching my Kickstarter project was how much of a challenge it would be to just reach everyone (see above). I thought that I could do it all on my own, and it would have been really smart to get more people on board to help spread the word beforehand. When it seemed like the project wasn’t going to make it, one friend said “next time, ask me in advance and I’ll do some phone-banking for you” – and that was a great ideal. I’m glad that I made it anyways, but next time around there’s definitely going to be a phone bank party as the project launches.
7. When I reached my goal, I felt giddy. Elated. A little bit like my head was exploding. That was the immediate response. But then afterwards, there was a more subtle and longer lasting and more powerful feeling: I felt supported. I felt appreciated, valued. All of those things that the participants of How Philly Moves say that they feel during the photo sessions, I felt for myself. With that kind of support from my community, I feel like I’m on the right track with the work that I’m doing.
8. The toughest part post-funding was how involved it can be to do mailings. I promised people postcards and sets of greeting cards and stickers and the like, and while I’m thrilled with how it all turned out, it was far more complicated than I’d really realized to actually produce and distribute everything. Ironically, my digital downloadable reward, which should have been the first and easiest, is only being prepared right now. As a result, my advice to future creators is ask yourself: how long is it going to take you to address all of the packages? What happens if someone helping you accidentally addresses a stack of postcards with “from/to” reversed as “to/from” and the post office returns the whole stack to you? Time to get stickers to cover up the “from” parts and buy more stamps… (hey, these things happen…)
When planning out your rewards, it’s important to really think out what are the possible scenarios. What if people really take you up on your offer and you have to write a thousand postcards? Make fifty crepe breakfasts? Play twenty concerts? For me, one of the challenges was making a complete set of 25 greeting cards — that’s only cost effective if you make a lot of them, and if I only made them for the people who got the full sets, they would have been way too expensive. Luckily, they’re things that make perfect promo items for my business and will last long beyond this project, so I made an extra stack of them for myself which brought the per-unit cost down quite a bit.
9. My plans next are really exciting! After being fairly grounded in Philly for a while, I'm looking forward to heading on the road again. That starts with playing wedding photographer in Nicaragua this January, and then potential adventures in West Africa. After that, I've got my eyes on San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, DC, NYC, and am also looking for work and projects in Europe. (My family's in France and Geneva, and I've got my eyes on the Netherlands, Belgium, and maybe hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain...)
But back to this project — images from the earlier incarnations of this project have ended up forming the second largest mural in the world at Philadelphia International Airport, along with a permanent exhibit in the airport and a digital projection project on Broad Street. Not to mention the significant community impact. So it would be great to see it continue. (I’m still sifting through the 14,000+ images that I generated through this most recent round of shoots; they're starting to trickle out on the How Philly Moves website. If we can find some more funding to extend the design onto Terminals A&B, then we might be able put some of these new images up there and break the world record. I have a few specific things in mind for projects in Philly, but I'm keeping them under wraps until I figure out a few more variables.
It is amazing (and humbling) to have had so many beautiful people invest in my work in such a tangible way. One of the big questions moving forward is how to build on the success of this first experiment in serious project-based fundraising. Do I go back to these 600+ people and ask them for $5 each so as to create a $3,000 grant for a smaller project? Do I ask them to consider becoming sustainers for general operating support for my non-commercial work? Or do I try something of a similar or larger scale?
It could be that this one campaign was a one-off. After all, I was very fortunate to have a lot of media attention and great content produced for me thanks to the confluence of the airport mural and the projection project. Opportunities like those don't come around ever year. But maybe, just maybe, this success might be the beginning of my being able to build my own opportunities through Kickstarter.
10. My other tips are to a.) engage with your backers. In addition to making a financial contribution, they can also help you spread the word a step beyond your own network. Don’t overload them with updates, but remember that they are potential ambassadors for your work, and you can use the updates to keep them engaged and give them more ammunition for them to help spread the word about your project. b) check out the really thoughtful analysis that my former classmate Craig Mod has put together. He also successfully raised $25k, and was far more thorough than I was in his research and implementation.