Creator Q&A: Crossword Puzzles!

Eric Berlin’s Crossword Puzzles! was an early Kickstarter success. And how could it not be? Berlin makes crosswords and puzzles for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other esteemed establishments, and for a paltry $100 he offered to make people a completely custom crossword puzzle. As Berlin notes in our Q&A below, that’s quite the bargain. And we almost forgot about all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings blogging about the project.

Crossword Puzzles! ended on June 30, and on August 31 Berlin will be presenting the nine promised puzzles for the very first time. There’s even a grand prize!

Nine crosswords, including a couple of nifty variety puzzles, all based on board games you know and love. Solve them all, figure out the final answer, and maybe you’ll win yourself a juicy little prize.

We’re thrilled that Berlin was able to put Kickstarter to good use and was able to create a non-traditional vehicle for his work in the process. Read on for some thoughts from Eric Berlin.

Tell us about your project.

It is a suite of nine interelated crossword puzzles. There is almost no market for such a thing — I can sell individual puzzles to newspapers, and I can make a whole book of crosswords and try to sell it to a publisher, but there is no way to sell a set of nine crosswords to any media outlet. Kickstarter let me market the product directly to crossword-loving consumers.

How did you decide on your rewards?

Impulsively. I have a couple of puzzle-filled mysteries for kids, so it seemed a natural to offer those as rewards. And what else could I offer big spenders but a custom made crossword? So that’s the direction I went.

How many of your backers do you know personally?

I’d guess about 20%, maybe a little more.

Have you learned/discovered anything from the experience?

I confirmed something that I suspected, which is that there is a good-sized audience out there seeking high-quality crosswords. I’m already trying to think of a new product to sell to this audience.

What was unanticipated about the experience?

I set the price of my topmost tier too low — I should have made it $150 instead of $100. I honestly didn’t think anybody would donate that much money, and six people did. I had to close out that tier.

What, if anything, would you change about your project?

Besides charging more for the top tier, nothing.

Creator Q&A: LaPorte Indiana

LaPorte, Indiana is a documentary film about a small town in Indiana told through formal portraits of the townspeople taken in the 1950s and ’60s that were later discovered (and turned into a book) by Jason Bitner, the cocreator of Found Magazine. Two years after Bitner’s photo book of 200-some images from the town was published, townspeople began idenitfying themselves in the anonymous photos, and stories began to leap from its pages.

Jason has since teamed with an Emmy-nominated This American Life producer named Joe Beshenkovsky to make a documentary about the town and its population, and their Kickstarter project is raising money for its completion. The project has done very well: in the two days between me sending Jason a handful of questions about his in-progress project and his answers’ return, LaPorte has shot right past its $7500 goal and is closing in on $10,000.

One area where this project really excels is rewards, which are all based on a “portrait” theme: backers can elect to have a song written about them, can have a professional portrait, and can even get a personal tour of LaPorte itself.

We asked Jason Bitner about his rewards and some other topics as well. Read on for his responses.

Tell us about your project and your background.

A few years ago, I came across a stash of 18,000 portrait photos in the back room of a diner in Northwestern Indiana.  The photos were beautiful, and they documented thousands of townspeople from the 1950s and 60s.  I ended up making a book out of these images, and after the collection was published, I ended up meeting many of the people from the photos.

The film will be a feature documentary about the town of LaPorte, Indiana.  We’ve done extensive interviews with many of the people found in these photos, and we’ll be weaving their stories together to get a sense of this small Midwestern town.

How’s it going so far?

Kickstarter has been a perfect vehicle for raising money.  We’d initially decided we wanted to have a community-funded approach, but I don’t have the skills to develop a good system for raising funds.  As soon as I’d heard about Kickstarter, I knew it would be the perfect approach.

Our initial goal was to raise $7500; to date, we’re up to $9027, with a new goal of $12,000 by August 21st.  We’re hopeful we’ll make the new number— but more than anything we’re thrilled with the community of people who are becoming active supporters of the project.  We feel a ton of support and good will from everyone who donates, and we couldn’t be happier with the turnout.

What’s been your most popular reward?

People seem to gravitate toward the $100 reward.  I’m not sure if there’s a preference for round numbers, or if they’re excited to receive a copy of the book, two original photos and a thank you in the film credits.  We’re also surprised to have received six $500 pledges (very helpful!) as well as fifteen people who just wanted to donate funds, without asking for any reward in return.  Whether it’s $3 or $1000, we’re thrilled that people are helping out in any way they can.  Pretty awesome.

So far, no one’s taken us up on the $2495 reward.  I’d be thrilled to provide a two-day tour of LaPorte for anyone interested, but so far, this one’s gone unclaimed.

What’s your strategy for getting your project funded?

I’m not sure that we have much of a strategy, other than giving people a chance to view a trailer of the film.  Director/editor Joe Beshenkovsky (along with our cinematographer Jeremy Gould) have made a beautiful video that can describe the project much better than my words can… if people watch the teaser, they’ll come to understand what the project is all about.

What will you do with the money?

Every dollar that we receive will go directly towards the production and post-production costs for our film.  Turns out that filmmaking is a pricey endeavor- but we’re enthusiastic about the film, and Joe is extremely devoted and hard-working, so we hope to have a rough cut finished in a couple months.  From there, we hope to screen it in a bunch of festivals, and see what happens…

Any closing thoughts?

We’re incredibly thankful for everyone who’s donated to the project, and incredibly thankful for Kickstarter.  This whole fundraising effort has put a lot of wind in our sails, and we’ll use that to help finish up our film.

Send Kickstarter to SXSW

Yesterday, the South By Southwest festival, held every March in Austin, Texas, launched its “Panel Picker” microsite where the general public has a voice in deciding which topics will be covered in the gathering’s panels and chats. Kickstarter has three panels in the running, and we would appreciate your help in building support for them. They are:

  1. Funding Your Projects from the Crowd with CEO/Cofounder Perry Chen (Interactive)
  2. Crowdfunding Music: Raising Money from Your Fans with Cofounder Yancey Strickler (Music)
  3. Gaming the Crowd: Turning Work Into Play with CTO Andy Baio (Interactive)

As you can see there, two of the panels would be part of the Interactive portion of SXSW, and the other (mine) would be for music. We see SXSW as not only a great venue for us to talk about the opportunities that Kickstarter can provide, but as ground zero for the creative people who are looking for a tool like Kickstarter. We think this will be a great way to share it with everyone.

Voting is easy. Just sign up for an account and then just click those links above. Voting ends September 4th.

Thank you! We appreciate your help.

After Funding Succeeds

Last night, Brad Skistimas’ Five Times August project crossed its $20,000 finish line with about six hours to spare. It’s Kickstarter’s most-funded project to date, and incredibly he did it all in just 31 days. That’s about $700 a day, and it’s a stunning achievement on Brad’s part. Congratulations to him on a job well done.

This brings up a good question: what does happen when funding ends? After pounding the pavement to bring in backers and generating buzz, what are the next steps for both project creators and backers? We thought this would be a good chance to walk everyone through it. Let’s start with Amazon.

Amazon Funds

When funding ends successfully, the cash is not immediately available for creators to get to work. Amazon Payments, which processes all Kickstarter transactions, has a mandatory hold period of 14 days for funds (it takes another three to five for the funds to transfer, as well). During that time there’s a seven-day window where backers can fix any payment problems, and finally in two weeks the funds are ready to withdraw.

Backer Surveys

Most successful projects involve rewards that will require extra information from backers — things like T-shirt size, mailing address, or preferred color — and once a project ends the creator will start to query backers about their particulars.

Project Updates

Every project is different: many are already underway pursuing their project before funding even begins, and others need to have the cash in hand to get started. In either case, there is plenty of work to be done post-funding, and many project creators keep their backers in the loop on each stage of the process (something we heartily encourage). Some great examples include Electronola and Kind of Bloop, which have had regular updates that have brought backers right into the creative process. The Five Times August project, which has been great with project updates, seems like one that will do the same.

That covers post-funding for creators.

What should backers expect?

Once a project ends, all backers receive an email notice saying whether or not the project was successful, and, if it was, a receipt for the charge. They’re notified by email if creators need information from them, and email is also used to notify folks with payment problems.

The Story Unfolds

It’s up to each project creator, but backers can have an active role in the development and nurturing of a project. Projects don’t just need money, they need support, a raison d’être, and a groundswell of engaged backers and followers is a great way to do it.

Announce the accomplishment and don’t be afraid to stress your importance. Used to be we’d brag about who heard something first. Now the project’s story can become our story, and we can honestly say, “I helped make that.” And in that simple statement, the project will continue to spread.

The New Filmmaking

“Here is the new way: filmmakers doing it themselves — paying for their own distribution, marketing films through social networking sites and Twitter blasts, putting their work up free on the Web to build a reputation, cozying up to concierges at luxury hotels in film festival cities to get them to whisper into the right ears.” — Michael Cieply, New York Times

This is how Geoff Edgers made Do It Again, his Kinks movie. This is how Jason Bitner and Joe Beshenkovsky are making their LaPorte, Indiana documentary. This is what many filmmakers are being forced to do if their project is not “commercially viable” in the exact right way (subject to change whenever and for whatever reason)(or no reason at all), and it’s been the case for the past thirty years. The difference now, of course, is that the studios’ stranglehold on the means of distribution and production has been eased (somewhat) by technology, and there are at least options now for filmmakers, Kickstarter among them.

The Times article also talks about Anvil!, the excellent documentary on an also-ran Canadian hair metal band:

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about a Canadian metal band, turned into the do-it-yourself equivalent of a smash hit when it stretched a three-screen opening in April into a four-month run, still under way, on more than 150 screens around the country.

“I paid for everything, I took a second mortgage on my house,” said Sacha Gervasi, the film’s director.

Mr. Gervasi, whose studio writing credits include “The Terminal,” directed by Steven Spielberg, nearly three years ago, began filming “Anvil!” with his own money in hopes of attracting a conventional distributor. The movie played well at Sundance in 2008, but offers were low.

So Mr. Gervasi put up more money — his total cost was in “the upper hundred thousands,” he said — to distribute the film through a company called Abramorama, while selling the DVD and television rights to VH1.

What’s interesting is how close Gervasi’s approach to distributing his film is to what the band does in the film to make a record: borrow money, load up the credit cards, roll the dice. I left Anvil! feeling like I had just witnessed a 90-minute commercial for why Kickstarter exists. The level of passion that they and their fans feel for their music is proportional to how little the record companies care for them or understand what they’re trying to do. And for many artists, that’s the end of the line.

It’s not the end of line for Anvil because the filmmaker took drastic measures due to simple necessity. Every month or two we get trend articles like this one on inventive, creative, and potentially demeaning things people have to do to have their work seen, and it will often paint these decisions as political or a form of protest. But, Radiohead excepted, it’s not that: it’s just that they have no other choice if they want to present their vision without compromise. It’s necessity.

Technology — and Kickstarter in particular — can offer a different path to all kinds of creative endeavors, and people are increasingly choosing that option. It enables passionate pursuits to be more than commodities in some multi-national conglomerate’s portfolio, and it helps these things to exist in the first place. The less we all have to rely on the entertainment-industrial complex for our passions, the better.

Run, Blago, Run Reward

Just got my rewards from Mr. CRO’s Run, Blago, Run project, a pop-up Chicago art show riffing on former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. For a reasonable $25 I get a T-shirt — which I will wear with pride — and a gold-sealed package of five stickers. Kickstarter has made checking the mail exciting again. Thanks, Mr. CRO!

Selling the Project

When it comes to successful projects, sometimes it’s not so much that a project’s goal is so compelling, it’s that its story was told the right way. Which brings us to two Kickstarter projects that do that very well: Jerry Paffendorf’s Loveland and Help Polyvinyl Save 10,000 Records From Destruction.

Polyvinyl’s project, which is our most successful to date at 1,553% funded, has a ton of things going for it. First, it comes from a well-respected source with a built-in audience. That always helps. Second, it offered great rewards: $50 gets you a box of 26 CDs and two DVDs. Hard to beat that, either.

But the other thing that Polyvinyl’s project did was tell a story. If you look at the nuts and bolts of the project, it’s essentially just a record label clearing out remnant inventory for basic space reasons. Polyvinyl didn’t tell the story that way, though. Instead, Polyvinyl made it personal (real people in the project image) and gave it a hook: “these records could be destroyed if you don’t do your part.” It’s an excellent job of framing a project, making it more compelling.

Jerry Paffendorf’s Loveland is similar. It’s a unique idea: Jerry is buying a 1,000,000-square inch piece of property in Detroit, and he’s selling pieces of it for $1 an inch. It’s whimsical and bold and audacious, and even if people aren’t sure what to do with their purchased inches (myself included), it feels like a good thing to do, and Jerry’s enthusiasm makes us feel like we’re a part of something new and interesting. Hard to top that.

What I wanted to look at in particular, though, were Jerry’s rewards, which reveal a lot about the reward process and how to best present yourself. Take a look:

There are two things that should jump out at you very quickly:

  1. Every reward has a theme. (Remember the $5 milkshake in Pulp Fiction?)
  2. There is zero advantage to choosing the $12 or more reward over the $1 one, and yet it’s being selected almost three times as often.

The reason is clear: he packaged it, gave it a hook, and reinforced it elsewhere in the project. (Jerry wears a T-shirt in his pitch video that reads: “I’ve got 12 inches in Detroit” and he makes a few other references, too.)

Jerry took the time to sculpt the presentation, and it has obviously worked: while his project has easily exceeded its $1,000 goal (it’s at $1,400 at the moment), he’s done this with only 54 backers. Without that hook, he could easily be sitting at $54 dollars (and 5% raised) rather than $1,400.

The lesson to be learned here is that putting in the extra time to craft a project from top to bottom pays off. Over and over we see that the projects that go the extra mile (like the LaPorte, Indiana project, which we’ll discuss later this week) are that much more successful. We encourage all creators and prospective creators to follow their example and think about how their project can be as memorable as a $5 milkshake.

April Smith's Big Day

As we mentioned earlier in the week, Kickstarter’s own April Smith is on this weekend’s Lollapalooza bill in Chicago, and she took the stage earlier today. During her performance, a friend in the audience texted this:

So cool! Thanks April.

And continuing in April’s big day, Billboard ran a great profile on her today as well, and in a video piece, April performs her Dexter-inspired song and talks about Kickstarter! See it here:

Congratulations to April. Well done. And if you haven’t supported her project yet, you can check it out here.