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10 Tips for Funding a Successful Kickstarter Project

UPDATE: Due to the high volume of traffic that this post always receives, I’ve launched a new blog called CrowdFunding Help, which provides tips, news, interviews and how-tos for Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and more. Check it out!

Last month, I created a Kickstarter project to help raise the initial funding for my new creative project, The Baristas, a web sitcom that’s a spin-off from my previous show, Something to Be Desired.  On Saturday, Sept 18, I was happy, proud, humbled and relieved to announce that we’d reached our funding goal of $3000 with four days to go before our project ended.

In fact, we wound up receiving $3660 in total donations, or 122% of our goal.

Here’s how we did it.

First, Some General Observations

These tips are based on my own experience and are specific to my project.  Feel free to adapt them to the parameters of your own vision.

My project was web video based.  If you’d like to use Kickstarter to crowdfund a book, album, stage play or other creative endeavor, not all of the following tips may apply.  (But, actually, they probably will.)

And, obviously, this is my first Kickstarter experience.  Others have used the service repeatedly and may have a better understanding of which tactics are more broadly useful.

That said, here are…

10 Tips for Successfully Funding a Kickstarter Project

1. Give your core audience something to get excited about.

In our case, we had the built-in advantage of a pre-established audience.  Something to Be Desired has been online since 2003, and while not everyone knows about it, two very important groups of people do: the show’s longtime fans, and the social media community in Pittsburgh (where the show was filmed).

Thus, we knew the fans of STBD would be excited that the show was being spun off, and we counted on that initial attention to boost our project out the door in its first days.  (More on that later.)

However, if your project is a brand new concept with no pre-existing audience or demand, ask yourself: Who is the core audience for this project?  If you’re making a zombie movie, find a way to appeal to horror enthusiasts.  If you’re writing a bilingual children’s book, what aspects of your project would get parents and educators from both cultures talking?

Find a way to excite the people who should care about your project, and you’ll have to rely a lot less on the kindness of complete strangers.

2. Give complete strangers a reason to care, too.

STBD’s core audience isn’t large (or lucrative) enough to fund a new show completely out of its own collective pocket.  Therefore, we knew we’d need to find a way to give people who’d never heard of STBD, and who couldn’t care less about an arbitrary web comedy, a reason to still want the project to succeed.

So we made them producers.

Anyone who backed The Baristas on Kickstarter for $25 would receive a single vote in casting for one role on the show — that of “the newest barista,” whose first day on the job will be the crux of the show’s first episode.  For $50, backers received two votes, and so on, up to 20 votes for $500 (which was the highest single amount any one person pledged to the show).

Pretty cool, right?

Admittedly, we might have received even more interest (and funding) if we’d set the cost of a casting vote at $5 instead of $25.  But I didn’t want people who’d never watch the show otherwise to pay $5 simply for the privilege of voting, which might result in a bizarre or problematic casting result.  So I settled on $25, which seemed like just enough of a financial commitment that a donor would be likely to take the voting experience — and, thus, the eventual quality of the show — seriously.

3. Offer an amazing perk at $5 or $10.

I did not do this and, in hindsight, I believe it was my biggest mistake.

Sure, at $25 a backer had a vote in the eventual look and feel of the show through casting.  That made sense.  But what about the people with only a passing interest in the show, or for whom $25 seems like a steep investment?  We offered obligatory promotional swag (postcards, buttons, pens), but nothing that a casual supporter could really sink her teeth into.

In retrospect, if I’d offered something more substantial at $5 or $10 — like access to filming outtakes, or a “making-of” e-book — I believe we’d have met our goal earlier and potentially exceeded our (still very gracious) final sum.

4.  Strategically stagger your swag levels.

Yes, for $25, backers earned a casting vote.  But for $35 — a mere $10 bump — they also got a t-shirt.  So why not upgrade?

That was a conscious choice on my part, because I (correctly) suspected t-shirts would be one of our most desirable tangible perks.  And judging by the number of backers who initially pledged $25 but later changed it to $35 — or $50, which got them a t-shirt and a DVD of the show’s first 13 episodes — it was the right approach for our project.  (In fact, the $35 pledge level was our most-often selected.)

5. Promote your backers on Twitter (and anywhere else that’s appropriate).

I knew the majority of our backers personally, which means I also know their Twitter handles.  (And if I didn’t, I was usually able to divine them by Googling.)

For me, thanking our backers publicly served two purposes: it conveyed an immediate appreciation of their faith in my project, and it was a public signal to others on Twitter that my project was being considered worthy of investment.  Those thank-you tweets always included a link back to the project itself, so anyone who was curious (or who retweeted me) could drive more attention to the project.

This is important because…

6. The middle of your project’s timeline is a promotional dead zone.

When your project is new, it has the benefit of being new, and people like talking about new ideas.

When your project is ending, it has the benefit of good faith and momentum.  People want you to succeed, and if you’re within striking distance of your goal, they will find creative ways to spread the word (or dredge up some loose change) on your behalf.  Everybody wants to be part of a project that succeeds.

But between kickoff and wrap-up, your project has no inherent hook.  It’s a lonely ship, bobbing in the ocean between reasons to care.  Finding any reason to get a new audience interested in your project during this stretch is critical to its success, because the people who already know about it are already tired of hearing you endlessly self-promote it.

7. Stagger your outreach & promotions.

Fortunately, your idea is always new to someone.  The trick is to continually find new excuses to bring it to people’s attention.

In our case, I circulated the idea among its core audience (STBD fans and Pittsburgh social media creators) first.  Then, I directly brought the project to the attention of various individuals who might be interested, like my Facebook and LinkedIn colleagues, fellow web video pros, Pittsburgh-based journalists, etc.  I staggered this outreach over the course of the project’s 33 day timeframe, so as to not light all my fires at the beginning of the project and then run out of fuel after the first few days.

8. Offer regular meaty updates, especially near the project’s end.

Kickstarter allows project organizers to post updates that can be seen by anyone, or just by a project’s backers.  I chose to use the updates as a way of pointing out cool or intriguing aspects of the show’s creative genesis while also reminding readers that funding was still ongoing.  That way, if an update seemed interesting to a backer or a casual visitor, it could be shared with others, and the suggestion to support the show would automatically be included.

Our updates included a post-audition preview of three actors who’ll be joining the cast, a public debate over our possible logos, and a chance to immerse yourself in the show’s story by following the characters on Twitter.  In addition to reminding our backers that the project was moving forward, it also provided a glimpse of our creative process and detailed the choices we were making in bringing our ideas to fruition.

9. In the end, plan as much promotion across as many channels as possible.

Our project ran 33 days, and ended on a Wednesday.  The weekend before the end date was the weekend of PodCamp Pittsburgh 5, an annual social media “un-conference” which I co-founded in 2006 and where I expected to have several opportunities to discuss the project (if appropriate and / or necessary).

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had also planned a story on The Baristas, and they printed it the Sunday during PodCamp, just three days before the project’s deadline.  I had initially believed that article would give us the necessary promotional push to achieve our $3000 goal, but I’ll never know if that would have been the case or not.

That’s because my friends, supporters and attendees at PodCamp had pushed us past $3000 by 4 PM the day before.  However, our largest individual donor did see the Sunday article and was inspired to pledge an additional (and greatly appreciated) $500, even though we’d already made our goal.

Which brings me to my final point:

10. Give people a reason to back your project even after you reach your goal.

My biggest concern about the project, other than the possibility that we might not reach our $3000 goal, was that we’d somehow reach our $3000 goal so early in the project’s timeline that no one else would feel compelled to donate.  In that case, we would have had an embarrassment of riches, but we also would have had days or weeks in which the project sat idly and failed to generate additional momentum.

Thus, my idea to reward backers with casting votes at the $25 level.  That way, even if we raised our $3000 goal by day two of the project, there would still have been a meaningful, one-of-a-kind opportunity to support the series and have a say in its final chemistry.

And, for only $10 more, there’s this t-shirt…

After the Rain: Bonus Advice on What to Do Immediately After You’re Funded

Once you’ve safely met your Kickstarter goal, you might start celebrating, rejoicing or simply pass out from emotional exhaustion.  But when you come to, be sure to:

  • Announce your success
  • Thank your backers
  • Mail out any swag-related perks you have on-hand
  • Inform backers when they can expect to receive your other, not-yet-created swag (DVDs, etc.)
  • Update your project website (like we did)
  • Update your Kickstarter project description with off-site URLs, because your project will still be discovered by web surfers long after funding has ended, and they should be able to find the project’s current home

If you’ve successfully shepherded a Kickstarter project to fruition and you have tips that I haven’t listed above, feel free to add them to the comments below.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a web sitcom to launch… in 2011.

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Tips for Running a Profitable Coffee Shop

NOTE: This is a sequel to my post 10 Tips for Running a Successful Coffee Shop.

ALSO: To learn how NOT to run a cafe, watch my web series, The Baristas.

Last year, I blogged my own 2 cents about How to Run a Successful Coffee Shop, based on my experiences as a regular patron thereof.  (As a freelancer, I spend most days working via laptop at one of many local cafes.)

That post continues to drive traffic to my blog even today — presumably from aspiring coffee shop owners who are trying to boost business and increase sales.  Realizing this, I thought I’d follow up by getting some extra advice from people who actually run cafes for a living.

Thanks to some folks on Twitter (who suggested their own favorite cafes), plus the advice of the owners and baristas at several cafes I personally frequent, here are some business tips from actual cafe owners.  (Note: Each respondent was asked the same 3 questions, for the sake of simplicity.)

What do you wish someone had told you before you opened your current cafe?

“Have more cash in the beginning.  It takes time to build your customer base.”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“I knew this, but thought I could ‘beat’ it: don’t get in bed with your contractor.  Or, like I did, let my lover lead the project.  What a disaster.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“We wish we’d known that to succeed in providing top quality coffee, we would need to locate in an area with an open mind towards food in general (e.g. The Strip District).  In our location, we need to serve the stupid drinks and have a lot of options for kids.  We spend a ton on training in coffee, but all that knowledge is useful to maybe only 10-15% of our customers.  The other 85% want dessert drinks.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“We have gotten to the point where we have more structure within the cafe by implementing policies and making sure everyone adheres to them.  However, I wish someone had told us that is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for smooth transition during growth.”
— Sunni Gilliam, owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I wish someone had warned me that the business would consume my life because I care about it so much.  I need to remember to make more time for family / friends.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“In a small, independent coffee shop, the regulars feel a sense of ownership — maybe more so than the staff.  It’s important to respect that this place was ‘theirs’ before you got there and it will still be theirs when you leave.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“I wish someone had encouraged me to make sure absolutely everything was organized before I got started. Shopping lists, a system to pay bills and record other expenses, where/how to file past reports, etc. Now that I’ve been half-assing it for the last 4 years, trying to tackle the problem of organization is extremely overwhelming.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

Marketing, service or quality: which do you feel is the key to a profitable cafe?

“You cannot separate these into “the key”; small business means that you will wear many hats.  In my old restaurant days we used to say I am the chief, cook, and bottle washer.  This is why many turn to a franchise (which typically has templated marketing and quality, so that you can work on execution of service).”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“They’re not mutually exclusive by any means.  They have to work synergistically.   My staff giving great service is part of marketing, which is part of quality, which is all service.  The key for us is being able to define parts that matter most and really broadcasting it.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“Coffee is pretty much a three block business.  People won’t walk farther than that.  So you’re either part of that neighborhood scene or you’re a destination people will drive to because of something unique that has little to do with ambience. Usually it’s coffee, but could be pastries or food.  It’s not couches or wireless.

As far as marketing goes, word of mouth is still king. This is a business where you’re lucky to have an average sale as high as $4.00.  To buy a $250 ad means you’d need to sell $750-$1000 in goods for it to be worthwhile.  That’s 175-250 cups of coffee.  And that doesn’t happen from an ad. If we were to buy ads, they’d absolutely be for catering.  That’s where the highest profit margins are.  And we’re the best at it in the city.

Other than some laptop warriors and a handful of certified coffee geeks, nobody really pays attention to Twitter or Facebook sites for coffeeshops.  Of the 1180 Twitter followers we have, maybe 25 are regular customers.  Half are from other coffeeshops around the world.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“Each element is essential to a profitable cafe.  However, if I must choose just one, it would be service.  The marketing will come through positive word of mouth.  This isn’t to say that the quality of the product can be poor, but it doesn’t have to be ‘mind blowing.’  With the economy right now, customers want to know that they are being appreciated for choosing your cafe to spend their time and especially their money.”
— Sunni Gilliam, co-owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I don’t think I can separate quality product and excellent customer service.  My business depends on word of mouth and the cafe’s reputation in the neighborhood.  To maintain that reputation, I need to make sure I’m consistently making a quality product, and that the coffee shop staff are friendly to my customers.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“As a barista, I like to think that I deliver the kind of service that keeps people coming back to the store, and that I make a pretty good cappuccino; but I know that without Jessica’s awesome homemade treats we would not be so highly regarded.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“I think service is the most important, but seconded VERY closely by quality. Without a good product, people won’t come back, but the first impressions from customer service employees have an even more immediate effect.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

What’s one recent mistake you made that you’d like to help others avoid?

“A mistake that I think many café owners make is to try and follow or emulate the market leader.  I don’t think it is wise to try to chase them; rather it’s more important to develop your own identity.”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“Keeping underperformers.  Just don’t do it.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“The biggest mistake we’ve made in the past year was taking on some staff who were solid employees (good cleaners, showed up on time, etc.) but lousy baristas.  We lost customers due to poor drink quality. And we lost them to a café up the street that totally sucks, but the perception is that we’re “the expensive guys”, so a bad drink here is unforgivable.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“Always have reserve funds for the ‘rainy days.’  When we had 2 major snowstorms this past season, it affected the entire service industry.  Many restaurants were forced to shut their doors or cut the staff.  We were not prepared to lose thousands of dollars in sales during Christmas weekend, nor were we prepared to lose thousands of dollars in food.  (We had several holiday parties booked and ordered accordingly.)  We were fortunate to be able to weather the storm; however, we still are not where we need to be financially. ”
— Sunni Gilliam, co-owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I am there to meet the needs of the neighborhood and I need to take criticism without feeling hurt.  It’s hard not to take criticism personally when the business is my ‘baby,’ but I am trying to listen to all suggestions now with an open mind.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“Same as Jess: trying to not take things personally if someone doesn’t like the way I make something.  The beauty of working here instead of Starbucks is, there is no manual saying that every product is made the exact same way.  As long as we have the ingredients and I’m confident I can make it the way the customer wants, I’ll try my best to make it happen.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“Do NOT keep employees on just because they’ve been there for a long time.  If there’s any lack of respect to the manager or establishment, it only fosters bad blood and shows itself in the quality of service, too.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

Agree?  Disagree?  Have another tip to share?  Leave your own stories in the comments.

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10 Tips for Running a Successful Coffee Shop

UPDATE: Due to the popularity of this post, which is just my own POV as a cafe customer, I sought out business advice from actual cafe owners and wrote a follow-up, Tips for Running a Profitable Coffee Shop.

ALSO: To learn how NOT to run a coffee shop, watch my web series, The Baristas.

People who know me well soon learn that I have a soft spot for coffee shops.  Long ago, before I ever blogged, I would write all night at Eat ‘n Park, a 24-hour diner chain in Pittsburgh (think Denny’s minus the oppression).  And before I blogged about social media, I started Cafe Witness as a fly-on-the-wall peek inside cafe culture — a habit that’s since been continued through the occasional OH (aka “overheard”) posts on my Twitter feed.

As a freelancer, I prefer to split time between working from home (where I can focus) and working from cafes (where I can people-watch and feel like I’m not a social misanthrope).  Having worked from dozens of coffee shops over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of successful ones and those whose management defies all logic.  I’ve also seen a few go out of business, and many more whose failure seems inevitable.

So what follows are my 10 suggestions for running a successful cafe, at least from the perspective of someone who spends an inordinate amount of time in them.

NOTE: The following list presumes two things: that the cafe in question is a shop rather than a kiosk, and that it’s not a corporate chain whose decisions are made by committee.

  1. Have good coffee. You’d be surprised how many cafes — even successful ones — fail at this.  If your coffee is lousy, you’ll have to overcome it with a variety of value-adds.  But if your coffee is at least drinkable, you’ll attract regulars.  And the better your coffee tastes (relative to price), the more willing someone will be to go out of his way to obtain it.
  2. A cafe is all about its culture. Starbucks ruled the world in part because its growth was tied to the way people felt about its stores — they were clean and cozy bastions of seemingly-cosmopolitan relaxation, which triggered reward responses in the brain.  Your corner cafe can’t compete with that system of stylized psychology, so win where you can: with personalization.  Every local cafe is a product of its neighborhood, and the employees AND customers contribute to its day-to-day culture.  Cultivate a pleasant and / or interesting atmosphere and the people who respect those traits will return.  Embrace localism, celebrate individuality, and make your cafe the kind of place you would want to spend time in.
  3. Hire good people. I’m less concerned about the efficiency or appearance of coffee shop employees than I am about their attitude.  I would think by now that there would be an unspoken understanding between cafe employees and customers, which says, “This shop exists as a response to the needs of the community AND as opposition to the corporate alternative.  To succeed, we have to respect each other.  And that means we value your contribution.”  In both directions.  Your employees don’t have to kill me with kindness, and they don’t even have to be “nice.”  Some of my favorite baristas are curmudgeonly fucks.  But they’re friendly when they need to be, they make their customers feel wanted, and they know how to say “thank you” and “see you later.”  Give me that, and you can take an extra five minutes for that smoke break.
  4. Be attentive. Yes, your cafe is probably run by a shoestring staff of underpaid amateurs.  If you have to draw them a diagram outlining their priorities, the top of the list should be “taking care of customers,” followed by “keeping the place clean,” and then “answering the phone.”  These three points of engagement are what separate the cafes I frequent from the cafes I avoid.  Everything else, I can let slide.
  5. Be open. In Pittsburgh, most cafes stayed open at least until 9 PM, and several until midnight.  Here in Baltimore, you have to search high and low to find one that stays open until 10 (and two of the ones we’ve found are Starbucks).  It’s hard to develop a dedicated culture of regulars when you’re not open during the times that culture happens.
  6. Man cannot live on scones alone. Do I like pastries?  Absolutely.  But if I have to leave your coffee shop in order to obtain an actual meal, it’s hard for me to justify making two or three stops in one day.  Carrying even a cursory sampling of wraps, paninis or bagelwiches is the difference between “making a day of it” and “going somewhere else.”
  7. My kingdom for a wall outlet. And wi-fi, though that should go without saying.  These days, cafes are synonymous with “places people go to do things online,” and they can’t do those things when you have spotty wi-fi and one plug for 40 chairs.  Throw them a bone and they’ll come back.  However…
  8. Make the squatters pay up. I get that you don’t want people to sit there all day, taking up valuable table space playing WoW on their laptops while nursing the same 4-hour old cup of coffee.  If business is slow, it’s less of a concern, but you don’t want laptop tablehoggers cockblocking your lunch rush.  So post a minimum purchase limit for key “busy” times of day.  Or sell the kind of wifi that requires a new purchase every 2 hours in order to stay connected.  People want to be regulars, and they want to spend time in place where they’re comfortable.  But regular customers also appreciate the service your cafe provides, and they understand that you can’t stay in business if they’re screwing you out of new clientele by squatting across every chair.  Give them the opportunity and they’ll pay their way.
  9. Frequent drinker cards are surprisingly effective. Given the choice between a cafe that stamps a “Buy X, Get 1 Free” card and one that doesn’t, I’m inclined to pick the first one for two reasons: the existence of the card implies that you want me to come back, rather than simply presuming your cafe is amazing enough that I will anyway; and, quite obviously, getting a free reward never gets old.  (Plus, yes, if I get a coffee for free, I’ll probably buy a brownie that day, so you still win.)
  10. Advertise. Holy cow, does this never happen.  In all seriousness, if you don’t have a built-in, steady supply of regular walk-in traffic at all hours of the day, you only have one recourse: remind people that you exist (and get them to come in).  If you don’t, your cafe’s days are numbered.  And yet despite this, I’ve seen countless owners try everything but advertising their cafe, for whatever reason (“I can’t afford it,” “No one goes out of their way to come here,” “We’ll be okay if we can just get a catering gig,” etc.).  If these owners applied half the time they spend complaining, panicking or wrestling with crossword puzzles to crafting affordable advertising or using free web tools (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Yelp, etc.), they’d be able to attract those missing customers whose absence keeps their cafe’s financial future in perpetual turmoil.

I’m sure I’m missing a few useful tips.  I’m even more certain that there are hundreds of cafe owners and customers alike whose experiences could improve this list.  So if you have a tip, either as a customer, an employee or an owner of a coffee shop, please add it to the comments.  Maybe together we can help a few struggling independent cafe owners figure out what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it.