Crowdfunding is no easy business. While it might seem effortless to shoot a quick video and upload some copy, successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns are months—if not years—in the making. Strategically and systematically planned out, these campaigns can sometimes take just as much effort as the projects themselves. That's where Alex Daly comes in.
Dubbed the "Crowdsourceress," Daly has a unique knack for running successful Kickstarter campaigns. It's likely that you've even helped fund a few of them. Through her company Vann Alexandra, Daly has helped launch and run campaigns such as the Joan Didion Documentary, TLC's final album, the Standards Manual (co-created by her boyfriend and collaborator, Hamish Smyth) and Eric Reis's latest book, The Leader's Guide (which we wrote about here). The company has a 100-percent success rate so far, and has several new campaigns in the works, including NYCTV, an initiative to help independent video creators and filmmakers.
Daly has proven extremely adept at organizing others' funding campaigns, but she had never attempted one of her own until yesterday, when she and Smyth Kickstarted a limited-edition poster with all 468 New York City subway stations painstakingly hand-drawn and arranged in alphabetical order. Perhaps not surprisingly, the project exceeded its $29,800 funding goal on the first day. As that project was about to launch, we caught up with the Crowdsourceress to tease out some of the secrets of her success.
Alex Daly in the office of her crowdfunding consultancy, Vann Alexandra. All Photos by Kenneth Bachor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you get into the business of crowdfunding?
It was a very organic evolution. I was working as a production manager at a boutique documentary-film company, pushing grants out, when an editor came up to me and told me about a documentary he was working on. He wanted to use this new platform, Kickstarter, and I said, "Oh, that thing where you raise money online?" That was three years ago.
We built the campaign page together and did everything from scratch. It did extremely well, raising over $80,000. I ran another campaign for the company, which was also successful, and soon after I got a phone call from a woman who said, "I heard you were the girl that knows how to raise money for documentary projects on Kickstarter." And, I was like, "Yeah, I guess I can do that." I worked with her while I was still working as a production manager, and then I left the company and began working as a freelancer.
People kept on calling me, and the topics started bleeding out of just documentary film and into theatre, music and nonfiction film—so I had this double life as a filmmaker by day and then a "crowdsourceress" by night.
Last year I ran the Neil Young campaign, which raised a whopping 6.2 million dollars, and that was when I was like, "Okay, I must be really good at this; I need to focus just on this." I left my kitchen table in Williamsburg, where I was working by myself, moved into an office space, got a freelancer and now we've grown. We have our own office and a team that runs up to four campaigns at a time.
How do you maintain your 100-percent success rate?
We're very selective. We probably have around 80 to 100 people per month trying to work with us, and we only work with three of those, if that. We accept about two percent of the projects that come to us.
The first thing we look for in a project is a built-in audience. With the Standards Manual, they built a website where they put a photograph of every page of the book and had a quarter of a million visitors in a few days. There's your audience. If there's a way to test the fan base there, I think that that's an important determinate of something's success. We worked with TLC—the best-selling girl group of all time—and they have these dedicated, loyal, obsessed fans. I think the fan bases and the built-in audiences are crucial to determining if something's going to do well. So when I see something, I immediately think about that. Who's going to be supportive of this?
There's also a difference between if somebody has a huge, built-in audience and if that built-in audience is willing to give money. I used to believe that just because someone had a big social media following, that meant that his or her project was going to do well—which is not really the case. We worked on a documentary about this famous skater and there were millions of followers for the skater and for the director of the film, but that didn't convert because the audience was 13-year-old kids without credit cards. So it really depends on if that built-in audience has the resources to donate money.
I think that there's this misconception in crowdfunding that you can just put it up and everybody's going to go to it, but there's definitely a way to design a campaign to go viral or to catch attention, and that's where we come in. It's a multipronged approach.
Say someone approaches you with a project. What are some of your next steps?
People come to us in various phases of development. Sometimes it's just an idea. Sometimes it's a film that's already in post-production. For example, right now, we're raising money for a documentary about Philip Glass and the film is done, it just needs the final touches. It's then this huge data dump. They just drop off everything that they have and we determine what needs to be done.
Most of the time, the first thing that we do is work on a video because the video is the most crucial thing about the campaign. In a way, looking at these crowdfunding campaigns is like flipping through Tinder. You're basically just going from project to project to project, and the best-looking one and the one that's the most compelling is the one you stay on and try to find out more about. That's what you see in the video. The video has to be so well thought out from the storytelling perspective. You can't get away with just sitting in front of a camera and explaining why your project is the best one. You actually have to craft a story around it, so that people fall in love with the story first, before realizing that they have to give money to it.
The video is the most crucial thing about the campaign. You can't get away with just sitting in front of a camera and explaining why your project is the best one. You actually have to craft a story around it, so that people fall in love with the story first.
So first you want to make that video perfect. Then you can pull the messaging out, write the page, determine the reward, build a profit plan and social media plan around it. We work on creating the page, writing a story, coming up with a budget to make these rewards, and the campaign itself. We also build a press plan around it, trying to get us the most press as possible on day one.
I always tell clients that it's literally like building a business. You're building a business, you're launching it for 30 days, and then you're done. That's the amount of work that goes into it in terms of preparation. I like to send the page to everyone to make sure it's clear and makes sense to every single person. You don't want to just tap into that built-in audience I talked about, you really want to make it accessible to everyone. I always say that before you launch your campaign, everyone from a 12-year-old to your mom needs to understand what the page says, what it means and if it's worthy of a donation. I actually send every campaign that we run to my mom.
Awesome. What would say is the biggest mistake you see crowdfunders making?
There are two things. Having a bad video is really a fatal mistake. That video is your brand. If it's not well done, or if it's shot on your iPhone, or if the sound is really bad, there's this psychological connection. People think that if this is what it looks like now, the product is not going to be good. If you don't put the time and energy into making that look perfect, and making your page look perfect, there's a close association that the finished product is not going to be good either.
Also, the budgeting of the rewards is a seemingly small piece of the pie, but if you don't budget all the costs that go into producing a reward and shipping it, you can wind up losing a lot of money. If you put as a five-dollar reward that you're going to print out postcards and mail them, you basically just lost all the money there.
I always tell clients that crowdfunding is literally like building a business. You're building a business, you're launching it for 30 days, and then you're done. That's the amount of work that goes into it in terms of preparation.
When we're building a page, we actually make a really well thought out budget on an Excel sheet. And that includes everything from how much it is to produce it to how much it is to ship it, the Kickstarter and Stripe fees, the platform fees themselves, the service fees for working with us and for working with other people on the project, taxes—and making sure that you actually build in some cushion there, because there's always unexpected costs that come in. All those little things really add up and you could end up having to do out of pocket if you don't budget it well.
What haven't you worked on that you would love to work on? Any dream projects?
I'm definitely interested in the gaming side of things because that is such a big category on Kickstarter with a real a built-in audience. There are rabid, very intense fans there and it would be a lot of fun to be involved in that.
I started as a filmmaker, which is why I've worked on so many films, but my favorite category is the design category, because designers really understand know how to communicate their ideas to people. I learned that with the Standards Manual. They have a leg up on everybody else without really even trying.
Of course, you still need a good idea and a good product, but I think that being a designer is a huge advantage. They also just make things look really nice. That's really helpful.
What advice would you give to designers looking to crowdfund their projects?
I would say that there's something really special in these exclusive, limited-edition, Kickstarter-only products. That worked so well for the Standards Manual and the Eric Ries project. Making something limited-edition is very successful because it functions almost like a flash sale. You only have 30 days to be able to get this, and once this campaign is done you can never get it ever again.
Before you launch your campaign, everyone from a 12-year-old to your mom needs to understand what the page says, what it means and if it's worthy of a donation. I actually send every campaign that we run to my mom.
I would also suggest creating some rewards around the product that can be exclusive, like a T-shirt or a print. Limited-edition rewards are great. Again, the video needs to be perfect and the storytelling around it has to be clear. You want everything on your campaign page to be incredibly consistent, because it's the brand you're exposing to the world. The copyrighting has to be clear. The rewards need to be clear. You don't want too many rewards because people get lost in clutter.
So to sum it up: limited-edition products, a professional video, make sure the story's clear and then be consistent through the rest of the campaign page with clarity and messaging.
Speaking of rewards, I know that's always such a challenge for campaigns. Do you have any other advice on how to approach those?
First, really figure out what is going to be a time suck and a money suck. What kind of product is really going to drain your resources? Then try to stay away from that. Or, if you need to do it for your product, just make sure that you think of every single cost that needs to go in it and give yourself a bit of a margin, because you probably will go over that estimate.
Try to make the most compelling rewards at the lower level—and it's better if they're digital because there's no cost involved. For the Joan Didion campaign, we did that extremely well. We basically made everything below 100 dollars digital, and they were all incredibly compelling.
A close-up view of Daly and Smyth's limited-edition New York City subway poster
Turning to your latest campaign—how is it different running your own Kickstarter project as opposed to someone else's?
It's sort of like a fun experiment for us, to be honest. I've never done my own campaign before. I've now run 30 campaigns for other people and I've taken all of those projects on as my baby. I become so intimately involved and I put so much pressure on myself to make them successful because I really believe in the projects that we take on. I think this will be—in a weird way—a little less pressure because it's my own and I'm doing it with my boyfriend, who's also a very frequent collaborator of mine.
We want to experiment with all the things that I just told you about. We're making this project exclusive and limited-edition. We're making the video as short and compelling as possible. We're making the page as clear as possible. There's no clutter involved. And the only reward is the project itself. So we're sort of experimenting with the advice that I preach to my clients. We're not aiming at a huge goal, just enough to break even and to get by, and I'm seeing what it feels like to do something on my own.
It's really exciting. Although I feel a little less pressure because it's my own project and I'm doing it with someone I really trust, it's still scary because we're putting something out there. I'm sure it's a little scarier for Hamish since he designed the poster, but I think that that's why these campaigns are so intense. These people that come to me have been working on these projects for years and are now releasing it out into the world and saying, "Is this worthy of your money?" It's such a big risk to take as a creator, but hopefully it all pays off.