Last time: we continued our in-depth discussion of crowd-funding with Alec Peters (Axanar executive producer) and Mike Bawden (Axanar director of public relations), two veterans of Trek fan films who, together, have raised nearly $2 million through multiple Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for various projects.
Alec and Mike possess a wealth of knowledge about running successful crowd-funding campaigns. And whether you’re planning to do a campaign of your own someday or simply thinking of donating to one, we now conclude this compelling conversation on the realities of crowd-funding…
JONATHAN: There are people reading this blog who are thinking about setting up crowd-funding campaigns of their own. If there are ways of reaching untapped donors, what are they?
MIKE: Well, you know what they’re interested in. And there are various digital marketing techniques that you can employ for a few hundred dollars or a couple thousand dollars that will put you in front of them. You just better make sure that your pitch is interesting enough and intriguing enough that it will engage them and get them to support you. But it’s not easy.
JONATHAN: Let me ask you again, though, can you be more specific? You said there are various digital marketing techniques, but what exactly are they? Because that’s what the readers are dying to find out.
MIKE: Well, as Alec said, Facebook is a great way to go if you don’t have a lot of money to advertise with. They can provide you very focused advertising based on people’s likes. But if I had five to ten thousand bucks, I’d go ahead and invest in an ongoing self-funding digital advertising campaign that targets people that go and visit these different Star Trek fan sites and put video ads in front of them to find people to help keep the mission alive or to continue the mission or whatever the creative advertising message is that will engage people.
JONATHAN: You mean those same videos that constantly annoy me on websites that I go to and I rush to try to close them before they can start?
MIKE: Well, that’s just because they haven’t quite got the target then. If it’s an ad that’s of interest to you or a product that’s of interest to you, more than likely you will be inclined to click on it to find out more.
Often times where digital advertising fails is that it’s asking the user to either make more of a commitment than they’re prepared to make or it sends them to a place where it makes no sense for that person to go. So it takes time and effort to make sure that your message is right, that your ask is right, and that you are making people aware of what’s out there. I mean, if you’ve got a new teaser on a new show or a new episode—whether it’s Continues or New Voyages or Grissom or whatever that’s out there—what you should probably be asking them to help fund isn’t the whole production but taking advantage of an opportunity to get involved in something that’s already done.
The number one complaint I’ve heard from people who get involved contributing to crowd-funding is that backers will provide funds and then almost inevitably every project misses its fulfillment deadlines.
JONATHAN: Yeah, Alec…Axanar wouldn’t know anything about that, now, would it?
MIKE: Every single project that I’ve backed, and I’ve donated to over two dozen, every single one of them has missed a deadline. And even some of the things I’ve backed that were being produced by friends of mine, comic artists doing a graphic novel and stuff like that, and I’ll call ‘em a week after I’m supposed to have their new book, and I’ll be like, “Dude, where’s my book?” And they’re like, “Man, Christmas came, and then I got sick, and I was out for week and then my mom got sick, and blah-blah-blah. And I’m just putting the finishing touches on the pages now.” And I’m like, “Dude, you need to tell your backers because everyone thinks you fell off the face of the planet.”
It happens all the time. But even if you have a campaign set up to fund a future production, you need to have certain items ready to go in the queue so that when a project funds and you get the cash, you can respond immediately. I remember one project I was working on, a guy wanted to issue people membership cards. But he needed to put each person’s name on the card, laminate each one, and put each into a separate envelope. And he had three thousand donors, and he was planning to do each one himself by hand! And I’m saying, “Dude, here’s the way you could have done it. There’s a service where you can actually create the artwork. It’s all online; it’s all digital. All you have to do is upload a spreadsheet, it makes all the cards, puts them in envelopes, labels them and mails them.” And he goes, “Yeah, but it’s three and a half dollars a card!” And I’m like, “How much time would you be saving?? You’re going through all of this extra work, and now you’re a month late getting these darn membership cards out!”
The timing, the sense of urgency, and the delivery of perks to a backer is a top priority. That’s why we’re so focused on getting this thing working at Axanar. We have GOT to get this problem solved.
ALEC: Yeah, I know. Ares Digital just didn’t materialize as fast as we expected it would, and we’ve had all these perks packed up for months, ready to go out. We just needed to generate the thousands of address labels, and we couldn’t because the technology wasn’t finished. It’s been incredibly frustrating to have them trapped in the system, unable to be printed. These patches should have been out last summer!
So we have a new CTO (Chief Technology Officer) and he is doing the work to finish Ares Digital, and people are gonna have the Kickstarter patches, and people are gonna be excited about it. And then we will do the same with the Indiegogo patches. My goal is to make sure that the only things left that need to be delivered are those items that rely on the actual production: the film, the blu-ray, that type of thing. And right now, we’re working on the “Origins” video, which Rob is working hard on.
JONATHAN: Let’s shift into discussing two notable Kickstarter campaigns that happened at the end of last year: Star Trek: Renegades in November and Starship Farragut in December. Both were nail-biters that nearly didn’t make it (and since they were Kickstarters, if they missed their goals, they would have ended up with nothing). Renegades set a goal of $375,000 and with two days left, they were still $25,000 short! They reached their goal with just 30 hours to spare and wound up with $378,000. Farragut only needed to reach $15,000, and with four days left, they were still $5,000 short! Somehow they managed to just barely tick over their goal at the last second, finishing with $15,787 from 207 backers.
Now, with many previous campaigns, including past Kickstarters for Star Trek Continues, New Voyages, Renegades, and of course, Axanar, goal levels were hit much earlier on and at least a few stretch goals were usually reached, as well. So, is donor fatigue finally setting in?
ALEC: Well, as you said in part 1, there’s a lot of factors that could have been in play besides donor fatigue. And Mike said that there’s still a lot of fans out there who’ve never even heard of fan films and would probably donate if given the chance.
MIKE: And of course, there’s also the question of setting the proper goal levels. Obviously, both of these campaigns reached their goals and funded, so they were both successful. But maybe they might have wanted to consider lower goals.
JONATHAN: Well, Farragut’s $15,000 doesn’t seem that high…
MIKE: Farragut’s a good production. Clearly they must have thousands of people who have supported their project in the past. The first thing I would do if I were Starship Farragut, I would have e-mailed them all or reached out to them via Facebook and said, “It’s two days before we launch our Kickstarter campaign, our goal’s fifteen grand, and if you can give us $25 as part of this quiet pre-launch campaign, you’ll get us close to the goal and we’ll give you a special exclusive perk for being a long-time supporter.
More importantly, and more to the point—especially with a goal of $15,000—is that if you do that outreach initially over a two or three week period before the campaign kicks off and you’re getting no response, you may want to sit back and reconsider whether you should even pull the trigger on the campaign.
JONATHAN: My feeling about Farragut (and I’m also a big fan of that series…and a donor) is that they went down the same path as Star Trek Continues did in that they had the campaign and then, a month later AFTER it finished, they released their new episode. And their new episode was “The Crossing,” their mirror universe story. But for me, once again, had they reversed that order, had they released “The Crossing” and then, the day they released the crossing, had they then started the campaign, I think there would have been much more excitement because they would have been the toast of the town at that point.
MIKE: You’re exactly right, Jonathan.
JONATHAN: I also think that Renegades’ and Farragut’s campaigns in November and December have proven that, for the love of Sargon, do not have your Kickstarter campaign during the holiday season! Nobody’s paying attention, and everyone is saving their money to buy Christmas and Hanukkah presents and not to donate to Kickstarters.
MIKE: If you were to do a special holiday edition of your crowd-funding campaign with holiday-themed things, maybe you could do something there, but that’s all part of a larger marketing and branding approach to your project that requires a level of sophistication that most people may not want to invest in.
JONATHAN: Is there anything specifically that someone planning a crowd-funding campaign should absolutely avoid doing at all costs?
MIKE: Crowd-funding platforms present an interesting business opportunity for people who want to create their own films, their own work. But they need to be smart about how they do it. Too many times, I think, crowd-funding is often looked at as a replacement for having to put your own skin in the game. And that’s where most of these people fall through…especially the ones who are successful in crowd-funding. There’s too much danger of looking at money raised through crowd-funding as something you can go off and spend as though it were your own money.
No one ever treats it like their own money. When it’s your own money, you think twice before you spend any of it. And just see, time and time again, people are too quick to spend donated money because it was relatively easy to raise it over 30 days in a crowd-funding campaign. You still have to live within your means, and money is only a part of what it takes to get the project done.
Part of the problem that I’ve seen is when someone will do a crowd-funding campaign and they only plan on raising $50,000 and they raise $250,000…and all of a sudden, their project goes from a short film into an epic. And that change of scope is being driven by what they perceive to be available funds, as opposed to writing a budget that is tied to the actual story. And that is a recipe for disaster because, all of a sudden, you start spending money that you may or may not be able to afford to spend. And that’s a problem.
JONATHAN: So let me ask you, Mike, if you do a $50,000 Kickstarter and you raise $250,000…should you just give $200,000 of that back?
MIKE: That is a really great question because it’s a problem for a fan film—like a Star Trek or Star Wars or Marvel character fan film—that original intellectual property ideas don’t have to worry about. If it’s your own IP and you raise $250K and your budget’s only $50K, that two hundred you can put in the bank and figure out how you’re gonna leverage that into something grander down the road.
But when it’s a fan project, then you’ve gotta wonder, “What are we gonna do with the extra two hundred grand? Because we can’t pocket it. We can’t count it as profit.” And at that point, then, my advice to somebody would be to say, “You need to take that money and put it in an escrow account. And you need to say, ‘When we’re ready to do our sequel to this first project, we are $200,000 ahead of where we would be.’”
JONATHAN: And make the new budget for the sequel project with that in mind.
MIKE: Absolutely. And what I would do if it were me, is I would say, “How can we produce what we want to produce for that two hundred grand so that then when we do a Kickstarter or we do an Indiegogo campaign, it’s to refill the coffers so we can do another one down the road. But as soon as we hit certain benchmarks, we’ll be able to start releasing content.” And it’s all about “plussing things up” then, instead of making a budget so we can put on our show, not it’s what can we do to add to the entire experience so that we can make it that much better? And it’s all about prudent fiscal management and keeping a really tight rein on where that money’s going.
But that’s an inherent problem with fan films that independent, original creators don’t have. If an original creator over-raises by thirty grand, he can say, “Guess what! I’m gonna buy a new car!”
JONATHAN: Is there any message that you want to say—to Star Trek fans or anyone else—looking to do a crowd-funding campaign? Are there any final words of wisdom that you would give these people before starting up?
MIKE: Yeah, it’s very simple: keep it real. Set a realistic goal. Don’t try to take the whole thing on at once. Set a realistic budget, make sure it’s attainable, and make sure you can deliver on it promptly. And then go back and do it again.
But take little, realistic steps. You may luck out, you may completely over-achieve, you may raise the million dollars that you want for your project. But you need to set the goal at this-is-what-it’s-gonna-take-to-get-the-treatment-done-and-get-the-initial-design-work-done. If that’s gonna be $70,000, then that’s gotta be the goal.
Set a realistic goal. Make sure that you can achieve it. And then make sure that you’re able to deliver it right away…as soon as you can, as soon as it’s done. Because that’s how you work on building a loyal audience, and it’s that loyal audience that’s gonna take you the distance. If they’re happy, they’re gonna tell their friends, and that viral word-of-mouth is gonna help sustain you.
JONATHAN: Alec, Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about all this. I hope you enjoyed yourselves.
MIKE: I had a great time, Jonathan, thank you.
ALEC: Yes, thank you. I can’t wait to see this once it’s published online.