When I travel outside the UK for work, teaching or even pleasure I often get asked how to access Kickstarter by non-UK startups. If you are reading this post you probably know everything about Kickstarter, the biggest crowdfunding platform on the web reserved (unfortunately) for US, UK and Canadian companies.
So the first answer is “Yes, you can access the platform even if you are not in the US or in the UK”. It’s more complex than being a local but it can be done if you know how to do it (and that’s a rule generally valid for startups even outside Kickstarter “Everything is possible if you know how to do it”).
About this guide (and me)
This guide could be useful for British startups as well, especially when I talk marketing. I spent more than 15 years working with startups first as a programmer then as a business lawyer (I know, I know nobody is perfect), then as co-founder and investor. I don’t suggest crowdfunding for every startup, but it’s a great place to start for many. I have followed a few fundings as a lawyer (usually confidential) and a few as a co-founder or adviser (I’ll use these for the guide).
This post provides no legal advice, and I don’t plan to sell legal advice later (those days are gone). The information is free. So don’t be greedy and when the time comes appoint an accountant and maybe a lawyer. I quote my friends from the British-Indian company Rajratna: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. So – again – don’t be ashamed to ask for help when you need.
In the next post I will share my experiences about how to succeed after you are already on Kickstarter (including the many mistakes we made and how to avoid them).
Why should a startup consider Kickstarter, especially a company with a non-UK founder?
Tricky question. In truth NOT all startups should consider Kickstarter. Before you apply to the platform you should ask yourself two questions:
1. First question: Can I pre-sell my product?
No matter what they say, Kickstarter is NOT a crowdfunding platform for companies.
In a typical funding a startup gives up some equity (a piece of the company) to investors in exchange for money – and hopefully for some help, connections, prestige … you name it. That doesn’t happen on Kickstarter. In fact Kickstarter (i) doesn’t allow you to give away shares of the company, and (ii) it doesn’t allow you to offer services either. You can’t launch your new law firm on Kickstarter providing 3 months consultancy to the backers. You can’t offer membership, haircuts, personal training … you get the point.
In order to be accepted on Kickstarter you need to offer a product (a piece of hardware, an album, a video game, etc.). And not even all products are accepted – as per the Kickstarter guidelines. Kickstarter is a marketplace to pre-sell your products before they exist, to customers who are open to paying in advance and ready to wait a long time for delivery. That’s the true nature of Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a marketplace (a) to pre-sell your products before they exist, (b) to customers who are open to paying in advance and ready to wait a long time for delivery.
Usually you don’t have the product yet, and you don’t have enough funds to develop it (or to develop it fast enough). In short, you are going to use the platform to sell something that doesn’t exist – to people so crazy that they will pay you in advance (such as myself).
Thus the first question you should ask yourself is “Do I have a product that needs to be pre-sold?”. If not you should check other platforms or forget crowdfunding at all. Besides, it’s a good idea to check other crowdfunding platforms anyway.
2. Second question: Do I have the time to market my project?
There is nothing worse than a failed project on Kickstarter. This platform can promote your startup to millions of customers. On the other hand it will advertise your failure as well. You don’t want to meet a potential investor and explain why customers that are nice enough to pay more than $10 million for a paper watch (true story on Kickstarter) don’t want your product (and don’t try to lie to the investors – on the internet nothing is secret).
Registering with Kickstarter is a pain, and a double pain if you live outside the US/UK – although I hope that this guide will reduce your discomfort. But the real pain is marketing your campaign. A project is usually online for 1 month, plus you should probably start working on the promotion 2 months in advance, and aim to maximize the result a month later. Therefore you’re looking at a period of 4 months (half part time, half full time).
How much time should you allow for a project on Kickstarter?
- Month 1-2 (part time): Pre-Kickstarter. Prepare the project, get accepted on Kickstarter, make a list of journalists and bloggers in your market. etc. More on the next posts.
- Month 3 (full time): Kickstarter.
- Month 4 (part time): Post-Kickstarter. Maximize your fame, set up a website to sell directly, understand who’s your typical backer and contact similar prospect customers, etc.
If you can’t be committed, forget it. Kickstarter is like a marriage without a prenup. It’s loving but if you are not committed you can lose everything. If you don’t know how to manage it properly ask for help before the wedding.
Find help for Kickstarter
There are very good consultants out there and you can also propose to an adviser to join your company and dedicate himself like crazy during the project. Look for advisers among those who already know you. For instance the startups I advise for a small equity often come from accelerators where I mentor, or they are introduced by people I respect.
No matter how few shares in your company your adviser has, he should be ready to over-work during the crowdfunding stage. A good result now will save him much work later.
3. Question to NOT ask: do I need the funds?
Even if you have enough funds to start a company by yourself, it could be a good idea to use Kickstarter anyway for three reasons.
i) The very nature of Kickstarter
You pre-sell something that you haven’t built yet, your customers pay you before you pay the providers. That’s a heavenly scenario for any company. Moreover, at the end of the campaign you know exactly how many customers you have got, and how many products you have to make.
ii) The very nature of the customers of Kickstarter
People open to pay for something that doesn’t exist are easily the best customers in the world. That’s also why “emotional” products work best. I will never buy a boring legal manual on Kickstarter, but I have backed comic books and video games in the sci-fi and gothic fantasy genres even if I don’t have time to read or play them, just because I love to see them succeed.
iii) The very nature of the promotion of Kickstarter
Kickstarter and other famous crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo can promote your existence to millions of customers. Some of the companies I’ve worked with, such as Ego Smartmouse (Kickstarter) and GlassUp (Indiegogo) were featured on TechCrunch, Mashable, VentureBeat, CNet, Business Insider, ZDNet, Fast Company and too many others to mention, including TV channels (yes, the good old traditional TV), newspapers (the kind still made of paper …), and of course bloggers both big and small as well as online magazines.
These two startups get invites to show their products at events, fairs and meet-ups. One of them got investors, and the other startup got a proposal for a government contract thanks to the free promotion gained by the platform. Customers are still contacting them, even after the campaigns have closed.
Take Away: Don’t forget to put a link to your ecommerce site on your project page after the crowdfunding has closed.
Which Kickstarter is better: US or UK?
If you decide to join Kickstarter, you still have to decide whether to join it in the USA or the UK. At the time I’m writing, these countries are the only two admitted together with Canada. Before going into details, you need to know a couple of things.
If I apply to Kickstarter in the UK will I lose US customers?
No, you will not lose your US customers if you apply in the UK. The contrary is also true, a US project will be promoted to the UK customers as well. Every customer can support any project based anywhere. Only the company should be based in one of the two countries. I am a UK resident at the moment and I often check US projects in the Kickstarter search engine, especially ones from New York City – a place where we work from time to time, and that I always love to visit.
But choosing Kickstarter US or UK influences customers browsing
But – there is always a “but” – when I open Kickstarter on my browser, and before I use the search engine, I will see the projects in my area first. So a customer from NYC will see a mix of NYC and US projects, while I am in London and I see mostly UK projects first. This should not be under estimated. Many customers check the home page and – if they get interested in a project – they never reach the search engine.
How to pick the best Kickstarter
If you are in the US you will probably register in the US. If you are a UK resident you will probably register in the UK. But if you are a foreigner you can pick whichever you prefer. Because Kickstarter tends to show local projects first, choosing the right one is important. Usually US customers are (still) the best, but there is also more competition. So do your homework, and follow the instructions of the next paragraphs. It’s boring but if you master these rules, you will save time later, and make more money too.
Browse like a pro before you join Kickstarter
Before deciding which Kickstarter to join, you should spending a few hours browsing what projects are already online. Eventually you should use software to hide your IP so you can check the home page as if you were in the US, UK or in your own country (or any country where you think you can get better media coverage).
The main points to check are:
- Check what’s going on in your market. For instance if you plan to promote your music album, check every possible project in the same market. Start with the current projects, see who’s doing well and who’s doing poorly. Try to understand why. It’s also useful to check past winning projects. To take an example, if you are a band you can learn more from Amanda Palmer and how she raised $1.1 million on Kickstarter than from any marketing course (besides I have her album too!)
- Check what’s going on in your country. Check the home page of Kickstarter from your computer. Usually when the campaign is running, the media and bloggers in your country will be more open to talking about you. Ego Smart Mouse gets coverage every time he plays the “Brilliant young Italian forced to emigrate to raise funds” card. (I should not say that Italian media loves to complain about their country … but actually I just did). Check other countries where you have contacts.
- Check what’s going on in other countries you can connect with. One of the startups I have invested in has two founders and one is Russian. Although they don’t live in Russia clearly they can contact the Russian media more easily than in other countries. Don’t ask your mother or young brother to do it. You need to see for yourself. Hide your IP and pretend to be Russian (or Spanish or wherever you have connections) and see if the home page is different. Note that you are not doing anything wrong. You are not hiding your identity to spam people or to post fake comments (a strategy that I personally dislike, although many use it). It’s just marketing analysis.
- Check what’s going on in the US and UK. Again hide your IP (sorry for the recurrent link, I swear I don’t make money with affiliate links. When there is a commission it goes to the young startups). See what the competition is. US customers are usually more numerous and more open to joining innovative projects, but the competition can be tougher in the US.
Amanda Palmer raised $1,192,793 for their music album with a simple video and a brilliant campaign on Kickstarter.
Local business is a powerful business on Kickstarter
Most of the projects on Kickstarter are international by the very nature of the platform. Internet reaches everywhere, so if you want to produce a video game or a music album you should sell to customers everywhere in the world. Then check how much competition there is to your project in the UK and US, and consider this element when deciding which Kickstarter you should apply to.
However some projects are local. Emilie Holmes of Good & Proper Tea raised enough money to buy a food truck and sell tea on the streets of London. No matter how many US customers saw her project it’s fairly improbable that a guy from Texas will send money to help a lady selling tea in London (I am a big fan by the way, on the other hand I live in London when I am not traveling).
Emilie is from the UK, but even if my friend Massimo from Milan, a great tea enthusiast, had thought about the same project, I would have suggested to him Kickstarter UK, not US. Massimo is a European citizen and doesn’t need an immigration visa to work in the UK, and he can fly to London from Milan for less than Euro 50 ($65 or £40) and promote his Kickstarter project at events, or meet local journalists in person.
In short, don’t forget to check the nature of your project: local or global. Local business are not necessarily worse than global startup, and sometimes they can be better. After you launch your local business, you can always expand trough a franchising (and that’s exactly what Emilie is doing).
Your nationality could be more important than the two points above
So if you are in the US you will probably join Kickstarter US (but your browsing research could suggest otherwise, if there is no competition to your market in the UK). If you are from the UK you will probably join Kickstarter UK (but again, browse first).
What about all the other nations? As a rule of thumb I would suggest:
- Europeans should join Kickstarter UK. You have no need for an immigration visa and you can reach your office in a couple of hours with a low cost flight.
- Commonwealth countries and other countries with an easier UK immigration visa should join Kickstarter UK (but browse and browse and browse first).
- All other countries should join Kickstarter US.
This rule is usually true and I have proved it many times but – here is another ‘but’ – part of your job is to prove me wrong. A real entrepreneur learns all the rules … to break them properly. When you have your own case study, drop me a message in the comments below or contact me directly. I love to hear about real cases (and you can get some free promotion too).
Joining Kickstarter US for a non-US company
For those who have decided to join Kickstarter US, this guide focus to the UK. However the marketing tips in the next chapter are for everyone. I will probably write a post for the US in the future, in the meantime “Godspeed my friend” and remember:
- If you have decided to register in US, investors tend to prefer companies from Delaware (just in case you plan to ask for extra funds later)
- A company from Delaware can set up a branch anywhere (so a Delaware company with an operative office in New York City or your own city is not uncommon)
- Opening a bank account for non-US citizens can be very painful, but there are ways to work around this – and I mean legal ways that are accepted by banks. Avoid any offer from the Internet that sounds too easy to be true, because that’s exactly what they are: fake. Kickstarter, Paypal and credit cards can freeze your account or decide to refund the customers anytime (a.k.a. get the money back from you). And that’s very very VERY painful.
Back to Kickstarter UK
After you have read the next chapter, feel free to drop me an email about your project. I am always happy to hear from startups.
Godspeed or – in Latin – “Ad Majora”
Image source: I took the photo near Waterloo Station, London. If you know the author of the graffiti, let me know his/her name. This photo is just a detail, the complete artwork was brilliant!