Chapter 11. How We Crowd-funded $484k to Make Glowing Plants

Antony Evans

One of the goals of the Glowing Plant project was to inspire others to look at crowdfunding as a way to reach their own goals within DIYbio/synthetic biology. We’ve been pleased to see a number of bioengineering campaigns launch; however, they have been unable to raise similar amounts of funding. Therefore, we want to share our tips and tricks in hopes that they will be useful to others embarking on a crowdsourced funding journey.

Preparation

Once a crowdfunding campaign gets underway, you will become overwhelmed and insanely busy. Also, crowdfunding campaigns have a significant momentum effect, so it’s important that they are as well presented and developed as possible at launch. Planning for the campaign is critical.

We started formal planning eight months before the launch date. The most important thing at this early stage was discussing our plans to engineer a glowing plant with everyone we knew and met in person, including at meetups and other events.

Sharing the project openly and transparently up front achieved three goals:

  1. We wanted to know if people were excited by and wanted to talk about the project. From our discussions, we learned our supporters wanted the engineered seeds.
  2. It established a personal relationship with people, so when they saw the project, they felt a personal connection to it.
  3. It allowed us to build partnerships broadening our social network, as the reach of the campaign is proportional to the size of the network. Many of these partners also became part of the project and helped in other ways.

We also did research online, looking at other campaigns (backing a few we liked) and seeing what did and didn’t work. Both Kickstarter and Indiegogo publish information helping project creators plan their projects, and we took note of what they deemed important as well as what other people online thought.

As part of this research, we learned that 80% of projects that get to 20% of their funding succeed, so this became our first target milestone. We realized that getting to 20% would be easier if we closed a few big backers early on, so we went on the road and sold those rewards in person, sometimes giving them additional perks as part of the package. One of these was a $10k backer, Cambrian Genomics, which supported the project within the first hour. This gave us instant credibility that we could reach the target, igniting a wave of optimism online.

Another tip we got was from the founder of Pebble, who gave a talk at Singularity University. He convinced us to look at the landing page and treat it like a product in itself. You don’t launch a product without getting user input (I’ve made that mistake before!). We showed the preview page to over 100 people in the month prior to launch. These people included our advisors, roommates, friendly mailing lists, and even a few people I stopped on the street in San Francisco.

The feedback we got from this group (e.g., your rewards are too expensive, the landing page is too complicated, and the video could be more exciting) was incredibly valuable. This was an iterative process; as we made the changes, we sought more opinions.

We also received landing page feedback from the Kickstarter product design category manager. We got criticism from scientists about this after launch, but it was the right decision. The landing page should be simple and most importantly actionable (back the project today!). That’s why we stripped away all the text and just used images on the page. Remember, most backers don’t understand the details and trust you to know them yourselves. Another reason for not going deep into technical details is that people will start discussing on social media platforms how you are going to do the science, which drives traffic and maybe some new ideas you hadn’t considered.

Clarity around regulation is incredibly important, because backers want product, and they want to know what you need to do to get it to them, as well as the project-execution risks. You have to reach out to the relevant regulatory agencies (USDA, EPA, or FDA) before launching the campaign. We found all of these agencies keen to engage early and approachable and frank in their opinions, especially if you get a personal introduction.

One campaign we studied intensely was "The Ten Year Hoodie." We were amazed at how much money they raised for such a simple product. We were really inspired by the story arc and energy of their video. What really struck us, though, was how the campaign was about more than just the hoodie: it was about inspiring a whole new movement in manufacturing to improve quality and be based in the US. Our campaign goal was to inspire people about synthetic biology, so we made that a core feature of the video. Backers support a project and take a risk because the campaign is about more than just a product.

A good video is critical. Kickstarter says you can make it yourself, but we suck at videography, so we decided to outsource it, which turned out to be a great decision. (If you’re looking for one, talk to Rick Symonds.) Doing this properly takes capital (in the range of thousands of dollars), but it also signals to backers that you are serious about the project if you have put your own money at risk before launch. Good music is important, and I spent two days reviewing clips on Audio Socket and The Music Bed. Shoot the video, get feedback on the draft, then reshoot and repeat.

Setting the target goal is hard—you want a low goal that looks attainable (and that you can get to the magic 20%), but not so low a goal that executing will be impossible. Momentum matters, and people like to back a winner, so the lower the goal you set, the better—most projects that reach their goal go significantly over it. We set our goal at the minimum amount necessary to still actually want to do the project. This approach means you can do an all-or-nothing campaign, as raising less than our goal would make it a struggle to execute.

Running the Campaign

We split the campaign into three phases:

  1. Getting to 20% of our target funding goal by reaching our friends and family, who all knew the campaign was coming in advance and had promised to back within the first few days.
  2. Getting to the goal of $65k by reaching out to the tech community/early adopters.
  3. Going beyond that goal by reaching out to the mainstream/national press and to the broader public. (This phase was not well planned in advance, and what we did plan, for example, gardeners as our target segment, mostly failed.)

Within each group, we wanted to create a surround sound effect so that people in that segment saw the project three to four times in a week and hopefully decided to back it.

We launched at 9:30 a.m. Pacific time on a Tuesday; we selected this time because it gave us nearly the whole week to generate press and wasn’t Monday morning, when people are just getting into their work week. The 20% target all knew the campaign was coming and what time it was expected to launch. We had emails ready to go to them and some friendly mailing lists (e.g., DIYbio and BioCurious) the second we went live. Around 20 people were anticipating the launch and ready to start sending messages to other people and share on social media.

We then posted to HackerNews, which didn’t yield too many donations. However, it did result in people posting our campaign on other social news sites like reddit and Slashdot, resulting in some significant traffic over several days. Reddit was especially powerful—it brought more donations than the New York Times article!

Because I live in the Bay Area, I know someone at Techcrunch, which helped us get one of the journalists to cover the Glowing Plant story. We offered her an exclusive in exchange for Techcrunch holding off on publishing until after we launched the campaign, and that article led to many more (like Gizmag, Fast Company, inhabitat). We learned that all the leading blogs are read by other blogs who will want to write follow-up articles once you become a news story (this was also true with mainstream press, who all got in touch after the New York Times article). Thus the first story is the hardest to get, so network!

After that, it was mostly momentum and being prompt and responsive to incoming interest. Journalists are busy, and if they reached out, the least we could do was reply as soon as possible to schedule a time to talk. I worked 16 hours a day dealing with the onslaught, and we had two interns helping answer messages (we got hundreds per day). You can’t run a campaign like ours part time or in addition to other activities.

One trick we learned was syndication. Obvious examples of this are tweets or Facebook shares of articles, but some news agencies also push articles out to other sites in syndication deals. For Singularity Hub, this led to five times the traffic from the original article, so it’s always worth asking journalists to syndicate you.

Another thing we learned was the value of controversy, so don’t be afraid of it. We had NGO’s who didn’t like our project pitch to mainstream news agencies for us, resulting in press like the New York Times piece, which we could never have gotten ourselves. You are not building consensus with your campaign—you are firing up your core supporters, your core believers, so much that they want to give you money even though you don’t have a product yet. You want discussion and debate—that’s what drives passion, and that’s what drives social media. People share your project when they care, and controversy makes them care. Anything in synthetic bio will be controversial, so don’t be afraid of that, but just remember to stick within clear ethical and lawful lines and develop a thick skin; on the Internet, haters are just going to hate, so accept it.

In the last days of the campaign, we used Hootsuite to schedule hourly tweets and Facebook messages counting down until the end. It’s hard to track whether these worked, but they created urgency at the end to go along with the Kickstarter reminder email.

What Didn’t Work

Lots of things went well with our campaign, but there were a few that didn’t:

Stretch goals
We hoped for success, but we didn’t plan well enough for it with our stretch goals. I wish we had made them more frequent milestones and things that benefited all backers. Every project is different, but we should have outlined which additional experiments we could do with additional funds and linked those experiments to the stretch goals explaining how they would make the plant brighter. Still, I’m very excited about the glowing rose!
Duration
Kickstarter recommends 30 days; we didn’t listen and did 45 days. Most campaigns are a U-shaped (see our Kicktraq data), with a huge peak at the start, then a long lull, then another rush at the end after Kickstarter sends the reminder email. If you extend the campaign, all you do is extend the lull, which means more stress until you get the funds.
Facebook ads
We tried running Facebook ads to drive traffic in the lull, but they brought in less money than we spent on them. However, I wish we could have targeted people who liked the page as well as their friends.
PR agency
We had a good conversion rate (2–8%, depending on source) and figured more traffic would lead to more conversions, so we hired a PR agency that contacted us. They got a few articles, but nothing compared to what we did ourselves. Journalists want to talk directly to the founders—you don’t need a middleman.

Post-Campaign

We vaguely thought we’d plan the post-campaign during the actual campaign, which was a big mistake, as we didn’t have time. The campaign is just crazy—we should have developed the strategy for that before launching. The most important thing is to plan where to direct traffic after the campaign ends because Kickstarter locks the page the second you finish. You have to set up those links ahead of time. If you will continue taking preorders, you want to decide that up front so that it can all be setup in advance. http://trycelery.com and http://shopstarter.com seem to be the leading platforms to help with that.

You also want to think about search engine optimization (SEO) post-campaign. We were encouraged to give a redirect link out to journalists (http://www.glowingplant.com/kickstarter) for the page rather than the actual page. That way, you can change it later and keep the SEO juice for yourself.

Another thing to plan for are credit card defaults (which is less of a problem on Indiegogo, which collects money upfront). These defaults come mostly from expired credit cards, and you can expect to spend the first week after the campaign chasing these people down to get new card details, so don’t go on holiday too fast! After about one week, the campaign funding gets locked, and a week or so later, you get the funds. Our net proceeds were $432k, so about 89% of the total (the remainder is comprised of defaults, Amazon fees, and Kickstarter fees). Don’t forget to budget this 11% cost in your planning!

Conclusion

The campaign was one of the most rewarding events in my career. It was an intense but incredible feeling to see the numbers go up and knowing people were putting their faith in us. We take the trust and responsibilities of the backers very seriously, and the plants are already glowing. We can’t wait to ship them to everyone next summer!

We benefited from so many people’s advice before launch, and we want to pay that forward to others. If you are planning a similar campaign, please do get in touch—we want to help! Just make sure to give us at least a couple weeks before your launch date to get back to you.

Appendix

For the geeks, here are our traffic stats:

  • Video views: 358,000
  • Backers: 8,433
  • Funds pledged: $484,000