Getting started with crowdfunding for the average geek

Editor's Note: Author Rusel DeMaria recently turned to Kickstarter to fund the third edition of his book, High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Here, we turn to him as co-author of The Crowdfunding Bible for tips on how geeks without funding from Silicon Valley can make their dreams come true through crowdfunding.

"Simply put, crowdfunding is the process of asking the general public for donations that
provide startup capital for new ventures." — The Crowdfunding Bible

Speaking as a grateful recipient of crowdfunding and contributing author of "The Crowdfunding Bible," I want to speak to you directly. My name is Rusel DeMaria. I had an idea. I needed money. I turned to Kickstarter and I got the money I needed and more. How did I do it?

I'll offer some hints on how I did it, but first, let's talk about you. What's your idea? Do you have a product, invention, event or vision you want to realize, and all you need is money to make it so?

If your answer is no, read on anyway. You might get inspired to change your answer.

If you said yes, then it's very possible that crowdfunding is for you, because all kinds of ideas — big or small, can be successfully crowdfunded. Today I saw a crowdfunding campaign for a new brand of underwear. Really, just about anything is possible. There are art projects, books, games, films, events and products of all kinds being offered for your support. Your idea could be among them.

But then again, maybe not.

Imagine you walked the streets and sauntered into the local Walmart, bar or corner grocery store and asked everyone to give you money to fund your great idea. You know it's a surefire success, and you tell them so. How successful do you think you would be? That's pretty much how Hugh Hefner started Playboy magazine — by asking friends for cash. How are you like Hugh Hefner? We'll get to that in a moment.

Back to you. Before you decide to go forth and multiply your cash deposits, answer a few questions. Be honest.

  • Your Audience. Do you have any evidence that your idea will appeal to anyone? Who specifically? What's your evidence?
  • What's In It for Them? One of the first things you learn about crowdfunding is that very few people will give you money for nothing. Do you have tangible or intangible rewards to your backers — rewards that will encourage them to give you money?
  • Follow-through. Do you know for sure that you can accomplish your goals? Sometimes money isn't enough. Be certain.
  • Networks. Do you have a social network and possibly press contacts to help you get the word out? If not, get busy. If people don't know about your project, how can they back it?
  • Are You Prepared? Believe it or not, preparation is essential in doing a crowdfunding campaign. We don't call it a campaign for nothing. It requires careful planning, persistent management, emotional toughness and the agility to make changes on the fly. Make sure you're ready to ride out a virtual rollercoaster with a potential pot of gold at the end of the line.

There are a lot more questions to answer in The Crowdfunding Bible, but these can get you started.

What's Your Ammunition?

Back to Hugh Hefner. Why did people give him money? Hefner had a unique vision, and he had done his homework. Playboy wasn't just about naked women. Hefner had acquired a strong portfolio of original fiction — great literary stuff, often by famous authors — that nobody was publishing. He figured that the women plus the great fiction was a surefire hit. He had done his homework on how to run a magazine and he had a plan that convinced a few people to help him get started. The rest is history.

For my project, the third edition of my successful game history book High Score, I had several things going for me:

  • First, the book was a known quantity, and I made sure people knew about it by posting images from the interior of the book on my Kickstarter homepage and on Pinterest, which I referenced. And of course, a copy of the new book was a premium reward, and autographed copies, even more so.
  • Second, I had a lot of well-known industry friends who were willing to share a meal with some of my higher value backers. With household names on my Kickstarter roster, I was able to garner support, offer a rare and unusual reward and even get a little extra publicity.
  • I came up with a lot of other rewards, such as putting the names of my backers in the finished book itself, and offering special placement for extra-high value backers.
  • Even with these pretty valuable advantages, I still had to work my butt off promoting the project in the press and on every social medium I could think of, while encouraging my friends and backers to do the same. It was not a slam dunk — nothing like the hugely successful projects by Double Fine and inXile, which brought in millions of dollars. They had something even better — sequels to beloved games that people really wanted to see, an impeccable track record and well-structured rewards. Where I had hundreds of backers, they had thousands.

So where do you fit in? What advantages do you have, and how can you take advantage of them?

The Keys to Crowdfuunding Success

As with anything in life, few things we really want come easily, and crowdfunding is no exception. Every successful campaign was based on what I would call the "Keys to Crowdfunding Success."

  1. It's Not Just for Boy Scouts. That's right. Be prepared! Preparation is essential, and without it you may find yourself floundering in an embarrassing no man's land without backers and without the money you hoped to acquire. Many of the rest of these keys involve some kind of planning, so preparation is sort of like a Master Key here. (Cue drum roll and creepy music.)
  2. Check It Out! Not only should you critically examine other crowdfunding campaigns (which is part of "doing your homework"), but you should definitely check out how other people respond to your idea before you present it to the general public. This includes friends, families, focus groups or even random gatherings of people. Whatever feedback you can get in advance will be very useful, and may help you tailor your message to reach the kinds of people who will fund your project. If nobody's interested, however, maybe you should go back to the drawing board and refine your idea.
  3. Give and Take. Carefully plan out what rewards you can offer, at different values, or in crowdfunding lingo — tiers. Have reward tiers that start low and go incrementally higher until you have a few very high value tiers with extra special rewards. What rewards you choose will depend entirely on your project and what you have to offer.
  4. Bookkeeping. Don't even think of starting a crowdfunding project without doing the math. Know how much you need and add a little to it — maybe 20%. Then add any costs you will incur in reward fulfillment, payments to the crowdfunding services (somewhere between 5% and 10%) and, yes, taxes. Unless you are a legit non-profit, you pay taxes on the money you take in. Do not be greedy! Most crowdfunding sites work on an all or nothing principle, which means that you get nothing if you don't meet your goal. So set a reasonable goal. Keep in mind that in most cases you can keep anything you make over that amount.
  5. The Pitch. When compared with everything else, how you present your project on a crowdfunding site may be the single most important element of your campaign. You will need to present your project in words, pictures and video in such a way that people really want to invest in your success. Go back to step 2 of this list and look at the pitches of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. Learn from them and work very hard on your pitch. There's also a ton of material on preparing and executing a great pitch in The Crowdfunding Bible.
  6. Sell, Sell, Sell. Well, not in the traditional sense, but you do need to sell your project through every means you can. You should start selling before you launch, and keep the pressure up throughout the campaign, which will typically lasts several weeks. Involve everyone you can to get the word out and keep it out there for the full duration of the campaign.

Win or lose, succeed or fail, running a crowdfunding campaign is a challenging, exhilarating and often rewarding experience. Go in with your eyes and mind open, a great passion for your idea and a well prepared project and you may be on the way to realizing your dreams, big or small. Size doesn't matter. It's your dream.


Rusel DeMaria began playing video games in 1967. Since then he has been a writer and editor, designer, consultant and analyst, founding editor and creative director of strategy guides for Prima Publishing and author of more than 60 books. He is currently working on the 3rd edition of his popular game history book, High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, following a successful funding campaign on Kickstarter.

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