Launch a Biz with Kickstarter, Even without a Following or a List


Natalie Sisson’s tale about launching her writing career via Kickstarter was inspiring, but it might leave you wondering how to succeed with Kickstarter if you don’t have a following yet. You might conclude that if you don’t have a following, Kickstarter is probably not for you.

Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise. I launched two successful Kickstarter campaigns and nobody was following me when I started my first one.

If you’re like me, you have probably watched enviously as one Kickstarter campaign after another kicked off and ultimately found funding.

“Damn, that was my idea” you might have thought to yourself. Or worse, “I could have done that!” Sound familiar to you? Ultimately, it was the latter sentiment that got me off my butt. It was the Kickstarter project Practical Python: Learn programming for the real world! by Fletcher Heislerthat finally motivated me to get off the sidelines and do something.

Take a moment and check out his pitch. I watched in stunned amazement as he raised over $21,000 on the promise to produce a PDF file that he would email out to his backers, once he wrote it. Are you kidding me? $21K for a PDF file not yet written? He had set an $800 goal.

“I could do that”, I thought to myself. But I hadn’t.

So why hadn’t I? Ultimately I decided that there was nothing holding me back, except for the fact that I had never tried. I decided to try. I’m writing this guest post to encourage you to try too. If I can do it, you can too.

I called my pitch “The Joy of PHP” and told the world that I would write a book about programming PHP that was not just fun to read, but it would actually be a joy to read. Why not aim high? Then I waited to see what would happen. Check it out on Kickstarter if you want to see how it turned out.

Common Fears

Let’s address fear first. We all have fears and the idea of posting a video of yourself pitching your idea for the world to see is sure to bring out a closet full of fears. Let’s work through some of them so you can get over it.

The most common fear you are likely experience is to worry too much about what might happen if your Kickstarter campaign fails. I’m here to tell you, so what? If your Kickstarter campaign fails, it is not the end of the world. Nobody will think you are some kind of loser just because your Kickstarter campaign wasn’t financed. The easy way to think about this is to imagine it is someone else’s campaign instead of yours.

If a casual acquaintance of yours made a pitch on Kickstarter and it failed, which of the following are you more likely to think about him or her:

  1. That person is a total loser who never should have tried something so bold or,
  2. That person has a lot of courage to attempt something so grand, and I wish them success in the future.

I’m guessing that you are more likely to think along the lines of #2. Do you really think everyone else is so different? They are not. Most people will admire your attempt, even if you fail. Don’t let fear of failure guarantee it.

The second common fear is the fear of looking stupid. I know I had this one. There is nothing quite so horrifying as seeing yourself on a video as you um and aah, lick your lips, or compulsively repeat whatever your annoying habit is while trying to convey your idea.

I’m not going to tell you what bugs me about myself … maybe I’m the only one who notices it. What I will tell you though, is that we are not perfect, and we are never going to be perfect. To succeed, this is something you just have to get over. Personally, I thought my first video was so bad that I didn’t even show it to my wife about it until well after I had hit my funding goal! In hindsight, this was dumb. She thought it was great, and apparently enough other people did too.

Turns out, I was my own harshest critic and it seemed that not many people held my imperfections against me. I even had some people comment that they backed the project simply because I seemed like a nice guy. I guess that’s the value of being your authentic self.

I spent several hours repeating the pitch over and over, and finally just took the one that I thought was “good enough”. As Jason and Jeremy say, go for “progress not perfection.” Just putting together a pitch is significant progress.

How to select your topic

I studied Fletcher’s and other Kickstarter campaigns and tried to figure out what had made them successful, and I also looked at several pitches that failed. I think it boils down to two key elements:

  1. It has to be a topic with broad appeal
  2. It has to be a topic that you are passionate about

Wide Appeal

If your project doesn’t have wide appeal it probably isn’t going to get funded. While it is true that hundreds of thousands of people visit Kickstarter in a given month, a project that only appeals to a small fraction of those visitors is not going to get funded. I saw many of these types of projects along the lines of “save our theater” or “The Illustrated history of the East Overshoe Fire Department” or something like that. Projects which only benefit people who live within a specific geographical region typically do not fare that well.


Next, if the project isn’t something that you are passionate about, this will come across in your pitch, and it will probably fail. I saw several examples of these where the person seemed to be pitching an idea simply to make money. This hardly ever works. Take your time and pick something you care about.

How to make your pitch

I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I know what worked for me. I had a single camera (a flipcam) on a tripod aimed at my desk, and I made the pitch several times in a row until I thought I had done it as well as I was ever going to do it. I imported it into Microsoft Movie Maker and added some real basic subtitles and an intro image. This was not a Hollywood production.

Be yourself. Part of what makes people choose to back a project is feeling a connection with the pitchman. So be a real person, make your pitch as clearly and concisely as you can and don’t worry about over editing it.

How to set your funding goal

When you’re setting your funding goal there are two things to keep in mind.

First, don’t set your goal too high. If you set your goal too high and you don’t meet the goal you don’t get anything. The idea behind this rule is that you are raising money for a specific purpose and that you are requesting the minimum amount of money that will enable you to deliver.

For instance, if you are going to have something manufactured and you know that there is a minimum order quantity, getting half the money isn’t going to allow you to place the order so it doesn’t make sense to charge your backers for their pledge when we know that you are not going to be able to place the order.

Second, don’t set your goal too low. If your goal is met and your project gets funded, you will be on the hook to deliver. So don’t set a goal so low that you are not motivated to finish the project.

In my own case, I basically tried to figure out the amount of money I would accept to do the project if someone walked up to me and handed me the money. Clearly this is a very inexact science. I always have a lot of competing ideas bouncing in my head, so I want to focus on ideas that are worth my trouble.

In the end, I figured that if someone walked up to me and offered to pay me $1,200 to write the book I had in my head then I certainly would–and I’d feel good about it. So that’s what I set my goal to be. Set your goal to something you’d feel good about. The last thing you want is to have to deliver on a project while thinking to yourself “this is not worth it!”

After Kickstarter

After my project got funded and I got close to completing my book, I was surprised to get dozens of requests for the book in Kindle format. I really didn’t know what Kindle format was, but I soon found out. Kindle is Amazon’s ebook format, and it is hugely popular. Unfortunately the tool I used to write my book was not particularly Kindle friendly, so I used some of the money I got for my campaign to pay someone to convert my book into Kindle format. For this I found someone via eLance.

I also learned—to my surprise—that there is no “gatekeeper” who decides which books go into the Amazon Kindle store and which do not. They all go in! Anyone with an Amazon account can upload their book and it will appear in the Kindle store within 24 hours. This really changes everything! You don’t have to dread rejection letters from publishers because there aren’t any.

Your book will succeed or fail entirely on its merits, as judged by those who read the book and take the time to offer a rating.Of course, this means you can’t just write crap and expect to get rich- it doesn’t work that way at all. Bad books filter to the bottom even faster than good books filter to the top. The Amazon rating system is very effective.

Here it is nearly a full year since The Joy of PHP went into the Kindle store and my book is consistently in the top ten in its category and has over 40 reviews. More importantly, this means that Kindle has become a great source of passive income for me. Every month I get a new royalty deposit into my account for work I did a year prior. Obviously, I want more of this! Unlike printed books which may have a shelf life of two or three months before they are tossed to make room for the next set of books, Kindle books can stay “on the shelves” for as long as they are relevant.

I have set a goal for myself to write two books a year for the next several years, setting myself up for serious passive income over time. My writing is getting better, and now I do have a following.

I also have used some of my Kickstarter and Kindle royalty money to develop a site to help aspiring authors write their own Kindle books without any of the formatting hassles I had to go through. This site, which is currently free, can be found at:

Parting Thoughts

Kickstarter: Don’t be afraid to launch your own Kickstarter project as a way to launch your next venture. The worst that can happen is the idea fails before you invest too much into it. That might actually be a good thing, if it saves you from investing time and energy into a bad idea.

Kindle: Amazon has opened its doors to aspiring authors around the world. They want your book. If you think you can write a book, then by all means go for it! Just having a book out on a topic gives you instant credibility and respect, even if it isn’t a best seller. Anyone who Googles you will see that you wrote the book and be impressed. There really isn’t a downside.

Now, get going!

About the Author

Alan Forbes is a serial entrepreneur and software developer, and the best-selling author of The Joy of PHP and The Joy of jQuery. Do you have a question about Kickstarter, writing your own Kindle book, or even building your own web application such as Reach out to him. Alan promises to personally answer every email.


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  1. Thanks for sharing this great idea.
    With Kickstarter I was able to publish a comic book I had created, but never considered using it to publish a non-fiction book.

    This article is perfect timing since I have been working on a book teaching animation using software on every computer (iMovie or Windows Movie Maker) and a digital camera. I have been finding it hard to work on the book without knowing if it will sell, but if I use kickstarter it will let me know if people are willing to pay for the product.

    I do have one quick question. How long did you run your campaign for? I know kickstarter says 30 days, but is this what you did? Any thoughts on doing a longer campaign?

  2. I ran them about 30 days each, but I timed them to end on a Sunday afternoon so it might have been a day or two in either direction.

  3. Thanks for getting back to me.
    I am curious if you had a reason for only 30 days or if it was just what Kickstart says works best?

    Also, do you have any recommendations or good resources for putting together a marketing plan?

    I am preparing now and would like to launch my campaign in a few months, but figure having a detailed plan would be very helpful during the limited time it is up on Kickstarter.

    • Alan Forbes says:

      I think the thought behind the 30 days is to create a sense of urgency with the potential backer. If you see something but you ‘could’ back them anytime in the next 60 days or more, you might think you could just get to it later– then forget it. I went with what they suggested. I didn’t do any of what Natally said she did regards to kicking out twitter feeds and other buzz-generation. I didn’t have a twitter following anyway. :) If you want to email me your idea I’ll be happy to give it my feedback. You can put up projects on Kickstarter and let select people preview it before you go live.

  4. Hey there,

    I was mainly interested in this article as the title was about launching a biz with kickstarter and no list, but I don’t actually see anything about how you got your project funded without any list to promote it.

    Did you just stick it up without any promotion and have it fund? How many blogs / journalists did you contact? How many personal connections did you have pledge at the start to get the ball rolling? What other promotional methods did you use? Where was most of your traffic coming from?

    thanks! From what I’ve seen, lack of an audience built up over years seems to be the main issue for projects failing, and I’m still keen to learn how you got around this!

  5. Alan Forbes says:

    Hi PJ,

    Yes, I basically stuck it up there with barely any promotion and saw it get funded. I found a ‘handful’ of sites related to PHP and asked them if they’d mention it on their blog and a few did but that’s about it.

    Also as a member of the Boston PHP group I did post something on the group board, but I don’t think that made a huge difference. In fact Kickstarter has a dashboard where you can see where your traffic came from and something like 90% was organic (meaning from Kickstarter itself).

  6. Wow. That seems quite extraordinary to have almost all of your traffic come from Kickstarter itself. The impression that I was given was that traffic from Kickstarter only really tends to kick in when you’ve already become quite popular based on your own promotion.

    I wonder what factors made your project different? Could it be that it happened to match Kickstarters demographics closely (ie there are a lot of developers and wanna-be developers in their userbase)? I wonder how replicable this would be in other areas that have broad appeal, but to a different demographic.


    • Just putting in my 2 cents.

      I imagine it helped that non-fiction books are not very common on the site. You see tons of art projects, inventions, software (usually games), etc.

      I also think most people on Kickstarter are creative types so if they see something on Kickstarter that will teach them a new creative skill it is more alluring than backing another independent film.

      • Yes, that makes sense. It’s showing them how to more easily complete a goal (making something creative) that many users of the site already have…

        Good point.

    • Alan Forbes says:

      All I know is that it worked for me, so when I heard Natalie’s interview on IBM 212 I felt compelled to share with the rest of you an alternate experience whereby someone WITHOUT a following was still able to get funded. Will it work for everyone? I can’t say– but don’t let that limiting belief hold you back.

  7. Just to let you know, I’ve launched a new Kickstarter campaign called “The Joy of Bootstrap”