I Failed to Raise Fifty Thousand Dollars in Crowdfunding and So Can You

If you’re unaware, I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to raise $50,000 for my still-nascent (but very cool) software thing/application/company, Resolution

It did not succeed. And yet… perhaps the REAL fifty thousand dollars were the friends we made along the way?

(Editor’s Note — No, I just checked, we did not get $50,000 in any form, including friends and/or relationships.)

Ok, fine. There will be no money. But I learned a bunch of interesting things about life, love, and crowdfunding software companies that I wanted to share, so here goes. 

First, a little background. 

A Little Background

Basically, I offered glorified access to — if I’m being honest — a pretty sophisticated beta version of Resolution. Pure access was $20, and then I added on a bunch of models I’d give to people if they pledged $50, $100, or $250. 

I don’t really feel the need to dissect the effectiveness of my tiering, because the elephant in the room is that I got 73 people to back this project, which is not nearly enough no matter how you slice it. There were a few friends and family in there, for sure, but there were also a bunch of random people I’ve never met, plus some old co-workers I haven’t talked to in forever, and some 2nd and 3rd degree connections. The average donation/backing/pledge was $135.

I spent zero dollars on advertising or sponsorships. In the end, I got a grand total of $9,912 dollars pledged, or just about 20% of my admittedly not-that-well-thought-out goal. 

Things I Learned (your mileage may vary)

1) Kickstarter is Not For Web Productivity Software

Kickstarter is a strange community. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but before I did this project, I hadn’t really thought about it much in nearly a decade, when it at least felt like it wasn’t an insane place to build support for a high quality software application. When I went back to check out other software projects before setting this one up, it was… pretty slim pickings. Most stuff was weird, super niche, and frankly, looked extremely half-baked. Resolution, hilariously enough, quickly became the number one project in the fairly buried “Software” sub-category, but based on my final results you can probably tell that’s not quite the feather in your cap I would have liked it to be. 

I did basic due diligence on “how to be successful on Kickstarter”, but there really weren’t any obvious magic tricks sitting in old blog posts. In general, the most helpful things were having a clear target audience and/or a decent, pre-existing following you could hit up. I had neither of these things, and that’s probably why not that many eyeballs got on my project. 

The other kind of funny thing was some of the direct feedback I got. While I appreciated everything I heard from folks (it’s nice just to be noticed), a lot of the software feedback felt like it was from some bizarre, alternate universe. Some people wanted to know whether Resolution ran on Windows, and others expressed grave concerns about running anything on “the cloud”. There were a number of pretty specific feature requests from people (some who backed, and some who did not) that felt much more like they were buying from a store than backing an early stage project. 

For the most part, I get all of this, and my surprise is mostly a matter of degree. Kickstarter has been around for a long time now, and it’s much more of a direct sales channel today than it was ten years ago when it served as a bit of a dream incubator for entrepreneurs. Are other crowdfunding channels also like this? I don’t know. Will this change if software stops being such a sexy institutional investment that doesn’t really “need” crowdfunding the way a set of cast iron anime action figures does? I don’t know that either. The browser has been eating software for decades now, and I think people are really used to either discovering potential workplace solutions from fairly well capitalized startups, or simply muddling through with whatever enormous industry standard tool they are used to (whether it’s from Adobe, Microsoft, Google, etc.).

This is not to say “my idea is perfect, it’s the children who are wrong”. If a Resolution beta had enough value, that value was obvious enough, and people knew about it, I’m sure I would have gotten more backers. I just mean that the people who thought I was a little nuts for trying to crowdfund this out of the gate… well, I didn’t exactly prove any of them wrong, now did I?

Basically, you could definitely do a better job than I did executing a Kickstarter campaign for a software company. But even if you did, I still think most people would react to you with confusion and a bit of a shrug, because a non-niche software project on Kickstarter is not something people expect to see, or are especially jazzed to pledge and promote. 

2) I Need to Purge my Enterprise B2B Habits

I have been in the enterprise B2B SaaS space for way too long. That’s part of my personal motivation for designing Resolution (both the product and the business) the way I have — to get *away* from selling vague solutions via slides about ROI, writing white papers, and selling expensive top-down deployments that may or may not get used by real people.

However, as tired as I am of that playbook, it’s all I’ve really been doing at work for the last decade. I’m good at it! I make vague solutions sound amazing to extremely hands-off executives! Conversely, I am not yet very good at really hammering home actual product value. This sounds completely insane, because I am a professional software product marketer who loves products, but if I’m being honest, I really think I did a pretty poor job of hawking the particulars of my own thing. 

I blame my enterprise B2B experience because Resolution does have something in common with many of the platforms I’ve been tasked with telling stories about — it’s not ready for general release. Now, in the case of Resolution, that’s because I’ve only been working on this extremely ambitious concept for less than a year, it’s not even a public beta yet, and I have very limited resources. Those are pretty defensible reasons for having a product that doesn’t work the way you want yet. 

But I’m an enterprise B2B product marketing professional. For me, when the product isn’t ready (or good), you just… stop talking about the product! Sell the vision. Tell the story. Focus on benefits, not features. These are all things people like me (and my bosses) tell ourselves are inherently good things to do, when it’s really more complicated than that. There’s an ideal balance between the “Why” and the “How”, and the fact is, a lot of software is pretty crappy and the “Why” looks a lot better in slides than the “How” does in real world usage, so we steer into the good and away from the bad.  

And that’s where I need to change. Resolution isn’t done — heck, it’s not even ready for the general public — but one thing it’s definitely not is a crappy piece of software. It’s a passion project that happens to offer a lot of potential value to customers, not soulless middleware looking to get acquired by Salesforce as quickly as possible. So why dodge the actual product I’m so proud of, even in a very early state?

To be fair, some of this is just a resource limitation. While I was making the Resolution Kickstarter video, we added a bunch of stuff to the application, including a complete style overhaul. Stuff kept changing (for the better!) but I stuck with initial assets because they’re super time consuming to do well. Even my current walkthrough, while still mostly accurate, looks way worse than the actual production app does today.

Regardless, it’s important to play to your strengths, and I didn’t really do that largely because the strengths of Resolution are so different than the strengths of products and companies I’ve marketed before. My wife was using it the other day, and blurted out “this is just so much more fun than a spreadsheet”, which is definitely something I agree with, but have never said at any point because I was too busy telling everyone how USEFUL Resolution can be. In my career, that has always been “what you do”, and I suspect I need to ditch that approach ASAP. 

3) People Are NOT Scared to Pay For Things

Another product of my enterprise B2B fatigue is that I am really excited about making something that is both extremely affordable, and broadly useful to a large number of people. That’s my aim. One of the reasons I am hesitant to find investors is that I’m sure most of the smart ones would tell me — even at this point in Resolution’s development — to find a niche where people like to use it, and double down on whatever those people need so that they are willing to pay more and more for it. In other words, stop trying to be broadly useful to everyone (or at least a lot of people) at the risk of generating value for no one. 

I get this logic. I’ve lived this logic! It is… not really wrong, to be honest. But it’s also an inherently anti-creative approach to things and I’m 40 now (this is why I have all these crotchety old guy opinions, sorry not sorry) and if I want to iterate something to death I can probably do that and get paid to do it at a real company with a marketing department and decent snacks. I know the drill. Basically, you start off with some kernel of a new idea, and as soon as other people are willing to pay you a non-trivial amount for it, you stop and say “okay, we’ll just do what you want, ideas?” If Henry Ford worked at a software startup in 2022, it would absolutely have “Q4: BUILD FASTER HORSE” on the roadmap. 

I’m kidding, of course. But… also, I’m not. Directionally, this really is how a lot of product development works, and in my experience it has often lead to (a) strong revenue growth, and (b) stifled, unimaginative products I don’t care about and don’t want to use. 

Anyways, this is a long-winded way of explaining that I applied this logic to the Kickstarter, and in hindsight it was a bad idea for many of the already mentioned reasons. I don’t actually HAVE a broadly useful product yet, so hoping that tons of people would give me a small amount of money made very little sense, especially when you combined that with the fact that I didn’t have a very good way to get this in front of a large, general audience.

Did having a $20 minimum tier and a $250 tier make sense for me? Probably not. I am very glad the $20 people had a tier to go to, but if you were really trying to optimize this thing to succeed financially, I think those were the wrong extremes. This became even more apparent when a shocking — to me — amount of people I do not know personally signed up for higher tiers, including the $250 level where I offered to help them build a model. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the highest pledging amounts came from people whose daily struggles align very clearly with what Resolution can already do — help you spin up relatively high level representations of a simple, but important scenario, question, or funnel. Those people are… small business consultants! I got a bunch of them, and they all totally get it because they face one of the biggest pain points of spreadsheets, which is communicating what’s in some random, new spreadsheet to a skeptical customer. A lot of professionals can dodge this (“This is cool, but I’m actually pretty good with spreadsheets”), but people with clients often cannot.

So those folks are clearly in, and already willing to pay. I’m VERY excited to work with them during the beta. 

4) I Get Why We Keep Inventing the Same Product Over & Over Again

So far, the whole Resolution experience has been very educational, but one of the most interesting things to me personally is that I’m starting to come up with a sort of Unified Theory of Why Work Software is Boring Now. Obviously work software has been boring forever — basically since we started using software at work — but there was a period of time where it seemed like we were really starting to push the boundaries that seems to have slowed down pretty remarkably.

There are undoubtedly a lot of factors behind this kind of thing (if it’s even true, and not just my own perception), but one thing I’ve definitely noticed over the last decade is that it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When wildly radical approaches to work were popping up everyday, people started to get used to the idea of wildly radical approaches to work being out there somewhere. They’d look, they’d listen, and best of all, they’d complain when something (file sharing, project management, calendars, etc.) stayed stagnant for too long. 

Now? Not so much. One of the interesting Kickstarter reactions I got was a general sense of bewilderment that you could simply do things in a fundamentally different way than they are currently done, which seems weird to me given that we’re talking about technology and new products here. Another was just how locked into existing, unsatisfying workflows people are. When I first started kicking around ideas for Resolution, the most obvious thing to build was something that lived on top of a spreadsheet. But if you know anything about how even the current version of Resolution works, you already know the same thing I discovered — you can’t overcome the fundamental limitations of spreadsheets by adding UI on top of them. While expected that ditching the cell/formula dynamic would be a lot of work, I didn’t anticipate how hesitant even people who admit they hate formulas and spreadsheets in general would be to accept that there might be a different way to work.

I’ve said this ad nauseam, but as with many tools, I just don’t think Resolution will ever replace spreadsheets, just like Notion will never replace word processing applications (is that still a term?). However, I do think a lot of software startups these days are going toe to toe with something else (or multiple things), and so there’s a natural inclination to want to know who’s going to “win” an existing space, versus whether someone can carve out a useful new one. 

What’s Next?

Fortunately for me, I have a lot of options. I was attempting to raise $50k as a form of growth capital, not subsistence funds to keep this project alive. While it sucks to not have that growth capital, there is still plenty of work to do and I intend to do it. I also met lots of cool people (project backers and otherwise) who are very likely to be beta users and eventually customers before too long. While the calendar is a little in flux as I figure out what we can do with a little less cash, there will be a general, public release of Resolution in 2023 and it’s going to be awesome. 

So for all of you who clicked little like buttons and dug out old Kickstarter login credentials, seriously, thank you! I am honored for your support. Go buy yourself something nice with the pledge money that will not actually be withdrawn from your account. Stay in touch, and I’ll keep you posted as we go.