When I first received a call whether I could help launch a Startnext campaign that was nominated for the German Integration Prize, I was really excited about the opportunity. I’d get to work with a publishing house I admire deeply. I really liked the team and the project.
When we ended the collaboration a whole month before originally planned, and also just a few days after the public launch of the project, I was straight-down relieved.
This isn’t the usual success story, yet one that I believe deserves some thoughts, so here is my personal narrative of a project that didn’t go as expected.
With a four-week runway and the internally set goal, the task was challenging. Yet, knowing the background of the project, it was also doable.
They often say if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
There’s something very true about that sentiment, as it’s got to do with how tasks are being executed. If you want to go fast, then have someone set the direction, trust them, and execute on those tasks immediately and without questioning. If you want to go far, as a leader, your job is to include the team in the ideation of solutions to create shared ownership. With a team of intelligent people, those results are mostly better. They also require time for ideas to properly flourish.
This wasn’t a project to “go far.” This was a project that needed quick execution and for everyone to move fast.
Given the short preparation period, I understood the team that usually works together brings in an external lead to go fast instead.
However, going fast requires trust. We didn’t know each other. And I failed to build the trust necessary to work fast.
When taking on the role, and knowing we only had four weeks, I wasn’t prepared to have my plans up for negotiations. I assumed (one should never assume) we all had a shared understanding of our goal and would do anything to just push through until we succeeded with what we set out to do. I never thought that once I became part of the team, I’d have to negotiate my suggestions and things would only become considered relevant once someone from outside the team gave the same advice.
Even before I got on board, the team already started planning things; they had already booked a film team to shoot their video. There was no time left to discuss the big vision of the project, why it was important for this project to happen, and how - with their plan to crowdsource the contents of the book – they were planning to involve their community.
Time for a short discourse into the theory of community strategy...
In an advertising campaign, you generally talk about yourself.
If you want to create a movement, you talk about your advocates.
A movement starts with a small group of passionate people. Your challenge is to build a framework that allows people to participate and come up with their own ideas.
To create a movement, you should focus all your comms around two ingredients: change and participation.
Change = how will your vision change the status quo?
Participation = how will your community shine when getting involved? How does your project add to their social status?
Having a big vision – especially when crowdfunding – is crucial.
Essentially, you’re asking people to monetarily contribute to an idea.
When asking people for money, they must immediately understand the benefit, mostly their own benefit.
The question is: why should people want to be part of whatever you’re planning to do, when it means they also need to pay a fee to become a part of your “community”?
And so, we shot the video. With a script that mostly focused on the past. Not the future.
In a community, you want people to know your plans before you ask them for money. With a four-week runway, that means you’ll most likely have to start communicating to your community immediately. However, we weren’t communicating with the community. We were discussing the mechanics of the campaign and millions of other logistical questions. We were running a grassroots democratic movement within our team. Everyone had a say. Everyone was involved in everything.
Already after one week, I started growing impatient.
I felt the ticking clock.
The team didn’t.
The team wasn’t used to working with such a high time pressure. They were used to working together. And the discrepancies in our work styles, as you can imagine, led to several discussions with the founder of the publishing house.
“I want you to see the two authors as queens and serve them the options on a silver tableau for them to choose what they think is right,” was most likely the one sentence I’ll never forget about this project. With a four-week runway, I didn’t look for options to present to anyone. We had no time to look around and consider all the possibilities we could have if there was enough time. My plan was to assign responsibilities and have everyone get to work fast. I’m used to working with people who speak up whenever they hit a wall – mental or logistical – to speed up even more. My plan was simply to execute on proven strategies.
With this project, I didn’t see my role as a servant; I saw the urgency to become a captain.
However (and as people who’ve worked with me know) while I might have strong opinions, I don’t push them onto people. I say my opinion and what I consider to be a good strategy. If someone pushes back or in another direction, I’ll let them have their way.
By the end of the second week, I felt rising frustration.
We were nowhere close to where we should have been. Every small step was being extensively discussed and questioned. And the founder of the company decided to step up and take over the lead and thus, my role.
Meanwhile I retreated to working on support tasks. Given no one asked for what I believed we should focus on (it wasn’t considered important even when I was leading the project), I kept my thoughts to myself and instead focused on checking off the list of tasks for the launch event. Those things just had to get done. It was easy and at least no one had to deal with me not being at ease about the whole project, which was even complimented at some point.
When running a crowdfunding campaign, it’s about standing at the forefront of a movement.
It’s about explaining why and how you’re the right person to lead such a movement. Crowdfunding is about storytelling. It’s about knowing the first follower theory. Crowdfunding is also about showing who else believes and stands behind your movement.
The (surprising) thing about press coverage when crowdfunding
The one thing that’s been exceptional about this project was the press coverage. I spent the first couple of days pulling together resources for a solid press kit and wrote a press release. The founder of the publishing house hired an exceptional PR manager, who after a short briefing session, immediately got to work and managed to secure coverage in various major German news outlets and blogs.
The difficult thing with crowdfunding is that while press is important to boost one’s credibility, it hardly ever attracts backers. The reason is something that I picked up on many years ago; it takes at least seven touch points for people to convert. Given a crowdfunding campaign usually runs for only 30 days, one must generate several touch points within that period of time. While press might be the first touch point for a potential customer and might put a project on people’s radar, it will take a few other touch points to spark people’s interest. They might need to also see it mentioned on Instagram or hear about it from a friend.
The secret to attracting backers when crowdfunding
I remember one time when I was sitting on the tram listening to a guy telling his girlfriend about a Kickstarter project he supported. He was so excited to be a backer and the whole team could hear that. When talking about storytelling, having people tell others about your crowdfunding project over dinner, coffee, or when sitting on public transport is what you eventually want. The question is, what stories are you going to tell that will make people want to engage with your project?
Usually, it’s backstage stories. It’s the stories that inspire others. It’s stories that expose people to new ideas and experiences. When running a crowdfunding campaign, one needs to turn into a storytelling machine for 30 days.
One of the main mistakes during crowdfunding is to boil down the messaging to how much money one needs. While it’s natural for people to talk about what THEY want and need, the most successful campaigners manage to look outside their own bubble. They make people click through catchy headlines and engaging storytelling. It’s implied that a project already has a community and isn’t starting from scratch when the project goes live.
The other strategy is to create shared experiences; attend and speak at meetups where one’s target group gathers, and if there aren’t any or enough of them, one can create their own event series and invite people to come together.
At that point, and instead of trying to get things my way, I focused on pulling everything together to make sure the launch event was a success.
A launch event is important for several reasons. The positive energy boosts the spirit of the team and also has the potential to engage a large number of ambassadors who will back simultaneously.
If done right, people are going to tell others about their experiences and every attendee might make a few other people more aware of the project.
In this specific case, we had raised €3,500 within the first 24 hours from the people we gathered at our event. While this was a great success, it wasn’t quite where we needed to be in order to stick to our timeline.
If you’re a freelancer, you might be curious about the financial side of things.
As an independent worker, I’m dependent on projects working out. Each and every project is a potential reference for the future and thus it’s important to know what projects to take on or not.
Before we started our collaboration, we set up a contract and included a payment plan. In this specific case, I agreed to a success-based fee applicable if we reached or exceeded our internal goal. Obviously, seeing what we were at a few days after the launch, I knew it was unlikely for the bonus to materialize. Given how things were going within the team, I faced many internal battles.
Am I really getting things that wrong?
Is my approach really the wrong approach or the right approach?
Why am I having such a hard time with this project?
And why are the others having such a hard time working with me?
Much of our struggles within the team were due to interpersonal communication.
What I said and apparently how I said things didn’t make the specific tasks feel urgent.
I failed at explaining why I believed certain measures mattered to the level of detail people might have needed to follow through.
Maybe I never introduced my background extensively enough for people to understand the level of my experience.
Maybe it would have helped.
Maybe it’s too late to think about maybes.
Right after the launch day, I had scheduled four days off. When I came back, the founder and I needed to catch up and discuss where we were and where we were heading. On this call, we mutually agreed for me to leave the team and make the mid-project payment the last.
With the bonus on the horizon, I agreed to a reduced fee, which, given the extensive number of hours I worked on the day we launched the project publicly (which was also the first day of the new payment period according to our contract), my project fee turned into my regular fee.
Obviously, based on my experience, I could already predict the project wouldn’t meet its internal goal, which was also the goal used to calculate expenses.
My dilemma was whether I should just keep my fee at the reduced fee, or cash up the fee by the hours I worked post launch as stated in our contract.
I decided on the latter. I figured it was the more professional thing to do. It was also the more feminist thing to do.
The client paid the bill without any pushbacks.
Financially, it was just another project and having gotten my regular fee makes it easier to just close the chapter and move on.
On a personal level and having hoped we’d get to work together more often, it’s a bad reference in my portfolio that if someone asks them how it is to work with me, it won’t lead to additional projects. More likely, it will lead to a damaged reputation.
And that’s a shame. Yet, I must move on.
I guess not every project goes right. And one should own even the bad experiences.