Kickstarter Lesson #49: To Cancel or to Finish

25 August 2013

James Mathe has a fantastic blog entry about how to pull your Kickstarter project out of a slump. The second half of the post is all about what to do if you can’t pull out of the slump and you need to reboot–that’s something I’m going to explore in a blog post later this week.

For now I’m going to talk about what happens between a slump and a reboot: The decision you have as a project creator to either cancel your struggling project or keep the project live until the end date.

This is a key decision for quite a few Kickstarter projects, as 56% of projects fail. Kickstarter makes it an important choice because you can relaunch your project later at any time. Regardless of whether you cancel or ride out your project to the dismal end, your project will remain on Kickstarter forever. Also, either way you will still be able to post updates and message backers en masse through Kickstarter.

How to Determine Your Project Won’t Reach Its Funding Goal

The first step in evaluating the decision to end a struggling project is to figure out if your project is highly likely to not reach its funding goal (I’m avoiding the word “fail” here because very few projects on Kickstarter are actually failures. If you engaged an audience and shared your passion project with the world, you didn’t fail. I write about this here.)

Here are a few statistics to consider thanks to a recent comment by James Mathe on the Kickstarter Best Practices Facebook group:

SUCCESSFUL PROJECTS:

  • 99.5% of projects reached 10% by day 7
  • 91% of projects made more than 25% of their goal by day 7
  • Average 7-day percentage for projects is 67% of goal earned

FAILED PROJECTS

  • 81% of projects do not reach 10% by day 7
  • 93% of projects made less than 25% of their goal by day 7

Day 7 is a good time to start thinking about your project’s chances of success. Have you made less than 25% of your goal by Day 7? If so, your chances of succeeding are very low. Typically projects that break the mold on that statistic are those that get a ringing endorsement from a very influential person or website after that point, or they attract one or two big spenders. Don’t count on either of those happening unless you make them happen.

Also, by Day 7 you should be getting a flood of feedback from your backers on how to improve your project (you should be asking for this feedback, but some of it will come unsolicited). If the feedback is about things you can easily fix within the next week, definitely fix them. If they’re things that can’t be fixed within short notice (like a complete revamp of the art and design), then you should start thinking about canceling and rebooting.

One other resource to look at is Kicktraq, which I talk about in detail here. Kicktraq charts the expected trajectory of your project’s funding. You’ll want to look at Kicktraq’s projections for your project on Day 9 or 10. If it projects you coming up far short of your goal at that point, you’re running out of time to set your project on the right course.

I still think Day 10 is a little too early to make a final decision about canceling your project, so here’s my official stance: Regardless of the length of your project, if you have not reached 33% funding by the end of Day 14, that’s when you should draw the line and do what I’ll propose in the section below.

To Cancel or to Finish?

Until recently, I ascribed to the philosophy that there was no harm in riding out your project to the end. After all, there is the slightest chance you’ll overcome the odds, and along the way you’ll learn how to improve your project and engage with backers. Plus, you might get a few more backers who can help you get a strong Day 1 when you reboot.

While I think those points are true, I don’t think it is good idea to finish a project that has not reached 33% funding by the end of Day 14. If that’s where you are on Day 14, it’s a sign of one of two things:

  1. You’re doing something wrong. You might have a great product that people want, but you’re doing something wrong in the way you’ve put it on Kickstarter. Maybe your art and design look terrible or your project page is a confusing mess. Maybe your reward levels aren’t set up properly and people don’t think the prices are fair (including shipping prices). Maybe you didn’t do enough blogger outreach before the project, or maybe you didn’t reach out individually to friends and family on launch day. You can go through the Kickstarter Lessons one by one to see what you might be missing.
  2. There isn’t enough demand for your product. This is a harsh reality to face, but you need to consider it. Bryan Fischer of Nevermore Games sagely pointed this out on a recent podcast with Happy Mitten Games: Sometimes we forget that Kickstarter is a platform for gauging demand for products and ideas. Your product might look great, it might be priced fairly, and you might have shared it with the world, but if not enough people actually want it, nothing you can do is going to result in a successfully funded project.

Regardless of which of those two categories your project falls into, you have some big changes to make if you want your project to be a success. And those changes need to be made from Day 1, not Day 15. So it’s my recommendation that you cancel your project at that point and give yourself the opportunity to have a new Day 1 in the future.

[UPDATE Dec. 2015: The following paragraph is no longer true.] Also, if you cancel your project, when people search for your project on Kickstarter, they won’t be able to find it. That’s in stark contrast to if you let your project go the duration and not fund–if you do, whenever people search for the project, they’ll find it. The project still exists on Kickstarter either way, but canceling it gives you more of a clean slate when you attract a whole new batch of backers upon relaunching it.

There is one other possibility that would lead you to cancel your project even if you’re doing better than 33% after 14 days. That is if backers suggestions during the project have fundamentally changed it to the point that your project is completely different than what it was on Day 1. For example, if your project wasn’t a miniatures game, but a number of backers thought it would be considerably better as a miniatures game, that will fundamentally change your project. You can try to tweak it during the campaign, but generally you want to use that information to start over from scratch.

How to Cancel

I actually don’t know exactly where the cancel button is. I never looked for it during my active projects because I was afraid I would accidentally press it and then accidentally confirm the cancellation. You never know when your computer mouse will go haywire.

But I’m sure you can find it. In the meantime, before you press that button, you need to do a few things:

  • Post an update telling your backers what you’re going to do. Be honest and transparent about the decision, and show them (either in this update or in a retrospective update in a few days) what you could have done better. Ask for their thoughts and ideas. This is the best time for you to get feedback from them.
  • Update the top of your project page so people can easily find you. People will continue to discover your project after it’s canceled, and you need to give them a quick and easy way to learn more about the reboot. Make a compelling case for them, something like: “We will reboot this project soon! Click here to be the first to know when we do.” Link “click here” to your Facebook page, blog, or Twitter.

Then take a swig of whiskey, vow to return, and press the Cancel button.

Later this week: How to successfully reboot your project.

48 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #49: To Cancel or to Finish

  1. you say changes need to be made from day1 not day 15. I completely agree but that does not necessarily mean that cancelling is the best option. You can ride it out and still make changes for your eventual reboot. The only harm I can see in letting the project finish is if you “accidentally” hit success and are then on the hook for rewards that you may not be prepared for. I would like to see a detailed explanation as to why you think that cancelling is better than letting a project finish.

    1. Jeff–The issue is moreso that if your project is as good as it should be to launch it on Kickstarter, you should be well past 33% funding on Day 14. Thus if you aren’t past that point, it means that there are a number of things (or a few big things) wrong with your project, and why would you want to let a project that is significantly worse than it could be remain live on Kickstarter? You wouldn’t want to do that–it’s not fair to your existing backers or the few other backers you may get if the project remains live.

      Plus, if you’re doing it right, running a Kickstarter project is a huge time commitment. You’re better off spending that time creating the project from scratch with all the improvements it needs rather than running a doomed project.

      That said, are you going to ruin your chances of a reboot if you don’t cancel your first project? I don’t think so. I just don’t understand why you would want to continue to run a subpar project when you could better spend that time (and that backer attention) creating something significantly better. Perhaps you can share why you think that’s the right thing to do for the backers.

      1. OK, I will attempt to make the point that it is better for you as a creator and for the backers to keep a project running till its end even when you know it will fail.

        It is true that if you are less than 33% at day 14 something is drastically wrong and your project is not the best it could be. But what loss or harm are the backers experiencing because it is live for 16 more days? The are not out any money. The only potential loss for the backers is that your relaunch may be delayed by 16 days because you won’t start working on the relaunch until this one is actually over. But I would say that any loss from that will be made up for in the vast amounts of knowledge that can be gleaned from a failing project.

        I will use my project, Stones of Fate, as an example. I was at 39% on day 14 so I had a little more than what you suggest but I could still see the writing on the wall. I chose to let the project finish out. I am so glad I did because I learned so much in those two weeks. We had a BGG ad campaign going and I was able to track clicks and then pledges based on those clicks. I was able to determine from that data that the BGG campaign wasn’t worth it. Now I will be putting that money into other areas of the campaign for the relaunch.

        I was able to add some reward levels to see what people responded to. Now, with that information my backers will get reward levels in the new campaign that they actually want.

        Also, I got 91 new backers after day 14. That is 1/3 of my total backers! As James said on another thread, do I know if I would have picked up those 91 backers on a relaunch anyway? No, I don’t but here is what I do know. Those 91 people have increased the size of my base, they see my updates, they are excited about the relaunch. They are people that will potentially back my project on day 1 thus increasing my popularity and visibility within the Kickstarter site and attracting more backers.

        So, what do my backers get. They get a project more suited to their specific desires, one where the resources are targeted to giving them the best rewards possible and one much more likely to fund. I think any one of them would say that’s worth the two weeks extra.

        1. Jeff–Thanks so much for sharing your experiences here. I really appreciate it.

          As you said, your project doesn’t quite fall into the <33% at Day 14 category, but it's close enough to warrant discussion.

          You make a great point that a project that seems doomed to fail is a great testing ground for experimentation. You can try plugging in stretch goals, new reward levels, and ads on various sites. The problem, though, is you're not testing the right project. Once you know that something big is wrong with your project, your experimentation data will be inherently skewed.

          For example, you tested and decided that BGG ads were not effective for Stones of Fate. However, really what you discovered is that BGG ads are not effective for Stones of Fate: 39% funding after 14 Days. Could BGG ads be effective for you if you rebooted the project having fixed the things that resulted in your project only having 39% funding after 14 days? Quite possibly.

          As for those 91 backers, that's awesome that you expanded your base! Hopefully you'll get some great feedback from them and they'll be there on Day 1 of the reboot. However, the data is somewhat circumstantial--as James pointed out, those same backers (and others) may just have easily discovered the reboot too, and they may have signed up for an e-newsletter via the old project page so that they can give you feedback and you can notify them on launch day of the reboot (I like that you have a link at the top of your project page, as well as the statement of gratitude).

          But let's just say that some of those 91 backers wouldn't have taken the time to sign up for the e-newsletter notification for the next project, which is quite possible. My point still stands about offering the best possible version of your project to backers, and anything less than that isn't good enough for them. They deserve better. Now, if "better" is something you can fix during the project, by all means, do it. It might be a little too late by Day 14, but it's worth trying. For example, with Viticulture I wasn't happy with the art that we originally intended to use, so I had a new artist working on player mats and other components during the project, and I posted them to replace the old components as I received them. However, by that point I wasn't worried about the project failing--it was already on a clear trajectory to reach the funding goal. If I hadn't been, in hindsight I definitely think I should have cancelled, compiled all the new art, and relaunched a significantly better looking project.

          Are you planning to reboot, Jeff? I'm doing a post on reboots later this week and would be happy to share your insights with people. Feel free to e-mail me at stonemaiergames@gmail.com.

          1. Jamey, Thanks for the great discussion and for all the advice you have given on Kickstarters in general. I really appreciate and have benefited a lot from it. I think both strategies are a valid strategy and I can see the pros and cons of each. I do still feel that the pros of letting a project finish slightly outweigh the cons and I will probably continue to run my projects in that manner. Although, hopefully, I won’t be faced with that decision because all my future projects will be a resounding success :) Yes, we are planning a relaunch (for this February). I will email you and tell you what we learned from the original Stones of Fate project, how we are making changes and our plans for our relaunch.

    1. Thanks, James! I wrote this entry so it could apply to all projects, but I think most of my readers pay the most attention to board game projects, so I appreciate the data.

  2. Awesome, thanks Jeff. I hope you don’t have to deal with the cancellation decision again too! :) I look forward to seeing the reboot (and your insights about rebooting).

  3. A little off topic, but I thoroughly enjoyed Adam Clark’s response in the post you link – “no good deed goes unpunished”, indeed! That somebody would have such a visceral reaction towards Kicktraq (or to something like these Kickstarter Lessons, for that matter) is really bewildering to me. It’s amazing how little credit (some) people give to the hard work that goes into putting invaluable resources in the hands of the community for free.

    1. andvaranaut–I saw that comment as well. I honestly can’t understand at all why people would slander Kicktraq. It’s an awesome, free service that is incredibly helpful for Kickstarter creators and backers alike. Adam’s completely transparent about the fact that it’s a projection, not a guarantee.

  4. Great blog entry yet again Jamey!
    It’s one of those things you don’t want to – but really have to – read.

    As usual your doing the community and everyone else a huge favor – when sharing all you thoughts on the matter :)

    Have a great day,
    Best Emil

  5. Get your honesty here and sober up, Kickstarter dreamers! You’ll need it. Don’t even think of launching a campaign without reading every single post on this blog two or three times.

  6. Wow, I just stumbled upon your blog today and have to tell you how appreciative I am of the time you take to convey all of this valuable information. Well, appreciative except for the fact that I lost an entire day of my life reading through your posts, but I think that’s on me.

      1. Well, I’ve been devouring every bit of information I can find on optimizing Kickstarter projects in preparation for my own, so I definitely would have found you sooner or later, but the specifics were that your wisdom was mentioned on a thread on BGG for the failed project The King’s Armory: http://boardgamegeek.com/article/13227892#13227892 He was using “The Stonemaier Method,” but nitpickers were still complaining that he was charging different rates depending on where in the EU they were.

        Anyway, I decided to find out if this “Jamey Stegmaier” character could help keep my shipping costs to the EU down. And then I found so much more!

        1. Isaac–Yes, I’ve chatted with the guy who ran the King’s Armory campaign. He means well, and in truth, he was probably using me own method more accurately than I did with Euphoria. With that method, shipping is almost identical for the US, Canada, the UK, and Germany, but it’s an extra $8-10 for Western European countries, and even more for Central European countries. I’ll probably adjust the method for my next campaign.

          I’m glad you found the blog that way!

  7. […] If the project is on a failing trajectory, tell the person. Send the creator a link to their Kicktraq page and point out the ugly truth: They’re not going to successfully fund. They have the right to know, and it will shift their frame of reference in a way that will benefit them in the long run. It’s still up to them if they want to cancel or finish the campaign. […]

    1. Mark: There are three numbers that really jump out at me: 4 comments on the main project page (and 2 of them are from you), 186 slots left (out of 250) in your early-bird reward level, and only 7 projects backed.

      The 4 comments says that this project hasn’t become a community–it’s not something people are talking about. There are a number of reasons why this is possible, but I think that community begins in the first few days of a project (and can die just as fast if there isn’t much conversation during those first few days). It looks like you had a pretty good day one, but there simply wasn’t enough of an audience interested in and aware of the project before the launch. That’s reflected in the incomplete early bird level too. As much as I don’t like early bird rewards, if you have one, it should be sold out on Day 1 or 2–if not, you know there’s a problem.

      As for you only backing 7 projects, perhaps you’ve backed more on other accounts (if not, it’s a bigger problem–the way to learn about how to run a Kickstarter campaign is to back other Kickstarter campaigns), but backers look to that number to inspire confidence in the creator. They want to see that you’ve done your research and that you believe in the idea of Kickstarter. Only 7 projects backed doesn’t do that. You can read more about that on my blog.

      For your next step, I would recommend a few things: After the project (whether you cancel or not), gather feedback from those who backed the project. Also, you can get a lot of honest, blunt feedback from people on Facebook (Kickstarter Best Practices and Tabletop Kickstarter groups). I would also recommend hiring a graphic designer to rework the graphics on the page. And then go through and read my Kickstarter Lessons–I can’t list all the things here, but there’s a lot you could apply from those lessons, especially the stuff leading up to the project and my post about the anatomy of a project page.

      Good luck!

  8. Thanks Jamey. I do have 56 backings on my other account. I probably shouldn’t have switched to a new account, but the original intention was to make this an account for the “company”.

    I know a graphic designer needs to be a future investment. I was just glad to get an artist to give us a new box art (you recommended that to the individual helping me with this process).

    We definitely used your lessons as much as we could. The really hard ones were the ones relying on my existing internet presence….which is just something I’ve never had, even on a casual level. Was hard to know how to build that up from scratch.

    Thanks for your advice though. Certainly plenty to think about…

  9. Jamey! I just have to know what you think about New Bedford being cancelled. The game was going to fund, and they still pulled the plug. I understand their position, but I still feel like it is a broken promise. I mean, if they wanted more money, then set the goal higher at the beginning. If the game doesn’t take off like you wanted, maybe it is better just to complete the project and try to knock the ball out of the park on the next one. It seems weird to cancel it just because it didn’t do as well as you thought. I mean not all games a person designs are going to be amazingly well accepted. So what would you do in this case or how would you feel if you were a backer?

    1. Gamer Dave: Thanks for your comment–I just noticed it a minute ago, and I apologize for not seeing it before now!

      So the question is, how do I feel about a successfully funded project creator deciding to pull the plug (most likely because they didn’t raise the true amount they were aiming for)? I think it’s probably better for a creator to do that than create a subpar product for the backers. It’s not the most genuine thing to do, and I’m sure they’ll lose trust in those backers, but I think it’s better than the alternative. Ideally, of course, a project creator would put the true funding goal on the project from day 1.

  10. I have a Kickstarter going right now, which isn’t fully funded. When looking at some of the projects that have cancelled and rebooted, the comment section has been full of negative comments. More than not liking the project, there have been personal comments about creators and how they are not fit to run a kickstarter campaign.

    I’m committed to making regular weekly updates and not cancelling it. I feel that accepting the outcome shows a bit of character and I sell the game tokens on other platforms. (amazon, etsy & my own website.) I don’t think that the kickstarter campaign is the beginning or end of Lore Bits, so I might have a different take on this.

    It’s been a while since you wrote this blog post. Do you feel that the conditions for cancelling a campaign have changed? How many previous backers would sign up for the new campaign?

    1. Laura: Thanks for the opportunity to revisit this post–you’re right, it’s been a while since I wrote it!

      I reread it, and I still agree with Past Jamey. I think it’s unfortunate that some creators get negative feedback when returning to Kickstarter, but my guess is that those creators are somehow feeding that negativity–it’s not inherent to the process of creating and rebooting.

      Every crowdfunding project is a learning process for the creator. I think the question is, have you reached the point in your project when you’re no longer learning? If so, why not cancel now, gather feedback from backers, and start spending your time and energy on the reboot?

      Keep in mind that others (some in the comments) disagree with this assessment. I’m just sharing my opinion, so I completely respect other approaches. I don’t think either method will significantly help or hurt your chances of funding when rebooting–rather, it’s all of the work you put in between this project and that project that will make the difference. That’s my answer to your second question.

      1. Thank you for the reply. The only trend that I could see was that the creators stopped responding to the comments. I’ve worked with many small businesses and that is a common stress reaction to a new project that isn’t going well. Particularly if they have invested a whole lot of time and energy into it. :)

        I’m a lifelong learner and creator, so this Kickstarter project is a logical extension of my personality. I also create financial projections and budgets for businesses, write accounting books*, and have half a dozen other projects going on.

        I’ll be 93 and still will be trying to figure out how to make my wheel chair float on water. :)

        Best, Laura

        *makes note to include a chapter on Kickstarter in the next book.

  11. “take swig of whiskey” officially added to the “in case of failure” section of my project plan. Right after notify backers and right before postmortem analysis.

  12. Hi Jamey,

    In a conversation over on BGG, someone pointed out that the way Kickstarter responds to searches for Canceled projects seems to have changed. Now, if you search for a canceled project in the KS search, it comes up like any other project.

    Thanks for all your great advice, here and elsewhere.
    Brendan

  13. Hi Jamey,

    Sorry for bothering you, but I would like to ask your opinion about a KS project.
    Our publisher started a board game project 2 weeks ago called Ave Roma.
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1205265935/ave-roma

    We had a decent start, but as we are new on KS, we see we made some mistakes with the goal levels, etc. We are learning of course, that is OK, but a few days ago our backers came up with the idea of a possible restart.
    Our problem is, we don’t see yet if it would be good or bad. We have feedbacks about the graphics as we are making a new one, but some backers like the old design better, even we have some who said maybe he leave because of the new design (I know we cannot please everyone). On BGG we don’t see too much bustle around our project, so that is a question again. Also we can only maybe play around again with the goals, many complaining about the shipping, but we cannot garantee that we can make it much cheaper, and we don’t like the idea of build it in the price. And you know what are the shipping costs. So we have a few concerns about a possible restart.
    I know you are busy, but if you have a few minutes to check out our campaign and tell your tought about it, it would be helpful.

    Best wishes and kind regards,
    Attila

  14. Attila: Thanks for your question. It’s always tough to decide whether or not you should cancel when a project is struggling, and there is no right answer.

    Here’s one perspective: If you choose to cancel (or even if you finish the campaign without cancelling, but you don’t fund), if you continue to engage your backers on a regular basis and heed their advice in improving the game and the project, many of those backers are going to return for the reboot. And instead of struggling to fund, you increase your chances of overfunding.

    So the key, in my opinion, is to keep engaging and listening to your backers, and they’ll support you even if you don’t fund this time.

  15. Jamie, I am hoping you can shed some light on something I am struggling with. I recently cancelled our project for Moonshot: Lunar Solace late in the campaign. I read your book and have spent hours combing this blog, both before and after the campaign. We have been given very little feedback from backers with which to decide how to proceed. Playtesters, including dozens of strangers at GenCon, loved the game-though it doesnt appeal to heavy strategic gamers. Reviewers’ opinions varied. I thought I did a decent job with the campaign page. We learned a ton, but I am not sure what SHOULD come after cancelling. Your thoughts?

    1. David: Thanks for your question, and I’m sorry to hear about Moonshot–I’m sure that was a tough decision.

      I always like to use the example of something John Wrot did after The King’s Armory didn’t fund the first time around. He started a thread on BGG asking for blunt, honest advice about why people didn’t back the campaign (you could do the same on one of the Facebook Kickstarter groups). John was careful to listen to the opinions expresses–as hard as some of them were to hear–and he took a lot of that advice to heart in his successful relaunch. You could try something like that.

    1. Mike: Hopefully someone else can chime in to answer this, as I’m not quite sure. I can say with some confidence, though, that you cannot edit anything on a project page after it ends other than the main project image, the text at the upper right, and the button directly below it (see Scythe for an example). This is Kickstarter’s “spotlight” feature.

  16. Hi Jamey

    You said you used to think it was better to let it finish unsuccessfully than cancel and you changed your mind. Why do you think it’s better to cancel rather than finish unsuccessfully?

    I know you said what it *means* when a project looks like it will fail, and agree with that. But I don’t see the connection between those observations and your change of mind on cancelling.

    Or put another way, what harm does it do to let it finish unsuccessfully rather than cancelling it?

    Thanks
    Seph

    1. Seph: Thanks for your question. Letting a campaign finish unsuccessfully won’t do permanent harm. The reason I suggest cancelling if you know the campaign isn’t going to fund is that you can spend that time trying to fix the problems rather than continuing to live through them. :)

  17. We’re about to Kickstart a Smarthome product that has the potential to be really popular. The problem is that we don’t have time to wait for blogs to write articles about us.

    Do you think it would look really bad to customers if we launched, pulled due to lack of funding, and relaunched in 2-3 months?

    Would it be a huge red flag that would seriously harm our future re-launch, or could we just explain that we jumped the gun by not reaching out to the blogs first?

  18. Nick: Thanks for your question. The best answer I have is that you don’t need to launch today: https://stonemaiergames.com/kickstarter-lesson-68-you-dont-have-to-launch-today/

    There are many projects that have launched, failed, and rebooted successfully. But I would say that most of them thought they had all their ducks in a row before launch, and it turned out they were wrong. It sounds like you know that you don’t have all your ducks in a row, so you’re only going to help yourself by putting in the additional legwork to get your first launch right so it can be a huge success.

  19. We’re in the position that we too have to cancel our project, but are definitely taking what we learned towards a successful relaunch this May (http://kickstarter.barpig.eu) – However, maybe handy to mention to those looking for the ‘Cancel Funding’ button – took me a while, but go to ‘Edit Project’ -> ‘Rewards’ -> Scroll down to the bottom, and there on the right is a little ‘Cancel Funding’ button. Good luck everyone!

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