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If I told you that my startup, Hours, built its own crowdfunding site instead of using Kickstarter — and decided to run a private campaign  — you might think I was crazy.

But that’s what we did. And it worked.

We were raising funds for a team-compatible web version of our Hours app. We released Hours a year ago as a paid app on the iPhone App Store. It did very well and made six figure revenue but we always knew that it would never reach it’s full potential until we built a team version, Hours Cloud, that we can charge a subscription for.

Our goal was to reach out to folks who already knew and loved our app. And despite the campaign only being available to our modest Hours mailing list, our private crowdfunding campaign raised $39,243, and reaped some incredible non-monetary rewards that I will get into later.

Don’t get me wrong. Kickstarter is an awesome platform. Without it, our campaign would not have been possible because crowdfunding would not be a thing. There are lots of good reasons to use Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or one of the other popular crowdfunding platforms: They have people’s trust, they have built-in audiences, and they allow you to launch a campaign quickly, easily, and without investing a lot of time and money.

But despite these tremendous benefits, a few factors compelled us to strike out on our own.

1. We wanted privacy

By making the campaign private for the first few weeks, we gave our users the opportunity to support us before anyone else and have the first shot at the limited early bird discounts (which sold out much faster than we expected).

As far as I know, building our own site was the only way to create a private crowdfunding experience.

The whole experience, from receiving an invitation to browsing the perks, had to feel exclusive and special.

Scarcity is a powerful force. When something is available to everyone, it may be cool but not necessarily special. Exclude all but a small number of invited users and now those users are getting something special  —  something worth at least checking out.

2. It had to feel special

With Kickstarter you can create a great video and craft a rich description but we wanted to create something really immersive, with little details that would add just a tad of joy here and there.

Instead of taking users directly to the mini-site, the email linked them to a page where they could put in their invitation code. This reinforced the exclusivity of the program and we used animation and sound to provide a satisfying log-in experience.

Once you log in, you are greeted with an invitation to watch the video with clouds in the background (to match the Hours Cloud theme). You might notice in the GIF that the clouds actually move.

Because we built a custom website, we could lay out the Hours Cloud features in an attractive way.

Each perk has an icon that has it’s own unique animation. When you hover over the perk details, a tooltip gives you a detailed description.

We wanted the perks to feel immersive but we also needed a way for customers to compare the perks — so we created a compare sheet.

You can see the site for yourself here.

We could have done a campaign that looked like every other crowdfunding campaign out there, but we wanted to do something special, something that would stand out. Sure it was extra work, but it ended up paying off.

3. We wanted to offer more perk options

Doing our own campaign, we could structure the perks however we wanted to. For us, that meant that we could allow someone to buy multiple perks at once. This paid off a few days after we sent the first few hundred invites; someone purchased 10 lifetime subscriptions to accommodate his entire team, generating $2,500 in one sale.

4. We needed speedy payment

Kickstarter only pays once your campaign is over, and that is only if you reached your goal. For this campaign to really effect our release schedule, we had to start generating funds right away that we could pour straight back into product development.

We used Stripe and it worked like a champ. With Stripe, funds arrive in your bank account just a couple of days after the original purchase  —  that is nearly instant in the world of online payments. That is a huge win for a boostrapping startup for which every penny counts.

So, how did it go?

On launch day, although I was super excited about the fantastic work my team had put into the campaign, deep down I was absolutely terrified. I had this gut wrenching feeling that not a single user would put down their hard earned cash to support us … and because so much of this was new, I had very little tangible evidence to assure myself that this thing could really work.

The sweaty, shivery chimp that Mailchimp so empathetically shows you before you press the final send button perfectly described the way I felt. Then … click. The first few hundred invites were sent.

The silence after sending those invites was painful, but fortunately it didn’t last long.

Just a minute or two later, the first Slack notification came in: Someone had just backed us with $20. A minute later, another click from Slack. A couple more $20 backers rolled in. Then a $70 backer a couple minutes later.

Our crazy idea was actually working.

As the backers continued to roll in, we started following up by inviting the $70+ backers to our newly created Slack channel. The idea was to let users participate not only by funding the project but by interacting with our team directly to help us make Hours Cloud the best it can be. The reaction was extremely positive.

We realized at this point that not only were we funding our product but we were creating a community of passionate early adopters that would be an invaluable extension of our team in the coming years.

Since only the 16,000 people on our mailing list would ever see our private campaign, we expected that it could generate $5,000 .  $15,000 would be crazy. We were so wrong: Ultimately, the private campaign generated $39,243 from 392 backers.

One fun fact: Our best single day of crowdfunding actually beat out the revenue from the day we launched on the App Store  —  the day we were featured on the App Store home page, TechCrunch, Forbes, and dozens of other places. So yeah, private crowdfunding kind of rocks.

Thank you, Kickstarter, for making crowdfunding a thing, but we don’t necessarily need you any more to create successful crowdfunding campaigns.

Let’s experiment. Let’s fail. Let’s find out what works and then have our concepts blown all over again.

Jeremy Olson is founder of Apple Design Award winning app firm Tapity and cofounder of time-tracking startup Hours.


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