In early March 2014, I got a text from a friend that completely changed my career trajectory and – not to be too dramatic – my life, too.
Pentagram in New York had recently been hired to do strategy work and design a website for a San Francisco–based company that was planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign. They turned to the designers at Pentagram and asked them to run it, but of course the team at Pentagram doesn’t offer those services. So they reached out to their networks to find someone who might be able to help. That’s when I got the text from my friend about handling the campaign.
The product was a high-resolution digital music device called the PonoPlayer, and the client was Neil Young. Yes, that Neil Young.
At that point, it was almost two years after I had successfully managed my first campaign on the platform (back when I had to Google the word “Kickstarter,” as well as how to write a press release––I was clueless). I was freelancing as a Kickstarter campaign consultant on my nights and weekends, and had managed about a dozen campaigns while also working as a film production manager. I was both excited and terrified at the prospect of working with the greatest rockstar of all time but walked in and convinced the team at Pentagram to hire me. I had to start immediately because the campaign was launching in just over a week.
Then we launched. For 35 days I managed Pono’s Kickstarter and helped them raise a whopping $6.2 million. At the time, it was the third highest funded Kickstarter project ever. After the Pono campaign wrapped, I finally realised it was time to launch a full-time, full-service agency around launching and managing crowdfunding campaigns. My company, Vann Alexandra, officially incorporated in April 2014. I sublet a couple of desks at an office space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and brought on a freelancer. And then another. Then we moved down a floor to our own office. We grew fast, and a year later we moved to our current office in Tribeca. With time and experience, we’ve become a little crowd of our own.
Almost three years ago to this day, I was on a huge high. We had just worked with Neil Young, and raised an inexplicable amount of money. But I also had this nagging question: Now what?
My team and I have run more than fifty crowdfunding campaigns in varying capacities, nearly all of which have met and far exceeded their fundraising goals. Over this period of time we have raised $20 million from 100,000 people worldwide.
Almost three years ago to this day, I was on a huge high. We had just worked with Neil Young, and raised an inexplicable amount of money. But I also had this nagging question: Now what? Some of you might find yourselves with a similar feeling in the weeks and months after your crowdfunding campaign. And, what I ended up doing—starting a business—might be what you do, too. So I wanted to share some of the most valuable things I’ve learned on my own startup journey. Because, well, it wasn’t always pretty. I had no background in marketing, business, or finance. I was a philosophy major! But there’s a lot I figured out along the way.
Above: Vann Alexandra’s latest Kickstarter campaign is raising funds for a timepiece called Hidden Time that alters your perception of passing hours.
Here is what I learned both off the bat and down the line:
Get a great site up
My partner, who is also a graphic designer, and I had just started dating and he told me immediately that my meagre site needed a redesign. He luckily took care of that, on top of designing a bold logo. Make sure you find an awesome freelancer to create a strong branding system, and a good looking, easy-to-navigate site––fitted with case studies, any press, team descriptions, and strong imagery.
Rent an office outside of your house
I rented a desk at a shared office nearby so I could get out of my kitchen. This was a freeing and helpful decision. Working and living in the same place can get old and unproductive really fast when it comes to getting work done.
Invest in a lawyer
When you’re making any kind of transaction—even if it’s a small amount of money or between friends—you need a contract, and to have a strong contract, you need a lawyer. Lawyers are notoriously expensive, but it’s important to make this kind of investment upfront. Find a lawyer that works with businesses like yours and is willing to be flexible with your budget. Getting a lawyer and a strong contract will save you from bigger issues down the line, and get you paid (hopefully!) on time.
Invest in publicity, too
Earlier on we also got support from a publicist who helped lock in press about the work we were doing. I think it’s great to bring on this kind of support when you start—whether it’s a publicist or digital marketer—in order to get traction immediately. Don’t have the cash to hire a publicist? Write your own press release. Design it with beautiful images, and then save it as a PDF. Research the journalists that will be a fit for the work you do, and individually email them with short, personalised notes. Tell your story in a straightforward and compelling way. I find that a lot of writers buy into the person over the product. Make them realise you are amazing and worth talking about!
Don’t run before you can walk
I grew the business organically as projects came in. When I had a positive cash flow and a pipeline of projects, I knew I could afford to hire someone and take on more work. Be conservative with your money, pitch for new projects constantly, and say yes to all the new business you can.
Find awesome advisors
Although I own 100 percent of my business, there is no way I could make all of the decisions alone. Having the counsel of trusted mentors with more experience than me has been so important. If, like me, you don’t have an MBA or any prior business experience, then either seeking out mentors or reading up is a must. Connect with friends who have also started something on their own; ask your accountant questions about payroll, taxes, HR, and finance-related issues. Email people you admire; buy them a coffee or drink (wine was my poison of choice). If they don’t answer, don’t get discouraged. Keep trying to find your people and ask them all the questions.
Remember: first impressions count!
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from running my own business is that appearances are important. In addition to getting a great logo designed and site up quickly, we created business cards, a proposal and newsletter template, and a client kit introducing our company. We also made sure to push out the nicest looking content that we could on social media. And it’s not just aesthetics. How you communicate with clients and everyone around you is vital. Keep communication short and clear. And please, cut out all the jargon! You really don’t need to have “curate, “touchpoints,” and “pillars” in every sentence.
If clients accept your rates immediately, you should have charged more. If they negotiate, often you can work out the right price.
Figuring out how to charge at the beginning was tricky – and still can be. We worked off a crowdfunding commission to start, and then with more experience under our belts were able to get an upfront fee too, or a monthly retainer with a bonus fee. Overall, it’s so hard to know how to charge, or beyond that, raise your rates. We recently raised our fees, and I learned to gauge how people react. My partner gave me this great piece of advice, paraphrased from an article by designer Jessica Hische: If clients accept your rates immediately, you should have charged more. If they negotiate, often you can work out the right price. And if they say the quote is too high, you can decide if you should work within their budget, or walk away. (Another thing I have learned is if clients totally have sticker shock, then you’re charging too much.)
Be a team player
One of my favourite parts of running a business is having amazing people to work alongside. If you’re starting from scratch with a small team, you will soon realise that they are learning on the go. After some bumps, I realised that I had to do a better job teaching my team and providing more structure. I created our employee handbook, which details everything from how we run campaigns to office culture. We have weekly team meetings, and at the end of each day we email each other what we plan to work on the following day—what we call “priority objectives.” All of our projects live in organised folders online and we have created tons of helpful sheets from new business to hour logs so that everyone’s on the same page.
Managing my team has taught me how to be a positive leader. I try to lead by example—and I always tell my teammates not to apologise when they make a mistake. There’s nothing to be sorry about; I just want to know that they’ve learned from it.
Go make something
As a business owner, I face a lot of the same challenges anyone else does in trying to earn a living, make a difference, and feel happy and balanced at the end of the day. I’m often under a lot of pressure, and I’m always worried about something, but it’s worth it. It took a weird, winding path for me to get to where I am today, but I wouldn’t change a thing. If I could go back in time to when I was just starting out, I’d do it all again.
My final words? I believe in you. Now, go make something amazing.
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