I Started a Kickstarter Campaign, and It's One of the Craziest Things I've Ever Done (Part 1)

I Started a Kickstarter Campaign, and It's One of the Craziest Things I've Ever Done (Part 1)

I've spent the last two years photographing Los Angeles from a Helicopter, in what is surely the largest project I've worked on to date. After a long, extensive and ultimately unsuccessful search for a publisher, I finally decided to scrap that idea and self-publish via Kickstarter. I'll be doing a series of weekly posts about what I've learned and just how insane this whole thing has been.

This is Part 1 of a series. Read part 2 here.

Hint: It's been completely wild over here for the past 24 hours. Here's the Kickstarter video and the page itself to get you up to speed, but read on below to see how it all came to be:

Now, for a little backstory. I am primarily an architectural photographer, making my living by photographing homes, hotels, and commercial buildings for architects, interior designers, real estate agents, etc. I also have a deep-rooted and borderline obsessive interest in aviation, being one of those people who drives to the airport and watches planes just because, who thinks that sleeping through any meal service on a flight is a travesty, and who collects miles like Ryan Bingham of Up In The Air fame. 

In 2013, I took my first helicopter photo flight to make pictures of a few pieces of architecture in Los Angeles. While I enjoyed the process of shooting buildings for commercial clients, it was the pictures that I took for myself that were the catalyst for this project. I was simply blown away at what the city of Los Angeles looked like in the right light at the right altitude. 

I knew then and there that I had to make this a project to share with other people. What I didn't know is just how long it would take, how hard it would be, and how many unexpected hurdles I'd have to overcome to get it off the ground! Los Angeles is absolutely enormous, and if I wanted the book to be succesful, I knew I'd have to cover every piece of it to get a real feel for the city. This meant taking a LOT of helicopter flights, waiting for the right light, the right weather, and the right conditions on the ground to make it work. Some flights I would end up taking thousands of pictures that I didn't think were good enough to make the final cut, and some other flights it seemed as if I couldn't take a bad picture no matter where I pointed the camera. After more than a year and a half of shooting, I finally decided I'd put together a body of work interesting enough to start thinking about a book.

I have to admit that at first, after my long search for publishers proved completely unsuccessful and started thinking of Kickstarter as an option, I was a bit skeptical of it realistic path to publication. There were just too many unknowns. What if people think less of me for crowdfunding? What if it doesn't work? I'm not the blatant self-promotional type, and never have been, preferring a quieter, more introverted marketing approach since day one (for better or worse). And Kickstarter is definitely one of those things that is going to put the spotlight on you and force you to get yourself out there no matter what. 

Because of this, I initially tried to publish through traditional methods (seek publisher, find publisher, publisher takes over printing and distribution, and you happily run into the sunset together). What I found when I went looking for a traditional publisher was a boatload of disappointment. Canned answers, dead-end leads, straight up insulting feedback ("this is not art") to some pretty crazy terms and conditions. I was asked to front tens of thousands of dollars for production and printing, and I wouldn't see any return until that had all been paid back, thus mitigating ALL risk on the part of the publisher. I would also relinquish creative control, or copyright to the images, or some other number of strange things depending on the company. After asking around, this seems to be a pretty normal thing in publishing these days. All of this was of course NOT the answer I was looking for or wanted to hear. Perhaps for some people it works, but for me, I wasn't loving it.

So I slowly began to investigate the idea of crowdfunding. There are a few immediately visible positives, including retaining complete and total creative control, a huge brand-building boost during the campaign, and a huge amount of visibility for the project. But with that come some negatives too: I know I'd have to take a month off from shooting to manage the campaign, will have to put in long days of promotion, will end up sinking even more time and resources, I take on the entire risk of the project myself, will have to deal with printing, distributing, and tying up all the orders myself, and generally will have a giant spike in my blood pressure and stress levels for a month or two. And even after all that, I still don't even know if this will prove successful or not.

But alas, here we are, I'm stubborn, I'm an artist, and by god I want to make the book that I have in my head. So the decision had been made: I was going to Kickstart this sucker.

Enter Kickstarter. Let me just tell you that nothing in the world can prepare you for how long it will take to get all of the moving pieces in place to do a campaign. Before launching, I had tried to set out all of the things that I would need to get done. Finish the layout and design, finish the photography, come up with a plan of attack for marketing and promotion, figure out reward and pledge levels, write a script for a video, write a better script for the video, enlist help because this is starting to overwhelm my life, film a video, write the text, figure out shipping, edit the video, doubt myself, question my life multiple times, enlist more help to edit the video again, tweak the layout and design of the Kickstarter page, create product mockups and images for the Kickstarter page, edit and rewrite the video script for the third time, overdub lines for the video because I'm an awkward person on camera and my original script was garbage, you see where this is going.  And I could probably sit here and list even more things.

And then comes that moment when everything is laid out and ready to launch. I'm pretty sure my hands were visibly shaking at that point. 

After years of photography, months of planning, and days (I mean honestly, it took six days to build the kickstarter page and video) of getting it ready, I pushed the button to make the campaign live. And that was that. I was bolstered almost immediately by my first pledge, someone who had seen the campaign within minutes of launch and pledged towards a book and print. Really, I talk about it like I was totally cool with it, but truthfully was in 'oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, squeeee!' girl shouting mode after that first pledge. After that, I needed a drink. A very stiff drink. I should also mention that I slept a grand total of two hours after pushing that 'Launch Now' button. Prepare yourself for that, if you're thinking of launching a Kickstarter campaign.

After that first pledge, things of course slowed down until the first full day of the campaign (yesterday, June 3rd, 2015). I'm trying to pace myself, and not launch a complete all-out attack on the first day and burn out. I would rather marathon this thing instead of exhaust myself in the first week. I've got 34 days to meet my goal; and plan on marketing through the obvious social media channels, e-mail, face-to-face interaction (as if I wasn't awkward enough already), hopefully a few interviews, YouTube videos, the works. I will keep this series updated with results and new ways that I've marketed the campaign so if you're interested in doing it yourself, you'll have some kind of idea of what's worth the time and what isn't. And having said all of that, this might even end up a total flop. And if it does, I want to share everything I've learned with you all. But hopefully it doesn't, and I can mostly share with you what has been successful so that I can help more of you kickstart your own projects too.

And with that, it's now time for me to get back to work. 

This is Part 1 of a series. Read part 2 here.

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On my way to Kickstarter. See you there!

Hans Rosemond's picture

Man, that's awesome. To put your baby out like that and put a deadline for acceptance...that's just ballsy. Great work needs to be seen, so I understand your passion. Looking forward to progress reports on this!

Bert McLendon's picture

Good luck man! The book looks awesome!

Zach Sutton's picture

Book ordered. So excited for this, Mike!

Tony Thompson's picture

What's inspiring about Mike Kelley is not only his photography but his honest explanation about the challenges in completing his projects. You gotta love the determination to self publish your project after nobody willing to publish for him!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thank you Tony!! I really appreciate it. To be honest, having a publisher not want to pick it up made me want to do it EVEN MORE than before. I'm like that...if someone tells me I can't do something, it just lights a fire in me to want to do it even more.

Great work! I'll be ordering a book for sure.

Random/dumb question: How did you get access to fly over LAX like that?

Mike Kelley's picture

Hey Kyle! Thanks so much for the kind words. Really appreciate your support :)

As far as LAX goes, there are routes through the airport to allow general aviation traffic to transition that area freely. However, to get permission to leave that track and fly over the airport itself, requires a pilot with a good rapport with ATC, friendly ATC, asking very kindly, and hoping that there are no irregular operations or weather conditions that day. It's a lot of moving parts, and takes some people involved who know what they're doing to pull it off. It's really touch-and-go, and you may be asked at any time to leave - some of those shots at LAX are the ones I had to work hardest for.

The book is tempting. Please know that if I don't back you, I will probably feel regret later.

Mike Kelley's picture

Ha ha ha, you will totally regret it! Not that I have any bias involved :)

I have a few prints made from my last flight over SoCal in a Robinson R22, in 1991. Yours look to be quite a bit better. ;)

Already 1/3rd on the way to the goal! Congrats Mike, and good luck. First time I've funded one of these things, looking forward to seeing the book!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks so much Mel, means a lot to me! Fingers crossed.

Brian Carpenter's picture

Great work Mike. But how are you actually going to make money from the project taking into account your time spent and hard costs? Just taking into account the helicopter flight costs, research time and time to set up the campaign I've estimated over a 20K cost already. It seems to be more of a fun "art" project than money maker? Your thoughts?

Mike Kelley's picture

Hey Slinky, thanks for the question, and you're right, I've already spent a ton of money on this. I don't think Kickstarter is a great place for people who want to make money - I think it's a great place for people who have an obsession with a project, or a passion that they want to show to the world. I think if, especially as an artist, you go into Kickstarter looking to make money, it will fail. Right now the goal is to break even after all expenses are paid and the book is in people's hands. Next week I am going to break down the money factor in my article. Stay tuned.

Joni Hofmann's picture

Made my pledge on Kickstarter and really hoping that this project is a total success for you! Thank you so much for sharing this journey -- you are truly and inspiration to all of us photographers working to make our passion into a career! I have learned so much from you and your tutorials. Keep us posted!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thank you very much for the kind words and support, Joni!!