What can we learn from the Potato Salad Kickstarter campaign?

If you haven’t heard of the Potato Salad Kickstarter project by now, allow me to acquaint you. A young man in Ohio named Zack “Danger” Brown posted a Kickstarter project in early July with the modest goal of raising $10 to buy the ingredients for a potato salad. With 25 days left in the campaign, Brown has raised more than $30,000 from nearly 3000 backers and has been interviewed by a variety of media outlets.

I’ve seen a number eyes roll (literally and virtually) over the ridiculousness of the Potato Salad project and witnessed a bit of grousing from the creators of more serious projects that struggled to make even a fraction of that kind of scratch, but I think the campaign is brilliant. I backed it within about 90 seconds of learning of its existence. (I’m just. That. Cool.)

But rather than grin gleefully and move on to the next shiny internet object, let us turn this into a Teaching Moment. Let us ponder what might be learned from young Mr. Brown and his crowdfunded bomb of mayo-soaked root vegetables.

Why is this campaign successful?

It’s just a dumb campaign for some potato salad. It doesn’t even have a pitch video. Why did it explode like this?

  1. The stakes are comically low. Let’s face it, no one is looking to Brown’s potato salad to solve a problem. The goal was set at $10 and the highest pledge level (which was added after the campaign hit $100) is $50. There’s no way you could mistake this campaign for anything but a joke. So if you don’t end up actually getting your bite of potato salad, it’s unlikely you’re going to be that upset. I backed at the $2 level for the sheer entertainment value and upped the amount to $3 to find out how he delivers a bite of potato salad from Ohio to Georgia. I don’t even like potato salad, but I’m curious and amused. That’s more than enough for me to slap down three bucks. (As an aside, it seems unlikely that Brown will get to keep much of the money unless he can find a cost-efficient way to deliver a bite of potato salad to the more than 1500 people who each pledged about three bucks.)
  2. It’s fun. Zack himself is an entertaining person. He writes well and communicates often with his backers – 12 updates in 4 days. (Considering the speed with which the campaign is escalating, that doesn’t seem excessive.) I enjoy watching the campaign unfold, and being a backer means getting email direct from the source when things happen. 
  3. It’s the first time anything quite like this has been done, and people like “firsts.” That’s why the media has begun to flock around the project (at this writing there’s a Good Morning America appearance afoot for Brown), and that’s why people continue to back and share “that dumb potato salad Kickstarter.” A year from now when we get stupidly nostalgic for the early days of Kickstarter “gag” projects, those of us who backed the Potato Salad campaign will get a little misty-eyed at the thought of helping to spawn one of the worst internet trends ever.
  4. Potato salad is a safe topic, but provides fodder for a lively debate. This has been one of the most entertaining aspects of the campaign for me. There are rarely fistfights over the subject of food, but there are always strong opinions about the “right” way to prepare a dish. Potato salad is a particularly good example, since there are different types (traditional American mayo-variety vs the “German” kind, etc) and different methods and ingredients for each type. Just check out this comment thread on the Reddit AMA for an example.
  5. Speaking of Reddit, Brown has been doing well at keeping up with comments and public curiosity about the project, and at deploying technology where appropriate. Despite having no pitch video at project start, he followed up with a short-n-snappy YouTube update, a Reddit “ask me anything” thread, and found partners to live-stream the making of the potato salad and make commemorative t-shirts. Not bad for a guy who’s been at this for less than a week.

What lessons can you learn from this and apply to your own Kickstarter campaigns?

  1. Start with something small and fun – something you could probably accomplish without any outside funding – just to kick the tires on the Kickstarter platform. Once you’ve acquainted your “base” with the joys of crowdfunding and recruited some new fans through Kickstarter’s network effects, you can build up to your “real” Kickstarter campaign. It may not be as wildly successful as the Potato Salad project, but demonstrating that you can execute a campaign and deliver rewards on a small scale will build the trust necessary to raise funds for your larger projects. In less than a week Brown has attracted the attention (and money) of nearly 3000 people, and built a reputation as “that potato salad guy.” Even if the growth stopped tomorrow (and it won’t), that would be a pretty great platform upon which to build when he has a “real” project to fund.
  2. Conservative goals don’t necessarily mean conservative results. Better you should blow past an overly conservative initial goal and keep the money that was pledged than fail to reach a mark that is too ambitious – and lose everything.
  3. Think – really think – about the physical rewards you might offer during your campaign and how you would deliver them. I doubt Brown figured on delivering bites of (potentially lethal, given the mayo involved) potato salad to what will likely be a few thousand people by the end of the campaign. Brown seems clever enough; I think he’ll figure out a way. But it’s a problem I don’t envy.
  4. Don’t be afraid to grow your project or just play with the possibilities presented by your crowdfunding platform, but stay true to the spirit of your project. Brown added playful stretch goals and higher reward levels when it became clear that the project could be more than just a lark, but he did so realistically ($35 and $50 levels that offered real value), avoiding the perception that he was “selling out.”
  5. Use your imagination, and have fun. Crowdfunding is about connection. Learn from Brown’s authenticity -- he seems genuinely excited at the prospect of making potato salad for thousands of strangers -- and find your own tribe by being yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.