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The Newest Lean Startup Tool: Kickstarter

This post was written by Michael Herman, co-founder of Real Python and the author of their newest book, Real Python for the Web, which he funded with a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. When it comes to analytics and startups, he knows his stuff.

Building a startup is a bit like trying to erect a bridge in the fog. You’ve made a significant up-front investment, hoping that people will want your product when you finally reach the other side. And that’s assuming you even find the other side. It might be a bridge to nowhere!

In the old days, you built it and hoped they would come. In 2008, all that changed with Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. Using ideas from lean manufacturing at Toyota, Ries showed how startups can get to market faster and more efficiently. He championed the techniques of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Validated Learning as we know them today.

The term “Lean” gets thrown around a lot in analytics circles, and people often get the wrong idea of what it means. Lean means validating your ideas before you invest huge amounts of time and money in them. I cannot recommend The Lean Startup enough; every entrepreneur should have their own copy.

Editor’s Note: We at Segment agree. The Lean Startup is worth it’s weight in gold!

Any tool that can help you see through the fog is key to your success. Usually that means making use of analytics or user surveys, but now there’s another tool at your disposal: Kickstarter.

I recently finished up the most successful Kickstarter campaign I’ve ever run, called Real Python for the Web. We created a course covering all the pieces of Python that you need to develop your own websites. It went amazingly—we beat our expectations by 10x!

I’m going to show you exactly how I ran the campaign using Lean Startup methods. It’s a perfect use case for using Kickstarter to validate your business hypotheses.

It’s the perfect lean MVP tool.

Kickstarter is the perfect way to validate an idea. By definition, a successful Kickstarter campaign has a ton of people who’ve already put their money where their mouth is.

It’s really similar to the popular suggestion of “throwing up a fake landing page” and letting people sign up, or to the strategy of running AdWords before you have a product. Except Kickstarter is even better because you gain a devoted following and the funding you need to pursue your idea all at once!

You don’t have to take my word for it. Light Table was funded by Y Combinator after the initial success of their Kickstarter campaign. They demonstrated they’d found a market in need of a solution. Or Pebble, who turned to Kickstarter to prove to investors that they had found market fit. (And raised so much money, they broke the Kickstarer page layout in the process!)

A successful Kickstarter campaign is like building a bridge. In the bright sunshine. With a thousand cars behind you, just waiting to cross, and who’ve all pre-paid your toll.

How much better does that sound?

It all starts with a hypothesis and a pitch.

The very first step to a Kickstarter campaign is taken straight from the Lean Startup: come up with a hypothesis you want to validate. Everything you do from then on will be about validating your initial hypothesis. In my case the hypothesis was:

People loved the original Real Python course, but they want more. They want to learn how to use Python specifically for web development.

Once you’ve settled on your hypothesis, it’s time to start building your campaign. Your goal is to come up with a compelling pitch that gets your target audience to buy into your idea. If you succeed, your hypothesis is validated and then you go and build it!

The most important part of your Kickstarter pitch is your video. The video is your “elevator pitch”—a short window of time where you must pique the interest of your potential backers.

That’s where you should spend a majority of your time. It’s the first (and sometimes only) thing people will learn about your project, so you need to make it count. To make my pitch the best it could be, I took an iterative approach to creating the video and subsequent content on the Kickstarter page itself.

I started with a barebones prototype (you’re trying to be lean, remember!) that I recorded on my iPhone, just to be able to show friends and get quick feedback. This was critical in trimming out the parts that people didn’t react positively to. I chose to shoot for a simple video—it’s just me and Fletcher, talking passionately about the project—because I wanted people to feel an emotional connection.

You don’t need to shell out big bucks to produce your video! In my case it was less about creating a well-produced video, and instead, focusing on being authentic and displaying my enthusiasm for the project.

Then market your butt off.

Marketing your Kickstarter page properly is critical early on. You need to stay involved in conversations in your niche, with fresh content that relates to your audience. This is the top of your funnel, where users find out about your campaign in the first place:

If you assume something like a 20% conversion from landing on the page to playing the video, and a 10% conversion from playing the video to pledging, you can quickly figure out how much traffic you’ll need to generate for your campaign. With that number in mind, go out and hustle!

For Real Python for the Web, that meant we needed to stay on top of conversations about web development. On Quora, StackOverflow, Reddit, HackerNews … even on random python forums. Wherever there was an opportunity where it looked like the people could benefit from the Kickstarter, we went and joined the conversation!

Notice how I said “conversation”, that is key.

People will pass right over posts with only links, so we took the time to fully respond to conversations and include our link as part of that communication. The marketing campaign is not just about telling people about the project - it’s about creating a two-way conversation.

You want your promotion to be discreet. You want readers clicking because they want to, not because they have to. Our approach was not to merely advertise, but to get people thinking about the topic. We wanted them to be so interested in finding out more that they’d check out our Kickstarter page. Those are the kinds of conversations that increase your viral coefficient because your users are interested enough to become evangelists and tell their friends.

That’s where my next tip comes in: hustle as much traffic to the site as humanly possible (believe me, you need all the manpower you can find). I hired a virtual assistant from Zirtual named Shea, and she was amazing. She literally doubled my marketing reach!

Together, we worked daily to hit all of the low-hanging marketing opportunities we could find. Here’s an incomplete list of some of the techniques we used:

  • Day 1 - We lined up tweets from and as well as an email blast from original Real Python course mailing list.

  • Day 3 - We combed through and responded to Python-related questions on Quora and posts on Reddit.

  • Day 8–9 - We sent out a guest blog post to lots of different, Python-related blogs.

  • Day 16 - Our campaign made the front page of Hacker News, driving tons of traffic and resulting in lots of pledges.

  • Day 24–26 - Pledges remained high after we got another round of tweets from,,,, and another email blast from Real Python. Not to mention the longer-tail traffic from Hacker News hadn’t subsided yet.

  • Day 27–28 - We did another large push on StackOverflow, Quora and Reddit.

  • Day 30 - We got a tweet from Heroku, and finally finished our campaign having raised $26,044. It was a good day.

And here’s how all the marketing contributed to us getting backers for the project:

Things going well? Keep hypothesizing!

After the first few days we had already jumped from 0 to 300 backers, and it was pretty evident that our basic idea had been successfully validated. You might wonder why we even bothered to keep marketing the campaign. Good question. The answer: stretch goals.

Kickstarter has something called “stretch goals” that let you add incentives for backers if the campaign reaches a higher target of pledges. Obviously this is a great way to increase the amount of money your campaign takes in and keep users engaged over the entire 30 days.

But it’s also a great way to validate more lean experiments during your campaign.

In my case, with Real Python for the Web, I added three stretch goals hypotheses:

  • I think people want to learn Flask. So, if we reach $10,000 I’ll add Flask tutorial to the project.

  • I bet videos would be more compelling. If we reach $15,000 I’ll add screencasts to each of the tutorials.

  • I think Django would be really popular too. If we reach $20,000 I’ll add a full course on Django.

None of those rewards are cheap or easy to do. So I only promised the extra rewards after I was certain that I had the funds and interested users to merit them. Had I tried to deliver them without validation, it would have been completely counter to the lean startup process.

This brings up one of the biggest challenges with a regular Kickstarter campaign: it can be difficult to “pivot” your idea once you’ve started. In most cases, entrepreneurs build an MVP-style product only to abandon parts of it, and pivot to something new based on user feedback. With Kickstarter, if you’re funded you’re obligated to deliver, even if you aren’t as successful as you had hoped.

That’s why stretch goals are so powerful. I dreamed up extra directions I could take the product (based on conversations with my users of course!) and then threw them out there, waiting to see if they gained traction. It has all the benefits of a pivot, minus the risk.

With stretch goals, you guarantee yourself an audience before building new features. Nice and lean :) And with $26,000 raised for Real Python for the Web, all of our stretch goals were validated! We got more funding, more interested users and more directions to take the product.

Last but not least: finish strong!

Now that the campaign is over, I haven’t stopped using the advantage Kickstarter gave me. After the course is launched and the kinks have been worked out, I’ll still have a solid user base of devoted pythonistas to call on. The next step is funding and launching another iteration: a hybrid between an eCourse and the full Python Web Development boot camp.

That’s the beauty of Kickstarter. As soon as the campaign is over, you don’t have to close up shop and move on to something completely new. You did all the hard work in generating a following, so take them with you. Just look at all the supporters Light Table has on each of their threads on Hacker News.

I’ve finished building my bridge and now I’ll be launching a new toll road on the other side of the water.

I can’t recommend using Kickstarter enough as a tool to build a lean startup. I started with just an idea and it grew to be validated by a ton of users.

While the money you get from a Kickstarter is great, it can be much more powerful than just the initial funds. I got the initial funding I needed to see the idea through, and now I can show external investors a proof of concept along with a built in user base. What more could they ask for?

So seriously, if you have an idea you want to pursue, consider launching a Kickstarter campaign to achieve it. Don’t build a bridge to nowhere! Have any questions? Feel free to hit me up and I can give you feedback from all of the tips I’ve learned while building Real Python for the Web.

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