How Font Awesome became the most funded software project on Kickstarter

You might not have heard of Font Awesome,  a font and icon toolkit made by Dave Gandy for use with Twitter Bootstrap, but you’ve probably seen their work everywhere on the Internet without even noticing.

If you don’t know them, here are some incredible things they’ve achieved:

  • Font Awesome has a 20% market share among those websites which use third-party Font Scripts on their platform, ranking it second place after Google Fonts
  • They were Github’s most popular new open source project in 2012 and is currently in the top 10 projects overall.
  • Font Awesome is on more than 73 million websites. And according to the founder, about 1 in every 3 new website uses Font Awesome.
  • And last but not least, by raising $1,076,960, Font Awesome became the highest funded software project on Kickstarter and in the top 3 of Open source projects.

It seems Dave Gandy and his team have done a few things right along the way.

If we’re realistic, very few (if any) of us will ever hit the virality, renown and success Font Awesome has. So will you get anything useful from reading how they made it?

Very much indeed!

The good news, is that there are some simple and fundamental lessons that you can apply when launching or developing your project and multiply the chances of your idea getting adopted by others.

Today I’m going to show you exactly how Font Awesome has grown to be used by 20% of the web so you can take inspiration from this EXACT strategy to grow your own projects.

Want to see how it works?

Let’s go:

Step 0: Become Unique with Scott Adams Career Advice

Dave Gandy started Font Awesome as a passion project. But he recognises there are better designers and programmers out there. So, if he wasn’t at the top 1% of designers and programmers, how did he make something that could grow beyond projects lead by much better professionals? Well, he just blended skills at which he was at the top 25%.

Stick with me here.

Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert, has a great post where he explains how to develop an amazing career:

“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.

2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”

When I read this post, it hit me. That seems to be exactly the strategy Dave Gandy unconsciously followed when he created Font Awesome:

“I am very visually oriented. There are plenty of visual designers much better than me. [And even if] I’m also very technically focused [but there are] people that are much better technically than me. But the intersection for me as an individual is something that doesn’t really exist very often and so this was me playing to my strengths.”

So there you have it. What are your 2-3 skills at which you are at the top 25%. Could you combine those to create something that’s uniquely yours?

If you don’t have them yet, what are 2-3 skills you’d like to develop? Could they blend to support each other even if you’re not at the top 1% of performers?

In my case, the blend of skills that are bearing fruits are knowing how to write and get published in other publications, experience and research in open source community building and business, as well as a pretty deep knowledge and experience about business strategy.

Each of them on their own are nothing to write home about since they’re relatively abundant elsewhere, but it’s hard to find other people who can provide all of these skills put together.

Takeaways:

  • Find which 2 or 3 skills you have that you could mix with your own unique flavor, or go develop those skills that would help you contribute to projects you love or to develop those dreams you have.
  • Develop side projects to hone these skills
  • Actively show your side projects to others. Once they offer to pay you money for it, you are onto something people really want.

Step 1: Scratch your itch and contribute to an open source rocket

Let’s come back to Dave Gandy. As he was working out on a different startup, he was searching for a set of icons to use on his website. While there were a few decent sets out there, he didn’t like their camera icons. So he started complaining to one of his co-founders how none of these icons looked similar enough to what he was looking for:

“They were all a pain to use and it was just way too much effort […] so my covendor told me to shut up, […] stop bothering him and to just make it myself”.

So he went on to work on this one icon, and decided to make a whole set.

Also, for the previous several months he’d been using Twitter Bootstrap and loved it… except for the PNG sprites:

“They came in only two colors, and I wasn’t crazy about the design. So I decided to make a drop in replacement for Bootstrap’s icons. And since other icon fonts didn’t seem to always play well with screen readers, I wanted to solve that too.”

This was one of the best decisions he could make. Solve a problem for a platform that was growing very rapidly.

Of course, you can’t know in advance what is going to grow exponentially, but by being aware of the latest technologies out there, you can get a feel for what’s working and what isn’t. And if you get early on in an Open Source project you can actually solve some of the most salient problems many other people will want solved.

The next great move they did was making the font free of charge. This made it really smooth for anyone to adopt it and experience it’s awesomeness.

Why did they do that I hear you ask?

Here’s Dave’s take on it: “Personally, I benefit from open source every day in my life. So making Font Awesome open source was an easy decision for me.”

So following his personal values and giving back made a lot of business sense. It turned out to be an immense advantage for the overall project and gave it exposure to lots of people willing to pay them to work on Font Awesome.

Takeaways:

  • Scratch your itch
  • Contribute to cool open projects you like, and solve areas that you think are lacking
  • Share your solutions back in open source so that you can benefit from the exposure to the community of the original project. This way you’ll start building your own audience
  • Promote on places where the communities are. In case of Font Awesome, they were looking for developers and web designers, so they went to Hacker News.

Step 2: Talk to users to find ways to make it financially sustainable

GIven the great traction Font Awesome experienced, they ended up entering the famous YC combinator. One of the pieces of advice they found most valuable was: “Talk to users. There’s no way to know for sure what people want unless you talk to them”.

SImple, right?

So they took the advice and went and asked their visitors to fill out a survey about who they were and how they used Font Awesome. 6,000 people completed the in-depth, 45-minute survey. Once the survey was over, there were two key takeaways from the survey: Users wanted more icons, and they prefered the SVG format.

Learning people would pay for more icons and a modernized framework using SVG helped Font Awesome build up to their Kickstarter campaign and start to find a path towards sustainability. And this is never an easy task for an open source project.

Now they have a series of other paid offers from $60/year to get additional services beyond the open source icons, like a dedicated CDN service (a distributed group of servers to provide fast delivery of Internet content) to get icons to load faster, editable SVGs, even more new icons and new icon packs.

And they are also make money by serving ads through Carbon’s service to their  millions of website designer and developer visitors.

Takeaway:

  • Once you got traffic, whether its big or low, survey your users to learn who they are, how they use your service or product, find what else they’d like or what other challenges they’d like to tackle
  • To get even more ideas to make money from an open source project, here is a useful cheatsheet I like to use from Lars Zimmermann

Step 3: Getting the community involved

So once Font Awesome found a way to get people to use their service, and eager to pay them for it, what’s the point of being open source besides making it easy for people to use it?

In their case it wasn’t getting people to help them co-develop code or more icons, because they don’t allow for that. But being open helps them get the involvement of people who want to help.

Little by little they’ve built a community. And sometimes, there are people in this community that spontaneously contributes.

There is this story of an italian guy called Jeremy who took it upon himself to answer lots of issues on Github that kept piling up daily and being helpful to the rest of the community.

So Font Awesome, gets people to help and also take care of the community, open issues on what new icons they want, and validating new projects with them.

When you get substantial traffic (in their case millions of visits per month and hundreds of thousands of users), this kind of customer support can really help a small team focus on more strategic stuff.

Takeaways:

  • Allow people to do what they want. When they happen to be helpful, interact with them, encourage and recognize regularly those good things they do. You might even want to schedule a moment every day or week to scan what’s happening and recognize publicly what good deeds are happening in your community.

Step 4: Build the tribe before you need it. Pay the right people to maximize your efforts. Then organize a Kickstarter

People regularly mention Kickstarter as a validation tool for entrepreneurs. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your product should be validated way before you even consider creating a crowdfunding campaign.

To make it big in Kickstarter, there is a crazy amount of work that needs to be done before you launch, such as building your story, attracting a community, creating a video, building the right product and so on…

And that has nothing to do with Kickstarter.

Imagine this. You are preparing a birthday party, you take care of the decorations, the activities and so on a week before, and when the date arrives you realize that you forgot to make friends along the way who wanted to attend your party. So the party has started and you frantically stop people in the street or at the market and ask them if they’d like to attend your party… Which is over in 4 hours and has 2 people attending!

As Seth Godin says:

“Build your tribe before you need it, give the tribe something that they want, and make it easy for them to believe it’s actually going to work. Kickstarter looks like a shortcut. It’s not. It’s a maximizer.”

And that’s the kind of advice Font Awesome followed.

In 2014, once they had their tribe they launched a first kickstarter campaign with mainly homemade videos, copy and visuals. This first effort brought in $71,000 from 732 backers, which is pretty good, specially for an open source project.

But the truth?

Given the incredibly big and raving tribe of users their service had, they could have probably done way better.

I generally recommend to those starting their projects to be frugal on spending. I see many people in startup mode spending themselves to bankruptcy because there is this logo, video or website they have to have. So the advice goes “Don’t spend anything unless you have people paying you for your services and justifying this expenditure, or unless the investment can multiply itself and pay more than it costs.”

But once you’ve proven that you have users who love your product, like Gandy did, you should prudently go for it and stop pinching pennies and doing it all yourself:

“Your video is the very first thing people see when visiting your project. But Kickstarter videos are tough to make. We should know. A couple of years ago, we launched the Kickstarter for Black Tie, a multi-weight icon set. We wrote, directed, shot, and edited it ourselves. And it shows. The video quality is off, the whole thing had to be overdubbed because we didn’t know how to do audio, the background music is just terrible, and I am absurdly awkward on camera. It was bad. In spite of that, the campaign did raise a bit over 200% our goal, which was great. But we learned we needed to work with folks who actually know how to make phenomenal videos.”, writes Dave Gandy.

So 2 years later, in 2016, they went on to organize a new Kickstarter campaign. This time hiring a professional team. To find the right video producers, they went to Videopixie, a platform where production companies can bid for your business, and looked for people who were more focused on telling their unique story than on the technique. They ended up going for Knox Avenue who delivered a video that explained the benefits of the service and that was hilarious enough to make people want to share it:

This time around, the video helped the campaign raise $1,076,940 from 35,550 backers, becoming the most funded and backed software and open source project on the platform so far.

So an investment of $15,000, which sounded like a lot to spend on a video, helped them raise $1,000,000 more than their previous campaign. That’s more than 66 times more!

So if you are not a professional communicator, get good professionals to help you with your media efforts. But ONLY once you’ve managed to gather a community that can justify you paying this kind of investment.

If you want to dig into the nitty-gritty details of their Kickstarter campaign, here is the article where Dave Gandy explains it all.  

Takeaways:

  • Find your first free and paying users before you ever consider creating a crowdfunding campaign, they’ll help you find what to offer
  • If you’ve done the previous step right and you have cash set aside, use it to pay a professional to help you to tell your story. There are just too many things to do during a campaign and, if one well, it will pay for itself
  • Once you’ve got a raving tribe that loves your product or service, use crowdfunding as a maximizer to launch your new products and get people to fund it before you create the next big thing

In Summary

Font Awesome has become one of the top two font services available with Google Fonts and become the most successful Software project on Kickstarter. Here are the 5 takeaways you can tailor to your project based on their experience.

  1. Find and put in practice your unique blend of skills. No need to be in the top 1% of talent. Be in the top 25% in two or more skills, mix them, and be unique
  2. Contribute to other people’s projects or platforms that have already developed their own audiences. Scratch an itch you may have to improve these projects, share it in open source, benefit from the exposure to their audiences and start building your tribe
  3. Once you’ve got your tribe, survey them to learn who they are, their needs, and find services or products valuable enough for them to get paid.
  4. Invite your community to help. Let them do whatever they want, support them with whatever tools they may need, and publicly recognize and promote their work

If you’ve done all of this, you’re ready to use a crowdfunding campaign as a maximizer (but not before). Set cash aside to pay professionals videographers, copywriters and graphists who can help you tell your story better than you could.

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