Lily Truong, Co-Founder of Clear Ear
How Lily Truong Raised $77,000 to Disrupt the Cotton Swab Industry
A team of doctors and engineers wanted a safer alternative to Q-Tips, so they created it. By understanding where potential users were coming from and staying on point with the idea that their product could alleviate those pains, the Oto-Tip gained the funding it needed to go big.
The lesson from Oto-Tip is, before you start any crowdfunding campaign, you must know how your project will improve people’s lives, and you must explain it in a way that resonates emotionally with potential backers. In this week’s episode, Lily Truong, co-founder of Oto-Tip and manager of its crowdfunding campaign, explains how they did it.
“My key question I wanted to ask myself was … ‘Why would someone need this? Why would backers resonate with the story? What pain point are you really solving?’” Crowdfunding campaigns can reach their goals when they offer a clear way to deal with common struggles people experience.
In the case of Truong’s campaign, Q-tips, cotton swabs, ear sticks, they all shove wax deeper into your ear, make you itch, and can even puncture your eardrum. The Oto-Tip offers another, far less irritating approach to earwax.
It all goes back to that pitch: Look, there’s a problem, but here’s a way to fix it. Find out how your own campaign can tap into people’s emotions and offer a solution.
- The importance of getting feedback before you even entertain the thought of crowdfunding something
- How to figure out the best media platforms to reach your audience
- Why you need a strong story and how to create one that works for you
- The good, the bad, and the ugly when working with PR firms
- Awesome hacks you can do with LinkedIn to boost your Kickstarter campaign
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Lily Truong
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast” my fellow founders, startup founders, entrepreneurs, freelancers, aspiring entrepreneurs. Just all you awesome people around the world taking the time listening to this podcast, hello and welcome, and thank you so much for your time and attention, and sharing your earbuds with me.
Now, as I mentioned in the last episode, we’re mixing things up. We’re doing a six to seven-week crowdfunding series. This is episode number 2 of the crowdfunding series. And the reason that we’re doing this is we need to understand what it takes to build and launch a successful crowdfunding campaign. Because we’re one week away from the Foundr Version 1.0 coffee table book, and we’re crowdfunding it on Kickstarter. Go to Foundr Mag, F-O-U-N-D-R-Mag.com/book (foundrmag.com/book) to make sure you get in early, you sign up to be notified. This goes live November 15th. And we’re researching and speaking to a ton of people that have absolutely crushed their crowdfunding campaigns. So we can do the same.
We’d love your help, we’d love your support. If you do enjoy these episodes, if you do enjoy the magazine, if you do enjoy any of our content, you are going to love this book. It’s going to be beautifully designed, hardcover, die-cut. It’s not going to be like a regular coffee table book with just photos. It’s gonna be packed full of actionable code. So we are one week away from this campaign. I am so excited. I cannot tell you guys how much of a fun project this has been for me and the team.
And you’re getting, you know, behind the scenes how we’re researching, how we’re finding out what works. You guys can listen in and you’ll see how we’re gonna implement a lot of what you’re gonna hear in this crowdfunding series of podcast episodes.
So today, we speak to Lily Truong, and she’s the Founder of a company called OTO-TIP, and they raised over $77,000, and they did an amazing job, brilliant execution. A lot of telltale stories that I know you’re gonna learn from. And I don’t know, I’m thinking the more and more you guys hear these crowdfunding interview series episodes, you’re probably gonna want to do a crowdfunding campaign yourself. Because I can tell you what, it is so much fun. So we are trying to solve a real problem in the startup space. I have never seen a book like this that we’re working on. It’s gonna be absolutely amazing. You know, interviews and insights; Richard Branson, Seth Godin, Gary V. So guys, please, please, please do go sign up, foundrmag.com/book. You’ll be the first to get in line if you do sign up to get all the perks, all the discounts. Because I hope they’re gonna go fast with the tactics and strategies you’re gonna hear right now.
So as I mentioned, we are a week away from the Foundr Version 1.0 book campaign, Kickstarter campaign going live. It goes live November 15th. If you are listening to this episode and it’s just launched, please do check it out, we’re a week away from recording this episode. And from the release date, please do go check out the campaign, please do sign up. All right, now, let’s jump in the show.
You mentioned you had some battle scars to share. Can we start off with that? Like, your biggest struggles with the campaign?
Lily: Yeah, I think…you know, one of the things about our campaign is that, you know, you might have the best idea ever, you know, and a really beautiful page. But if people can’t discover it, then they won’t know that the project that you’re working on actually exists. And so, without that, I guess the discovery aspect, you won’t be able to get your story out there to all the interested backers who would really benefit from your product or service. And in our case, it was a product because we’re making your cleaning product.
Ultimately, I think the success of every campaign depends on being able to successfully get the right kind of traffic to the page. You know, the users that would actually benefit from your solution. And so, I think the greatest struggle with the campaign is just making sure that, you know, as a small company or a small team, that you have limited time and money to run this campaign, and you want to avoid investing your limited time and money on the things that ultimately don’t end up helping increase that metric, which is increasing your campaign traffic page.
Nathan: So what recommendations, based on your experience with OTO-TIP, would you give around driving traffic to the campaign page?
Lily: I think the PR piece of it is really important. Getting access to the bloggers and the web publications, or also even physical publications, if you have enough time, or TV exposure, so that your story can really get out to the public and everyone out there who’s looking for these solutions who might want to back your campaign.
And so, I think there…so kind of related to the PR piece, and because press is so important, you asked, like, how do you get around to getting this press? And one of the traditional ways that some campaigns have done it is they hire a PR firm. And one of the battle scars I really have to be wary of those who haven’t specialized in crowdfunding campaigns.Because everyone will kind of tell you, “Of course we can hit you.” Everyone wants your money, of course. So everyone will tell you, “Oh, we guarantee the success of this campaign.” But you know, they’ll say they’ll guarantee it, but they won’t ever get that in writing. Or they’ll say, you know, “We’re confident that we’ll be able to do it.” So you might want to enlist the help of a PR firm.
I think if you choose to go down that route, my suggestion would be to make sure that you do a lot of due diligence on them and really check their referrals. Because, you know, one, they might not have the expertise to actually do the kind of PR work for crowdfunding-specific projects. So I would ask them “What kind of…” you know, if you can get a list of prior crowdfunding campaigns that they’ve done successfully.
So then the caveat to that is that…you also…the reason why I really suggest that you do the background checks and the referrals is that…you know, they might give you some names of campaigns, but we had an incident, actually, where they kind of showed us a campaign that they had done, claiming that they had done…you know, had successfully gotten all the press coverage for this campaign. And I went on LinkedIn and actually connected with that particular founder who had that company. And it turned out that that person had never even heard of this firm.
Lily: Yeah, so there are incidents like that, and I don’t think that I am, you know, the only one who has experienced things like that. And so, I would just caution…I guess, you know, suggest that people really do their research before signing on a PR firm, because that will get really expensive. That’s one piece of it.
Actually, what I found to be really wonderful is just kind of do-it-yourself PR. Because I really believe that no one cares about your campaign more than you will because, you know, the PR firms might just send out a list, and then they’ll see, you know, how many hits they get. But they’re not gonna be, you know, working on this every single day trying to get the coverage for you.
I guess I have a few tips for do-it-yourself PR. So the first thing is to get all your friends and family early on to build the momentum. To let them know that you’re getting ready to do the campaign. And so, when the day comes that you click the “Live” button, that they’ll be your initial push to build that early momentum and have them do the early tweeting and, you know, the Facebook posts, and drawing the traffic back you can reach with your own personal network.
And then, what I found to be really useful is also being able to write…just a short pitch about your story, which is, you know, about five to eight sentences. And if you can actually go and just upgrade your LinkedIn account to the premium account during the campaign period, then what that allows you to do is you get a certain number of…I guess essentially cold messages that you can send. And if you have a list of reporters, you can send your little five to eight-sentence pitch to these reporters that specifically cover your space that you’re in. So if you’re in health, you would look for reporters that cover health, or if you’re in tech, you would look for reporters that cover tech.
And the little trick there is that those messages that you are sending actually go directly to their Gmail inbox. So they have a little bit higher chance of getting read. And if your pitch actually resonates with a reporter, you can get coverage that way.
Nathan: Oh, wow. And you were quite successful with that strategy?
Lily: Yeah. I was able to get some coverage on Med City News through that method. Because I said, “Oh…” and this also…you know, some of…all my advice also comes from talking to a lot of other people who run campaigns as well. And so, this is one of the tactics that they use.
And then lastly, I would say, just, you know, as an entrepreneur, one of the most important assets that you can have is just your ability to hustle. So some of the times, you know, it’s really about leveraging your entire network that you have; your friends and family, your advisors, to get the warm intros to anyone in…who might know someone who would be interested in covering your story. And it could just be about the small blog, but if it’s very targeted…you’re creating a health product and you know it’s catered towards babies and if you can get a really prominent Mommy Blogger to write about you, you can really get a great exposure for your story that way. And I think you’d be really surprised where it comes from. And sometimes, it’s hard to predict exactly how everything is connected. So you kind of just have to hustle and just talk to absolutely everybody.
So one really interesting story that I had…one of the coverages that we got in the TechCrunch article actually came from me talking to Jess, my friend, who was over in…so I’m based here out of San Francisco. I went talking to a friend who…just about my campaign and kind of get her to contribute to it. And then she…she was based over in Korea. And it just turns out that she, the next day, who was having coffee with her friend who used to work in the advertising space. So that…she told that friend about the campaign. She ended up contributing and then she thought it was really interesting. And so, she said, “Oh, I actually know this reporter over at TechCrunch over in Korea.” And that cascaded…so that reporter then thought the story might be interesting to this other reporter who did cover that. And then two days later, I got an interview with that reporter, and it was on TechCrunch the next day.
Lily: So it’s unbelievable just how far you can get with just…you just can’t see all the connections. You just kind of start talking about your campaign during that period with everybody.
Nathan: Wow. This is great. I’m curious, how long did planning take?
Lily: So we spent about one month to make the video to create the graphics and also to write all of the…you know, the copy for all the text in the…on the Indiegogo page. So that took about one month. And in retrospect…since I was kind of…how I started saying that the PR piece was really important, I would want…if I could go back in time, I would add an extra month just to prepare the PR piece. You know, have a little bit more time to show…come up with a better list of reporters and bloggers, and just having a lot more time to prepare that outreach plan.
Nathan: I see. And in the end, just to touch on the PR piece, I take it you didn’t go with the PR agency?
Lily: We did go through a particular PR agency, you know, and they got a zero coverage.
Lily: It’s giving other people a lot of time and money. But everything that I did under the do-it-yourself PR ended up, you know, being really the key to the success of the campaign.
Nathan: Let’s talk about effective sales copy. Do you have any strategies around that? Any strategies around structuring the page? I know a lot of campaigners use infographics, they run competitions. Anything there that you would like to touch on?
Lily: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s really nice about sharing the product story is actually investing a lot of time in making a good video. And I think a good video, you know, tells a story in a way where your potential backers can actually imagine themselves using your product and can, you know, have some emotional connection to your product. And so, if you told a good story, then I think that that means you have an effective video. So we spent a lot of time on planning the script and things like that.
It’s also nice to have some photos of the prototype of your device on the page. Just so backers kind of know at what stage of development your device is at, and you know, and I also suggest with the photos to take a few photos of a user actually holding your device so that they…you can, once again, similar to the video, tell the story of how it’s supposed to integrate into their everyday life. You know, really, how would someone use this device.
And then from more of a technical standpoint, I think one of the things that we kept in mind is that you want to cater to the different ways that people take in information. So that’s…some people are more visual, so that’s actually why we created the infographics and the graphics for people who kind of hop from just the graphics. We have…but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have any text. We actually had really great text for those who are more of the reader types who like to read through the text. And then there’s also a subset of people who really enjoy watching videos. And so, if you look at our page…you know, if you just hopped through…from video to video to video, you’re still gonna get the same story told to you as if you just decided to scratch all the videos and see graphic, graphic, graphic. Or just read the text by itself. And so, that’s one of the things that we kept in mind, that people do take information in in different ways, and you want the story to be able to resonate through all those three mediums.
Nathan: And around the perks, was there anything that you did that you think was out of the ordinary or attributed to the success that you had with the campaign?
Lily: I don’t think I have anything too different from other campaigns and the perks. I kind of like…one of the things I did for that was to look at other campaigns and how they kind of tiered their perks. And just kind of, you know, rewarding your early backers with…if you’re offering a product, for example, that you would offer the earliest birds a lower perk price than those who come in afterwards.
But other than that, I can’t think of anything too innovative on the perks side for our particular campaign.
Nathan: That’s okay. How about…I’m also curious, how did you go about choosing the platform? Because it’s a big debate, Indiegogo versus Kickstarter. Why did you choose Indiegogo? How did you evaluate that decision?
Lily: I think at the time, for us, it was a pretty clear decision, because Indiegogo was the only platform that allowed for personal health products at the time. When I looked on the Kickstarter page, it said that, you know, they would not allow personal health products, since ours is a ear cleaning system that we automatically thought we wouldn’t qualify for it.
And also, I think due to that differentiation, I’m not exactly sure if that still exists. So I think you’ll have to look that up for me, because I know that they recently changed some of their rules. But I think due to that slight slant, we saw that, you know, previous campaigns that had success in our same space such as Scanadu or Lift Labs…or another company called uBiome, you know, those were all in the health space and had a lot of success. And so, that’s why we chose the Indiegogo platform.
Nathan: I see. And when it comes to your product or service, what do you think are the key attributes that are required? So when you’re looking to successfully crowdfund an idea or project, what do you think are some of the key attributes that really resonate with people when it comes to having a product or service?
Lily: For our product, since it is a health-related product, my key questions that I wanted to ask myself was, really, “What does product or a device do?” And really, “Why would someone need this? You know, why would backers resonate with this story? What pain point are you really solving?” And once you can answer that simple question, you can build your story around that.
And one of the things that we did with our OTO-TIP campaign that we found to be really successful is that once you answer this question of “Why does this someone need this?” or “What pain point are you solving?” that you actually go out and you test this story to see if it resonates with the people before you actually do the campaign. Because it will give you a little…kind of a benchmark for whether or not it’s worth doing a campaign on it, you know? Or is it just you, the one person, who thinks that it’s a necessary product?
So what we did was we were working on an alternative to the cotton swabs, a safer, more convenient way to do ear cleanings. And so, we went out and we created little cotton swab packs. We put our little clear ear logo on it and just kind of said, “Oh, like, did you know…” and what we did is we went out into the parks in San Francisco. And we just kind of talked to strangers at the park. And because we had the pack of cotton swabs, we were able to kind of say, “Did you know that Q-Tips actually push wax further in, and that they can accidentally puncture your ear drum if you push them in too far?”
And that was a really great way for us to go out into the park and talk to potential backers and customers, and really see if, you know, the story that we were telling them resonated with them. Like, were people concerned this, and were they looking for an alternative? And then we had an opportunity to kind of show them what we were thinking about for our alternative.
And so, when you look at our page right now with the graphics and kind of the key talking points that we highlight in our campaign page, it all comes from that little test period. Because you only had a limited amount of space on the page to talk about things. And so, you want to hit on the most important things.
Nathan: That’s really smart. I’m curious, when you went out and talked to random people in the park, like, really true hustle-style, how long did you do that? How many people did you ask?
Lily: I think for the tests part, we only did, like, between…probably, like, 40 people? And that was enough. We spent just, like, a day or two in the park and that was enough. But I will caveat with this, we had a pretty good hunch already that that was kind of the second stage of the test because prior to that, I mean, we’ve been developing this product for over a year and it came out of, you know, at Stanford University when we were students there. And so, we had been in the space and, like, really understanding and talking to customers this entire time leading up to running the campaign as well. But that was kind of the…like, another kind of extra test before running the campaign.
Nathan: Yeah. It’s, like, I guess the final…or one of the final things to, I guess, for you, to validate your idea or your assumption, that you can really do something with this.
Nathan: Okay. Well, look, this is great. We’re getting a lot of really good stuff. You’re sharing some real gold, Lily. I’m curious, do you have any more general tips around running a successful campaign? And I’m gonna ask you…yeah, is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t covered yet?
Lily: Yes. I think I’ll…you know, we had the right kind of…I was going the top two to three general tips. I would say, first, to figure out the story that you’re telling around the product. To make sure that that’s a real need that people want solved. And then to create the content around that. So that includes the video and the graphics, the photos. Because without a great story, you know, it’s not gonna resonate with your backers. And if you don’t resonate with people, you know, you’re not gonna have a successful campaign.
Then I would say to plan and execute the PR outreach, to actually get good coverage. Don’t underestimate how important that is, because I wish it were that easy, that you can just have a great page and push the “Live” button, and then hundreds and thousands of people would just come to your page. But you really have to work to get those eyeballs, I think.
And then the last one, which is probably the most important one, is to really just talk to others. Anyone that you know who has already run a successful campaign and pick their brains. Because that’s really are…you know, each person has different battle scars, and has different experiences and things that they learned along the way. So they can give you…I mean, they can kind of let you know what things to avoid and what things really did work for them, so that you can kind of save your time.
So on that point, I’m more than happy to, you know, help any of your readers out on this topic because I really hope that more people can run successful campaigns.
Nathan: Wow. Well, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much.
Lily: No problem. And then, Nathan, I guess, like, the one other topic that wasn’t in one of your questions is just a few kind of do-it-yourself ideas on kind of like when you’re actually launching your campaign. Let’s say you don’t have the, you know, all the big PR kind of covered yet.
I think one of the things you can think about, the timing of when you actually go live with your campaign. So some interesting ideas that I’ve seen other campaigns do is that they actually throw a little launch party with all their friends. So they get everyone together. And so, a launch party could just literally be at someone’s house, or, you know, of course, in an event space as well. And when they launch it, then everyone at that event will kind of put in their contribution at the exact same time, and they’ll kind of give the boost and the momentum, the early momentum that I’m talking about.
Another way to do that if your product is something that…you know, maybe if you have an upcoming conference or a meetup that’s happening, and you happen to be on stage…because I was giving a talk at the Digital Health Summit. And that’s an opportunity when you have a lot of eyeballs, once again, to kind of announce that you’re…that there is this campaign. So it’s really when you’re on stage or you have a party…you know, a large gathering of people that you can kind of get that initial boost.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that’s great. Somebody did…it didn’t come up with the launch parties a couple of times, but nobody said around the timing. Which makes sense, right?
Lily: Mm-hmm, yes.
Nathan: So you can really leverage your time and how you’re spending it.
Lily: Yeah. It definitely all comes down to investing your limited time and money in the right places.
Nathan: Okay. Well, look, you’ve been great, Lily. We’ve got a lot from you. And we’ve got some interesting perspectives, too. There was quite a few things that came up that haven’t came up yet. So yeah, look, I just wanted to say, thank you so much for taking the time.
Lily: Oh, no problem. I’m more than happy to.
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