Experiences Running A Small Kickstarter

by Mike Shea on 31 January 2014

30 Second Summary

Some Other Great Reading

Lots of others have talked about running Kickstarters for RPGs. The book Kicking It by Shanna Germain and Monte Cook is probably the best one to read. There are a lot of tricky bits to running a Kickstarter and it's worth your time to investigate it. In this article, we're mainly focusing on the experiences from a single small $1,000 Kickstarter for Aeon Wave that ended up with 272 backers and a total of $2,580.

This article is just a single point of data. It's intended to give you some things to think about if you've ever considered running a Kickstarter or are planning one yourself. While this article sounds directive, consider this more exploratory — a hypothesis proven only by a single result.

That's a long winded way of saying "Your milage may vary".

Money Isn't the Problem

This is, by far, the biggest lesson I learned putting together Aeon Wave and backing a ton of other RPG Kickstarters, some successful and some failures.

Money isn't the limiting factor for successfully delivering a project.

The money tends to be what people focus on when firing up a Kickstarter or watching a successful project, but money isn't the thing that will make or break a Kickstarter.

Kickstarters fail because projects are hard to complete.

Writing is hard. Drawing is hard. Programming is hard. Project management is hard. Having an idea and a pile of cash isn't enough to get something out the door. Hard work is still hard work, regardless of the money. Our ideas are often bigger than our ability to complete them. Our energy and time are as finite as the money we have to back a project.

This is also a big indicator one can use to identify potentially successful Kickstarter delivery from failures. Is the person behind the project known to ship consistently? Do they really know what they're doing? Is there any part of this exercise they have not done before? Those answers define successful Kickstarters from failures and they have nothing to do with the money.

Finish Before You Start

Since money isn't the real issue when finishing a small project, we don't really need it to get started. If you really want to know if you can succeed at a project, start doing it. Get as far as you can on your own, before you even begin to put together a Kickstarter and hitting people up for cash. Build prototypes, write shitty first drafts, edit your own work by reading it out loud, playtest with your friends. You can often get far into a project before you need to start hitting up your friends and your community for cash.

I wrote three drafts of Aeon Wave and playtested it a half-dozen times before I ever launched the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter was there solely to fund the three other freelancers I had lined up for their parts of the project. Each of them had proven their abilities and reliability on other projects and for Aeon Wave it all worked out. Agreements had already been made. Timelines had already been established. Everyone knew what they needed to do and what they were dealing with before Kickstarter ever launched.

Think Small

Ideas are like fire and the excitement of watching money roll in adds the fuel. Our ideas grow and grow, devouring our time and energy quickly. If we're not careful, we burn out fast and have nothing left to show for it. If you want to get a project out the door, make sure that your project is small enough that you can really do it, do it soon, and get it in people's hands. If there are any elements you're not sure about, figure them out before you start taking peoples' money.

This is especially true with stretch goals. It's really easy to watch money roll in and come up with grandiose stretch goals along the way. Each stretch goal turns into a marketing idea that brings in more money. But you still have to deliver and now you have to deliver even more than you had originally planned.

You should be as sure of your stretch goals as you should of your primary idea. Before you even start, know what those stretch goals might be and be prepared to follow through with them as strongly as you are with the rest of the project.

Above all, think small. Focus down on the main thing you want to deliver and get it out the door. Too big and you risk everything.

Project Management Is Hard

It's easy to imagine that Kickstarter cuts out the middle man and helps creators get their projects into the hands of their fans and customers, but those middle men often provided a service we still need. Project management is its own sort of discipline and one often lacking in creative work. Project management is as critical to a good project as writing, art, design, and editing. Someone has to understand how all the pieces come together. Someone has to keep in touch with all the parties and make sure things are coming together. Someone has to understand how construction and distribution is going to work. Maybe you can do this on your own, but if you've never done it before, your project is at risk.

The Complexity of Paper Production

Aeon Wave is my fourth self-published RPG book along with Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips, Running Epic Tier D&D Games, and the Lazy Dungeon Master. I produced and sold paper copies for all four of these books. People love the idea of paper copies but with years of sales data in my possession, less than 4% of sales come from paper copies. In some cases it's less than 1%. Given the added difficulty of production, paper copies simply aren't worth it. Lots of people say they want a paper copy but once they see the price and, particularly, the price of shipping, they lean towards the digital copy.

When producing paper copies as a Kickstarter reward, there are added financial complications. If you include physical copies as part of one of the reward structures, it can actually end up taking away money you needed for production. It's a bit of complicated math, so bear with me.

Let's say you have a $1,000 Kickstarter with two tiers, a $7 digital tier and a $14 digital + physical tier. Fulfilling the $7 tier only requires that you email a link. Fulfilling the $14 tier means you have to send them a link as well as a physical copy of the book, probably distributed from a print on demand service. That means a good piece of that $14 you ask for will be spent fulfilling each of the $14 backers. Yet that $14 counted towards your $1,000 goal. If you have a lot of $14 backers and it ends up costing you $6 per backer to fulfill the request, you're going to get a lot less of that total $1,000 which means you won't have as much to pass around for production. Like I said, it's a bit of complicated math if you're not used to this type of production.

The solution I chose for Aeon Wave ended up working well. I chose RPG Now as my print-on-demand fulfillment service. Instead of offering a physical copy as part of the reward, I offered backers of the $12 ebook package a coupon code that would let them purchase the physical copy at cost — about $6 after shipping and handling. This meant that I didn't cut into the original $12 at all. If people wanted a physical copy, they could buy it for an additional $6 and not cut into the original $1,000 at all. I made no profit from these paper copies but that was fine since they had already backed the rest of it at $12 and fulfilling each of the $12 backer rewards had no extra costs.

While I've always built a physical copy of each of the four self-published gaming books I've produced, I still don't know if I will bother in the future. Overall, they just don't sell.

One Drop of Experience in a Sea of Knowledge

All of this is just data for you to process. Everyone has different ideas and different experiences running Kickstarters. You can dig all around the net for opinions on what will and won't work. Consider it all. Consider who's saying it. Then decide what you think will work for you.

Kickstarter offers a source of funding for projects that may never see life any other way. It's an extremely powerful tool. It doesn't take away the hard work of bringing a shining unique idea into the world and into the hands of customers. Many Kickstarters fail. They fail because finishing something is a lot harder than it is to start. Ideas are cheap and easy. Finished products are hard.

Good luck.

If you liked this article, take a look at Aeon Wave, my Kickstarted Fate Core cyberpunk game scenario. You can also see my other self-published books the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips, and Running Epic Tier D&D Games.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.