Experiences Running A Kickstarter

by Mike Shea on 20 December 2018

Note, this article has been updated since the original written in January 2014. Since then I've run the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master Kickstarter which fully delivered to more than 6,600 backers. I've updated my experiences below based on that Kickstarter

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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 research it before you run one. This article comes from experiences running four Kickstarters including the following:

This article, however, is just a single point of data. It's intended to give you some things to think about if you're considering running your own Kickstarter. While this article sounds directive, consider this more exploratory — a hypothesis proven only by a single result. Every Kickstarter I learn something new and each one is it's own experience.

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

Money Isn't the Problem

This is, by far, the biggest lesson I learned putting together these four Kickstarters and having backed over one hundred other RPG Kickstarters, some successful and some failures. According to an independent review of Kickstarters, one in ten Kickstarters fail to deliver after receiving funding. Luckily for me (and I'd argue having a keen eye to detect which Kickstaters are going to succeed), I have a much better ratio of success on backed Kickstarters of one failure in over 104 backed Kickstarters.

What I've learned running these Kickstarters and observing hundreds of others is this:

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

We focus a lot on how much money a Kickstarter makes but money doesn't buy it's way out of a lot of problems, particularly for smaller Kickstarters that earn less than six figures. $80,000 may sound like a lot of money but it isn't enough to quit a day job or hire a full-time team of people to manage a project and get it out the door. Often the work still falls on a handful of people, often just one, who has to put in a lot of time, often more than we think, to complete the 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. Customer service 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. We all suffer from optimism bias. We think things aren't as hard as the turn out to be. We can't see all of the variables. Our energy and time are as finite as the money we have to back a project and yet our imaginations are not.

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? Do they have an infrastructure in place who has proven it can produce a product like this? 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.

Running a big Kickstater, particularly if you're new to it, can have a big effect on mental health as well. The added stress of suddenly having thousands of customers to support can be a huge source of stress. A Gnome Stew article called Kickstater, Kindness, and You is well worth the read. Be ready for the stress and check your own optimism at the door when you're planning a project like this. It may seem like a magic solution to produce an idea. It's powerful, but it isn't easy.

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, at least when we're writing a book. If you really want to know if you can succeed at a project, do it before you ask for any money. If you're developing an RPG book-type project, get as far in the project as you can on your own, before you even begin to put together a Kickstarter and hit people up for cash. Build prototypes, write shitty first drafts, edit your own work by reading it out loud, playtest it 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 the first drafts of all four of my Kickstarted books before I ever ran the Kickstarter itself. I had already developed samples of each book; including art, design, and editing; before we launched the Kickstarter. I had all of the people lined up that I'd need to produce the book and, the minute the Kickstarter crossed the threshold, we got to work producing the books. And it was still very hard to complete them and get them out the door.

Get as far along in your project as you can before launching the Kickstarter and you'll get a better idea how hard it will really be to produce.

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 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 and Customer Service 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.

People have real lives going on. The team we put together are made up of people with real lives. Often these people have day jobs and other projects they're working on at the same time as us. Managing the production of one or two books being developed by a team of people whose energy and attention is being pulled in many different directions is hard work.

Take the time early on in the project, before the Kickstarter, to talk this all out and make sure the effort and time required aren't just discussed but demonstrated. You'll know you're working with the right people if they can show you what they've done before in their area and that they delivered on time and on spec.

Customer service is its own requirement as well. The bigger your Kickstarter, the more a small minority of backers will need a lot of help and hand-holding to understand the Kickstarter and get their rewards. In many casese we'll be dealing with people for whom English is a second language and things can get confused in translation. Many others aren't nearly as familiar with the process of signing up for accounts or downloading files. Making it as easy as possible to receive rewards is critical and expect to spend a lot of time on a small group of people clarifying what they ordered and how they will receive it.

The Complexity of Paper Production

There's a lot of strange math that comes into play when developing physical copies of books. Most RPG book Kickstarters deliver physical books to backers who back at a higher tier but the cost for those backers is much higher than the cost for backers at the digital tier. Once the actual book is produced, the actual cost to deliver a product to a backer at a digital tier is almost zero; just the cost for the download. A physical tier backer, however, has the cost of the book and potentially the cost of printing and shipping as well. If your book costs $6 to produce and $6 to ship, a physical tier backer will cost $12 (or potentially way more if it's overseas) instead of nearly zero for the digital tier.

This means a Kickstarter may have a lot of money pulled in but much of that money immediately disappears in the physical manufacturing cost. Gloomhaven may have pulled in nearly $4 million but 2,274 people received a huge box of stuff for $100. They surely didn't make much of a profit on that $100 box even though we focused on the $4 million price-tag.

When we add a physical tier to our Kickstarter, each new backer at this tier actually takes away from the overall amount because of this added cost per backer. The math is a bit complicated 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 all of my products is to use OneBookShelf as a print-on-demand fulfillment service. Instead of offering a physical copy as part of the reward, I have a slightly higher physical tier that gives backers the option to buy physical versions of the book at the cost of printing and shipping. This means, however big the book gets, it won't cut deeply into the revenue from the Kickstarter and put the project at risk.

This is a complicated solution, however, and it can confuse customers. Why do they have to pay again for a book they already paid for? There's a good answer. They're paying as little as possible to still receive the book since we're not padding out our Kickstarter costs to account for the possible price increases of the physical book. Still, people expect that when they back a Kickstarter they'll get a book delivered right to their door with no additional cost and that has to be managed even if the solution is a better choice.

One Drop of Experience in a Sea of Knowledge

All of this is just one experience for you to consider. 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 and you should do so. 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.