How ‘Exploding Kittens’ became the most insane Kickstarter campaign ever

Q&A with Elan Lee

How ‘Exploding Kittens’ Became a Crowdfunding Phenomenon

“This is a card game for people who are into kittens and explosions and laser beams and sometimes goats.”

How could you not be curious about the tag line tied to the most insane Kickstarter campaign we’ve ever seen? What started in January as a modest plan to raise $10,000 turned into a crowdfunding phenomenon.

‘Exploding Kittens’ raised nearly $8.8 million from more than 218,000 backers. To put that in perspective, the hugely successful ’Veronica Mars Movie Project’ Kickstarter campaign raised $5.7 million from 91,585 backers

The creative card game idea from Elan Lee and Shane Small, coupled with the rockstar cartoonist Matt Inman (The Oatmeal), has proven to be lightning in a bottle. But this is less because of the game, and more because of their Kickstarter campaign approach, which will no doubt be emulated from here on in.

What makes this story even more amazing is that it was a fun side project for Lee, who previously served as Chief Design Officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios. In fact, Lee had recently raised $5 million for a new venture…money he has now given back to investors.

“This is what I’ve been training for the last decade of my life. And I backed into it,” says Lee.

Here’s our full Q&A:

What’s the back story on ‘Exploding Kittens’?

This game was originally designed by myself and Shane Small, who was also at Xbox. We originally called the game ‘Bomb Squad.’ The idea was to insert a joker into a deck of cards and whoever draws the joker dies. We quickly realized the game was more fun when we introduced modifying rules and, after a few weeks, we got to a game that was really exciting. I met with cartoonist Matt Inman and he asked if he could play. We played for ten minutes. Ten minutes turned into an hour, then four hours, then four hours the next night. He said it was the most fun game he’d played in a while and that he wanted to illustrate the cards. I said hell yes! He said, “Great…but we really ought to change the name to Exploding Kittens because of, you know, the Internet.”

You guys passed your Kickstarter funding goal of $10,000 in a matter of minutes. Why keep going?

The $10,000 was enough to help us produce an initial run of 500 decks of cards. Then, things exploded — actually, we fine each other when we use that word, so… — things ‘got bananas.’

You can raise money in a lot of different ways. The reason to do a Kickstarter is not to raise money, it’s to build a community. The game gets better because you get to play with an audience that helps you make it better. They look at art, test out concepts, and provide feedback. They tell us what they love and what they hate, and we make the game better as a giant team. You keep going because the more backers you get, the larger the community, and the better the game becomes.

You’ve said you were able to gamify the Kickstarter infrastructure. Can you explain that?

The insanity surrounding this Kickstarter campaign is not tied to the game. It’s important to keep that separate. We know the game is awesome, but nobody has seen the game.

Most campaigns follow the the same basic formula: put up your page and share your stretch goals, which are funding targets beyond the original Kickstarter goal. We decided this is about a community, so we’re not going to talk about money. All of our stretch goals were tied to game play with the community…badges they’d have to unlock by completing various tasks. That approach helped our numbers skyrocket.

In the process, you said you crashed Dropbox…what happened?

It was ridiculous. For our 30th challenge, the badge people were going for was to take a picture of 10 people wearing kitten ears. Then, we raised the stakes to 50 people, then 100. People were going crazy, trying to pull off this task and finally someone did it! They posted it on Dropbox and dropped it into our comments section. We retweeted it and within 5 minutes, Dropbox crashed because so many people were requesting that file that their servers couldn’t handle it.

You scheduled backer parties at pet shelters all over the world. How come?

Once people earned all the badges we had to offer, we decided there would be no more stretch goals for the last three days of the campaign. We wanted to celebrate our big community, so we said we would host backer parties. We started with an Exploding Kittens Twitter drinking party. On Wednesday, we’ve ordered pizzas to dozens of animal shelters around the world and we’ve encouraged our backers to go. We’ve also planned a Reddit AMA for the last 90 minutes of the campaign on Thursday.

You helped launch Xbox Entertainment Studios and your next venture was also going to be tied to TV, but you gave the money you raised back so you could focus on this. Why?

When I left Microsoft, my plan was to build a new technology-based TV studio. I built a prototype, started building a team and was able to successfully raise about $5 million. When ‘Exploding Kittens’ launched, I thought it would be a side project on the weekend. It’s so weird when the side project dwarfs the scope and scale of the main project. And so I decided to return the money I raised. I realized that if I didn’t turn all my attention to this, it would become the biggest regret of my life.

What have you learned from this experience?

I thought this was going to be a side project. Running a crowdfunding campaign is not what I’m best at. But I realized an hour into this that this is not a crowdfunding project. This is a giant online community working together to tell a dynamic story that updates in real-time, based on how many people participate. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years. This is what I’ve been training for in the last decade of my life…and i backed into it.