‘We Stopped Talking About Money’ — and Raised $9 Million
Elan Lee made ‘Exploding Kittens’ and ‘Throw Throw Burrito’; Paul Budnitz created Ello and Kidrobot before launching Superplastic. Here, they discuss how community-first projects have overthrown elitist cultural tastemakers.
To make a creative project, “you used to have to convince one or two very powerful people to take a chance on you,” says Elan Lee. But sites like Kickstarter have “brought the barrier to entry almost to the floor.”
Elan Lee has managed to make the most of these new opportunities. He left his job as Xbox’s chief design officer to make the runaway hit board games Exploding Kittens, Bears vs Babies, and Throw Throw Burrito, raising a total of nearly $15 million. He also inspired Paul Budnitz, who’s now running his second campaign for Superplastic artist-designed toys, to give Kickstarter a try.
They both attribute their success to putting community and creativity first. “We see selling stuff as kind of a side effect of being awesome,” says Budnitz. “I’m more interested in the continual creation of stuff than I am in the results or selling them, and because of that, I think, the stuff I make tends to sell.”
In this conversation, they get specific about how they’ve done that, the advice that’s helped along the way, and “trout.”
Kickstarter: How do you introduce yourselves at cocktail parties? How do you describe your work?
Paul Budnitz: I am an artist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, and I started a whole bunch of creative companies, like Superplastic, which is my current project. We are a talent agency for synthetic celebrities. We make toys and stuff too. I also founded the social network Ello, the toy company Kidrobot, the fashion label Big, and some other stuff I can’t remember. Oh yeah — a bicycle company called Budnitz Bicycles.
We’re now doing our second Kickstarter campaign, and we’re releasing all kinds of unbelievable toys with super famous artists. The designs are a billion times more amazing than last time. And they are limited to this Kickstarter, so most of them you will never, ever have another chance to get, and then you will be sad.
Elan Lee: I make a game called Exploding Kittens. I spend most of my time these days making board games and card games, because I felt really bad about all the video games that I made [earlier in my career]. They were alienating people, and making people feel lonely in their own homes. I wanted to stop doing that.
You’ve both had crossover careers creating both digital and physical things. What have you learned from that?
Lee: Digital products are actually much cheaper in some senses. You can iterate much more quickly, and if you mess up, you can just patch it. Meanwhile the first version of Exploding Kittens has 14 typos in it that — no matter what I do — will always exist forever and ever.
I will always dabble with digital, but I work in the physical because I think people are learning to celebrate experiences, specifically experiences with each other. I’m so enamored with the idea of building experiences that allow people to celebrate each other.
Budnitz: I’m pretty reality-agnostic. I love and fetishize beautiful things; for me it’s all about the experience of the thing, the magic added to them. I went to art school and decided pretty quickly that it would be really awful to spend my life trying to make beautiful things and then convince gallery owners that I was okay. So I went right into retail — it’s more democratic. If you can give people an experience of getting something, it adds value and becomes really fun.
You both have had your hands in so many different creative fields over the last 10 years. What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the way that creative work happens?
Budnitz: God, everything. There’s this horrible thing that people call remote work — it doesn’t work. We actually tried it with Ello. It was a disaster. There’s an illusion that talking on video is the same as being in the same room [with someone], and it’s not. And I think that that sort of misunderstanding is pervading a lot of things.
Lee: I think another big change — for the better — is that the barrier to entry for creative work has gone down.
Budnitz: That’s right.
Lee: To a large extent that’s because of Kickstarter. But whatever your project is, in order to make that real, you used to have to convince one or two very powerful people to take a chance on you. Everyone is trying to make their case to those one or two powerful people, so the chances that they pick you are extremely slim.
Budnitz: And those guys don’t have very good taste anyway.
Lee: They really don’t. They don’t get paid to have good taste. They get paid to not take risks. For me, the big shift in the last 10 years is the statement that we, the billions of us who might not have the investment track record that they do, can make those decisions.
It’s brought the barrier to entry almost to the floor. You do have to present yourself well, and you have to convince a bunch more people, but the odds are so much better. You learn so much, and even if you fail, you get to turn around and try it again.
Over the last 10 years, that change has created so much more beauty and experimentation and building blocks for creating things based on other people’s successes and experimentation and partnerships.
Budnitz: Oh man. That’s brilliant. I want to agree with everything Elan just said. And the nice thing about limited-edition runs like mine is that, if you make 500 of something, you only have to please 500 people. Everyone else can think you suck, and it’s okay. It means you can do things that are fairly far-out if you can find those 500 people.
You both have complicated relationships with the state of digital technology and connection. What do you think is the ideal form for this? Ten years from now, what do you hope the creative industries’ relationship with digital culture will be?
Budnitz: I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s an ideal. I personally find it difficult to find the right balance between the time I spend on digital and virtual things and the time I spend out in the real world. I do find that if I’m [spending] too long on the phone or something, then everything else seems to go kind of gray.
I don’t necessarily want to change the world. I kind of think I’d rather just be in the same world we’re in, just with a lot more colors. But frankly, I think the world is pretty interesting, and the problem is that we get focused on all this stuff that isn’t very interesting. So I hope we evolve into bringing out what’s more interesting, whatever that is. Wow, that sounded pretty abstract.
Lee: Trolls make me so depressed. I find lately that the things I get most excited about are really little subreddits, smaller communities where people have congregated around whatever it is they are passionate about, and there are almost no rules, because they don’t need them.
There’s a subreddit for the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I have watched the show a few times. I like the show. I am not as obsessed as most of the people on the subreddit are. But the amount of joy in that room and the amount of encouragement and the fact that they don’t even have to self-police is great.
Budnitz: Superplastic has a Telegram group that’s like that. People are dating and getting married on it. No one is ever mean. We’re like, “Oh, we need to eventually get a moderator,” but we haven’t really needed one yet, because everyone is all nice and geeky and weird. Why would you be there and be mean?
Lee: Yeah, you don’t have anything to prove. You’re not there to say, “Look how smart I am.” Those are the places that I hope to see thrive. And I have a great deal of interest in figuring out how to create more places like that and ensure that they stay healthy. It’s really, really hard to maintain. It’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I search for those happy spots on the internet wherever I can. And I watch them. They are so beautiful to observe.
Budnitz: One thing we did on Ello was put the new comments at the top of the page instead of the bottom. It was harder to keep a conversation going reading backwards, but people did it, and trolls couldn’t get any leverage.
What are some other conditions you’ve found help keep your communities positive?
Budnitz: It’s important to not have too much self-importance — like, remember there were those sneaker shops in New York City, like Alife? I don’t know if it’s still there, but it was this little shop on the Lower East Side. You used to walk in, and there was some kid looking at you like you’re definitely not cool enough to shop there. And I would always walk out of the shop going like, “I’m not going to buy anything here. Forget it.” Even though the sneakers were kind of amazing.
Lee: I didn’t invent this, but I observed it, and it’s so good. I was working on an alternate-reality game for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It must have been 20 years ago now. We built this scavenger hunt within the credits, in commercials, through the internet, and around the real world. And we had literally millions of people going through trying to solve this mystery. I was really proud of it.
But any community with millions of people is very difficult to moderate. I realized early on that I couldn’t do it. Not only is it a full-time job, but it’s a guaranteed failure. The community has to moderate itself.
One of the rules the community figured out on their own, to address the issue that new people are going to come in all the time and ask [inane] questions or be excited about something that the community already figured out, is to tell them to read “The Trail” — what they called the list of stuff they’d figured out already — then come back in and be a productive part of this community.
The problem was, that’s such a negative message. So they solved for that by choosing a silly word, in this case “trout.” Any time you feel compelled to tell someone, “We already know that thing, go back and read the thing, then come in and talk to us,” instead just type the word “trout.” What a silly solution. And yet it had the most beautiful effect. Instead of feeling alienated, people would laugh and say, “What’s trout?” And someone would explain what trout meant. Then, instead of feeling offended, they’d say, “Oh. That’s cool. You guys have rules. There’s etiquette here. There’s a community here.”
Budnitz: Then you immediately feel special and you feel part of it because now you know what trout is.
Lee: Exactly. Exactly.
So what does a successful community look like for you?
Budnitz: I think it’s people feeling safe to be vulnerable.
Lee: Oh, that’s perfect. I can’t possibly do better than that. Holy crap. Perfect.
Tell me what you get out of being vulnerable. What are the positive benefits of everyone in the community having that?
Budnitz: The advantage is that you’re being real. It’s the difference between a cocktail party and a dinner with your close friends. And as we mature, I hope, we feel safer inside ourselves to be real with people we don’t know, because when they do the inevitable thing which would otherwise have been hurtful, we’re accepting of it — or of ourselves, I guess.
I’m not interested in much of anything that doesn’t bring out something real in the long run. I create entire fake and virtual worlds so I can bring out realness. My virtual characters are going to be living very soon on social media and other places.
Lee: I want to add to the vulnerability question, because I think it’s so important. I think creation is community — to be a part of the community, you must create. You must make suggestions like this “trout” thing. That suggestion, that creativity, that’s what communities thrive on. That’s how they get better. And all of those are synonymous with vulnerability.
Budnitz: Right, because you can’t create unless you feel safe. And I think another way of saying that is that a community is a place where you feel good about making it better.
Are there any other digital or physical products that you just look at and think, “They’ve figured out how to do this creativity and community thing”? Any north stars?
Budnitz: Exploding Kittens was pretty dope. That blew my mind.
Lee: You know what’s crazy? The comment forum on the Kickstarter page for Exploding Kittens still gets maybe five comments per day — and it’s been five years since we launched that campaign. That community is so tight that they are still there every day, talking about how their days were, what they had for dinner, what’s happening at work. Strong communities don’t die. They grow. And it’s so beautiful to see.
Was there any advice that you got or changes that you needed to make along the way that helped foster that community?
Lee: My mentor is a guy named Jordan Weisman who is kind of a legend in the video game world. Smartest guy I know. He once gave me the best advice on communities, on product, on just the act of creation, which was: “Other people’s ideas aren’t worse, they’re just different.”
What that meant to me was that we all have this tendency of saying, “I have an idea. I know how this is going to work. Let me present my idea.” Then other people present their ideas, and your instant instinct is to think, “It’s not as good as my idea because it’s not my idea.”
You have to eliminate that. You have to say, “That idea is a different idea, and it’s not my idea. And that’s okay.” To figure that out, to make that okay in your brain, opens up collaboration and opens up things that are so much better than you can do on your own, because you eliminated the part of your brain that’s defensive and closed and all those ugly words that are the enemy of invention. That was like the best advice I’ve ever gotten. It’s taken me 20 years to dissect it enough to really take full advantage of it.
Paul, what’s been some of your most valuable advice?
Budnitz: Well, for Kickstarter I called Elan. We were both speaking at this conference, and after I watched his thing, I was like, “Oh my god. I have to do that.” And then when I decided to do it, he advised us. So I just copied the master. Who I guess was copying another master. I don’t know.
Lee: I think we all copy each other.
Paul: Yeah, totally.
What were some of the things you remember him telling you at that time?
Budnitz: A lot of things that we’re talking about here. That he was into creating the community first. I think a similarity between and Elan and I is that we see selling stuff as kind of a side effect of being awesome. I’m more interested in the continual creation of stuff than I am in the results or selling them, and because of that, I think, the stuff I make tends to sell.
Get people playing games, get people excited. And the side effect is that then you have a company that is profitable enough to make more stuff. It’s like that jeweler in One Hundred Years of Solitude who makes these little golden fish and then he gets paid in gold, which he melts down so he can make little golden fish. I feel the same way.
Kickstarter is the perfect platform for it. Even with all its kind of randomly and admittedly horrible quirks that could be fixed, maybe that’s partially what makes it charming. You’re quirky and weird and you put dancers and muppets on your homepage and no one else does it. It’s a terrible business and we can’t figure out why you do it, but we kind of love you for it anyway.
Can we hear more about the campaign experiences you each had? How did you start building your communities?
Lee: Well, I had a huge secret weapon, which was The Oatmeal. My business partner Matt Inman created this online comic and books and posters. At the time he had spent the last six or seven years building a community just based on his sense of humor. So when we decided to partner up on Exploding Kittens, we had the advantage of the power of The Oatmeal. He could direct his audience to our campaign en masse. So we hit our $10,000 campaign goal in seven minutes and we had our first million on the first day.
Budnitz: Holy shit.
Lee: It was insane, the power of The Oatmeal. But after that, after The Oatmeal’s audience flowed through over the next two to three days, our audience dropped off tremendously. We tried a few things, promotional things to reinvigorate them. But none of those things really worked. What I realized in looking at the data — because I am obsessed with data — was that if I compared the number of comments per day to the number of backers per day, there was a one-to-one correlation. The more I could get people talking on the page, the more backers would show up, because those people would be enthusiastic, they would tell their friends, there would be more attention.
Don’t try to raise money. Try to raise a community, because the community comes first and then the money follows it. We stopped talking about money on the campaign. Instead we rewarded the community and talked about doing crazy things, just essentially having fun together, trying to stimulate conversation.
So we did that, and we started to watch our numbers double every day, getting us all the way up through the end of the campaign, where we hit almost $9 million. We saw this community double and then double and then double again as we played with them. Our mantra all along was that in crowdfunding, we don’t care about funding, we care about the crowd. That was our push the entire way through.
Do you have a creative mantra, Paul?
Budnitz: “Nostalgia is death.” We have a big sign that says “Perfect enough” on the wall. I like that a lot.
The other thing that we’ve been doing currently at Superplastic is bad design, intentionally. We have really talented designers, so the question is how do you unlearn? If you do it intentionally, it’s awesome. It’s incredible.
Lee: I love that. We have a big sign on the wall of the studio here that says “Fail fast,” which is a thing I try to drill into everybody’s heads. You are definitely going to fail. The thing you’re working on right now will fail, 100 percent guaranteed. The trick is, don’t linger on that. Get through the failure. Move on to the next failure. Eventually you’ll hit a success, but if you think you’re going to hit the success somewhere in your first 400 tries, you’re thinking about this the wrong way.
What have been some of your biggest failures or scariest moments?
Lee: Most of them have been around producing extra items for the campaign. For example, on Exploding Kittens, at first we were contemplating putting in T-shirts and posters and all the other stretch goal stuff. Things like that would have absolutely destroyed our campaign, destroyed our company; it’s starting a separate business that has nothing to do with the campaign you’re running. I am so, so grateful that smart people steered us away from that failure before we launched it.
Paul, what was the scariest moment in your campaign?
Budnitz: The scariest moment was after the campaign, when I didn’t take Elan’s advice and we decided to ship a bunch of stuff direct from our factory in China. He was like, “Don’t do it.” I was like, “I don’t know, man. There’s this big, very sophisticated company that promised us they could handle this.” Boy, was that not true. Everyone got their stuff, but my god, what a hassle for us on the back end. I mean, we were running around like, “That sucked.” So everyone out there: Don’t ship from China. Don’t do it.
Elan, is there any other advice that you try to emphasize for new creators?
Lee: For new creators, I actually want to re-emphasize shipping. There’s an inherent problem: You have to make a promise to your audience about the thing you’re making, how much the thing is going to cost, how much it’s going to cost to ship. But you don’t know all that yet. You’re on Kickstarter because you’re not done yet. So, all I can suggest is to do much more homework than you thought you needed to. Figure out the worst case scenario and plan for that.
If you think you know how much your box is going to weigh, calculate shipping on double that. Then add taxes on top of that, and put disclaimers all over your shipping pricing.
Everything will go wrong. Be so careful. It’s better to have fewer backers than backers who are expecting something that is undeliverable.
Budnitz: I am not a data person. I was a computer programmer for a while — I wrote safety software for nuclear power plants when I was 19, it’s a terrifying thought — but I’m not a data person. To me it’s like, go out and do it and get yourself in so much trouble. That’s how to start a successful business. Then I’m in so deep that I have to make it work. And that actually makes me fall in love with it.
So I just want to balance that. Do your research. Add up all the numbers. And then at some point, just [say] screw it and jump in. A lot of people freeze up when they are afraid. A lot of people think that there’s someone out there who knows something that they don’t know. The fact of the matter is that Elan and I don’t really know what we’re doing. Admit it. We don’t.
Lee: Not at all.
Budnitz: Neither does anyone else. He looks at all the data, I’m just stupid, and we both barrel ahead.
Lee: I think the beauty of this is that both of those strategies are equally valid, and you can take your pick.