Kickstarter Lesson 231: Cult of the You

10 July 2017

“Jamey Stegmaier is an asshole. I’ll never buy anything from Stonemaier Games.”

I’ve seen a few people say this over the years on social media, and it stings every time. It stings that someone perceives me that way or that I may have acted in such a way to deserve those harsh words.

It’s not just personal, though–it’s business. If my behavior causes Stonemaier to lose a customer, that’s potentially hundreds of dollars of lost revenue. This is the danger of having a company so closely tied to one person, whether they’re a leader, an advocate, or an endorser.

Take the Livestrong charity, for example. Remember those yellow wristbands that support cancer survivors? Before Lance Armstrong became entangled with doping accusations, Livestrong had close to $16 million in annual contributions. Just a few years later after the drug tests were confirmed, donations dropped to $3.8 million.

It goes beyond social media and personal scandals, though: When the success of an organization significantly depends on a single person, it’s really hard to scale up. You can’t be everywhere at once all the time (physically and digitally). And, worst-case scenario, what if that person is hit by a truck tomorrow?

***

So why would someone allow their personal identity to become so closely entangled with a product, company, or Kickstarter project? Because it can have a hugely positive impact on customers.

I’ll never forget a story someone told me 5 years ago. They had recently bought Mice & Mystics from Plaid Hat Games, but one of the miniatures was missing. They e-mailed customer service, and within a few minutes they had a response from the CEO himself, Colby Dauch. That’s what stuck with them.

In many ways, the personal touch is what drew me to Kickstarter in the first place. I loved that it gave me the opportunity to personally connect with people who shared my passion.

Also, if people like you, they’re often more likely to view your company in a positive way. This impact is magnified the more closely entangled to the company you are. You’re more likely to be loyal to a person than they are to a company.

Jason Fried of 37Signals sums it up well in this article about acting your size: “Your customers will always know whom they are dealing with. They’ll know they’ll get the most personal service possible. A lot of people have had the experience of working with a company only to see their key contact move on to another job. The relationship is lost. That’s not possible when it’s your business. You are your business. They’ll have you from start to finish. That’s a big advantage.”

***

If you’re a Kickstarter creator or a small business owner like me, how can you benefit from being the face of the company while avoiding the pitfalls? Here are a few tips, and I’d love to hear your additions in the comments.

  • Determine if you’re likable. It may turn out that the best face (or voice/personality/etc) for the company may not be yours. This post may help you determine if you can be that face; if not, partner with someone who can fill that role.
  • Delegate. Instead of being the only face, be one of several faces. Several websites I follow closely use this model.
  • Don’t be an asshole. We’re all going to have moments of weakness, but you can minimize it through self-awareness. If a comment, post, or situation makes my blood boil, I try to measure my response very carefully (or I don’t comment at all). I’d particularly recommend reading this before posting something controversial.
  • Praise publicly, criticize privately. By celebrating the impact other people have on your company, you deflect attention and adoration from yourself.
  • Don’t get hit by a bus. Or acknowledge that life is fragile and that you may want to delegate so your company can outlive you.

Also read:

45 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson 231: Cult of the You

  1. My wife absolutely loves that you 1) actually remember her name, and 2) pronounce it correctly.

    I myself am constantly trying to be better at really listening to people’s names, and I try to use them. I think it helps toward being personable.

    1. Well, please thank Ronelia for saying that. :) At Geekway I sometimes get overwhelmed with names and faces…thank goodness for nametags. :) For some reason, last names really help.

  2. Even though Meeple Source is a very small company, I guess some people don’t know that because many people seem amazed that the owner (me) answers almost all customer service emails and that when you see us at a con, you are guaranteed to walk up to the booth when Chris or I (or both of us) are working it. We have one good friend and my boyfriend that help us sometimes but other than that, it is just Chris and me. :) For us it is a great opportunity to stay in contact with our customers. While working a con is very hard work, it can be very rewarding to see the smiles on people’s faces as they tell us stories of the fun they have had with our game pieces, or the joy when they discover us for the first time. And, of course, no one knows our products better than us. So having the owners working the booth means the best possible service for our customers. We have knowledge of our entire product line, things in production, etc. And, we have the ability to make calls on the spot to split a set for a customer that needs it, replace parts on the spot or other things that an employee or volunteer probably couldn’t or wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. Sure, we could probably hire people or maybe even get volunteers to run the booth at these events but no one would put the kind of heart and soul into it that we do ourselves, so we have decided to go to less cons but make sure our faces are the ones people see at the ones we do attend. :) And at least for the time being, I’ll stay the one answering emails and providing most of the customer support. I think there needs to be a balance between letting others help you with some things so you can grow, and keeping that personal connection with your customers. I guess every business owner needs to find out where that line lies for themselves. :)

    1. Cynthia: I like that you touched upon the sheer breadth of knowledge that a company owner/founder brings to the table. It’s really hard to transfer that to someone else. I’m fortunate that people often know the rules to my games just as well as I do, but for a company like yours with thousands of SKUs, I can’t imagine someone knowing as much as you and Chris do.

  3. But I guess that means if someone doesn’t like me, they probably won’t buy from Meeple Source. :) Hopefully that isn’t too many people.

    I can’t imagine who would say you’re an asshole. They definitely haven’t met you if so! :)

  4. A personal touch in a business is often what makes it stand out and gives customers a feeling of having a interaction beyond the normal seller/consumer relationship. These interactions that are recognizable as being between people rather than cogs have a true lasting impact. It’s a delicate balance. You can’t just act one way In public. I definitely liked Stonemair and Meeple Source after purchasing Scythe. I took an interest in their well being after interacting with them and feeling like I was just another random customer. It’s a model and method I was actively employing in the FLGS I was managing at the time. Personally attending to a person in a “we are people” versus “this is customer service” manner really is just the better way to do things. I imagine it is harder and harsh when you jump from the local scene to the internet and the world but I’m glad you guys are out there and doing what you have always done.
    Doing your best and being a good person will always put people in your corner.

    1. Rick: I’m going to quote you here, because I REALLY like this line: “Personally attending to a person in a “we are people” versus “this is customer service” manner really is just the better way to do things. “

  5. Thanks for the thoughts Jamey. I face a similar overlap between personal and professional life because my shop is located so close to home. There’s never a down moment. While I think for the most part I’m a good person and I must be doing something right because my business is still around, I can remember every bad public interaction, and just like you said, they all sting. While some have commented that “its most likely not even your fault and they probably haven’t even met you” it just doesn’t matter. Bad taste spreads quickly. And word of mouth is both our best friend and our worst enemy. That’s just the life we lead. And I think you just never understand until you’re there.

  6. It’s like a Twitter-style “change 2 words” madlib…

    “Jamey Stegmaier is an _____. I’ll gladly buy ______ from Stonemaier Games.”

    Here’s mine.
    “Jamey Stegmaier is an angel. I’ll gladly buy anything from Stonemaier Games.”

    What’s yours?

    1. Ok, one more to churn the waters here…

      “Jamey Stegmaier is an ailurophile. I’ll gladly buy kittens from Stonemaier Games.”

  7. Having an audience as big as yours, I think that kind of people with mean comments are always present. I fully disagree with them, and when I see posts like that, it angers me very much. People who rate Scythe with “1” at Boardgamegeek, people who complain about your work, etc.

    However, having an audience as big as yours, I think the ratio of fans vs haters must be 1000:1 :)

    I understand that every single mean post stings, but remember that for each one of them, there are a thousand of people grateful of your work, your designs, your cat posts, and else. Many of them may be silent, but they are still grateful for your work.

    Now, on topic: For our business, I always thought that my associate was the right one for public relations. He has a lot of charisma while I’m more serious when it comes to work. It turned out that on digital channels, his charisma just wore off. We found that I am more suited for mails, comments, social media, Kickstarter messages, etc and he is a more likeable person face-to-face. It’s a weird combination, but it works nicely.

      1. Will, Jamey,

        I can agree with will’s statement about one vs. the other. I know full well that my text based communication comes across way more ‘not-awesome’ than my in person communication. If I could do ALL my play, all my work, and all my business IN PERSON life would be so much better. And I’d have a lot more really great friendships in the industry.

        For me I love human communication and interaction so much, I think there’s an aspect of the inhuman-ness of text that turns me off and my wording doesn’t end up as sweet. Plus I just can’t, no matter how many emoticons I use, channel my authentic enthusiasm for life and for people though these keys i’m poking. : DDDD

        Then there’s the option using lots of exclamation points, and gamers have slapped me down for that pretty heavily at the start of my career. : ( (Something I still don’t understand. : / )

        But, I bet William’s friend is a lot like me. True, and honest, and deep, and loyal in person with a psuedo-distaste of being forced to type instead of hang out in person. I hope to meet him in person one day! It’ll be AWESOME!! : )

        John

  8. When it comes to Stonemaier Games I buy first and ask “what’s this game about again?” later. And that’s because of 1) your expertise in previous designs and 2) how you conduct yourself as the owner.

    I was pleasantly surprised to get gameplay questions answered by you personally and that’s stuck with me. And your articles should be must reads for today’s business schools. Similarly I try to relay to my team (I work at a large IT Dept.) to “act like you own the place”, take each request to heart and never forget that your actions are remembered. I hear that echoed here.

    Keep up the good work. There are great people in this hobby, and you’re one of them.

    1. Joel: Well, I really appreciate that. There are a few people for whom my buying behavior reflects the same standards, so it feels good to be one of them for other people.

      I also really like the leadership tip you offer here for companies that don’t have a single face, but rather lots of faces. “Act like you own the place.”

  9. I think these are lessons that are appropriate for large companies as well. I work for a national organization with thousands of employees. In such a bureaucracy of paperwork and procedure, the human touch can and does become lost. So, my partners and clients all see the entire organization based on how I behave and interact with them. And they are more likely to come to it with a negative approach, viewing the organization as a large behemoth or that they are owed our services to meet their needs because we are a machine instead of individuals. I don’t own the organization but everything I do is a reflection on it and how these partners and clients will think of it. It’s basically taking your comments and observation to the opposite extreme and still finding them relevant.

    1. That’s a really interesting observation, Kimberly: “My partners and clients all see the entire organization based on how I behave and interact with them.” It sounds like for some organizations, many different people have the opportunity to be the sole face for their clients/vendors/etc.

  10. Jamey

    I’m frankly appalled that anyone would address you in that manner, but the longer I’m in this industry I find that most folks are good, decent people…and the small number of outliers are simply folks you can ignore because there’s no reason to expend any energy on them. Anyway, one of things about a “small business” is that you can have the personal relationships which are impossible in a large, impersonal company. Here, in VA, we have one of the most successful restaurant/lodging locations in the U.S. called The Inn at Little Washington. It was run, at the time, by an award winning chef and his partner. The Inn has about a dozen rooms. They’re cozy, the food at the restaurant is extravagant, but that’s not why it garners high marks and a high price point. It’s because for those few days you’re there…you’re the center of attention. That’s what people remember…how were they treated?

    At Stonemaier Games, I believe everyone is treated exceptionally well.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  11. I have no internet presence to talk about so I haven’t been in that situation yet…

    But for me statements like “I hate X” gives me nothing to act on so why bother?

    From my experience you seem like an extremely reactive person that tries to improve if you encounter something that isn’t right. So if the person who wrote it wanted something to improve they should have included some hints.

  12. I had a moan about box organisers for Scythe the other day; mainly the pricing of third party ones. Within 5 minutes I had a public response from Greg Spence, the CEO of Broken Token (the guys who made them). He outlined the reasons for the price, understood my hesitance and actually (and politely) engaged me in a really nice conversation about the whole thing.

    That stuck with me. Not many companies would give you that. Now, I’ll always consider Broken Token in future.

  13. The Game Steward has grown from a side hobby as “Green Labor Games” started four years ago to a full-time business for two people today. Providing top notch customer service to buyers, as well as collegial and professional advice to new publishers (not to mention friendship for more than a few) has been a large part of that success. My partner Dan and I try to avoid having just one of us be the “face” of the business, but it’s true that I tend to enjoy the networking/socializing and customer service a bit more than Dan does. Of course, that also means that I tend to bear the brunt of the negative customer service interactions, which is never fun. Overall, it’s a balancing act because we both intend for the company to continue for many years, even if something happens to either one of us.

    On a separate note, I still remember meeting you in person, Jamey, for the first time at Endgame in Oakland CA 2.5 years ago, and you were kind enough to sign my copy of Viticulture/Tuscany after we played a few games like Forbidden Desert and Good Cop Bad Cop. It was one of the professional highlights of my career, honestly. I’ve also appreciated the times you have shared your experience with me as I asked for your advice about the hobby game industry.

    Safe to say that “asshole” is one of the very last adjectives I would ever consider as applying to you. The hobby game industry would be much better off if everyone had the same level of professionalism, kindness, and civility.

    1. Congrats on the Game Steward’s growth! You’ve come a long way since our chat in Oakland. :) And thanks for your kind words–I’m glad to hear that was your experience with me, and I would say the same about you.

  14. Jamey, another great article – thank you! Your insight is consistently valuable for game design and [dreams] of kickstarting a project. But it is also valuable for life outside of board games. In the legal profession, there is constant pressure to take/advise the absolute safest action possible, which typically means treating others as problems, not people. But I’ve seen time and again how good it is when someone actually brings their humanity to the table, and acknowledges the humanity of others. You clearly do that with your work, and your interaction with others online. Thanks again for your blog.

    1. Sam: I really like this–thank you for sharing your perspective: “How good it is when someone actually brings their humanity to the table, and acknowledges the humanity of others.”

  15. Always remember that there are people who get angry that the earth is round and the sky is blue. Ignore them – they don’t matter and hide behind the anonymous postings.

    Cowards all

  16. One of the things I really try to focus on when I get feedback in a manner that instantly puts me on the defensive, is if the feedback is good, even if it’s poorly delivered. Sometimes, what people are trying to communicate is actually a very good nugget of knowledge, that can get lost in the way it’s being communicated. Often it takes some time for me to calm down before I can really grasp the value of what’s being communicated. Sometimes though, people are just being jerks, and if you can’t find actionable feedback in their comments, you have to just let it go. The feedback was for them to vent, rather than for you to change the situation in any way.

  17. Jamey,

    I understand what you said about being very careful what you reply to someone who has, lets just say, provided a less than courteous service. I similarly have a natural instinct to engage everyone always, and to defend. Thus, I will likely not be pleasant (as well as I could be), or even right. That is why thinking before replying- or not replying at all- is the best move. Most times, it is better to bite the bullet rather than unleash the firing squad.

    -MAR

    1. Post Script:

      BTW, you are definitely not the negative character as described above. Engaging in conversation with one such as myself is evident of that :) Don’t let the negatives outshine the positives, even though the negatives hurt worse than the positive helps. You are clearly courteous and pleasant.

      -MAR

  18. It’s funny that you mention this. I have worked hard to go the other way on purpose since the start of the company, keeping myself to the background for large chunks of it. I don’t want Starlit Citadel to be ‘tied’ to me so I’ve taken to mostly being a background figure.

  19. Hello Jamey,

    I just wanted to comment and let you know that I think all of the work and support that you and the board game creating community does is amazing. I love playing board games because of the fun and interaction between people and the community that they build; I feel like that mentaility translates seamlessly in what you do. I have created my first board game and I have spend countless hours reading through all of your blogs and posts and I am amazed by how helpful and responsive you are. You and your company are a great example of what a company in this industry should look like. Thanks for all that you do!

  20. It’s pretty amazing – I’m realizing as I embark on this board game endeavor that my “persona” today is important but also important is the “persona” I’ve had for my entire life, and especially the 15+ years of my adult life. People I’ve maintained relationships with or even left a good impression on from more than a decade ago have been excited to hear about Explorador Games and to offer their support. I guess it’s a good life motto to go by, but it’s really true that people remember how you make them feel.

    That being said, you can’t please everyone and I’m sure there are people from my past (and present) who are thinking or saying snide things and I’m just not a public figure like you, Jamey, so I don’t hear them. That stinks to think about but I’ve also decided not to waste energy on them, as I’m living my authentic life and have to continue to do so. And Jamey, for what it’s worth, I have found all your postings to be helpful, humble and kind towards others in the industry, so THANK YOU for all you’ve done for us!

    1. Jyoti: That’s great to hear about the people in your life sharing your enthusiasm for Explorador Games! Similarly, Stonemaier is built on my friends and family being there for me when I launched Viticulture on Kickstarter. Good luck as you move forward. :)

  21. Jamey,

    I think that another huge advantage of a small business with a human face is if behind that human face is a genuinely decent, considerate and respectful person. I am sure that most companies can find a suitably charismatic social media mascot to be their public persona, but there is no substitute for real, true and consistent character. My several interactions with you over a couple kickstarters and several emails have made a deep impression upon me, of your fundamental goodness and consistently polite and reasonable, responsive communication alongside generous but realistic personality. This has embedded a deep loyalty in me to your company, and you personally. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments that you describe in this post, but I am not so sure that they are replicable in practice as your previous advice.

    While I appreciate and enjoy your insightful thoughts and observations in these Kickstarter lessons (both personally and professionally), I think some things are not possible to simply reproduce from will and intention alone, and being a decent and respectful person is not something you can fake, at least not at the scale and degree of consistency that you have shown. Thank you for being such an icon in the independent board game industry, as an admirable person and honorable business owner.

    Even if I didn’t love your games, I would admire you enormously.

    1. Tyson: That’s a really interesting observation about the difference between having someone of authority at a company as the face versus a social media person who’s main/sole job is to be the face. I agree with you that being a decent and respectful person isn’t something you can fake, just as people like me can’t fake those times that we’re frustrated or annoyed–it goes both ways. :)

Leave a Comment

© 2017 Stonemaier Games