Kickstarter Lesson #98: Creation Is Leadership

22 May 2014 | 17 Comments

Tuscany meeple samples, fresh off the press!
Tuscany meeple samples, fresh off the press!

When you become a Kickstarter project creator, a few things happen that you may not realize you’re signing up for. The first is that you now run a company, even if it’s a company that makes exactly one thing. The second is that you are now pregnant with your product idea–you’ve conceived it, and now you’re trying to give birth to it.

The third is that you are now a leader.

You are now a leader in a way that you’ve never experienced before. You may have been a leader in an organization or a team or a group of friends, but this is a new type of leadership. Not only is this your dream you’re sharing with the world, but on Kickstarter, you’re actually building something with a vast array of people who you will never meet but whose lives you have the chance to touch.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books on leadership (feel free to recommend your favorite in the comments). Today I want to focus on one leadership specialist named Simon Sinek and how his tenets of leadership apply to you as a Kickstarter creator. I would highly recommend that you listen to his TED talks here and here.

Start with Why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” –Simon Sinek

Every great leader must have a clear vision of why they do what they do. You want to be a Kickstarter creator. Why? Are you doing it for the money? For recognition? For power? For popularity? As this blog entry from Lagniappe Games discusses, those motivations won’t attract people, nor will you be able to sustain all of the responsibilities that come with being a Kickstarter creator if those are your reasons for creating a project.

A more seemingly appealing motivation might be because you’re trying to make your dream a reality. That’s great–I love to see people make their dreams come true on Kickstarter. But that motivation is all about you. If that’s the main reason you’re on Kickstarter, you’re not going to succeed. The only people who really care about your dreams are your friends and family, who will contribute about 10% of your funding at most.

So really, why are you here? Why are you on Kickstarter? Why are you trying to bring your idea to reality? What is it about your idea and the way you want to create it that brought you to Kickstarter? Your reasons might be very specific to your project, but in some way they should be tied to engaging people, forging relationships, and building a community on Kickstarter.

I’m not saying this because I think you should adopt my personal philosophy. I’m saying this because you will significantly increase your chances of success on Kickstarter if your clear vision about why you’re there is directly related to your backers. Not the money, not you, but the backers themselves.

One other quick comparison before moving on: The concept of “why” is directly connected to social media. I see a lot of project creators repeatedly ask backers to Like their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter, perhaps for a giveaway. In fact, this is why I really don’t like Rafflecopter. If you get someone to Like your Facebook page purely because they want to win something from you, that Like is worth nothing. That person isn’t going to pay attention to your Facebook posts, which is the whole point of having fans on Facebook. The number means nothing if people aren’t personally compelled to Like your page.

Compare and contrast:

  1. You should Like my Facebook page to win a free copy of my game!
  2. You should Like my Facebook page if you’ve enjoy the interactions we’ve had on Kickstarter and want to continue to chat with us about other games we love.

Ask yourself “why” for everything you do, and people who believe the same thing you do will be drawn to you as a leader.

Make Your Backers Feel Safe

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible result so the people feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.” –Simon Sinek

Great project creators–great leaders–make their backers feel safe. They consistently show their backers that they’re in good hands by putting the needs of the backers before their own, before the bottom line. And in return, as Sinek says, remarkable things happen.

Sinek uses the example of officers in the US Marines in this talk. The Marine custom is that officers eat last, which sometimes means that there’s no food left for them. In the particular story Sinek shared, this happened, but then individuals started bringing the officer portions of their food to share. They sacrificed for him because they knew that he would sacrifice for them.

The same thing can happen on Kickstarter if you, the project creator, put the needs of the backers before your own. For example, it is highly likely that something you budgeted for will cost more than you anticipated. You will have a choice: Remove or diminish the item in question, ask backers for more money, or dig into your own pockets to make the thing as awesome as you first envisioned–or, even better, make it more awesome.

If you do this, backers will see the type of leader you are, and they will follow you.

It’s more than about the money. It’s about the time you spend on a project to at least try to deliver it on time. It’s how you communicate with complete honesty and transparency with backers. When backers see that you’re willing to share good news and bad news, they’ll know that you’re not hiding anything from them, and they will trust you.

You can’t tell people “Trust me” and expect them to trust you. You have to demonstrate it time and time again through your actions.

When people trust you to share their ideas and creativity with you during and after a Kickstarter campaign, remarkable things can happen. If you foster a community-driven environment where you listen to people and respect their ideas–an environment where people feel SAFE to give their opinions–you will see your project blossom into something far beyond your wildest dreams.

Make backers feel safe through sacrifice and respect, and they will be drawn to you as a leader.

Communicate Clear Expectations

“It’s not fair for me to expect you to know what I need you to do if I don’t say it.” –Jamey Stegmaier

The last tenet I want to discuss isn’t from Sinek and it isn’t about working with backers–rather, it’s about being a leader within the company you form by launching a Kickstarter campaign.

Chances are, you are not alone in your campaign. Whether your partners are co-owners or freelancers, you will work with other people, and you will need to lead them if that’s your role in the company.

So this item is more of a cautionary tale about how you lead those people–I speak from personal experience, because this is an area in which I still have a long way to go.

If you have expectations for people, a great leader clearly communicates those expectations up front. If that leader forgets to convey those expectations or doesn’t realize what those expectations should have been until it’s too late, the leader should not blame their partner(s) for not reading their mind.

This sounds so obvious, but it’s a trap I’ve seen so many leaders fall into. I’m acutely aware of it, yet I continue to do it with some of the people I work with. I can’t expect people to read my mind. Something that seems super obvious to me may be completely off someone else’s radar. It’s my responsibility as a leader to let them know what to do and why it’s important.

In some ways, this comes back to making people feel safe. Have you ever worked for someone who didn’t give you clear expectations and then got mad at you for not doing what they assumed you’d do? You end up working in constant fear, and you’re motivated by not messing up instead of by doing awesome things for your clients. You can’t do amazing things if your leaders don’t make you feel safe.

Communicate your expectations clearly to your partners, and they will be drawn to you as a leader.


I’d love to hear your stories about Kickstarter projects you’ve been a part of where you were drawn to the creator’s vision, you felt like you were in good hands, and you were communicated to in a clear and transparent manner.

Leave a Comment

17 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #98: Creation Is Leadership

  1. Hi Jamey!

    I have a question for you about being open as a Kickstarter creator. I have a card game project that I’m going to be launching on KS in the near future, and I want to be as transparent as I can with my backers, but without downplaying anything about the game.

    See, my goal in designing the game was to improve upon a classic card game called Egyptian Rat Screw, and while the similarities between the two are undeniable (and deliberate), the game actually progresses and feels pretty different in comparison. My concern is that in drawing attention to how I put together the design, I worry that I may lose potential backers to hasty conclusions like “Oh, it’s just a classic card game? Nah, I don’t want it then.” I considered not mentioning the fact that I based my game on ERS in the campaign page, but to me that kind of feels like sidestepping a major detail in hopes of the game appearing more unique. Plus, I personally see it as a strength, not a weakness. Egyptian Rat Screw is a lot of fun, and a lot of people are familiar with it. I just wanted to try and make it even better with my game.

    Do you have any advice for how to address something like this? When there’s something about your game or other product that you feel people might make snap judgments about, is there a best practice for addressing that thing in a positive way? Or if there’s no call for addressing it, do you just avoid drawing attention to it altogether in hopes that fewer people will make those judgments?

    My instinct is to say “Hey, so I made this game that reimplements this other one and adds some stuff. I worked really hard on it and I’m confident it’s a better game.” I personall appreciate it when creators are forthcoming about stuff like that. But I’ve been told that it’s not necessary for me to go to that length, and that it may even harm the marketability of the product.

    What do you think?

    1. Jeremy: That’s an excellent question, and I think it’s great that you’re putting yourself in the shoes of future backers. Here’s my inclination: Using one or more formats (infographic, text, and/or video), I’d recommend focusing on what’s fun and unique about your game. If some of the fun parts overlap with the fun aspects of Egyptian Rat Screw, add a little comment to that specific portion of the explanation that points out the commonality. This allows someone who enjoys ERS to identify with what you’re saying without alienating people who don’t know or who might dismiss it if you lead with ERS. Does that make sense?

      1. It does, yeah! That’s more or less the direction I’ve been going with the content for my Kickstarter page thus far, so hopefully I’m on the right path. I sort of figured that if I try to highlight how both the similarities and differences between the two games are positive ones, it will work out reasonably well. It’s just one of those things that’s easy to have doubts about.

        Anyhow, thanks for the recommendation, Jamey. And thanks for all the KS Lessons in general, really. It’s always interesting, educational, and encouraging to hear what you have to say. :D

  2. Well spoken and inspiring article, Jamey. Thank you! All really good concepts to consider and implement. Part of being a leader is the ever–so-potentially-painful self-evaluation!
    A recent leadership article I read is very quick and exemplifies what you’ve written here. John Maxwell charts 5 levels of leadership. You’ve described, in a practical sense, the “Level 5” Leader.
    You can see his chart here:

    1. Kelsey: I’m really glad you shared that–I’d never heard of those 5 levels, but I really like how they start with “People follow you because they have to” (Sinek talks about that as “authority”–there are people who have authority, but that doesn’t make them leaders) to “People follow you because of who you are and what you represent.” The fourth level, “People follow you because of what you’ve done for them” kind of follows the “great leaders make you feel safe” concept I described above. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Another great article Jamey, thanks! A recent leadership book I really enjoyed was Entreleadership by Dave Ramsey – definitely worth the read.

    Communicating clear expectations is huge! I didn’t realize how important this was (or how bad I was at it) until I hired a virtual assistant last fall. I’ve quickly learned to triple-check all my communications to make sure I’m really saying what I mean to say, and I still fail at this quite a bit. You can never be clear enough!

    In defense of the raffle/giveaway method of getting facebook likes / twitter followers – usually these people are interested in what you are doing anyway. They wouldn’t be signing up to win a free copy of your game if they didn’t have at least some interest in that game. Sure – some folks will follow/like just for the contest and drop later (or ignore your posts), but this is a relatively small portion. So, I agree it’s best to get someone to like/follow naturally (because of interest), but a giveaway can be an effective method to accelerate this process and get people involved sooner than they might otherwise.

    I’ve run quite a few giveaways for Today in Board Games and have found that most of the people who found us through giveaways have stuck around and are now participating members in our community. In particular giveaway winners tend to become raving fans. From a numbers perspective about 10% unlike/unfollow after the giveaway, but 50% becomes a regular reader/participant. The other 40% remain subscribed but silent. These are the numbers I am seeing – your milage may vary.

    1. Roger, thanks for your thoughts on Rafflecopter. I can see what you’re saying–it’s a way to get people to take that extra step to Like a page. Though I think there’s a difference between retaining the Like and actually having someone who pays attention to your Facebook posts. You’re right, though, that anyone who Likes your page has the potential to get more engaged.

  4. Thank you so much for the shout out, Jamey. I am a little ashamed that I didn’t take the time to discuss a customer focus – I fear I may have been taking that for granted. You just made a little guy’s day :D

    As for projects:
    There was 1 project in particular which really drew me in to this indie developer stuff. I clicked on the page because of the good looking thumbnail and unique name. The description of the game sounded interesting enough, but, like a resume, you can fluff that up. So, I started looking into the developer. This was his second game. That helps. The graphics on his page and website looked very professional and there was a LOT of information presented about the game, the company, the production process, EVERYTHING essentially. The professionalism was simply impressive: this guy really looked to have his ducks in a row. It seemed worth a shot so I threw in some money. Then, the updates started rolling in. I didn’t realize until I read it above, but the plethora of information and honesty were making me feel secure in my decision to “join in” with this guy’s project. The more time I spent looking into the project, the company, the creator and his blog, and reading the updates, the more I fell in love with what was going on. I even started telling my wife how impressed I was and that I’d probably back ANY future project he puts out. By the end of the campaign I had increased my pledge to “supreme” because I love concept art and I really wanted the realistic resource tokens. If people haven’t figured it out yet, the project was Euphoria: Building a Better Dystopia.

    Not to “suck up”, but the way you handled that entire campaign showed me that I really could self-publish and I could do it for the right reasons. Thanks, Jamey!

    1. Well that was a nice surprise! Thanks for your kind words and your pledge, and I’m really glad to hear that Euphoria was an inspiration for you. I look forward to reading more blog entries from you like the one you posted today!

  5. I’ve encountered a number of campaigns since I started backing board games on Kickstarter at the beginning of this year where the project creators have really shown good leadership and inspired me to get involved and back their game. There are three in particular I’d really like highlight.

    The first is Tiny Epic Kingdom by Gamelyn games. Michael Coe did an outstanding job of really communicating with backers throughout the campaign, going so far as to have a daily update where he answered questions from messages he had received. Not only was the communication great, but this campaign really made you feel more like a collaborator than a backer. The game went through multiple rules and aesthetic changes during the course of the project based on backer feedback, and Michael was always very quick in posting updated designs so everyone could provide feedback.

    The second project I’d like to mention is Eternal Dynasty by Zucchini People Games. Nicholas Yu ran a great campaign where he was very communicative with backers, and like TEK made you feel like you were collaborating to bring the game to life as stretch games were voted for and added, and in some cases re-ordered based on backer comments. What really drew me in other than the project’s goals, however, was how knowledgeable and excited Nicholas was about the sources on which the game was based. That really made me feel like he could be selective and still do justice to a very complex and expansive theme.

    The final campaign I’d like to mention, and one which I was very impressed with since it was his first ever game and kickstarter, is Herschel Hoffmeyer’s Apex Theropod deck-building game. He was very straight-forward with backers from the start of the campaign about changes he was making to the game’s rules and components as the campaign went on, especially requesting feedback for the multiple card layout changes that happened throughout the course of the project. He has continued that great communication since the campaign has ended, continuing to tweak rules and providing everyone access to the changes, and even upgrading the box for everyone based off of their feedback to something much sturdier and more functional even though he had already had the previous boxes manufactured and ready.

© 2020 Stonemaier Games