18 November 2019 | 7 Comments
Two weeks ago marked the 4-year anniversary of Stonemaier Games going Kickstarter-free as a creator, as our Scythe campaign ended on November 5, 2015.
As a backer and an entrepreneur, I continue to be fascinated with (and supportive of) Kickstarter and crowdfunding. My company wouldn’t exist at all–or in its current form–were it not for Kickstarter; I think it’s an excellent way for startups to test the waters and grow.
But for reasons outlined in this article, a much more attractive publishing model for us has been to simply create new products, print them (and reprint older products), then sell them directly to consumers and to distributors.
Today I’m going to look at the past two years since I posted Part 4 to see how the move away from Kickstarter has impacted Stonemaier Games. First, a quick recap:
- Part 1 was about why we stopped using Kickstarter (fulfillment risk, time, human nature, relationships with distributors/retailers).
- Part 2 was about how we could simulate the benefits of crowdfunding without using Kickstarter (polling consumers, distributor pre-orders, Facebook groups).
- Part 3 was about the reality of how those ideas were working out.
- Part 4 was also about how the reality of how those ideas were working out.
I’ll continue to use the format from Part 4, as it focuses on what I consider to be the top 5 purposes and benefits of crowdfunding (I’m going to add a 6th purpose this year). I won’t rehash things that haven’t changed since Part 4, so if you’re interested in the full answer, I’d recommend reading it too.
While I post regularly on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, this blog, and our enewsletter, the primary communities for Stonemaier topics are the game-specific Facebook groups and BoardGameGeek. I think the Facebook groups in particular have served as an excellent (and more robust) replacement to Kickstarter’s commenting system. Currently there are over 42,000 members in our Facebook groups (not unique users).
We also sponsor a YouTube channel called The Mill, which is a fan channel focused on Stonemaier Games. Dusty Craine has full creative license to do what he wants there, and I always enjoy seeing his content and the resulting engagement.
Improve the Product
In the hands of a great creator–someone who can listen to, learn from, and filter feedback–Kickstarter is a fantastic tool for shaping the final form of a product. At Stonemaier, it’s a much smaller group of people who know about the product before we actually make it: local and blind playtesters, our manufacturer, proofreaders, and the core team.
Now, I could talk about a product in detail publicly before printing it, but I found through my experience with Charterstone that talking about a new game too far in advance tends to drag out the process and the excitement (similar to the long wait between a Kickstarter’s final day and when you actually receive your rewards). So I prefer our current method, even though it isn’t perfect.
The challenge of gauging demand–particularly for a first print run, but also reprints–has been a major focus of mine in 2019. My goal when I select a first-run quantity is to make enough games for all early adopters, whether they buy directly from us or from retailers. I didn’t achieve that goal on Wingspan, but I’ve come much closer on Tapestry and the Wingspan expansion.
The reason reason for that improvement is that I now send details about new products to a small group of retailers and distributors before we begin production. I ask them for their best-guess estimate as to how many copies they’ll want in the first print run, and I extrapolate that data to determine the size of the first print run (while considering risk and cash flow).
Some might say that Kickstarter is excellent at gauging demand, and I agree that it provides creators with decent data on early adopters. However, it still doesn’t tell you how many other people are going to want the game when it’s released or how many copies distributors will buy.
Kickstarter projects–particularly those in the gaming industry–seem to continue to be effective ways of generating buzz. I’ve talked about the “spotlight” in the past; for a few weeks, your campaign is newsworthy simply because it exists. This isn’t always the case, as there are plenty of projects that fly under the radar, but I think Kickstarter’s alerts from “friends who backed” other campaigns is extremely effective.
The primary ways that people now learn about our products are our monthly enewsletter (46,000+ subscribers), reviewers, play-and-win sections at conventions, and sometimes ads on BoardGameGeek. I think we do a great job of letting people who have opted into our content know about new products, but we can continue to improve at letting new-to-Stonemaier customers and casual bystanders know about our games.
There’s really no way around it: Kickstarter is superb at helping creators generate project-specific funds up front. Without that luxury, we’ve had to invest our cash into new products and print runs. While a few distributors are willing to prepay for portions of print runs, generally we don’t receive distributor payments until 45-60 days after a product’s release date.
So it really has been incredibly helpful for us to increase our focus on direct-order customers. We typically run preorders when new products are in our fulfillment warehouses–that’s a few months before the retail release date. The resulting influx in cash helps us pay our manufacturing costs while also maintaining a balance for reprints.
The biggest change to support that system over the last 2 years is the implementation of the Stonemaier Champion program. Initiated in February 2018, membership has swelled to 6,593 members. Their $12 (now $15) annual contribution goes to support the content I create on this blog and on YouTube, and they get a perk of free/discounted shipping on all webstore purchases, which is great for anyone who regularly buys our new products.
Accurate and Efficient Fulfillment
This is the new element that I want to recognize for Kickstarter, which is how awesome it is at telling you exactly how many games to freight ship to fulfillment centers in different regions. Compare that to our system, in which I’m blindly guessing (based a little bit on past data) how many copies to send to each fulfillment center well before the preorder period. The Kickstarter method is flat-out better.
That said, my method isn’t terrible. Typically we end up with more inventory than we need at various fulfillment centers, which reduces shipping costs for ongoing orders. And I can usually sell those products to distributors if we aren’t moving them at full MSRP. So while I don’t love the guessing game, it hasn’t been too bad so far.
I’m grateful to be able to learn so much from Kickstarter and to have these tentpoles inspire new methods for serving customers in ways that are unique from traditional distribution methods. I continue to really like introducing new products and being able to ship them to customers just a few weeks later–that’s not possible for most products on Kickstarter.
How is it working out for you now that Stonemaier Games has been Kickstarter-free for 4 years? What do you miss and what do you like about our current methods?