When Is It Okay to Sell a Kickstarted Product Before Backers Receive It? (KS Lesson #267)

6 June 2019 | 20 Comments

My knee-jerk answer to this question may have once been, “Never!” Now, after running 8 Kickstarter campaigns and backing 282 of them, my answer is a bit more nuanced.

Let’s start with a few examples that you may see from time to time:

  • You see a product on the shelf at a local store even though you haven’t received your Kickstarter copy yet.
  • You notice the publisher selling the product at a convention even though KS fulfillment isn’t complete.
  • You receive a newsletter from a publisher indicating that sales of the product are open, but your copy hasn’t been delivered.

I’ve had all of those things happen to me as a backer, and I’ve learned to do the following before reacting:

  1. Check to see if I filled out the post-project survey or pledge manager.
  2. Read the most recent updates on Kickstarter.
  3. If it appears that my order should have already shipped, I try to find a tracking number.

I’m pretty good at filling out the survey as soon as I receive it, so in the vast majority of cases, simply reading the most recent updates will explain what’s going on. The answer is often either (a) that there were retailer retailers who just happened to receive their rewards or (b) that the creator announced a long time ago that they would be selling the product at a convention.

So, here’s the thing about conventions: If a creator is hoping to sell their product at a convention, they’re likely committing to do so 6+ months in advance. They’re also certainly hoping to complete their Kickstarter fulfillment before then, because by doing so, they’ll know exactly how many units they have available for the convention and they can avoid any potential backlash from backers. If a creator pays for booth space, the primary way they can avoid losing money is if they actually sell products at the convention.

The real key, in my opinion, is that if a creator communicates their convention plan to backers when they sign up for the convention, that gives backers plenty of advance notice (and, in rare cases, cancel their pledge if they’re against the mere possibility of convention sells happening before fulfillment is complete). Great creators will also remind backers through future updates about the convention and their efforts to fulfill rewards before the convention.

All of that said, there are rare and bewildering cases when a creator simply decides to start selling the product before KS fulfillment is complete with no notice or explanation. I’ve only had this happen to me once as a backer, and it made me think the creator didn’t have the “backers first” mentality. I unsubscribed to their updates and haven’t backed anything from them since (though I don’t know if they’ve even run other projects).

Overall, if a creator (a) has a clearly communicated their plan in advance, (b) it ends up not being possible for them to have completed fulfillment before a predetermined event, and (c) they’re actively working towards completing fulfillment in the near future, I think it’s okay to sell a small number of products before fulfillment is complete. It isn’t ideal, but the combination of those 3 elements typically shouldn’t result in a mass exodus of backers.

***

Before I sign off, I want to mention that this is one of the many reasons why I stopped using Kickstarter. Again, it’s not really anything to do with Kickstarter itself; rather, it’s the huge level of uncertainty when you launch a project regarding when you’ll actually deliver it as compared to other benchmarks on your schedule (like conventions). By using my current method of running short preorder campaigns only after the products have already arrived at our warehouse (or are very close to arriving), I remove that uncertainty from the equation. Like, there’s no risk of a direct preorder customer not receiving their Scythe modular board before Meeplesource sells it at Gen Con because we’re fulfilling the board preorders now and Gen Con isn’t until early August.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree that with proper communication, there are circumstances when it’s okay for a creator to sell a Kickstarted product before backer fulfillment is complete? What do you view is the backer’s responsibility (e.g., checking updates and the pledge manager) before raising an alarm? I know this is a sensitive topic, so here’s a photo of my comfort animal, Walter, looking resplendent:

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20 Comments on “When Is It Okay to Sell a Kickstarted Product Before Backers Receive It? (KS Lesson #267)

  1. Hello Jamey and thanks for the great articles of your blog.
    I don’t know if your strategy will fit small/medium-sized projects on Kickstarter. Opening a preorder just before the goods arrive in you warehouse moves the uncertainty on the creator and I think that most of the project creators don’t have the budget or the knowledge of the market to predict the number of sales and apply this type of strategy.
    It is however very interesting to understand how things are evolving, thanks again!

  2. I rarely back games on Kickstarter anymore (also for a variety of reasons), but my general attitude regarding this is that I don’t mind companies selling games at conventions SHORTLY (i.e. no more than a month or so) before Kickstarter fulfillment if:

    1. The possibility of this happening is communicated as early as possible in the campaign, and

    2. I, as a backer, receive some benefit over the people who just walk into a convention and pick up a copy, whether that’s a lower price or free additional content.

    A Kickstarter backer assumes risk when backing. They front their money months, or years ahead of time, with trust that the company will deliver a quality product in a reasonable timeframe. Someone who walks into a convention and buys a game assumes none of that risk (aside from the risk of that game selling out, but in that case, that person isn’t out any money). So when somebody who took zero risk gets the exact same thing, for the exact same price, sooner than someone who did take a risk does, I feel disrespected as a customer (or an investor, if you consider that term to be applicable to a backer).

  3. I’m involved in a recent KS where this has happened and all because one person could buy the game at an LGS who happens to receive their kickstarted in the first wave. All heck broke loose in the comments and people were criticizing how unprofessional they are, and by being a KS backer they’re like a shareholder, entitled to privileges like getting there’s before retail, etc, etc… all those this venom being spit at a small production company, which already produced the games for backers, who are labeling and mailing out packages by hand.

    Is this because bigger companies are now producing their games on KS and the regular KS backer is expecting more from fulfillment?

    Personally, I try not to think of myself as entitled and almost considering KS as a sort of preorder service these days. It will come when it comes, this campaign isn’t anything like those nightmare campaigns. It’s often good to remember that usually there’s a person on the other end that’s working hard, trying to do something special for you.

  4. I believe as long as it’s the exception, rather than the rule, sales shortly before complete KS delivery can be OK. KS backers should be receiving a benefit for having helped the product come to life, and most reasonable people will be happy that the creator is able to continue to benefit from the success of the campaign. As long as their delivery is imminent and the creator has communicated the situation well in advance, I’m fine with it. (I believe that happened with one of the projects i backed last year…)

  5. “(a) that there were retailer retailers who just happened to receive their rewards or” — I think it meant to read “retail backers”

    I also see in the difference between convention sales and retail store sales and believe they can be critical to a company. Good idea about being open with backers from the beginning.

  6. Tough question.

    Maybe there were 1000 backers waiting their reward, but the creator who booked the convention booth actually sold only 5 copies, and one of those 5 uploaded a photo bragging about it and caused ruckus. It’s one thing to say, I ordered it first but it’s not like another 1000 got it first. Plus, the creator got hugely in debt after said Con.

    Maybe the release date involved a time buffer and rewards actually delivered earlier. If you gave a 9month window for fulfillment and got the games in 6 months, it does give you the opportunity to both fulfill sooner, but also use the hype at a Con (communicating it to backers, to that I agree) .

    All in all, I run small Kickstarters and do no depend on retail, but I do on Cons. So why flagging a small creator as untrustworthy for that? For like, 25 days? Even if it was the postal service’s fault? It may take 2 months for certain countries to get their rewards, depending the distance from fulfillment center.

    I am sorry for being in the defense, but I too waited 3 years for Boogie Dice to fulfill and never complained, even when creator went to Toy Fair twice inbetween to advertise (and promote next IndieGoGo campaign), instead I was on the encouraging side, waiting my reward patiently.

  7. I know people get passionate about this and lawsuits are threatened over $10 projects that deliver late or not at all, and the situation you mention can also cause a lot of unrest, but my opinion is WHO CARES. If the game is great, and the creator can sell it and make money or build a business and then expand the hobby and create more great games, is this really a problem? Almost everyone on BGG seems to have a backlog of games to play anyway, and yes, we are excited to get that shiny new one, but if my copy takes another week or month or longer to get to me, that’s really okay.

    I know I’m probably in the minority in that I think most people’s intentions are good and very few set out to produce a game on KS and scam people whether it’s by not delivering, or by selling through other channels. In the end, I got a great game to play, even if someone else got to play it before me.

  8. The first one happened to me with Scythe and my only reaction was excitement seeing the box knowing that my own copy must be arriving soon.

    1. Henrik: Indeed, we had a number of retailer backers who helped to bring the game to life like other backers. Scythe didn’t enter distribution channels to get to non-backer retailers until several months after fulfillment was complete.

  9. If I’m passionate about a project, then I want it and the company to succeed, so con and retail sales are fine. I get their purpose, and I know it means my copy is soon to arrive.
    If I’m a more casual backer, then why should it bother me. I mean, who doesn’t have sequels, seasons, and expansions that they will always get, even if they won’t jump on it until well after it arrives – I’m happy to have it but half the time I have to remind myself I do.

  10. There are a few ways to give value to a KS (I think you’ve already written a post about this) and getting the game early is one. If it’s announced in advance (ideally during the campaign) and you give enough value to your backers in other ways I think it’s fine.

  11. I mostly agree with you! Two things I’d mention:

    1. Personally I’m much more forgiving of a small company selling early at a con than a large one. If say CMON we to stay selling at stores or conventions before regular Kickstarter fulfillment is finished (I wouldn’t count things like my copy of Rising Sun that got lost in the mail), that feels worse than if a new creators on their first project does.

    2. I’m curious on your thoughts on something that was true of a game that both you and me backed, where a publisher sells early at a convention but allows backers to pick up early at said convention if they signed up to do so. It means if you’re a backer at that convention you can get it as early as people are buying it there, but if you don’t go to the convention you still have to wait.

    1. That’s an interesting question about picking up a game at a convention. I’m totally fine with that as long as the option (and the idea of selling at the convention) is communicated in advance to all backers.

  12. Hi Jamey,

    again a great blog entry with some aspects to feed the brain. Originally I was following your blog to get more knowledge about beeing a creator with a possibility once launch a KS myself (and survive). Nowadays, I mainly use it as a source to get the other tables side of opinion while beeing a regular backer.
    This blog post very much resonance with my current stack of opinion as I backed several projects where this just happens. First of all, the question is always why I would back a project (besides that I like it):
    – Participate in the up’s and down’s during the process a project comes to a reality (thats one thing that when buying a game at Con’s or FLGS you don’t have)
    – Get a guaranteed copy of the first print-run
    – Hopefully get the game at a price comparable to retail (or cheaper).
    Keeping that in mind I honestly don’t care if the game is sold at Con’s if – as others stated – it is nearing fullfillment and the creator is honest about it. In addition, I personally don’t care if it hits retail in a region where fullfillment is already finished (=packs are send out) while other regions are still waiting. Explanation – it would be very unlikely that I will buy from that area anyway as it would be very pricey. In addition, if a retailer backed a project, why she/he should have any obligation to hold back the game – they need to make a leaving as well.

    I think, final conclusion is, I don’t care – as long as a few rules made for myself are fulfilled – and the creator is honest about the subject. Additionally, it has only an impact on further following and backing a another project by the same creator.

    BR
    Joe

  13. I think it’s important that backers get something, but getting to play first isn’t of major importance to me. A lower price or extra stuff is far more appealing. But part of that is: board games is hard. Printing up tens of thousands of games and shipping them all over the world. That’s difficult. Some people will get copies before others, and if one ship gets stuck travelling to one location it’s hard to put the entire retail launch on hold. I think, in general, people understand that sort of thing.

    I did have a situation where I was bothered by not getting a Kickstarter first though. This was a new album by a certain artist I enjoyed. You got sent a physical CD and a download code. You got the download code of day of international release, the CD to follow. All good right? Except, a couple of weeks before release day, the reviews started appearing on the music sites. Because that’s the music industry: press get sent stuff a few weeks early to start building hype. But that felt bad. Because there wasn’t any reason that us backers didn’t have the album, other than marketing strategy. There were no distribution hurdles to overcome, the download codes could go out any time.

    I’m not an angry internet man, I don’t think the creator necessarily owed me anything, backers were never promised the first listen, and yet it still felt a bit bad: that after putting money down, following the Kickstarter updates, the production process, the sneak peaks, all of that, and then people who were not engaged with the process at all got it first. Because that’s good marketing.

    (As an aside: there was absolutely zero outcry in the comments about this situation – just because I guess in that world the backer expectation of getting something first doesn’t exist).

  14. I personally don’t care, provided those who buy it don’t receive it for less than I did by backing the KS. As a designer, we had an issue several years ago in which the publisher suffered a major loss of games (well over 300 copies) in an accident, while at the same time, I planned on selling copies at a local convention. I spoke at length with the publisher, and in the end , I sold more than two dozen copies of the game at the convention well before Backers received theirs, but I think it has more to do with the messaging that accompanies the sale of copies in those types of situations.

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