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Climbing the Kickstarter mountain as an indie

Kickstarter success stories are nothing new. There are one man operations and massive companies alike that have benefited from the swell of interest and funds that come from a well run campaign. However, there's only so many times you can read a story about a new this or that getting funded before you stop caring, so of course, most of the time now, when you're reading a story about the crowd funding site, it's about something giant. But we've got to be careful we don't forget what Kickstarter's real shining light is: that it gives the little guy a leg up.

Nick Whitney, owner of Modest Magic, is a Kickstarter success story. He's a man that took a chance and it paid off. He didn't make millions, but he made enough to start his own business and run it the way he saw fit. The American Dream, or at least, his own dream – but it's not been all candy and sunshine. Nick has struggled – really struggled at times – partly due to his Kickstarter success. Today, over a year on from his original campaign, Nick is back on Kickstarter and we sat down with him to talk about where he's been, where he's going and how he feels Kickstarter has changed over time.

KG: So Nick, for those that don't know, can you explain what it is your company does?

NW:  Well, it's a small manufacturing company called Modest Magic.  And by small, I mean really small.  It's just me, my machine, and a whole lot of ideas.  Mostly I make terrain for war games, board games and role playing experiences. It's all modular and made using a CNC machine out of cost effective and light-weight polyurethane foam.

KG: You were pretty much able to set this company up, buy the necessary equipment and materials, because of Kickstarter. Talk us through what that was like.

NW: My first Kickstarter project was terrifying.  I had recently lost my job and my wife was a full time stay at home mom.  At the time my kids were three, two, and 6 weeks old.  My wife and I had no idea what to do next, but she encouraged me to look at our situation as an opportunity and not a calamity. What would I do, if I could do anything?  The answer, it turned out, was make stuff for the games that I loved from the place that I loved most:
my home.

Now we had an idea of what we wanted, but no concept of how to get there.  I borrowed a tiny little CNC machine and started working on the prototype.  I really have no idea what I was thinking.  I guess I had this notion of carrying my first castle kit into a bank and saying something along the lines of “Hey bank manager, look at this castle! Can I have a loan pleaase?” As a person who works at a bank I don't think you are allowed to laugh at people, but I'm glad I never had to find out.

With that option unlikely to pan out, my friend suggested that the idea of an affordable castle kit for wargaming would probably do well on Kickstarter, a website and idea I had never heard about at that time.  I agreed that it was the perfect place to pitch the project and set about finishing the castle and shooting the video.  The project went splendidly, far surpassing my original goal. Suddenly, my little solo project was out in the world, getting looked at and talked about.  Half-way through the project I was struck by the revelation that it was happening, it was real, and I was really going to be able to do this.  It was a euphoric moment and it helped bolster me through the long labor I had wrought for myself, by the many mistakes that I had made.

One of Nick's finished castle kits. 

KG: I know you had some trouble fulfilling rewards – a year on, there's still a few tiers of rewards to send out – what happened there?

NW: My initial Kickstarter was a successful failure.  It got funded which was great, but it got over funded, which seemed great at the time but was in fact a double edged sword. Due to my own estimations of project costs, my castle kits ended up costing me three times as much money to produce than I had anticipated and six times longer to make them. In my initial estimate, I figured it would take me about three months to get a machine and run the twenty to thirty kits I would offer as rewards.  After the dust settled on my project I looked around and realized that I now had to make one hundred and thirty two full kits and a heap of smaller ones.  Suddenly my three month project was stretching into next year and I'd already received all the money I would get for it.

KG: How did your backers react to that?

NW: I was pretty amazed by their support to be honest. I always think of it like climbing a mountain. After a long and arduous trek you reach the summit.  Only, it isn't the summit, and from this new vantage you can see that the mountain is a lot, lot taller that you thought.  What do you do?  I don't know about you, but I turn around and go home.  Its time for cocoa and Netflix.  But, strangely enough, that isn't what happened.  I turned around and standing behind me were one hundred and sixteen people, all saying the same thing.  “You've got this Nick.  Keep going man, we got your back.”  It is a remarkable experience to learn that you are trusted.  My backers have given me their money, their time, and a huge helping of patience, but it is their trust that got me through the winter and moving up the mountain.

KG: Even a year on though, you've not quite reached that next mountain-top. I know you've had trouble with sales and needed to take a second job on occasions. Has the difficulties of it all changed how you've felt about the work you're doing?

NW: Let me put it this way: my shop is a re-purposed one hundred and fifteen year old carriage house that rains on the inside.  It has essentially no heat and electric wiring that probably pre-dates the second Great War.  It got so cold this last winter that my machine wouldn't turn on some mornings, unless I took a hair dryer to the control panel.  It's been a year of long hours and little sleep…  and I've loved every friggin' minute of it.  My wife gave me the courage to dream big, my backers gave me the opportunity to try, and for the past year I have lived on the side of a mountain, daring the world to shake me off.  It hasn't been comfortable, it hasn't been easy, but it's been a heck of a lot of fun.

Nick's humble workshop.

KG: Now you're running a new campaign. This time for a card gaming accessory that should be of interest to any Magic the Gathering fans. What are you doing differently this time?

NW: This project I'm going in with both eyes open.  I've done my research.  It helps a lot that this time around I have been able to make my prototype on the machine that is actually going to be making the parts.  I know the cost in materials, the amount of time each part takes and how much it will be to ship.  I even took the pro-active step of putting in measures to offset the downsides of critically over funding. A successful project is not one that funds but one that delivers.

KG: Unlike a lot of well publicised Kickstarter campaigns, yours is a pretty small one, only looking for a few thousand dollars. What do you think of some of the giant, multi-million dollar campaigns dominating crowd funding headlines?

NW: I believe that Kickstarter is what you make of it.  If your looking to get something cool, there is a place for you.  If what your really interested in is making a difference in a life or a community or a cause, there is a place for you too.  My personal stance is that I use Kickstarter to help the little guy.  Being a little guy myself, I haven't helped nearly as many as I would like but I do what I can, when I can.  My philosophy is to throw some money in the hat and keep walking down the street.  I don't use Kickstarter to pre-order things or get good deals, though I acknowledge that it can be useful for both of those things.

KG: Do you think Kickstarter has changed since you first used it?

NW: I think that other than getting a lot bigger, Kickstarter itself is essentially the same.  What has changed though, are the people that use it.  You now have an echelon of veteran backers who use their hard won wisdom to offer advice to the new user and new project creator alike.  I've also seen the rise of Kickstarter angst, where people talk about how sick they are of all the projects as though Kickstarter is a trend that will soon die off.  My opinion?  Kickstarter or whatever next iteration comes out is the way of things now.  Once you have had contact with crowdfunding you never again consider going a more traditional route.  I look at people who think of crowdfunding as a fad with the same incredulity that I experienced in high school when my classmates acted like the internet was a cool new toy that we got to play with and not something that was going to change the whole world, forever and ever.

KG: Well, at this point in your crowd funding career, you're one of those veterans too.  If someone came to you, saying that they were going to set up a Kickstarter campaign for the first time, what advice would you give them?

NW: Firstly this, know how much your rewards are going to cost you.  Don't guess, don't think, know. Another thing to remember is that you have no way of knowing how much money you might have pledged to your project.  Because of this, there is the potential for every single mistake that you make to be compounded exponentially!

Here is an example.  Lets say as a reward you are offering a t-shirt with your company's logo on it.  You look up the cost of the shirt, add the cost of the printed logo, tack on a few bucks to cover shipping expense and have some leftover profit to actually do what your project is setting out to do.  But your project does really well and you have to provide not the fifty shirts but five thousand. As is turns out, you were only off of your estimate for the cost of sending out the shirts by a few bucks, but that three dollar mistake in your math has become a fifteen thousand dollar burden to your project.  I can't stress enough the pitfalls of critically over-funding and if there was one thing that I think Kickstarter could do better it would be to make people aware that too much money can, actually, be a bad thing.

So many of the resources out there that deal with Kickstarter are about getting funded and precious few have any solid advice for what comes next.

KG: What comes next for Nick, remains to be seen. His next campaign is doing reasonably well and has a good two weeks left, but we're sure he'd appreciate your support. You can read more about his project or make a pledge here.


Thank you to Nick for taking the time out to talk to us. 

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