Exploding Kittens: How an $8.8 million Kickstarter became a real business

Posted at 4:06 PM, Jul 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-31 16:06:42-04

It’s had more backers than any other campaign in Kickstarter history. Now, five months after the campaign finished, Exploding Kittens are to be distributed to eager backers all over the world.

The game’s creator Elan Lee has gained a valuable insight from the process:

“The biggest lesson for me is that Kickstarter is a terrible place to raise money,” the Californian designer reveals.

This seems a strange lesson after the card game — mixing super-cute with ultra-violence — charmed $8.8 million from a record 219,382 backers across the world.

How to play Exploding Kittens

But the nature of the product, an old fashioned game with high manufacturing costs, and its international appeal meant that Lee and his partners were paying up to $15 to produce and ship each deck of cards, which sell for $20. Kickstarter fees took almost $1 million from their revenue.

A new challenge

The Exploding Kittens team have stayed on course to meet their distribution goal of late July only after a manic scale-up to meet demand.

“We’ve been dealing with unforeseen levels of enthusiasm from fans,” says Lee, who previously worked for Microsoft and has founded several start-ups. “We had to increase our initial order of 500 cards to 700,000, which comes with a whole bunch of international logistics to consider.”

“Instead of filling packs in my garage, we have six fulfillment centers — three in the US, and one in Canada, the UK and Australia. We have massive print production in China. We are sending 17 cargo containers to fulfill orders. We have 800 people working on the project including truckers, lawyers, and accountants.”

Adapting from a small scale labor of love to a major international business — instantly one of the world’s larger board game companies – has presented difficulties at every stage.

“I wake up knowing 50 things will go wrong today,” says Lee. “This ranges from mundane things like how we deal with different taxes for different regions, to retail locations demanding a thicker box which doesn’t fall over.”

Fan customers: blessing and curse

The team — which includes cartoonist Matthew Inman and designer Shane Small — also learned that humor does not necessarily scale. After putting a maximum age restriction of 30 on a special edition NSFW deck, they were forced to expand customer support to address an avalanche of calls, mostly from people in their late 20s.

Kickstarter funders are more like fans than typical consumers, which Lee acknowledges has been a blessing and a curse.

“With this product we have been upfront — we have shared the art, how to play, and when it will be delivered. It is a simple contract with the backers that worked to our advantage.”

But comments on the Exploding Kittens page show that fans and investors can be more demanding than regular consumers, with several complaints that the game had not arrived even before it was due to be shipped.

“People always want sooner, better and faster,” Lee concedes.

Retailers can be circumspect about stocking crowd-funded goods, but in this case stores are demanding more games than the trio can provide. Producers of TV shows, comics and mobile apps are also keen to take the kittens into new arenas.

“Clearly it would be a mistake to walk away now,” Lee admits. “But we’re a small team and protective of our property.”

An expansion pack is on the way, and after that the team will consider the next steps.

But for the man who has become accustomed to 24-hour stress as a result of the Kittens’ unexpected success, some relief from their demands is the immediate priority.