Featured Creator: Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick

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Rich Burlew has been drawing his comedy-fantasy-adventure webcomic Order of the Stick since 2003, and gained a loyal following of readers who head to his site for their weekly dose of D&D-inspired humor. Hoping to reprint sold out physical copies of his webcomic, Rich launched a Kickstarter project that ended up a little bit bigger than he'd expected. How much bigger?

This much bigger:

Below, Rich talks about what the experience of scaling his project has been like and offers tips on building a community around your creative work. Oh, and time machines. He talks about time machines. 

Your project hit its goal within 48 hours of launching! What were you thinking when your project blasted off, and were you at all prepared for how successful it would become?

No, I was tragically underprepared. I never thought we'd get anywhere near the response we've gotten, and it's been a daily struggle to keep up with the progress of the whole thing. What I was thinking when I hit the Launch Project button was something roughly analogous to, "I hope I'm not making a terrible mistake." As it turned out, I wasn't.

When your project ends, you'll officially have made it into the record books as one of Kickstarter's top-funded projects, and certainly the top-funded comic book project of all time. What impact do you think this will have on the comics industry? 

Well, I wouldn't overstate my importance to the industry as a whole; I'm certainly not the first independent comic to fund a project on Kickstarter, and I feel like I won't be the last to break records. I think in the final analysis, a comic creator pulling this kind of direct support from his dedicated fans is really the direction in which we were already headed, I just had the luck of firing on all possible cylinders at the right moment. The fact that so many other webcomics have funded projects through Kickstarter before me is the only reason this success was even possible; I didn't have to explain to most of my readers what Kickstarter actually was. They already knew. So I was able to focus fully on marketing my specific project to them.

That said, I'm sure that there were observers out there who thought there were hard limits on how much a comic can raise this way. And there are limits, I'm sure of it. It's just that no one has reached them yet. I have little doubt that by this time next year, some other project will have knocked me down to #2 in Comics (or lower), and I probably won't last six months in the Top Ten overall projects. I mean, in the time between when you asked me to do this interview and now, the Double Fine project has launched, funded, and soared past me by several hundred thousand dollars. So I think it's clear that this is one of the primary ways independent projects will be created now, and I just happened to be bobbing along on the leading edge of that wave.

Communication is such a huge part of running a Kickstarter project. With each update you post, you've done an incredible job of building up suspense with new benchmarks (who knew chart-based comics could be so exciting?). What's it been like talking with so many supporters, both on Kickstarter and on your own site?  

Overwhelming. Humbling. I've always had a very active message board on my website, but I've learned that the reach of my comic goes far beyond the people who post their regularly. I've gotten some really touching emails from longtime fans about how the comic has affected them personally. And a lot of people thanking me for letting them give me money, which is sort of surreal. I've tried to avoid straight-up donation drives in the past because I'm a firm believer in offering concrete value for someone's hard-earned dollar, but using Kickstarter has allowed me to have it both ways. My drive isn't really so much about donating money to me as it is a massive pre-order plus buy-X-get-Y-free sale, but at the same time, people who have long wanted to pay me for the free entertainment I've supplied them since 2003 can do so.

You clearly have a very dedicated audience of readers, and a strong community built around your webcomic. Based on what you've learned over the years, do you have any advice for those out there wondering how best to build up an audience around a creative work? 

Sure: Let them read it (or watch it) for free. Because unless you have the marketing department of a large corporation behind you, you're not likely to get enough people to take a chance on your unknown property, even through Kickstarter. On the other hand, if you give it away first, people will form their opinion of you and your work before you ask them for money. And readers are a lot more likely to spend money on things they know they like than things they hope they will like. People want to own what they love, so rather than selling access to the content, sell the permanent incarnation of it—be that a book or an eBook or a DVD or whatever. The best thing about giving away your content first is that when it comes time to sell the final product, you're going to have almost 100% customer satisfaction. No one is going to complain that they didn't like the story they bought, because every one of your customers knew they liked it before paying.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I cheat that concept a little; I sell three stories that are only available in print. But I make sure that they're not "required reading" to understand the main story I'm telling. I think that's key: reading The Order of the Stick on my website is still a complete entertainment experience. The additional prequel stories are purely optional. They inform the action of the main plot but they are not required to understand it. Ultimately, it comes down to extending the idea of "give it away first" to me, as a creator, rather than to the one sequence of events they've already seen. Readers know, after 800+ strips posted online, exactly what they're getting when they plunk down money for one of my print-only books. Maybe they don't know the exact plot, but they know what sort of humor they can expect because they've sampled my wares enough times. So the feedback on the print-only books has been enormously positive as a result.

Other than that, I would say focus on your strengths rather than obsessing about your weaknesses. Which is not to say that you should never try to improve at the things at which you might be bad. Rather, if you want to stand out among a sea of creators, I think it's better to utterly dominate in one aspect than be pretty good at everything. Moderation has never won a prize. Try to be the best at something, even if that something is as narrow as making a stick figure comedy-adventure webcomic with strong roleplaying game influences. Because once you have that audience that loves your work, they'll follow you to your next project. You'll always have time to quietly work on your flaws in the background if you have an audience supporting you out front.

Knowing what you know now, if you could do this whole Kickstarter thing again, is there anything you'd do differently?

On the purely practical level, I would have set up my reward packages differently. They're a mess, largely because I didn't want to put up any books as a reward that I might not have gotten enough funds to reprint—and because I can't edit any reward once a backer has chosen it. If I had known that every book would be reprinted eventually, I would have streamlined them from the start. Also, I would have already contacted vendors who could produce higher-end rewards or freebies and had their estimates in hand, rather than being forced to wait for them to get back to me through the project. Basically, I would have prepared for what I would do if the project surpassed every goal I had for it, just in case.

Also, if I had a time machine, I would go back and slap myself for worrying whether or not the project would fund. You would not believe how many days I spent trying to work out numbers and just generally stressing out about it. Then, I would go back and slap myself for using a time machine for something as silly as slapping myself, which would probably set up a recursive loop and destroy the universe. So I think we can all agree that my lack of preparedness was actually the best thing for everyone.

What lies ahead for Order of the Stick? An animated series? World Domination? 

For The Order of the Stick, I've got at least three or four years left of regular installments to the main story that's available on my website, GiantITP.com, before it really comes to a conclusion. So there's plenty of time left for it as a webcomic, not even counting the strong probability that there will be more exclusive-to-print books before then as well. An animated series would be fantastic, but it's a lot more work than I could pull off myself. I guess the better question, then, is what lies ahead for me. While I've been loving the process of writing and drawing OOTS, I have projects that have been waiting in the wings for much of the nine years I've been doing this. I'm hoping that some of the attention this is getting will give me the perfect opportunity to let a few of them fly. At least now I have no doubts that if I can get the creative work done, I have a fantastic tool ready to help me raise the money they would need.

(Editor's note: Since this interview, Order of the Stick has raised over $1 million, making him the third project in Kickstarter history to do so. Congrats to Rich and his over 12,000 backers!)

    1. Healthy Rainforest Ltd. on

      Thanks for this important and timely discussion. After quickly reaching our project's initial goal, it plateaued and we've been searching why... I appreciated Rich pointed out what a help it was that other comics went before his project. Hopefully our project will just be the start of many supporters of African farmers who have great ideas, both in honey and other foods! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/707615021/an-enduring-gift-healthy-rainforest-honey

    2. Malcolm Harris on

      WOW!, that's just crazy. I'm a big fan of order of the stick and a fellow comic book creator. Rich is an inspiration to us all!

      Oh.. Shamless Promotion for my comic to film kickstarter http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/channelm/princess-lucinda-short-film.

    3. Kelly Overholser on

      I think there's three main reasons why Rich's drive is such an outstanding success. First, he has a massive fanbase. Putting the message out on the front page of his site generated a lot of quick traffic to the drive. Second, his pricing is less "fundraiser" and more "preorder store". Everything is priced about what it would cost normally to buy, (plus there's plenty of special things, like one-of-a-kind drawings) so he's not just relying on fans being generous to get money, and is giving them something of equal value in return. Third, he's kept interest in the drive going by constantly releasing updates, pushing new goals, adding new reward packages (and adding new goodies to those packages), and so on, so even people who already backed the project can come back and increase their pledge, thus giving us the nice almost-vertical line in the chart above.

    4. Samuel Sol on

      As someone who is a fan of Rich's work and have been following the drive since D1 (in fact since Hour1 :)) let me point that one of the biggest things he did were the extra. The coloring book, the patch (by the way, thank you kickstarter for allowing the logo on the patch, it will be a nice advertisement for you and it make it look even better), the stickers. Those kind of things kept the interest going. Have a huge loyal fanbase also helps for sure. I can only image how high it would go if Penny Arcade or PvPOnline did something like this.

    5. Ariel Phifer on

      PvP did do this, sort of. They did a Kickstarter for the Scott and Kris show with Kris and Scott.

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      JAMES CAGE on

      I'd like to second one thing Rich said - there are many of us who are glad we can thank & reward him for giving us this great story for the last 8 years. I think Rich should add a line to his chart for a new reward. If the total reaches $1.1 M, then Rich (and his significant other) should take a week in Hawaii. Yes, we like the rewards, and yes we like the idea of more people seeing OOTS in comic shops - but we also want the guy who created Belkar to know that we appreciate it.

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      MoonCat on

      Just to point out to those of you who haven't been following the drive. That green line at the very bottom of the chart behind the heads of the stick figures? *That* was the original goal.

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      graphing_mercury on

      Rich's modesty and humility continues to astound me. Every time I see another comment by this guy, it strikes me just how much he really deserves the support we've given him, as he's adamant that this isn't about himself but about giving the fans something they love. Thanks, Rich, for continuing to put out a quality product that makes us want to keep coming back for more.

    9. John Russell on

      "if you give it away first, people will form their opinion of you and your work before you ask them for money. And readers are a lot more likely to spend money on things they know they like than things they hope they will like. " I'm reminded of Jonathan Coulton who, way back in 2005-06, ran his Thing a Week project, a free downloadable song every week for an entire year. Insane! And yet JoCo is apparently pulling down $500K a year now from CDs, merchandise, downloads and live performances exactly for the reasons Rich mentioned in the quote above. If your product is good, people will want to support it.

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      deleted on

      This user's account has been deleted.

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      Allen Hunter on

      I really think that reading through the history of the updates should be informative to people running their own kickstarter project, because this was a really unique one to my experience.

      I read OOTS regularly, and saw his link to his kickstarter project on the first day. Liking his webcomic was enough for me to want to support him, so I did- at the $30 level. I wasn't dying for an OOTS book, but I wanted to help him out.

      But almost immediately, his kickstarter was very successful, and he modified his goals to be more ambitious- going from reprinting one book to two. By this time, I was happy seeing him succeed, and I suspected that there was enough momentum to get all the out of print stuff back into print, and I wanted to read the print-only storylines.

      Around this time, I started to realize something else- there were community rewards. Other people could buy stuff, and I would benefit from the rewards as well. Originally these were mini-stories that someone could commission for a high dollar value, but would then be distributed to everyone who had committed more than $10. As things picked up steam- more and more of these rewards started enhancing my own previously committed package. Other contributors were causing me to get a higher value reward without me doing a thing. Which made me care more about how the total project was doing, and more inclined to up my own contribution out of a sense of fairness.

      In the end, I had somehow become really invested in this particular kickstarter doing well, and had upped my own pledge to cover a complete set of all the books. In addition, Rich was making a lot of other content that I would just happen to get because I was part of the community that made it happen. I've never seen a kickstarter project do these sort of shared community rewards things before, and I think that it was a phenomenally smart idea. If there was one thing I would recommend that other kickstarter projects consider- it would be implementing these kind of non zero-sum reward mechanisms, where everyone benefits from the success of the project. I think Rich also did a good job of throwing in something for everyone- I know a lot of people are excited about certain rewards I could care less about (physical swag- not my thing), whereas I am really excited about rewards that I've heard others list as only moderately exciting (I dont know why a pdf full of new content is less exciting to someone than a patch, but apparently there are a lot of different types of fans).

      Anyway- as a kickstarter supporter, I think that this was a project on which business papers could be written. I'm not even sure if Rich knows every right thing he did, but it is well worth someone's time to see how he *cultivated* the drive. I think the normal approach is to put together your initial pitch, then try to drive people to your kickstarter project. Rich's pitch evolved over time, and kept providing incentives to become more and more invested.

    12. JC on

      @Allen Hunter, not a business paper yet, but I wrote about this project at the $400,000 level. I think there were two key elements he added to the Kickstarter interface (the charts and the "networked rewards") that other projects could benefit from, and Kickstarter itself might want to add a progress-tracking-chart option for all projects, since it clearly motivates people!

      My thoughts are at http://juliannechat.typepad.com/juliannechat/2012/02/oots_ux_viral.html

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      Taz on

      Well, we did it. $1,254,120 - and our comments page seems to be broken. o.o

    14. maldar on

      I have been a fan for years, not even sure when I started reading, but I know it was early on in the comic. Back then I was. A poor college student always wishing I could get the books when they came out. Then I forgot about getting them as time went. This has allowed me to be able to get all the books and then some and support a man that has given me much enjoyment these many years. Thank you Rich and I will do my best to get first print run books.

    15. Walter Jeffries on

      This is one of the most informative interviews posts you've had. Thanks, Rich for all this great info about how your project went.

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      Namaku Keren on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

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      Doa Ibu Tersayang on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.