Mentor Monday

Talking Exploding Kittens With Elan Lee

Where do good ideas come from?

The basics

Who are you? What’s your origin story?
Wow. I could start so far back! I went to about seven different colleges and finally managed to graduate out of the Rochester Institute of Technology, which is a perfectly fine school, but is freezing cold and has a 7:1 guy:girl ratio, so the only options there are to study or die. I went to work at ILM and worked on a bunch of movies there; I was convinced I was gonna do that for the rest of my life.

One day, Microsoft called up to say “Hey, we read about you in a magazine in an article on dream internships,” which is true — I worked on Star Wars right out of college. “We’re starting a games division, it’s probably gonna be called DirectXbox; could you come help us out?”

“That sounds like you just said ‘get paid to play videogames,’ so I’m down!” I told them. I packed up my life and moved to Seattle, where I worked as lead game designer on the original Xbox.

After that, I resigned and founded a whole bunch of startups, helped invent the alternate reality game, started a marketing company, a videogame company, a clothing company, and a TV studio — somewhere in there I went back to Microsoft and was chief designer for Xbox Entertainment Studios, too.

Three months ago I started a card game with three friends that did really well on Kickstarter.

What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on two big projects, both within Exploding Kittens:

1. Starting a company — that has to be done immediately.

2. Producing one million decks of cards.


The mentoring experience

What’s the thing (or things) that people ask you about the most?
I think most people ask me how to insert story into whatever project they’re working on.

Another one I get a lot is “Where do good ideas come from?” I have no idea and wouldn’t know one if it hit me in the head, so my policy is: if it’s something I think is fun, I’ll just assume it’s a good idea until the world proves otherwise.

What are the things you wish people would ask you?
I wish they’d ask me how to make work more fun. That’s something I work really really hard at, and have grown quite good at. The #1 way is to surround yourself with people that you love working with; it’s not a profound world-changing answer, but it’s common sense and it is important.

What’s your favorite thing about mentoring?
So many good ideas get killed because of poor implementation or poor setup. I really love mentoring because I let people benefit from the mistakes I’ve made in the past, so that one fewer idea dies as a result of those two causes.

Why do it at all? There are a bunch of things you could be doing — what drives you to do this?
See my previous answer! As I formed all these different companies, so many things went wrong, and I like to think that in my industry of professional storytelling, I’ve probably made more mistakes than anyone out there, which puts people in a position to benefit from them. It infuriates me to see a mistake made more than once.


On other mentors

What do you think makes a good mentor?
The best mentors are people who know how to ask the right questions. Most mentors I’ve ever worked with confuse it with teaching. Teaching is what you do when you have information and you need to convey it to someone else; mentoring is very different. With mentoring, you have to start with the assumption that the person you’re working with has information you don’t, that you have information they don’t, and that the merging of those two is going to make the project successful.

Did you have a mentor? What was that like?
A guy named Jordan Weisman, not only my mentor but my hero. He’s started many successful entertainment companies in the past, taken me under his wing, started companies with me; he’s the guy who essentially taught me how to take the chaos and competing ideas in my head and refine them into one thing I can throw myself at and pursue until it succeeds or fails. Smartest guy I’ve ever met in my life.

Is there someone out there in the industry you think would be good at mentoring, or that you wish would do it?
The best one I know actually does quite a bit: Dan Shapiro, who started a company recently announced called Glowforge. He’s been in the startup world for a very long time, just incredible at getting to the heart of a problem and finding a simple solution to it.


About the industry

What’s one tip you’d give to hardware startups right now?
Don’t be so easily seduced by virtual reality. Every hardware startup that has come to me in the last year seeking advice has been VR, and I tell every single one of them the same thing: explain to me how this tech tells a better story than anything that’s come before it. It’s been over a year and I’ve yet to hear a good answer.

What’s one thing you think they have to look out for in the future?
A big thing for me is planning hardware that’s futureproof. Many times what’s happened, especially on Kickstarter where so many new hardware companies launch, is they launch a product and get 20-30,000 units out the door. Then they realize there were some mistakes: it wasn’t as well thought out as they wanted it to be, or as energy efficient, or compatible with some new standard, that sort of thing. Instead of being able to patch that hardware, they’re forced to release an entire new platform, and so many companies go bankrupt as a result.

What do you think of the hardware renaissance?
I love it! We’re living in this age where if you think it, you can build it, and that is so exciting. We’re solving such new and exciting problems, and the most thrilling part about it is that many of these technologies, hardware, platforms, are able to work with each other, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At this point there is no room in my house that doesn’t have tech embedded in the wall or the floor or some peripheral in the middle of the room.


Kickstarter, communities, and Exploding Kittens

You have to make a million decks of cards? What’s the craziest part about that for you?
There’s a bunch. The hardest is the most obvious: how do you find a place that can physically produce that much inventory? I looked at many, many different printing companies and ultimately, as with many cases, the cheapest answer is not the best answer; there’s not a lot of companies out there that can do it at all.

The first thing I did was call up my friends at Cards Against Humanity and say “Hey, I’ve got this problem: I was supposed to produce 500 decks. Now I need to produce a million, and I have no idea how to do that,” and they were good enough to guide me through that process because that’s a problem they have every single year, and they don’t want to see those mistakes made again. In a very real sense they’ve been mentors to me; they’ve solved problems I’ve already run into or problems I’m about to and don’t know it yet.

So Exploding Kittens went crazy — to what do you contribute its wild success?
The easy answer is The Oatmeal, but that’s just the start of the answer. The Oatmeal has a massive fanbase because Matt’s brilliant and prolific and so, so smart. When we launched the campaign, he posted it to his page and his Twitter and said “Hey, I just illustrated a card game, come check it out.” Something like 50,000 people did, that’s what got us started; that is absolutely the seed of this giant tree we have now.

The second part, though, is that once they got to the page, they saw something that’s great. That took us a lot of time. We built sixteen different versions of our Kickstarter page and tested it like crazy; we sent it to all our friends, collected feedback, called up Kickstarter and made them send us feedback — we tweaked every single word, and tweaked meticulously, until it was perfect. Well, we don’t know if it was perfect, but it did its job, taking Oatmeal readers and converting them into backers; it was such a well-crafted product once they got there.

The third part is that we convinced them to evangelize to their friends, to the larger world. We built a campaign very carefully over its 30-day period that never concentrated on funds: it was 100% dedicated to the backers and entertaining them for 30 days, so that telling their friends about it was an entertainment experience in and of itself for them to come back to.

How do you think the audience for this game ended up forming?
By very careful design. This was a campaign for a card game nobody’s ever seen or played. These fans were part of this not because they’ve played the game — they haven’t — but because the experience was a quality one, something they wanted to be a part of.

What steps have you taken to nurture the community you’ve built?
I love talking about them, they’re my favorite part of the campaign! Most crowdfunding campaigns, or almost all, follow the same curve: there’s a strong opening, it goes way down on day two or three, and stays there; in the last 48 hours, it gets a push. Ours ran nothing like that: there was a huge opening, then it went down, then back up, over and over; it just erupted at the end — and the reason why is because of the community.

We decided that everything about the campaign was going to be related to the community, which was very different from traditional Kickstarter campaigns — after the second day, we never talked about the money. Traditional Kickstarters talk stretch goals: a leather carrying case, a hand-sewn tote bag, etc. We redesigned the stretch goal system from scratch. Instead of stretch goals, we said “Look: there’s a few things we really want to give you: an upgraded box, two decks — but the only tool most people ever have is ‘give us money.’ We’re not gonna do that. Instead, we’re gonna put out achievements: 50,000 Twitter followers, 25 pictures of a real tacocat, a picture of ten people in a hot tub dressed as Batman, etc. We’ll give a new reward every time we get ten achievements.” They got every single stretch goal — because we played fun games with them; we made it about them instead of about money.

In a campaign that’s essentially been one nonstop surprise party, what’s been the biggest surprise of all?
For me the biggest surprise was the last two days of the campaign. In the last two days, the audience got all their goals and hit every achievement we offered, so we decided to essentially stop the campaign: no more achievements, no more stretch goals, no more money. “We love you guys, so we’re just gonna throw a party.” Every day we threw a party and let them participate with us. On the first day, Matt went into the community forums and started drawing comments for people. It was glorious! Just a bunch of people goofing off. On the second day, we said to them “Identify an animal shelter near you and we’ll send them pizza, so you can go see animals and eat free pizza and maybe adopt a pet.” The very last day, we let our guard down and said “We’re going to Reddit, we’re gonna hang out and count down the last few minutes together as a group. Wear your party hats and send pictures!” Everybody did it. That could’ve gone really wrong — this is the internet, people can be awful — and it was the exact opposite: joyous, happy. It made me think: the campaign is secondary to this group of people who really, really like each other.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t ask “How do you create a multimillion-dollar Kickstarter campaign?”
Even if you had, I wouldn’t actually know the answer! So much of this was just good fortune; we happened to attract the right group of people that loved talking about this and wanted to be part of our team. If I knew the secret to attracting that group, I’d really have something valuable on my hands, but instead I’m just lucky to have been a part of it.

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