Rich Burlew raised $1,254,120 on Kickstarter to reprint out of print volumes collecting his Order of the Stick webcomic. Burlew estimates this funding project sold 25,000 to 35,000 books (he’s still tabulating) and around a thousand board games. The project has grown so large, it will ship in a minimum of five waves, with initial postage estimated at $350,000. In the end, crowdfunding has given Burlew the ability to invest in and grow his business without taking on debt or partners.
Burlew has been drawing Order of the Stick since 2003. The comic proved popular enough—and profitable enough—for him to quit his job as a freelance graphic designer and concentrate on cartooning in 2005. As is often the case with projects that seemingly come out of nowhere to grab headlines, the success really goes back several years, albeit with a lower profile.
“It's really tough to be exact with this,” Burlew says about the size of his audience, “but my best estimate is around 650,000 dedicated readers who check out every comic as soon as it updates, and as many as another million casual readers who check it out once every month or two.”
The rule of thumb for converting readers of a freely distributed online property into paying customers is 1%. A range of 650,000 dedicated readers to 1.65M combined casual and dedicated readers would yield an expectation of 6,500 to 16,500 people participating in the campaign. The Kickstarter campaign had 14,952 people contributing to it, so it’s likely Burlew converted somewhere between 1-2% of his monthly audience and then benefited from the wide publicity the project garnered in its later stages.
Much of what happened with this Kickstarter project, while potentially duplicable, should not be taken for granted. The first step was nine years growing an audience that enjoyed the comic and would eventually support it in the form of this campaign. The second step was the series of ongoing updates in the campaign. Each time a goal was reached, a new one was posted and a sales chart illuminated with characters from the comic was posted, along with a new prize for the new goal.
Exactly how much time was put into that campaign?
“All of it,” explains Burlew. “No, seriously, ALL of my time since it started on January 22 was devoted to this or basic biological needs, especially if you consider my regular comic strip updates to be a form of advanced promotion for the products (which I always have). In fact, as the drive ended, I hadn't slept in 30 hours, and I spent 14 of those answering emails. So, not for the faint of heart.”
The majority of the proceeds from the project will go towards fulfilling the orders, the massive shipping bill and the taxes. (Kickstarter proceeds are considered taxable income.) At this point, Burlew anticipates printing 11,000 copies for each of four full-color volumes and 15,000 copies of two black and white volumes for ongoing inventory. All together, he plans to print somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000-110,000 books, plus games and stickers.
When all the printing and postage is accounted for, Burlew is looking towards capital investments in his business like a new computer, updated software and warehouse space for his soon to be substantial inventory.
“If nothing else,” Burlew muses about his reinvestment strategy, “this drive has let me know that I have more opportunities than I thought I did, and I need to upgrade a lot of what I've been doing to take advantage of them. This drive is fantastic, but I'm not going to be able to just run another one next year and get the same response.”
“A lot of the people pledging have told me that they've been readers of the online comic for 9 years, but this is the first time they've ever bought anything (and they're buying the whole catalog),” Burlew says. “I can only get that response once, and this is it. So the only responsible thing for me to do is to pour as much as possible back into the business so I can make more books after this drive is long gone.”