Second chance to save a life

Posted: May 8th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Chitchat | 2 Comments »

Six years ago, I wrote a story about how someone might have died because I procrastinated dealing with my inbox.  In short, I signed up two decades and change ago as a marrow donor. 1% of people are ever matched.  I was matched. And I missed my chance to save the life of another human being because I didn’t check the mail.  I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s one of my deepest regrets.

Sometimes we get second chances.


I’m going in next week for testing to confirm that I can help. You might be able to help, too. Please visit and sign up – or update your contact information – today.


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Angel Investor: I have become that which I loathed

Posted: July 9th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 5 Comments »

In Chapter 16 of my book I talk a lot about angel investing. First up: “Angel investor” is a stupid and meaningless term, right up there with “stock market investor” or “bank account holder”. It means someone did something, once. It means nothing more.

Angel investors have little in common, and range from occasional dilettantes who throw a kilobuck at their former college roommate’s sure-fire app idea, to career investors who’ve made fortunes placing thoughtful bets on startups, to lecherous “service providers” who lure in unsuspecting companies with promises of “investment” only to add conditions and caveats. Classic nonsense propositions include that you pay them a percentage of any investment funds they raise (simultaneously a terrible idea and illegal) or that they “invest” with advice instead of cash.  My personal favorite was the “advisor” who offered to help fundraise in exchange for a large equity grant and a five-digit travel allowance. Monthly.

In any case, now I’m counted amongst the shadows. Since selling Sparkbuy to Google I started putting a few dollars here and there into startups. And I’m sad to say that I’m now one of those terrible angel investors who drove me nuts when I was first starting to raise money. Truly, you don’t want me on your investor rolls. Here’s why.

I don’t want to be an angel investor. I laugh heartily when I get emails like “do you want to increase your deal flow?” or “I think you’ll be really excited about this investment opportunity.”  My investment strategy is to try and avoid investing in startups. I don’t look for deals; I actively try to avoid them. I will find any excuse I can to beg out of investing, but as with many things, I’m terrible at this, and sometimes fail and accidentally invest anyway.  But even then…

I don’t invest enough to make it worth the hassle of having another investor. My preferred check size is $10k. I’m like the guy who goes to the fancy restaurant and orders an appetizer, then fills up on the free bread. $10k is pathetic and puny enough that most smart companies will turn up their nose at me. In fact, I advise most companies that I consider investing in that they probably shouldn’t take my money because it’s not worth the incremental headache to put a small investor like me on the rolls.

I’m almost certainly going to say no. I’ve got my own startup now, and it’s basically the coolest thing I’ve ever worked on (a 3D laser printer that makes amazing and beautiful things at the push of a button… shameless plug, we’re hiring), so I’m putting my time and resources in to that. I don’t have time to take the meeting, do diligence, fill out paperwork, sit on hold for 30 minutes with my stupid bank trying to remember the street I lived on in fourth grade so they can approve the wire, and all that other nonsense. Which means…

I’m intensely, terribly lazy. After all my trying to avoid investing, I generally fail in just a few cases – when the CEO is a friend, when I know the company well via some pre-existing coincidence, AND when there are already A++ investors who I know and trust involved. Because then I can count on them to do all the hard work, and just write my puny little check to go alongside. Because…

I’m not going to call you. I’m not going to check on my investment, or offer to drop by, or otherwise do much at all. I’ll take your calls, and help when you ask. If you’re curious, I usually pitch in pretty heavily around CEO stuff, particularly cofounder strife, fundraising, and selling the company. But I mostly just get involved if you call; you’re going to have roughly zero percent of my standing brain time. Unless you request otherwise, the only time you’ll hear from me* is when…

I will lose my share certificates when you sell the company. Sorry, karma sucks. Every damn one of my investors (who asked to keep their share certificates) lost theirs, and I’m so careless I’m almost certain to do the same. So, pro tip: tell your lawyers to keep the share certificates for your angel investors on their behalf. It will save you a lot of misery and paperwork.

So don’t have me as an angel investor. I’m just not worth the hassle.

* One exception: at any given time I’ll be closely involved with ~3 startups. I may be on the board or just a formal advisor. I do my best to stay current with those companies, scout opportunities for them (press/hiring/fundraising/etc), meet as often as is helpful, give lots of advice that basically consists of me repeating crap that’s in my book, etc. I’m not very good at it, though, so this is a really rotten deal, particularly now that I’m busy with my own company. So while you don’t want me as an angel investor, you really really don’t want me as a board member/advisor (although I do have one “slot” open since Kate sold Popforms, entirely because she is awesome and no thanks to me). Basically I’m too expensive and not very helpful. You’ve been warned.

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The CTO Bro

Posted: May 11th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Hot Seat book, Startups | 1 Comment »

In my new book “Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook“, I got to retell some amazing stories from CEOs of companies large and small. One of them was from Elissa Shevinsky, CEO and founder of Glimpse. There’s a few details that the story left out, though, and I wanted to touch on those here.

I deeply respect Elissa. She went through some amazing ups and downs in her startup journey. In fact, they haven’t ended yet – Elissa’s since parted ways with her Glimpse cofounder discussed in the story and founded a new startup, JeKuDo (not to mention edited a book, Lean Out).  And Elissa still speaks well of her cofounder from Glimpse and, even as there was all sorts of turmoil resulting from his actions, refused to pin the full blame on him, as would be easy to do.

It was one of the hardest stories for me to tell, because I had to reconcile some fundamental tensions. Elissa had a lot of respect for her cofounder based on firsthand interaction, but I, based on a small amount of second hand information, did not. This was Elissa’s story, but I am the one telling it. I needed to accurately reflect what she told me, but I needed to be sure I believed what I was writing.  I think I came out with something that’s true to both Elissa and me, as well as pulling the curtains from around a story which ripped through tech headlines.

The whole story caused some consternation for my publishers, so at the last minute, I agreed to remove the actual text of the tweets that triggered the climactic reckoning in the story. We agreed that I’d provide those online for those who wanted to understand the context of the story. If your curious, you can read a sampling at this article that preceded the events of the story, and this one that followed it.

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Glowforge – my new company (join me?)

Posted: January 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | No Comments »

I’m working on something new. I can’t wait to tell you what it is.

logo Unfortunately we’re not ready to tip our hand quite yet, so I have to be a little coy. The company is called Glowforge.

replicatorWe’re making a real, tangible thing – a piece of hardware – powered by a giant stack of software. It’s incredibly complicated, with everything from electronics to injection molded plastics to firmware to a web app. It’s not an incremental thing; it’s approaching science fiction. It’s actually a product that makes it simple for people to create real, beautiful products. Really simple. Like a very, very early prototype of a Star Trek replicator – but not for food.

There’s a bit more about us in this article in Geekwire. We’ve already got some of the most amazing folks:

  • Tony Wright, Y Combinator alum and founder of RescueTime.
  • Mark Gosselin, founder of Consumerware and Cequint, which sold for $112.5 million.
  • Kira Franz, who was Logistics Chief for Chef.
  • Dean Putney, the sole developer behind
  • Tim Ellis, who created the electrical systems behind the Genie lift.

…and we’re not done yet!  We need a few more engineers to round out the core team. We need front end and back end engineers. A firmware engineer. A mechanical engineer experienced with injection molding. We’re funded by an amazing set of investors. Our office is a century-old building that used to be used to build Boeing airplanes. We have a seven ton vertical mill and we’re building out a full electronics lab for the hardware team. It’s pretty amazing here.

If you’d be interested in working together – shoot us a note? It’s a ‘jobs’ address, but I see every mail that comes through there.  And if you want to be the first to know what we’re up to, you can add your name to the launch notification list at

It would be great to see you here.


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How to succeed at Kickstarter

Posted: September 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | No Comments »

I’ve been asked by a lot of folks for advice with their Kickstarter campaigns. I’ve thought long and hard about it. I worked hard on the Robot Turtles campaign, but fundamentally thought of it as a fun diversion. I had no idea it was going to turn into the blockbuster that it did! Since then, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the experience and done a bit of writing and some interviews. I thought I’d collect them all in one place for those who want to binge-kickstarter for some reason.

Robot Turtles midmortem at $250k

This was a blog post written in the middle of the storm. I  wrote up some of the techniques I used to construct the campaign and published some live data from the actual campaign, including traffic sources and amounts.

Anatomy of a $631,230 Kickstarter Video

This was a blog post I wrote after the campaign was finished. As the title says, I went deep on the video – the whole story of how it got made, the theory behind it, strategy behind the script, etc.

3 semis, 65 countries, 36 tons: Shipping my Kickstarter

Shipping logistics is one of the hardest parts of Kickstarter campaigns, so I wrote a piece for VentureBeat about all the gory details.

Shell Game with Dan Shapiro 

One of the best interviewers in the business, Glenn Fleishman (a Kickstarter creator himself) dives in deep to how production gets done, how to structure the campaign, and more.

How Dan Shapiro created the most-backed game in Kickstarter history

This talks more about the inventive process (and goes beyond Kickstarter)

This Guy Just Sold $600,000 Worth Of Board Games

This was an interview halfway through the campaign where I touch on a bunch of different aspects of the campaign – timing etc.

I hope some of these are helpful. I’m going to have a significant section in my forthcoming book on startup CEOs about the strategies and opportunities around crowdfunding (among other types of fundraising) so stay tuned!

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Microsoft Ventures calls Startup Weekend Women “pointless”

Posted: September 12th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 14 Comments »

I was shocked to hear this from the head of Microsoft Ventures, Rahul Sood:

He went on to apologize, sort of but not really, complain about being taken out of context, and brag:

The context thing is weird,  because I went looking for context in his previous tweets and could only find complaints about bad entrepreneurs, complaints about how busy he is, and billion dollar startup ideas. I went looking for some “context” to put this in, and could only find  this tweet. No idea if Rahul shares the sentiment,  but he did follow the guy immediately after he tweeted it.

I have seen this perspective before: “If we ignore the problem, it will go away”. I think it would work for sexism as well as it does for Ebola.


Yes, this is exactly what he thinks. If we ignore our problems they will go away. From Geekwire:

“WRT to my tweet – as long as we draw *extra* or even *exclusive* attention to race and gender separation it will continue to exist.” – Rahul Sood

I think Wikipedia best explains the flaw in Rahul’s argument:

Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way). This is a fundamental concept studied in the field of developmental psychology, the subfield of psychology that addresses the development of infants‘ and children’s social and mental capacities.

There are a lot of wonderful people who have worked very hard to make Startup Weekend a source of inspiration and creation for entrepreneurs of all stripes, men and women.

Adriana Moscatelli: As I said several times now, I wouldn’t have started a company, had I not attended Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. There is good research out there supporting that same-sex role models are helpful in motivating women in STEM. 

A friend who’s participated in Startup Weekend for years (but asked me not to use her name) said it better than I could:

Startup Weekend had a partnership with women 2.0 for years and held joint events that always sold out. They weren’t exclusive to women but were around 60% women. The company Foodspotting came out of one of those events.

It was incredibly positive and drew women to experience it that might not have before since they knew there would be other women there. We got great role models of women who were CEOs and CTO’s of startups who were passionate about being role models for women. Women who attend women specific events will often attend non-women specific events later which improves diversity for all events.

If Startup Weekend helps people get towards the first step of entrepreneurship then that is exactly the place we should spend our efforts in increasing diversity. The funnel isn’t big enough. Ask the women who became entrepreneurs because of the many women specific events if they were “pointless”. I doubt it. And it is their opinion that matters here.

There are many spectacular entrepreneurs, men and women alike, who give generously of their time to make entrepreneurship more accessable to everyone. Rahul’s comments on behalf of Microsoft Ventures dishonor them all. As someone who worked at Microsoft for years, has many friends there, and still carry a lot of affection for the place, I’m deeply disappointed.

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Gweek 155: The cheap RC plane I talked about

Posted: July 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 2 Comments »

Five years ago (!!!) I gave an Ignite talk on cheap RC airplanes.  In one of my prouder geek moments Mark Frauenfelder, a maker-hero of mine, posted it to Boingboing.   And that was that.

Until today, when I had the amazing opportunity to be a guest on an episode of the Gweek podcast with Mark and my good friend Dean Putney. We covered a lot of ground (Robot Turtles, Little Bits, Homestar Runner, EC Archives, and of course Potato Salad) but I had a particularly good bit of fun returning to the ‘cheap planes’ topic.  Except now, of course, for a few hundred bucks more, you can upgrade to a cheap UAV. You should listen to the whole show here:


but there are some things a podcast just can’t do justice to properly, so here are some supplemental links. During the podcast I talk about my favorite plane.  I am on my second one; the first got caught up in surprisingly strong winds off the coast of Aruba and was lost at sea. It costs $20, and the electronics to fly it will run you less than $100.

Start with the plane.  This is the Turnigy Bonsai.  It is an elevon plane, meaning that the two flaps act as ailerons (one up/one down) or elevators (both up/both down). There’s no rudder, so to turn you roll right, then pull up. It’s easier than it sounds and a lot more fun than rudder planes. ($23.45)

HobbyKing® ™ Bonsai EPP Wing 600mm (ARF)  (US Warehouse)

The Turnigy Aerodrive SK3 – 2118-3100kv  motor will let it fly straight up… while accelerating. Note that it’s about twice as beefy as what the plane’s designed for so you’ll need a bigger battery too to offset it. ($14.25)

Turnigy Aerodrive SK3 - 2118-3100kv Brushless Outrunner Motor (USA Warehouse)

Props have two numbers. The first is diameter, which gives you lifting power. The second is pitch, which gives you speed. Increasing either puts more stress on your motor. This 5×5 APC-style prop will push our little 17g motor to its limits. Zoom! Be sure to mount it with the letters facing away from the motor. ($1.57)

APC Style Propeller 5x5 (2 pc) (USA Warehouse)

The aforementioned motor is actually a brushless AC motor (thanks, Nicola) so you’ll need a “speed controller” to convert your DC battery to AC pulses that can run it. The H-King 10A ESC is a fine choice for the job ($6.75).

H-KING 10A Fixed Wing Brushless Speed Controller (USA Warehouse)

You’ll need batteries to fly the thing. The 460 mah 2S packs on the left are on the light side, so you have enough lifting power for a camera as well.  ($4.44 each) The 850 mah 2S packs on the right will give you more flight time if you’re not carrying up a camera.

Turnigy nano-tech 460mah 2S 25~40C Lipo Pack (USA Warehouse)   Turnigy nano-tech 850mah 2S 25~40C Lipo Pack (USA Warehouse)

Don’t forget a charger. The Turnigy 12v 2-3S basic charger will do the job; just be sure you have 12v laying around somewhere to power it. If you don’t, the B3AC will work, although you’ve have to salvage a US power cord if you’re from around these parts.  ($4.49)

Turnigy 12v 2-3S Basic Balance Charger   HobbyKing® B3AC Compact Charger

In either case, you’re going to need something for the battery to plug in to. They use JST connectors. They’re half price if you assemble them yourself. I say, splurge. ($2.07)

Female JST battery pigtail 12cm length (10pcs/bag)  (US Warehouse)   JST Female 2 pin connector set (10pcs/set)


And here’s that camera. If you don’t have a fast microSD card, grab one of those too.  ($8.85)

Turnigy KeyChain Camera w/o memory card (USA Warehouse)


Almost done: you’ll need servos to move the wings. Just two of them, since there’s no rudder. It seems counterintuitive to have roll control but no yaw control, but trust me, it’s much more fun that way. I like the HXT500. You might want to get a spare too. ($3.64 each)

HXT500 6.2g / 0.6kg / .08sec Micro Servo (US Warehouse)
The biggest investment: your transmitter and receiver. I use a Spektrum but I think the Turnigy 5X should do just fine. It has the delta mix function you’ll need to combine your aileron and elevator channels.  Just be sure to remove the plastic case from the receiver to save weight. ($24.99)

Turnigy 5X 5Ch Mini Transmitter and Receiver (Mode 2)


Last but not least, I like attaching the wingtips with industrial-strength velcro so you can rip off the wingtips and throw it in a trunk or suitcase. ($1.64)

Polyester Hook & Loop Velcro V-STRONG (1mtr) (USA Warehouse)

And there you go. A lightweight, insanely powerful plane that can fold flat in your suitcase and shoot screaming aerial videos for $99.78. You’ll need to do a bit of soldering to put it together, of course. And if you don’t want to destroy your new toy immediately, you’ll want to spend an hour playing with an RC simulator (you can get a joystick here and software here or lots of other places) so you can work out orientation and stick skills in a low-impact environment.

And there you go! You’re ready to fly.

Of course, I also mentioned some more advanced RC flying, like the Techpod that I’m working on right now with reported flight times of 2-3 hours, and the FPV rig that gives you a real-time “pilot’s eye view”. I talked a bit about flying a Hobbyking Mini-Swift over Maui, HI (also a good starter plane, although not quite as crash resistant as the Bonsai and a bit harder to fly) and promised Mark I’d upload the video. Here’s a 1 min supermix of a few flights over Haleakala crater (first half) and over the coast near Kaanapali (second half).   Yeah, that’s my daughter waving at the plane flying overhead. And if you just want to see a single 3 min flight start to finish, here’s me doing a few passes over the beach at sunset.


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Market first

Posted: March 29th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 7 Comments »

I’m told Amazon writes the press release for a product before beginning development.

I don’t know exactly how the process works, but this has been sloshing around in my head mixed in with a bunch of other tidbits. Like the trick of running ads that lead to a signup page before you build anything to see how many people are interested. Or the notion that a crowdfunding campaign validates demand before you go build it (although it requires a lot more investment).

Pike Place Market

Recently Apptentive asked me about marketing techniques for apps.  The first thing that came to mind is that if you already have the app, and are just now starting to think about marketing, you’re probably hosed.  Great apps, services, websites, and the like are built with the marketing in mind from day  one.  How will the world think about this? What’s the pitch? Why will people share? How are they going to hear about it?

Put all this together and I have a modest proposal: if you are creating a new startup, you should figure out your marketing first.  Create your Kickstarter video (the nickel version, shot with dummy props on your phone and crudely edited together) first and see how many views you can get for it on Youtube.  Mock up the app store page and A/B test it against screenshots of competitors using a survey. Write the press release, post it online, and see how many people would buy.  Run some ads and see how they convert.  Write up a blog post with the idea and see if it goes viral.

Once you find something that resonates, you have a north star.  It’s not just that you’ve figured out how to market your product, it’s that you now know what’s most important about your product.  What you’ve created, the thing that generated excitement – that’s what you need to bring to life.  Staring at a blank screen it can be hard to know where to start – now you know.  Features that excited people get written.  Those that aren’t part of your pitch get cut.

I haven’t really done this before – when I figure out what I’m doing next I plan to give it a try.  If you have, or if you do, please let me know how it works out!

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Anatomy of a $631,230 Kickstarter Video

Posted: December 19th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 9 Comments »

First things first: the last of the Robot Turtles Kickstarter production run is still available on Amazon for $34.95 plus $9.95 US shipping, with international shipping available. If you order today, Dec 19, you should get it in time for Christmas!


Screenshot 2013-12-19 02.25.48

In early September, I launched a Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles – a board game that teaches programming to kids ages 3-8.  It became the bestselling boardgame in Kickstarter history, and while there were a lot of moving pieces (and a lot of luck) involved in making that happen, I think the video was a big part of the project’s success.

How big?  Well, it’s hard to say because Kickstarter’s analytics are limited.  But 72,181 people played the video and 13,765 pledged. Assuming everyone who pledged played the video (which is bogus but will have to suffice), that’s an implied conversion rate of about 20%.  Which is crazy high.
I’ll tell you the whole story of the video, but here’s the TL;DR.
1) You get to convey at most two ideas: one that you say, and one that you show.
2) It’s worth the money to hire a pro, but…
3) Let reality shine through.
Screenshot 2013-12-19 02.26.40On the one hand, I knew that the hook of the game was the uniqueness and incongruity of the idea: a *board* game that teaches *programming* to *preschoolers*.  Teaching programming with a board game? Teaching programming to preschoolers? Both of those things sound unusual, and putting them together was could be a great conceptual hook.
On the other hand, I actually didn’t invent the game to teach my kids programming.  I invented it because I thought it would be fun to play with them.  I hate Candyland and much of the other random nonsense that passes for kids’ games.  I wanted to create some awesome family moments and put them in a box.
This was a problem.  Marketing and complexity are a bad combination.
But I decided against my own better judgment to split the difference, and this is what I did.  I decided to make the talk track of the video about programming.  Explain the game, how it works, and talk about sharing programming with kids.
Screenshot 2013-12-19 02.27.03But all the visuals were about one clear message: Happy Family.  Game equals Happy Family.  Over and over and over again.  (My only regret was that my wife’s school schedule didn’t fit the shooting schedule, so it was mostly dan + kids – but needless to say, there would be no Robot Turtles without my amazing and supportive better half!)
One day I realized that the summer was almost over and if I didn’t launch my campaign soon, I would miss Christmas.  In a bit of a panic I dashed over to my friends at Bootstrapper Studios, a video production house with several $100k+ kickstarters to its name.  They dropped everything for two hours and we whiteboarded a plan.
At that point I realized I had two problems.
1) I didn’t have any pictures or video of anyone besides my kids playing the game.
2) That was because nobody besides my kids had ever played the game.
In a bit of a hazy panic I went to a Geekwire networking event that happened to be scheduled for that evening.  I dashed around for about forty five minutes, begging startuppers with kids to bring their offspring to my house the next day.  I worked feverishly late in to the night to build a backup prototype out of equal parts inkjet paper, spray glue, and desperation.  There were now two copies of Robot Turtles in existence.
Screenshot 2013-12-19 02.26.44The next day I filled the house with borrowed cameras and lights.  I ambitiously (ok, stupidly) decided it would be a combination playtest/video shoot, so I handed the befuddled parents a hastily-jotted instruction sheet, promised the kids a “really awesome snack” once they finished, and stood back to watch them figure it out.  During the 30 minutes between visitors I rewrote rules, smoothed wrinkled cards, and chugged black coffee.
By the end of the day it was clear I was on to something.  The parents and kids all seemed to love it.  I hastily put the house back together before my own kids got home.
The rest of the experience was quick but measured.  I shot some “practice” footage of my kids explaining the game, then an hour of them explaining it over and over again.  As it turned out the practice footage (complete with road noise) was awesome and the scripted stuff was tossed.  Bootstrapper came over and shot some footage of us playing together.  I used to find the amazing track “Happy Ever After” by Niklas Aman and licensed it appropriately.
The worst part was the “ask”, where I implore people to back the project.  I wrote it out, hated it, rewrote it 20 times.  Then sat down with Bootstrapper to shoot it and realized I needed to memorize it.  20 takes later it still sucked, and the version you see near the end is the two least-bad ones stuck together.  I still wince when I watch it.Screenshot 2013-12-19 02.27.07
They started sending cuts over and we started refining: should we use the girls waving or the boys cheering? The explanation with the blurry video or the one with the noisy audio?  Can you make that cut less obvious? Is my nose really that big?
The answers all sorted themselves out and before I knew it, September had arrived and the video went up.
The game’s out of print, but I just listed a few extra copies on Amazon.  I hope you get a chance to check it out!  (Oh, and if you haven’t seen it… here’s the video).

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Robot Turtles midmortem at $250k

Posted: September 16th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 34 Comments »

boxshot_top-smallRobot Turtles has been an amazing ride.  From a goofy idea in the shower, to some clipart, to a print on demand game for my family… to a $250,000 wild ride that doesn’t seem to be done yet!  As of this writing I’ve just crossed the halfway point (12 days down, 11 to go) and wanted to catch my breath and write up some observations while my memory’s still fresh.

In the months leading up to this, I was fortunate to pick the brains of some of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns around.  Most of the advice here is poorly comprehended and mutilated facsimiles of the wisdom from

…and lots of other smart people I’m forgetting and will be very embarrassed about omitting.

Here are some of the things I learned you should think about.


I made Robot Turtles for my family, but it wasn’t long after we started playing with it that I realized the idea was catchy. I tried to describe the salient points as  briefly as possible, and came up with this: Read the rest of this entry »

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