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:

Robot Turtles is a board game for teaching programming to preschoolers.

This won out over a lot of alternatives: “It’s Logo the board game”, “It’s a board game for kids that uses programming as its core mechanic”, etc.  But it won, because it felt incredibly powerful.

  • Teaching programming to kids is a hot topic (e.g. the amazing campaign by
  • The notion of teaching programming with a board game instead of a computer game is intriguing and counter-intuitive.
  • The notion of teaching programming to preschoolers at all is pretty wacky.  (I was torn on this point, because it’s really for kids 3-8, and with the new rules expansion it’s fun for all ages – but the interesting bit was the programming for preschoolers part, so I went with that).
  • I could even see a bit of controversy – should we be teaching coding this early?

All these things together made me feel like this was a great angle for crowdfunding.  I had looked at a number of tabletop games and most of them had a tough time raising $10k-$20k, especially if they didn’t have a celebrity creator.  So I figured I needed some sort of hook other than “it’s a great game” for it to work.


$25,000 was the smallest amount I would be happy with.  And I think that’s optimal for a goal.

You’re not doing anyone any favors by picking a huge number.  It makes it seem hard to succeed and sets expectations high.

On the other hand, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot if you pick a number that’s too low!  You’ve got to go through with the project if you hit it, so you need to make sure it’s high enough to make you feel good about it.

I considered numbers between $25,000 and $50,000.  Personally I thought it was 75% likely I would hit $25k, 50% likely that I’d hit $50k, and my ‘dream number’ was $100k.  (retrospective: those numbers took 5 hours, 10 hours, and 2 days respectively – nobody was more surprised about this than I was about this).  At $25k I would lose money on the project, but I was OK with that – the main thing I didn’t want was a half-ton of cardboard in the garage and a feeling of disaster.  If I could find homes for my 1,000 unit minimum order, I was OK writing a modest check to make it happen. That’s why I decided on $25k instead of $50k, which would have put me close to break even.

It turned out that “hit its target in 5 hours” was a good story in its own right, so again, I was glad I picked the lowest number that I would be honestly happy about hitting.


I find there are roughly two types of people on Kickstarter:

– The givers, who are backing projects because they believe in them, and for whom the reward is secondary.

– The shoppers, who are looking for a deal on something cool.

Hint: the second category outnumbers the first by a lot.  If you want more than goodwill, figure out how to price your offering in a way that makes people feel like they’re getting a good deal.  There are a lot of ways to mess this up, and I’ll share some of them:

  • Early bird pricing.  This is like a giant flashing neon sign that says YOU ARE GETTING RIPPED OFF to everyone who misses it.  I figured this out in time, so I extended my early bird pricing by adding more people to the limit.  (This was financially possible because I could see I was going to hit the volume numbers I needed to get a price break, so I wouldn’t wind up in the hole – see the next point)
  • Confusing tiers. Kickstarter is a lousy storefront.  If at all possible, handle this like it’s intended and have a set of tiers with clear names and value propositions.  If you have a fundamentally complicated product and very sophisticated buyers (like Golem Arcana, for example), then you’re stuck saying things like “You can add optional items to any reward level; see the optional items menu section for more details”.  Fine for advanced KS users, not so good for first timers.
  • Hard to find the Thing.  Dean Putney taught me that most KS campaigns have a Thing that people want: a bar of soap, a helicopter, or another bloody minimalist wallet. In his case, an epic photo book. It’s got to be easy to find the pledge level with that Thing.  Look at the Robot Turtles tiers – you won’t have any trouble figuring out how to get a copy.  (As a side note, if your project  don’t have a singular Thing, Kickstarter may be rough. You need a unifying brand or concept, and if you’re not Veronica or Zach or Spike, then your best bet is your Thing).

Kick it

Contrary to what many people think, people don’t find new projects through Kickstarter (see the next section below).  You absolutely need some way to start the wheel rolling.  Different projects use different strategies, but the three big ones are Press, Network, and Cheating.

Press – If you can interest the press in your project, you may get some zero-day coverage to send you on your way.  This is easy for established names like Zach and Spike, and the occasional project that’s just so fascinating people want to write about it – like Poppy 3D. It is, unfortunately, not available to most people.

Network – This is the way most workaday Kickstarter projects make their bones.  It’s certainly how Robot Turtles hit its goal.  You need to find a critical mass of people who cares deeply about what you’re doing.  One project I know spent years cultivating his reputation in a relevant subreddit discussing his project. Another had a massive Twitter following that he spammed hourly until he hit his numbers. Yet another spent years collecting a huge number of emails and silently adding them to a list, then spent the month before launch getting everyone on the list excited about opening day (and processing unsubscribes).

Cheating – I use this term somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but some well funded companies that feel they absolutely must look good on Kickstarter spend money to make it happen.  Techniques I’ve heard about include pledging on your own project, running ads that cost you more than you recoup, and having investors pledge large sums in exchange for equity. Needless to say, I don’t recommend any of these.

Personally I thought I was going to jumpstart things with press articles, but the first five hours mostly came from an email I sent to friends plus my “announcement” on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

And now, the numbers

I was very fortunate to find people who would share their raw data with me, which was invaluable in figuring out how Kickstarter campaigns really work.  I’m now paying that forward.  I’m still mid-campaign, but here’s some information that may be useful (along with commentary).

First up, here’s the snapshot in time we’re looking at:


As you can see, we’re almost exactly halfway through the campaign.  Interesting factoid: looking at a friend’s proprietary data set of Kickstarter campaigns over the last 6 months, not a single tabletop game campaign has had more than 6,000 backers.  Some of them have much more money (because of $500 miniatures sets and the like), but none have more backers.

That’s because of a little-known Kickstarter secret: even the top 1% of Kickstarter campaigns almost never have more than 10k backers.  There are just a few dozen exceptions.  That’s something to keep in mind; if you want to rake in the big bucks, focus on large pledges. Robotech (one of the all time top 5 tabletop games by total raise), for example, raised $1.4 million – with fewer backers than Robot Turtles!

Fortunately my main goal is getting copies of the game out there, not ratcheting up the dollar number.

And speaking of ratcheting up the dollar number:

revenue over time

(That last, depressing-looking data point is because I’m posting at 2:30am PST and it shows midday results).

The rule of thumb I’ve seen in other projects is that half comes in in the first few days, a quarter in the last few days, and a quarter in the middle 3 weeks.  I’m doing a little better than that, but not so much as to challenge the thesis.  I’ve also been fortunate in that I’ve seen a lot of press and social media lift during the last two weeks that help drive things forward.


As you can see, my average pledge amount is very small compared to most board games (the category average is ~$70).

You can also see where traffic comes from.  This is pretty typical for successful projects: despite being featured in various locations around Kickstarter, the vast majority of your traffic comes from offsite.  Where offsite, you ask?  Here are the gory details:

There’s a lot going on there, but a few comments.

  • “Search” is almost certainly people who heard about it elsewhere and came to Kickstarter to find it.
  • Only very recently did “Discover” jump ahead of everything else, probably because I’ve been in and out of the front page rotation for a while (which is pretty awesome).
  • I asked two different editors at Techcrunch to write about Robot Turtles, and they didn’t.  Then I sent a random email to tips@techcrunch and Natasha Lomas picked it up.  At 1am PST. From London.  Go figure.
  • Note the impact of local press – Seattle publications were singlehandedly responsible for 4% of the total.

Last but not least for tonight:
This absolutely blows my mind. 20% of the people who watched the video pledged.  That’s insane!  I’ve never seen anything convert like that.  Particularly considering that almost half those plays came from offsite, which means there was no “pledge” button next to the video.

I think this is the magic of Kickstarter: it’s really, really good at putting people in a mindset to back your project.  The typical website is mult-use and multi-purpose, and people tend to pop in and out to see what’s there.  Kickstarter is a giant one-step funnel, and users seem to go there with an expectation that they’re going to pledge – much more so than most forms of media.  It’s amazing.

Also, my video has the most adorable sales pitch on the planet (not that I’m biased).

(It says that only 45% were watched to completion, but I suspect that’s because there are some secret outtakes after the final close that most people don’t know are there).


Here is where I write a thoughtful wrapup of what I’ve learned.  But who am I kidding? It’s 3am. I’m drowning in data. Things are going wonderfully.  I’m in no position to have perspective.

Have fun in the comments!

(and if you read this far – get a copy of Robot Turtles!)







(You might want to subscribe or follow me on Twitter so you don’t miss new articles)

  • Elin Elkehag

    I’m so happy for your success dear friend! I look forward to playing the game in the future. Best of luck! Love, Elin Elkehag =)

  • Jamey Stegmaier

    Thanks so much for sharing this data–this is great stuff, very helpful for fellow creators.

    I am aware of one tabletop Kickstarter without miniatures in the last 6 months that had over 6,000 backers: Dungeon Roll (10,877 backers).

    It’s particularly impressive that so many of your backers come from off of Kickstarter. That’s incredible. Having a 20% conversion rate on your video is also great…I was curious to see my conversion rate for my tabletop project, Euphoria. I had 19,863 views and 4,765 backers…about a 24% conversion rate.

    Congrats on the success of your project, and good luck in the time remaining!

  • Thank you for the wonderful wishes Elin! I can’t wait to get you a copy. :)

  • Thanks for the heads up, Jamey! I will check with my friend; I wonder if his data only includes projects that started in the last 6 months (since that one ended in March).

    FYI, your fantastic post about shipping Euphoria was a big part of what inspired me to write this one.

  • Jamey Stegmaier

    Dan–Yep, I bet that’s it. You’re totally right about the date. Regardless, your 6k+ backer count is fantastic!

    Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate that you were willing to share all of this data–this post is a great resource for fellow creators.

  • Elin Elkehag

    I´m on my way back to the Bay Area soon. If you happen to be in SF anytime between Oct 9-17 it would be great to meet up! Maybe I could buy a prototype from you then to improve the delivery times to Sweden a bit… ;-)

  • I wish – I’m not going to have them until December either! I don’t have bay area plans during that time, but do let me know if you make it north to Seattle.

  • Andreas Ebbert-Karroum

    “The board looks kind of broken… But it isn’t” :D Thanks for sharing your thoughts and data. I can only imagine how you feel right now. Have fun!

  • Honestly I can’t argue with her either!

  • Canadian Bob

    Hi Dan,

    I would love to get a Robot Turtle game for my 5-year-old, but I live in Canada. The game that I could get for $29 if I lived in the US would cost me $60.

    It’s funny that you are talking about giant flashing neon signs that say “I AM GETTING RIPPED OFF”, since that sums up my feelings when I saw the 107% price increase.

    I am sure there are reasons for such a price increase, and I suspect it involves the extra hassle for you to ship internationally. But the fact remains: I can afford $29 for a Christmas present, but not $60.

  • Yeah. Some of this was lessons learned the hard way! You can see the FAQ for the history of why, if you’re curious. But if you just want the game for less money – the best option is to find some friends to split the 3-pack, which is much cheaper for me to ship (per game), and drops your per-game cost to just $40 including shipping.

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  • Miriam

    I love this game; nice job! It made me think of Dominoes from back in the day. Hmm an early form of programming :-) Then I wondered if in future releases you might have paired command cards w/ a left/right, left/left, etc. pairing of commands to add some more difficulty to the game as the kids get older…Good luck with the project!

  • Thanks Miriam! Those are awesome ideas. There’s a whole thread of brainstorming going on at about future game directions, this would be a great addition!

  • City of Zombies

    Hi Dan, as a backer from the UK I’m soon to be launching my own (Maths) education board game on kickstarter and I just wanted to let you know that you and your Robot Turtles game has been a huge inspiration and guiding light to me, what a ride it must be for you! Well done mate.
    Like you, I think one of my major challenges will be how to best handle international shipping, particularly as I’m hoping to attract US backers and I’m here in Blighty. If I charge too much for shipping, or maybe anything at all, I’ll risk loosing their support and possibly reaching my funding goal, how do you think potential US backers would feel about backing a project that they then had to pay shipping on?
    Well done again
    Best Wishes
    PS I noticed you used Amazon for the “checkout” for my pledge, are you using them for all orders or just international ones?

  • Thanks! I think charging shipping is, unfortunately, a big negative for people. But overcharging for the base game so your local country subsidizes international backers is worse. Pick your poison.

    Amazon is what Kickstarter uses to handle money – I have no say in the matter!

  • City of Zombies

    Rock and a hard place LOL

  • Jon Durkin

    Hello Dan, love the idea of the game, can’t wait to get it for my kid and friends. I want the 3-pack, but can it be shipped to two different addresses? One in Canada, one in the states? An answer would really help me out, and lean me towards the 3-pack!

  • Unfortunately no, the 3-pack must all be shipped to the same address.

  • Brian Carnes

    Congrats on the runaway success! Great info above to inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

    Heard about this through two independent word of mouth avenues first (it’s all the talk in silicon valley, go figure), and then again via boingboing.

    (Only after backing did I notice your name. Glad to see a fellow Mudder doing so well).

    Good luck with the fulfillment phase and your next big endeavor.

    Warm regards,

  • Great to hear from you Brian – thanks so much!

  • Lee Sweeney

    What Size are the Squares on the board?

    Going to make some Custom Turtles.


  • josejuan

    Hi Dan,
    great job! :)
    I’m trying to subscribe to “Robot Turtles” but it not work.
    Please subscribe me!
    Thank you!

  • Preston Lowery

    I’m really interested in picking up a copy of this game as soon as possible. I just started programming myself, and I’m attending school at Digipen Institute of Technology in Seattle, so that I can learn how to code and design video games, a dream of mine for some time. I’m curious to see how this game will go over on a much older crowd. Unfortunately, I didn’t get wind of the game until after the Kickstarter closed, is there anyway I could pick up a box set by December?

  • Kyle Johnson

    Hello Dan, I am with the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa Canada. One of my Embassy colleagues, your cousin Danielle,recommended I speak with you regarding your participation in a TechCamp we are trying to organize for 2014. The TechCamp is intended to bring together young Canadian innovators and would-entrepreneurs and US-based individuals such as yourself, who have success and experience with entrepreneurship. I’m having trouble contacting you. Any chance you could get in touch with me to discuss our proposal or get more information? Many thanks!

  • Lenore Borisova

    It was over $100 to get it shipped to the UK so it would cost closer to $130 for us. Luckily, I am American with friends in the USA that I can have the game shipped to, and we can pick it up months later on a separate flight. But I love this direction – creating great board games for ages 3+ and keeping it low tech but teaching great fundamental concepts. We’ve just started our 3-year-old twins on card games (they received 3 of them for Christmas and zero techy gadgets). They caught on easily, and their attention span for it was incredible. Now we’re thinking of incorporating a game night into our family on a regular basis each night and are looking around for what options are available in this age range. Especially games that don’t stress competition but more cooperation and active thinking, not necessarily making it easy or ensuring a win. In fact, one game that they got for Christmas teaches how to accept losing (Balloons).

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  • Leeanne Obregon

    Practical analysis ! I Appreciate the information – Does someone know where my company might be able to get access to a sample Calendar copy to complete ?

  • Alyssa Boswell

    Dan – this page has been more helpful than you can imagine! Day 2 of a fully funded campaign and I’m still coming back to look at your stats. It is helpful to see how things panned out for you. Definitely not expecting quite Robot Turtle success, but it is helpful to get an idea of what could happen. Thanks for taking the time to write this! Alyssa – Turing Tumble

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