Montclare & Reeder share their Kickstarter secrets

It seems we hear a lot of horror stories about Kickstarter projects gone wrong, whether it's because printing took longer than anticipated, postage rates shot up or the creators seemingly disappeared for long stretches of time with no updates.

On the other hand, there's Rocket Girl.

Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder had some advantages going into their second Kickstarter -- it wasn't their first rodeo, they were able to line up a publisher (Image Comics), and they both had industry experience. They aren't the only Kickstarter project I've backed that has been able to hit its fulfillment date, but it's happened infrequent enough that it seems worth noting. It also helps that the final project is very well done, showcasing an intriguing premise, a fun story and electric artwork, but that's beside the point (unless the point is that you should buy this comic, which you should; the second issue comes out Wednesday).

Brandon and Amy recently sent out an update that detailed the process they went through fulfilling all the rewards they offered on Kickstarter. It was an interesting read, both from an "inside baseball" aspect and from a "this might help someone else looking to use Kickstarter" perspective, so I asked them if I could reprint it here. Brandon offered to expand it a little so it made more sense to non-backers who weren't along for the six-month ride. I appreciate the time he took to do that, as well as the opportunity to share their story. So with that said, here are Amy and Brandon ...

by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder

Making comics is a lot of work. That’s especially true when you’re doing creator-owned stuff.  Rocket Girl is published through Image — but in addition to writing, drawing, coloring and lettering the book, we’re still involved in book design, page layout, solicitations, retailer incentives, pricing, setting print runs, pre-press, promotion and more.  Plus financing, which is a massive subject that we’re not going to even talk about here. But we are going to talk about a fraction of the financing: Kickstarter.  But then again, only a fraction of what it takes to run a Kickstarter, and that’s fulfillment: the actual packing and shipping of rewards.

ROBOT 6 asked us if they could re-post some updates from our successful Kickstarter.  Behind-the-scenes anecdotes about moving 1,300-plus packages through a 510-square-foot Greenwich Village apartment in (mostly) a week.  We’ve edited these updates to hopefully make them clearer, but it’s still pretty informal.  Our numbers are sometimes very exact, and other times we’re just ranting.  But the hope is people can filter some good info out of it.  For those of you who might want to do your own Kickstarter -- or if you're curious about how we did your package -- read on!  We'll get into some of the nitty and bit of the gritty...

HUGE DISCLAIMER: Kickstarter is two months of full-time work: the month while the campaign is running; the month where you do fulfillment.  But it’s also fun—and the romanticized memory of it makes it seem even more fun, once it’s over.  So if ever this sounds whiny, please understand we appreciate every ounce of support and consider ourselves very lucky to be able to make Rocket Girl.

Background: Rocket Girl is our second Kickstarter.  In 2012 we delivered Halloween Eve to backers.  We are happy to have shipped both on time.  Kickstarter is still a place where backers need to invest a lot of faith.  Here’s the note we posted before we got started:

Orders are going out simplest first, then bigger or combo awards.  We're not playing any favorites, it's just that with the limitations of space we need to clear out the most orders as quickly as possible to give us more elbow room.  And US orders are going out before International.  Again, it's just a practical necessity.  International Shipping has been a thorn in the side of a lot of Kickstarters.  It's outrageously expensive, but we have that part covered by the additional postage we charged you’re overseas.  It's the customs forms that are a huge drag.  But while some will get their reward a few days before others, everyone is getting the reward ON TIME.  That's huge for us--and not just because we want you to read Rocket Girl!  We feel it's good for not just all backers, but all Kickstarters when rewards are made and shipped when promised.

The set-up: We both live in New York City -- Brandon's place is a bit bigger, but he shares it with his wife and 4-year-old.  Nonetheless, we made it our packing HQ.  It's a great apartment, but the sleeping loft only has six-foot ceilings, so no go up there.  Kitchen and Bathroom don't work.  So we were left with the 12-foot by 18-foot living room.  A couch and coffee table and two braided Money Trees were pushed against the wall.  The small desk stayed where it was. And an 8' table was requisitioned from the building roof deck.  We also had use of the kitchen counter, but had to avoid the temptation of putting stuff on the stove-top.  The best part: Brandon’s building shares a block with the Cooper Station Post Office (10003 represent!).

The hardest part of fulfillment on Rocket Girl was it directly competed with two big commitments: the release of the comic to regular comic shops and New York Comic-Con.  We timed it specifically to coincide with NYCC for the publicity benefits.  But a show that size takes a lot of preparation even if you aren't launching a new title (although that's easier for us, since we're local).

Side Note: Dovetailing into this was Kickstarter backers who elected to pick up their rewards at the show--about 100 of you.  Frankly, pick-ups could have been a disaster.  We were under-prepared, but just got lucky.  We think there were two people where we didn't have their stuff ready, but fortunately they were both there for the whole show--so we brought it in the next day.

The release of the book is everything you can imagine: publicity commitments are big and consume a lot of time.  But the trickiest part is actually this: you can't get your own physical copies too early--that's just how the comics distribution works in the U.S.  Our RG #1s arrived late on Wednesday, Oct. 2.  Luckily a few days earlier than we’d hoped.  Boxes and boxes and boxes of comics were brought up to Brandon’s apartment.  Joining other boxes — sketchbooks (two kinds), prints (five kinds), T-shirts, bookmarks, and a ton of other comics like Halloween Eve, Madame Xanadu, Batwoman, Fearsome Four, and Chaos King.  Then there were boxes containing a couple thousand over-sized envelopes, tape, labels, cardboard and packing supplies.

We’d gotten a head start wherever we could.  All the packing supplies ready in advance (and the cost of buying envelopes, boxes, labels, tape, etc. is drastically cheaper if you buy in bulk online--you just need to do it in advance to wait for the shipping).  Ditto for comics supplies like bags and boards.  Prepping the addresses and sorting them was harder.  It's truly mind-boggling that Kickstarter doesn't have fulfillment software when Amazon, PayPal, and eBay all do.  The best you can do is download the data from the surveys into pretty raw databases, then hand sort.  That's a couple days of work, if you add it together: but it can all be done in advance.  We'll also note here that it's likewise mind-boggling that Kickstarter doesn't simply have a shopping cart feature for multiple rewards.  People sometimes like to mix and match ... to accommodate that, it's all notes and just us trying to invent an organizing structure in Excel.  It was a big pain -- because there should have been an easier solution -- but again, you can do all that stuff in advance.

We created test packages and figured out the weights for different reward combos.  Shipping in general was done through USPS Click-N-Ship.  Sorry to call the Post Office out: but after dealing with all their different online services, it's easy to see why the government-supported monopoly is steadfastly finding ways to go out of business!  Some of their rules and quirks and flat-out errors were infuriating.  One of the silliest is that you can buy Priority Mail postage online, but no other services (we used mostly First Class, for packages under 13 ounces; and First Class International for virtually all overseas packages).  You have to go to a third party to buy stamps separately (we used stamps.com, which was also very problematic).  Luckily this was learned, again, in advance.  So we were able to buy blank stamps on which to print (again, why the USPS can't provide this directly on their own labels -- which they CAN for Priority Mail -- is absurd).  We’ve since learned that PayPal has a good shipping service, so we’ll experiment with them in the future.

90 percent in five-ish days.  We each had to sign a copy of Rocket Girl #1 for all our backers. That takes a lot of time, but we were prepared with signing stations and sharpies and pre-made bags and boards.  All of the other rewards were made in advance, signed where applicable, and ready to be packed.  But every physical reward needed a comic, so we had to process those quickly.  About 4,000 signatures between us.

With the Excel data previously imported into the USPS label making software, packages were easy.  From Thursday-Tuesday we signed and packed and shipped. When the dust cleared, before the Post Office closed on Sunday we’d shipped 844 packages.  Wednesday, Oct. 9 was the release, as well as the eve of NYCC -- but by then we'd shipped well over a thousand packages -- 90 percent-plus of the rewards.

The looooong final stretch.  The final 10 percent were hard.  A backer clued us into Pareto’s Rule—which (kinda, for our purposes!) demands that 80 percent of the work will be applied to 20 percent of the orders.  Obviously nothing went out during NYCC, and it was tough to jump back into full-scale packing mode on Monday, Oct. 14.  You expect you'll be tired ... but RG #1 sold out at the distributor level, there were amazing reviews, second prints of RG #1 had to be prepped.  Plus we had to get #2 ready for the printer.  But we picked away at the packages that still needed to be mailed.  Unfortunately, that final 10 percent was the harder stuff: big combo packages and the majority of international shipments.  We were well prepared for the big orders (like those of you who would add a print and/or a T-shirt and/or a sketchbook).  They're just a little slower to pack.  The cardboard boxes for the "library rewards" where you'd get our past TPBs or hardcovers were hard to handle, but sturdy and workable (if there's a next time, we'll go with a more traditional box!).  The stuff was going out consistently.

We knew international shipments would be a beast.  Halloween Eve taught us that.  Originally, we invented the Digital version of the book primarily for international backers.  Two reasons: 1) shipping is outrageously expensive overseas (and technically these all have to go parcel, since they're merchandise and not correspondence); 2) it really is a burden to pack and ship.  The packing itself is the same, but the customs forms are big-time hassles.  For security purposes, you can't do bulk labels.  You have to prepare and affirm the customs form on each individual package.  Just those forms tend to take three or four minutes each ... which adds up when you're doing 250ish International orders.  Quite a few went out before NYCC, but a lot were left over.

FU, UK!  All of the orders to the UK were cursed!  We have plenty of friends there, and all of you great fans--so we say this with love!  And truthfully the fault was entirely due to Americans: glitches in the USPS software, and maybe us too!  UK orders had all the challenges of international (stronger packaging, those time-consuming custom forms)... but we couldn't get USPS to accept any UK addresses in London--and some other locals--that didn't include a county.  We'd get error messages when trying to import them.  We tried just doing London, London (maybe it's the New York, New York in us!) to no avail.  Our local Post Office said to try "Middlesex" county, so we did all of that by editing the Excel line by line... but still no luck on the import.  An English backer at NYCC said use "Greater London," and that did the trick... but it wound up being all for naught, as they say over there, because we got new errors when we tried to print the labels.  To shorten an incredibly long story: this second problem occurred because, apparently, USPS software doesn't recognize “UK” nor “United Kingdom” as a country.  You have to put “Great Britain and Northern Ireland” if you want to import orders.  But at that point, with all the county/country problems, we just started doing labels by hand (still using the software, but no longer bulk importing).  Of course, if you just wrote "London, UK" on an envelope, it would know where to go!  And if we had done that from the beginning, it would have saved a ton of time.  But at every turn, you think you're close to solving it so the delay drags on.  Undoubtedly we were partly to blame.  If this was a problem for everyone who tried to bulk ship to the UK with USPS software, the bug would have been fixed, I'm sure.  But honest-to-gosh, we still don't know what we were doing wrong!

Mistakes, we made a few:  But almost too few to mention.  For all the physical packages mailed, we only had 18 that need partial or full replacement.  A bit more than 1 percent, but the actual cost to fix these were less than the 1 percent we budgeted for errors.  Six were damaged in transit.  Eight were packages where we made a mistake (wrong items or forgetting add-ons).  One we sent to the wrong address.  One we didn’t send at all.  And two were where the backer had gotten the technically correct reward, but had accidentally ordered something different from what they really wanted.  We corrected all of those and thanked them for their patience.  Another three packages were returned to us as undeliverable.  And four again were thought to be lost... but upon tracking those, it was confirmed that they had indeed been delivered and then mislaid (and subsequently found) by the recipients--so for the record we had zero lost packages.  There are still some backers who haven’t yet submitted a survey (which would include their mailing address)

The last of the problematic packages and replacement stuff left NY on Oct. 28--but by then it was a very few--as the final 10 percent went out fairly consistently, if slowly, over the final two weeks of October.

By far the biggest problem in fulfillment was, in fact, the digital Rocket Girl #1 Insider.  About 600 backers selected this reward or added it to another.  We haven't kept count, but over 50 never received the link.  It was made available on the release date (10/9/2013) via DropBox.  This was a reward we could do early, since it wasn't dependent on a physical copy of the book.  For all but two backers, simply re-sending the link worked (so we assume the first email notice probably went into a bunch of spam folders… but it’s possible we somehow didn’t properly send invites to some backers).  For those two who continued to have trouble with DropBox, we gave them a different link to a direct download.

A random frustration: In the middle of printing, Brandon's printer decided to stop printing within the sticker margins on the stamps--hours were spent trying to correct it.  Ultimately, Amy had to hop in a cab to haul her fancy printer to Brandon's--we put it up in the sleeping loft.

We quite frankly impressed even ourselves with our level of preparation.  Only a few unexpected last-minute expenses (and in New York it can be costly to buy stuff since there’s no place to buy bulk--no outlets or warehouse-type places, and even if there were most people wouldn't have a car to take advantage).  Last minute purchases were limited to the above mentioned cab fare, a "Do Not Bend" stamp... We splurged on an electronic scale, which proved to be worth its weight in gold.  Amy had to pick up a gold Sharpie (which only came in a 4-pack).  Brandon miscalculated the need for chipboard, so picked up 300 Silver Age backing boards at midnight (there's a benefit of living in NYC!).

Concluding: Fulfillment is the biggest grind of Kickstarter, and we expected it.  It sounds cliche: but even when it dragged on, the overwhelming size of the process was actually a constant reminder of how many people supported our work.  It was invigorating--for real.  Boxes, no breathing room, postal tragedies, and the long hours are all fodder for good memories, once you're done.  And we are done.  And it's safe to say we'll both miss it soon enough, and look forward to doing it again!

We talk about making comics every week at podcornpodcast.com.

Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder

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