Meta-Kickstarter: The Freelance Market Around Kickstarter Campaigns

Hey look! The funding for Velociraptor! Cannibalism! went dino-crazy last week. School Daze continues its strong funding growth, too. As you may know, I'm attached to do some layout and graphics for both these projects. This brings up a subject that I've been meaning to talk about for sometime: Meta-kickstarter. That is, the freelance job market and economy around Kickstarter campaigns.

The most direct example is when you need to hire someone to make customized rewards for high-level pledges. For example, Evil Hat and I hired Dan Cetorelli to make hand-bound editions of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple for a $1000-level backer. We also hired Lyndsay Peters to create custom dice bags for some of the other high-level backers. That market is fairly straightforward, usually drawing from pre-existing budgets before a Kickstarter is completed. The end result are value-adds and other peripherals.

There's a new economy growing, at least in my tiny sphere. It's an economy of freelancers and development teams that sign on to a project in a halfway official capacity, but before any contracts have been signed. As far as I can tell, this economy is still very much in its early stages of development. Here's how it usually goes in my case:

1) A creator wants to make a product, like a book or a game. He or she wants to hire a really good development team, like artists, editors, art directors, etc. In my case, I ask for half up front when the contract is signed. However, the creator doesn't have the budget in place to pay that much. (Hence the Kickstarter).

2) After some negotiations about estimates, deadlines and scope, there's a handshake agreement. The creator will hire me if the Kickstarter succeeds. In turn, the creator can use my name as a part of Kickstarter promotions. Thus, simply associating the clout of a would-be development team helps add credibility to the campaign, thus making it more likely to succeed, all for no cost to the creator. In my case, these have been very informal agreements, but standard procedure probably should involve getting it in writing in a Letter of Agreement. I'm just not that formal. :P

3a) If the Kickstarter fails, nothing is lost on either end. I haven't spent any time on a project for which I don't get paid. The creator hasn't lost any money hiring me for a project that won't get produced.

3b) If the Kickstarter succeeds, then we proceed to actual signing of contracts as normal. In a way, this point becomes a very traditional working relationship. The terms of the contract would have been previously discussed during the handshake/letter of agreement. The creator knows how much budget he or she has to work with, as do I.

Now, there's an inherent risk in this meta-economy, for the creator, for the freelancer and for the backer.

Risk for the Creator
The creator is betting that the freelancers' names will help make the game more appealing to a potential backer. At best, the creator puts together a Dream Team of professionals. At worst, a drawn-out Kickstarter campaign compels the freelancers to take on other commitments, meaning the creator must start a search all over again. Meanwhile, backers don't get the dream team they originally thought they were supporting.

Risk for the Freelancer and Backer
If the Kickstarter fails, then the freelancer has promised a block of time in his or her schedule that now must be filled by something else on short notice. This does harm to the freelancers' reputation among other creators. The freelancer wants to assure future creators that his or her name will help raise funds. As with any Kickstarter campaign, the backer is risking that the project will take far longer than originally estimated.

There are ways to mitigate these risks, for all parties involved.

Creators, Be Almost Finished
This one comes from Joe McDaldno. If you're making a game, make sure it's fully playtested, revised, playtested, revised, and ready for actual production as soon as the Kickstarter campaign is complete. You have time for development or you have time to run a Kickstarter campaign. When you try to do both at once, you give neither the time they deserve. Note I said "almost." It's okay if there are some small tweaks you're making during the campaign, especially if it's a way to drive engagement among your backers. Send those late-stage playtest drafts to backers, get some feedback, report on that feedback promptly and express your utmost appreciation throughout. Get your estimates in order, learn from past mistakes, and make sure you can afford success.

Freelancers, Agree Wisely
Be choosy about which projects you take on. You want to sign on to projects that you know will appeal to a broad enough market to reach full funding. More than that, you want to sign on to projects that you feel strongly about. Do you love the subject? Do you see this as a path to more work? Do you want to support the creator personally? Find some personal investment in the project, because even though you're not officially working on it yet, your name is still attached to it. Towards this end, it's a good idea to write up a letter of agreement with some simple terms you and the creator have negotiated beforehand. This is not a contract yet, just a plain-language agreement to take the next step on the condition that the project is fully funded. Though you're not technically hired until that time, it's still in your interest to drive momentum after 100%, offer ideas for stretch goal rewards, and maybe even help create the Kickstarter video.

Backers, Keep Creators Accountable
Kickstarter has been around for a few years now. Some projects have done spectacularly well, raising the profile of other Kickstarter campaigns by proxy. That virtuous cycle can't last forever, and it seems like a lot of people are waiting for a bubble to burst. So, would-be backers, tread lightly in the coming year. Remember, this isn't shopping, this is backing. It's a much more active relationship than a normal consumer experience. Only commit to pledge levels you can afford, keep track of when those campaigns would be completed, note the estimated delivery dates for your level and whether that sounds feasible to you. Keep track of the creator's transparency and remember that you can change your pledge level during most of the campaign.

So, what are your thoughts? Is this a good trend? Is it just unfairly off-loading risk to the backers and freelancers? Is there room for growth in the meta-kickstarter?

[Graph comes from J.R. Blackwell btw!]
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.