chapter 17

Interview with Catan Boards

Bill Trammel of Catan Boards sought $25K on Kickstarter, and ended up raising over $361K. Bill built a board to make it easier to play Settlers of Catan, which was enthusiastically received by fans of the game as well as the son of the creator of the game. Visit the Catan Boards website here.

Shopify chatted with Bill, founder and chief executive Catan Boards, via Google Hangouts. Here’s a transcript of that conversation.

Give us an introduction of Catan Boards.

Catan Boards created portable and affordable boards that securely hold tiles so that people can play Settlers of Catan more easily. The campaign wrapped up in November, 2012, and we raised about $360,000 on Kickstarter.

How exactly did you get the idea for Catan Boards?

I’ve been playing Catan since the beginning of college. I’ve always been a bit of a tinkerer. Over a game with some buddies one night, I proposed trying to build something, just because I was curious. That night I worked until 3:30 in the morning to build a basic prototype. I posted it on Facebook, a lot of people liked it, and I thought that we had something.

How did you know that you might have a winner here?

Part of it is that I was my own customer. I think that that’s crucial. I really wanted a better Catan board, and I’m not one of the most hardcore gamers in the world. This is something I thought that a lot of people would find useful.

You’ve designed a product all by yourself. Do you have a background in design?

My background is quite varied. I’ve done a lot of industrial design, but never got a degree in it. My degree is called Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies, which is a hybrid degree from Cal Poly. I was actually the first graduate in the program. I was a mechanical engineer who took a lot of arts classes, but I don’t have an official professional background in industrial design. So if I can do this, then anyone can do this.

Did anything else help with deciding on the product before you launched a campaign?

Yes! I put together a really comprehensive proposal to the producer and copyright holders of Settlers of Catan. I sent it along to Guido Teuber, who’s the son of the inventor of Settlers of Catan. He was enthusiastic about project and offered to support it. That was really, really helpful for the campaign.

Let’s move on to the campaign. Why did you choose Kickstarter over Indiegogo, which is more friendly towards business ventures?

We thought a lot about this. I don’t really understand why Kickstarter hasn’t chosen to be more business-friendly. Still, the gaming category does really well on Kickstarter, and it’s one of Kickstarter’s most active verticals. We went after the Kickstarter community.

How long did you spend on the page?

We spent about a whole month, literally about 30 days.

Did you use any professional help?

No, this was all done by myself. We edited the videos, created the page, created all the visual assets, all without the help of professionals.

I can definitely see why professionals are useful. They can help speed up the process a great deal more. But I know a bit of design, and I think that doing it myself gives the page a single creative vision. That’s important. I think that we were successful in large part because of our level of authenticity.

What took the longest time over this month?

The majority of the time was spent on the video. The second was the visual assets. I created renderings for each of the pledge levels. Some of the animations of the renderings took a few days. Keyshot, the 3D rendering software, was super useful.

Describe the launch.

We set a 45-day campaign, because we enough time for the campaign to generate momentum, especially for press. We expected to reach our goal, but we didn’t expect the speed we had of reaching the goal. It was amazing watching our funding reach $360,000 when we set $25,000.

This is a full-time job. I quit my job to run this campaign. And I’m really glad I did. Running the campaign is a huge commitment to do right. Not only do you have to thank supporters, you have to try to reach out to press as well. The first week was really, really crazy.

Why did you choose $25,000 as a funding goal?

This is something I wish that I did better, and I’m lucky that things turned out the way they did. We totally undershot, and we needed a lot more than $25,000. I recommend that you figure out exactly how much you need, e.g. actually get price quotes from your manufacturers, and think about every cost you need to incur.

Also, we tried to be responsible about all the money we got. Focus on the product, not on raising a ton of money.

How did you choose your rewards?

We knew that most people pledge $25, and so we set that as the core product. And then we worked out from there. We wanted to cover a lot, from the smallest amounts to really large amounts. So we added a few limited edition boards for people to select.

How did you get press?

So I had a few contacts from when I met people at conferences. Catan also had some connections at Wired and Mashable.

Most of it was just me telling my story. We never wrote any press releases. Most of the time I just sent tweets. That’s how I got featured by TechCrunch.

Or, I wrote a really short and concise email to give to people who are interested. Somehow the Mashable article was one of the longest articles ever written by Mashable. They interviewed us, and that article trended for quite a few days.

Most of this was simply being authentic.

Let’s move on to your product. Why did you produce everything in California?

We really didn’t want to compromise on the product. Say we go to China for a mold. We may save something like 30% in expenses. But in order to make sure that everything goes well and the quality is great, there has to be a lot of communication and a lot of management. In a worst case scenario, I have to go over there, and that travel just eats away all my savings.

Just to give you a sense of how close everything is: My office is the plastics shop. Literally one block down the road is where the molds are manufactured. Twenty miles away is our wooden-boards manufacturer. If anything happens, I can just bike down to solve any problems. It’s local, and it feels good to support the local community. We can’t really quantify that, but it’s meaningful, and I want to run a company that I enjoy running.

What was your largest expense?

The largest single expense was the mold. The wooden boards were pretty expensive too. Fulfilment, especially shipping was really significant. Mostly it’s the molds and the shipping.

Was there a surprise expense for your product?

Oh yes. Shipping was huge and unexpected. Whenever someone asks me about crowdfunding, I advise them to figure out shipping. Not just shipping in the States; shipping everywhere.

We were astonished at shipping, and spent about a whole month negotiating with UPS and FedEx. We were shipping thousands of units, but we still only managed to get a discount after a long time.

It’s so important to calculate. One of our aluminum boards cost about $300 to ship to Singapore. And the pledge was something like $285.

We also assigned 2X multiples to our parts costs, i.e. doubling our estimates of what we think it would cost. And that still wasn’t quite enough. And so again we recommend that you figure out all your costs.

Was there something about the campaign that surprised you?

I was actually a little surprised by how little contact we had with Kickstarter. Once we got approved, I don’t think we communicated at all during or after the campaign. Maybe Kickstarter just wants to support the creative projects, but I didn’t communicate with Kickstarter at all. It was still nice to make Staff Picks for a week.

What was your engagement strategy with your supporters?

One thing I did was pretty cool: I livestreamed the design process. So I put a camera over the process so that people can give live feedback. And we actually changed one of our pledges after someone proposed a really fantastic idea!

You have 12 pages of updates. Why did you update so frequently?

There’s two benefits. First, it reminds people that this is still going on. Second, and more importantly, it establishes trust. And that’s really important because we were a bit late, but our supporters were still behind us.

How did you transition from a campaign to a business? What have you done for durability?

We knew early on that we wanted to sell online. We’ve done several things: Fulfilment goes directly from factories to customers. We also use Shipwire to fulfill. That’s made things a lot easier to operate.

We’re also building other product lines, like accessories and other boards. People want to see these things. We want to build all the game requirements that a Catan gamer would need. We want to provide a product for every part of the gaming experience.

Even though you haven’t studied industrial design formally, you did it all yourself. What are some of the resources you consulted?

Again, if I can do it then anyone can do it. But there are a few important things.

There’s a site called DigitalTutors.com that offers absolutely fantastic tutorials on product design, industrial design, you name it. I spent a whole day learning Illustrator. Learning the software is key.

Rhino 3D is great for 3D modeling. Google Sketchup is okay, though not very powerful. KeyShot is really great. It’s super easy, and makes the best renderings of your products.

And what did you read to understand crowdfunding?

I think that most of what you read online is pretty basic. I never really read much that was helpful.

But I did do research. I went to each of the categories and sorted by “Top Funded.” And then basically I went and looked at all the most successful projects and try to find common themes.

One really striking thing I noticed was that there was a direct correlation between the length of the Kickstarter page and the amount of funding. So we put up a lot of content, while trying to stay very substantial. Give people a lot to latch on to.

We just wanted to be authentic. We saw a lot of people that try to act folksy, but you can tell that there’s a whole team of people behind them.

What are some final, specific pieces of advice you have for people to make their campaign a success?

Honestly, you need to price the shipping properly. It’s super important!

Also, when you close, you should get a good accountant. Getting a good accountant is really key. Try to find one with startup experience. Our accountant has saved us so much money.

Finally, if you do stretch goals, plan and really calculate whether it makes sense to add them. Don’t do them on a whim.

Next chapter

18. Case Study: Hickies

6 min

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