A remarkable Empire of One business
Rich Burlew created the first The Order of the Stick, a hilarious webcomic that celebrates and satirizes tabletop role-playing games and medieval fantasy, on September 29, 2003. The strip was originally produced to entertain people who came to his website for gaming articles, but it quickly became the most popular feature, leading Burlew to eventually abandon writing articles almost entirely.
The entire comic strip is drawn with simple stick characters, hence the name.
On September 30, 2005, The Order of the Stick began appearing in Dragon, the long-running official D&D magazine, and the strip became profitable enough for him to quit his job as a freelance graphic designer and concentrate on cartooning.
Rich also started self-publishing his comics in book form in 2005, but it became hard for him to keep all of the older books in stock. So in 2012 he decided to do a Kickstarter project with a goal of $57,750. Instead, he raised $1,254,120 from 14,952 backers…
Most people think of Kickstarter as a crowdfunding platform, but it’s really a fast marketing tool for preselling product.
The reason Rich’s Empire of One business was so successful was because he had already established a huge following.
“It’s really tough to be exact with this,” Burlew says about the size of his audience, “but my best estimate is around 650,000 dedicated readers who check out every comic as soon as it updates, and as many as another million casual readers who check it out once every month or two.”
The rule of thumb for converting readers of a freely distributed online property into paying customers is 1%. A range of 650,000 dedicated readers to 1.65M combined casual and dedicated readers would yield an expectation of 6,500 to 16,500 people participating in the campaign. The
Kickstarter campaign had 14,952 people contributing to it, so it’s likely Burlew converted somewhere between 1-2% of his monthly audience and then benefited from the wide publicity the project garnered in its later stages.
Much of what happened with this Kickstarter project, while potentially duplicable, should not be taken for granted. The first step was nine years growing an audience that enjoyed the comic and would eventually support it in the form of this campaign. The second step was the series of ongoing updates in the campaign. Each time a goal was reached, a new one was posted and a sales chart illuminated with characters from the comic was posted, along with a new prize for the new goal.
Exactly how much time was put into the Kickstarter campaign?
“All of it,” explains Burlew.“No, seriously, ALL of my time since it started on January 22 was devoted to this or basic biological needs, especially if you consider my regular comic strip updates to be a form of advanced promotion for the products (which I always have). In fact, as the drive ended, I hadn’t slept in 30 hours, and I spent 14 of those answering emails. So, not for the faint of heart.”
The majority of the proceeds from the project will go towards fulfilling the orders, the massive shipping bill and paying taxes. (Kickstarter proceeds are considered taxable income.) At this point, Burlew anticipates printing 11,000 copies for each of four full-color volumes and 15,000 copies of two black and white volumes for ongoing inventory. All together, he plans to print somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000-110,000 books, plus games and stickers.
And he did this all as a one-person Empire of One business.