Sunday, March 3, 2013

Schlock Mercenary The Great Challenge Coin Kickstarter!



Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am extremely delighted to be bringing you the one and only Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary fame to talk about various topics; not the least of which is his latest highly successful Kickstarter Project the Schlock Mercenary Challenge Coins.  Thank you for joining us today Howard.

Infamy, James. Not fame. But thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Lets start off by saying, “Congratulations”  you blew through your original goal of $1800 in like five minutes of launching!?!  How flabbergasting is it to do 3,670% of your original target?  

Pretty flabbergasting. Also, exhilarating, terrifying, and gobsmacking. I think we passed the $1800 mark within a minute, and unlocked the $3500 design within three minutes.


That’s pretty crazy! Now this isn’t the first time Schlock Mercenary has graced the pages of Kickstarter.  The Schlock Mercenary The Board Game performed quite well as I recall.  How involved were you in that campaign?  

I plugged it pretty hard, but I wasn’t involved in any of the page updates.

Did you learn anything from that one that you brought to the Challenge Coin campaign?

Lots! First and foremost, I used both a cover image and a video so the video still didn’t become the face of the project. Secondly, I made sure that I knew the whole over-funding plan (I did not know what we were going to try to unlock for the board game.) Sure, this time around I was surprised at how quickly we overfunded, but I know the path now.


Could you explain to the readers what a challenge coin is and why you decided to create them for Schlock Mercenary?

Let's drop the word "challenge" for just a moment and simplify the discussion. Many military units mint coins, non-negotiable, as commemorative souvenirs for those who serve. Ultimately, it's a shiny thing that says "thank you," or perhaps "we can't believe you agreed to this." They get traded, sold, dropped, lost, flipped, and on very rare occasion used as ammo. Anybody can own one, and anybody can mint one. It follows, of course, that mercenary units in the 31st century would have them, which naturally means Tagon's Toughs would have them.

This in turn means that the moment I introduce them into the story, fans will want one. Mercenary cartoonist that I am, I decided to oblige.

Now, back to that word "challenge." In some organizations, unit members might challenge one another to produce their coins. Fail, and you're buying the next round of drinks, or performing some other task. Sometimes special coins, awarded by ranking officers, are produced, and the bearer of the highest-ranking coin drinks free.



Why do you think the challenge coins are so popular?  Did you know that they are used beyond the US Military? (I have two from NASA)

Let’s define “popular” for a moment. Is a thing popular if less than 1% of the target audience wants it? Because with 150,000 Schlock Mercenary readers and 1,200 project backers, I don’t think this qualifies. Certainly these have become coveted items among those who want them, but they’re going to remain quite rare.

That may be part of the appeal. There are 6,000 copies of “Under New Management” out there in the hands of readers, but only 1,000 Series 1 Tagon’s Toughs coins. These are a mark of the hardcore fan. Yes, I’ll be carrying MY Tagon’s Toughs coin everywhere, especially at conventions, because I don’t want to end up buying the drinks.

Another part of the appeal may be that (at least to my knowledge) no webcomic has minted challenge coins before. This is new territory for a lot of people.

Finally, people who have been issued challenge coins as part of their military service look at this differently from the average fan. This really is special to them, and I’m doing what I can to uphold that tradition, broaden its appeal, and elevate it into the public eye a bit.

One of the problems of super successful Kickstarters like yours is that they are “Victims of their own success.”  As I wrote about earlier stretch goals often cause projects to be late or to mess up their budgets.  I’ve noticed several good things in your project updates that show you realize this and are reacting quickly to try and prevent these problems, would you mind sharing what you’re doing and why?  

The biggest trap for overfunders is what I call “scope drift.” When you’ve suddenly got the budget to build something bigger than what you originally planned, you might start building it not just bigger, but into something completely different. In planning this project I locked down a few things, and the first of those was “coins only.” We’re not doing coin boxes, coin cabinets, or t-shirts with the coin designs. We’re doing coins. In this way we stay within the original scope and prevent complicating things.

We also locked in some numbers. I chose Kickstarter for this project because challenge coins do not scale well for profitability beyond the first 500. The mold and design fees are only a few hundred dollars, and the per-coin cost drops sharply when you make 500 coins as opposed to 100, but making 1,000 coins only shaves a few cents more off of each coin. Making 2,000 shaves even less.

This means that if a ten thousand people want coins, my profit margin is almost exactly the same as if one thousand people want coins, unless I decide to throw the project scope out the window and buy a coin minting system and cut out the middleman (who, in this case, is the team with all the expertise I currently lack.)

This in turn means that I can’t afford to add free coins to the stretch goals. The $60 “club” price-points are profitable for me, but only if we ship seven or less coins at that price.

The front of the 7-23 tool -- this design is not yet complete...
It is good to see you actively telling people to hold up and wait for more reveals before pledging, it is something I don’t see often in Kickstarter and it reflects well on your personal character.  Why do you feel people should wait to see the actual designs of the next coins before pledging more?  

This seems eminently logical to me, so much so that I can’t believe people are surprised. When Reaper ran their “Bones” Kickstarter, almost every one of the unlocks was accompanied by a picture of the Bones miniature being unlocked. A few still hadn’t been sculpted, but the concept art was there. If they’d only shown us concept art, their Kickstarter would not have overfunded as far.

As of this writing there are two coin images up, but eight coins have been unlocked. People have only seen 25% of what they’re buying. That doesn’t seem fair to me.


How did you discover Kickstarter?

Dave Kellet’s Stripped documentary was the first project to bring Kickstarter to my personal awareness, and that was because I’m in the film. Sadly, I’ll probably have delivered on TWO Kickstarter projects before his film sees distribution, but then again, he’s making something huge and complicated, and I’m just trying to print my own money.



Black or white? 1 or 2? OOH-RAH or Uh-oh? You flip!
Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

1) Bring an audience with you. Don’t expect Kickstarter to deliver your audience. All they do is broker the transactions. The Staff picks, hot list, etc may look like a good way to get exposure, but none of those are why my previous projects funded.

2) Know your numbers cold. Plan to lose 10% off the top for credit card processing, Amazon’s 5%, and dropped charges. Know what postage will cost you. Make sure you’re not losing money at your funding mark, and don’t overcommit when you make stretch goals.

3) Lock in your scope. Don’t drift just because the project is popular. Don’t be afraid to say “that’s it -- you’ve funded it, this is what we’re making.” Don’t let your backers convince you that this is a race to be the best-funded project in your field, because it’s not. That race ends only in ruin.

4) Listen to “Funding the Dream,” a podcast for Kickstarters.



Moving beyond the Kickstarter and to Schlock Mercenary itself, did you think back in June 12, 2000 when you started that you could possibly still be doing this in 2013?  That you could be entertaining thousands of fans for over a decade?  

I always assumed I’d be doing this until I was sixty. My ten-year plan had me quitting my day job in 2010. I accelerated that a bit. Being full-time at this in 2013 doesn’t surprise me at all. What surprises me is six Hugo award nominations, my participation in Writing Excuses, and the opportunities I’ve had to write things that have no pictures. I didn’t anticipate any of that.


How much is Sergeant Schlock an avatar of yourself?   Especially in scenes like the above image (which I can’t wait for it to be a T-shirt!)?  

All of the characters in Schlock Mercenary have at least a piece of my voice in them. This poster grew out of a sentiment I didn’t know I shared with the Sergeant until he started complaining about being trapped in retirement on an orbital city near the Galactic Core. He has BEEN to other star systems. A lot! And he still wants more.

Me, I’ve traveled to four of the seven continents, but I’ve only seen teeny-tiny slices of each of them. Even my home nation remains largely unexplored by me. The stars? Out of reach, and yes, that saddens me a bit.

Schlock Mercenary has quite the diverse fanbase!  From members of the military and the space communities, to comic and movie lovers, and everyone in between there seems to be something for everyone in the comic.  What is it about Schlock that you think resonates across such a wide spectrum?  

Honestly, I think it’s because I’m writing the comic I want to read, and there are a lot of people out there who share my tastes. I like the military traditions and respect those in our armed forces, I love science fiction, and I dig a corny action movie. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks this way.

With such a large and well established fan base what has caused you to start winding down?  You announced a while back that there is in fact an end planned for Schlock Mercenary and the current arc seems to be building to a farewell as well, what gives?  

Two things: First? My hand won’t last forever, and neither will I. This story needs closure while I can still put it there myself. Second, I think that closure is important. I think the story will be better for having an ending.

Note, however, that “the end” is not going to mean “the end of updates at schlockmercenary.com” nor even “the end of stories featuring Sergeant Schlock.” There will be a clear break between what I’m doing now and what comes next, but the site will still have fresh stories.

Schlock Mercenary Challenge Coins -- Kicktraq Mini 


When I first heard the announcement I congratulated you on having a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It seems rare in today's never ending saga in entertainment.  Still it does beg the question, what’s next for the great Howard Tayler?  

My handlers tell me it’s time to switch identities again... Maybe I’ll become a novelist.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

If you want to write, draw, or otherwise make art for a living, do that thing every day. Don’t wait for a publication contract. Don’t be a once-weekly hobbyist waiting for a big break. Do it daily, do it well, and make sure you love it.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from you in the future!