Table of Contents:
- Chris Gethard on throwing out the rules for his late night talk show
- The moment Elan Lee decided to resign from Microsoft
- Exploding Kittens: The origin story
- How Elan and Matthew launched one of the most-backed Kickstarter projects of all time
- Fulfilling 700,000 orders of Exploding Kittens in 6 months
- How Exploding Kittens made it to major retail stores
- How Exploding Kittens, Inc. turned their customers into testers
- How Elan Lee and his daughter co-create together
Find co-creators everywhere
Chris Gethard on throwing out the rules for his late night talk show
REID HOFFMAN: It is the summer of 2011 in New York City. After a long day at work, you switch on the TV, ready to unwind and gently fall asleep in front of Bob Ross painting his happy little clouds. You grab the remote and begin to flip through the channels… until a scene catches your eye.
THE CHRIS GETHARD SHOW: …1..2..3…4. [kazoo] Come take a ride with the weirdest guy I know. It’s Wednesday night.
HOFFMAN: On the screen, you see a room with bare white walls. About a dozen people are in the frame, including someone in full KISS-style makeup, and a shirtless hairy man dawning swimming goggles. You begin to wonder if this is a fever dream. Behind them, there’s something that looks like a white king-sized bedsheet. There are four words spray painted on in black.
THE CHRIS GETHARD SHOW: (sung) The Chris Gethard Show!
HOFFMAN: A guy with red hair and thick black glasses walks onto the screen.
THE CHRIS GETHARD SHOW: I wanna thank everybody for being here and welcome to the debut episode of the Chris Gethard Show. It’s going to be a mess. It should be a mess.
HOFFMAN: Created at the now legendary comedy theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Chris Gethard show is a variety show-meets-talk show-meets utter–
CHRIS GETHARD: …chaos. You don’t see chaos on TV. The overall premise of the Gethard Show was, imagine a talk show where the host is not in control, where no one totally respects the host’s authority. And they just dialed that up.
THE CHRIS GETHARD SHOW: Time to battle. It’s your man Vacation Jason. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there tonight. I’m on the beach right now. I’m eating a plum.
HOFFMAN: The show featured a rotating roster of improvisers and oddballs from the alt comedy scene to co-create segments each week.
THE CHRIS GETHARD SHOW: This is Meowgic Matt, the magician for cats. Ladies and gentlemen, the human fish. [applause]
HOFFMAN: The Chris Gethard Show cultivated a dedicated and loyal community. Some disciples even called themselves “Getheads.” And it wasn’t just entertainment. They were engaged in the actual making of the show.
GETHARD: Every week, I’d be there lugging whatever props we had. Fans of the show who were showing up would be getting off the subway and they’d pass me. And they’d go, “Let me carry some stuff.” I’d walk in with the fans of the show and the people volunteering would set up the set and I’d be there doing it with them hands-on.
HOFFMAN: The show is picked up by nationwide cable networks, Fusion and truTV, where it ran until 2018, almost a decade since it first launched. Despite his name being in the title of the show, Chris knew that he couldn’t take all of the credit for its success.
GETHARD: The least important thing about The Chris Gethard Show was The Chris Gethard Show. The far more important thing was all the people who came to find it and participate in it, both intimately and from afar. There were dozens of people who made the show what it was. I think that that show somehow taught us, we can carve out a little bubble where other people’s rules don’t matter and we can actually feel okay for one hour a week.
HOFFMAN: What made The Chris Gethard Show so special was how Chris included the community. Believe it or not, there’s a lot for entrepreneurs to learn from this anarchic comedy show. In the business world, we often neglect the importance of community. By opening the doors to allow others to influence your product, you’re transforming the casual consumer, colleague or partner into a dedicated stakeholder.
I believe that you must strategically ease control of your product and let people who show genuine enthusiasm, become your co-creator.
Imagine you’re invited to a friend’s party. They have the perfect home for hosting. There’s a big swimming pool, a state-of-the-art sound system, and Michelin-Star canapes. The only problem is, the host wants to control all of the fun. If someone tries to cue up a song on the playlist, the host slaps their hand away. If you try to strike up a conversation with a fellow guest, the host is quick to muscle in and take over the conversation. Despite the perfect setting, the host’s control freakery means that people soon start making their excuses and heading home early.
Now imagine a party at the same setting, but with a different host, a host who understands how to make each person feel like the valued life of the party, rather than an uncooperative accessory. This host lets people connect organically. Conversation flows freely. Anyone at the party can add to the music playlist. Soon, new friendships blossom, laughter fills the house and spontaneous karaoke sessions spring up. Everyone feels at home, at ease, and has an impact on the festivities. It’s a party that everyone will be talking about for months. When you’re creating a product or service, you want to be like the host with the most. Your job is to prime the party atmosphere around your product and make everyone feel a sense of co-ownership. If you do it well, you’ll create a groundswell of enthusiasm around your product and a flood of ideas from your impassioned fan base.
That’s why I wanted to speak to Elan Lee. As the co-founder and CEO of Exploding Kittens Inc., Elan scaled a single tabletop game into a prolific 90-person company under the same name. The game, Exploding Kittens, has been translated into 25 languages and sold in over 50 countries. Soon, the game’s characters will even grace the screen for a Netflix TV adaptation. Elan and his team have also created dozens of other games including Throw, Throw, Burrito and Bears versus Babies. Altogether, they sold over 65 million units worldwide. Elan redefined and reshaped what it means to be a co-creator by finding creative partners in unexpected quarters, transforming audiences into stakeholders, and empowering teammates to make their mark on every project. Prior to Exploding Kittens, Elan was the chief design officer at Xbox. There, he was a pioneer in the alternate reality genre, immersing players in the worlds of accompanying IP, like Steven Spielberg’s movie, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Halo 2, or the music of Nine Inch Nails. When we sat down together, he recalled a particular visit to see his brother’s family in 2014.
The moment Elan Lee decided to resign from Microsoft
LEE: I walked in, so excited to see my niece and nephew. And they’re sitting there in the living room and I say hello, and neither of them even looks at me. They’re playing a video game. They’re staring at the screen, and to add insult to injury, they’re playing a game that I designed.
HOFFMAN: He had dedicated years of his life to this art form, where the goal was to hold players’ attention and transport them from reality. But he hadn’t stopped to think about the flip side of this goal — that it could be driving a wedge between people. This realization threw Elon for a loop.
LEE: I was like, I am absolutely part of the problem here. I have put them in front of a screen. I have said, “Be lonely, even though you’re in a room with other people, right? Feel isolated even though you’re surrounded by family.” What I was doing was, building games where all the focus was on the games instead of the players, and as a result, the players became unimportant and the players became isolated. And I thought, it’s time to do something different. Within two weeks of that experience, I resigned from Microsoft. I could not be a part of that anymore.
HOFFMAN: After Microsoft, Elan decided to move in a different direction.
LEE: I resolved to start a new kind of entertainment company that shone a spotlight on the players, instead. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was going to be, but when we started talking about a card game, immediately, fireworks started going off in my head.
Exploding Kittens: The origin story
HOFFMAN: Elan began brainstorming. He scrawled a hodgepodge of images and symbols on standard playing cards. Eventually, the mechanics for an exciting new game began to emerge.
LEE: It was Russian roulette with a deck of cards. There’s a few bad cards in this deck. Everyone’s going to take turns drawing cards. Don’t draw the bad one, right? That’s the bullet in the gun.
HOFFMAN: The deck of cards soon became dog-eared and scuffed, as Elan dealt himself hand after hand, constantly refining how the game worked. While packing for a vacation to Hawaii, Elan threw the deck into a suitcase. In Hawaii, Elan was introduced to a friend of a friend, a man named Matthew Inman. Elan recognized Matthew instantly. He was the brain behind the massively popular web comic, The Oatmeal. With its crudely drawn illustrations of various animals, mythical creatures and historic figures, The Oatmeal became synonymous for its tongue in cheek how-tos and popularity on sites like Tumblr.
LEE: He said, “Can I see the game that you’re working on?” We played the game together. I was like, “We’re only going to play for 10 minutes, and then let’s go off, and do more important things.” But we played for 10 minutes, and then he said, “Can we play again?” We played for 20 and 30 and an hour went by and two hours went by, and he just kept wanting to play again and again. At the end of it, he said, “Look, this is one of the most fun games I’ve ever played.”
HOFFMAN: Matthew did have one note. Why not add some fun characters and transform the dreaded cards into something unexpectedly cute?
LEE: He’s like, “What if you named it… Exploding Kittens?”
HOFFMAN: Voila. Exploding Kittens was born. Matthew was eager to create the game’s artwork and begin a collaborative relationship. In Matthew, Elan found his principal co-creator. Matthew had the skills to elevate the game, but just as importantly, he had the enthusiasm and commitment to drive the game forward, from a fun idea to a serious kitty infused development. At this early point in development, it’s easy for founders with an original idea to fall into the trap of keeping their cards too close to their chests. They might be reluctant to give up control or equity, or even suspicious that their idea might be derailed or even stolen. So it’s a testament to Elan’s openness to co-creation that he welcomed Matthew on board.
LEE: We shook hands and decided to run off and do this thing together. And then it was like, okay, well, how do we launch this?
HOFFMAN: Elan’s pitch was to raise money for Exploding Kittens on the crowdfunding site, Kickstarter. The beauty of Kickstarter is that co-creation is built into the very fabric of the site, not only monetarily, but also in building an early fan base. As a frequent donor to creative projects on the site, Elan had a strong sense of how the platform functioned. What did you need to launch a Kickstarter campaign? The answer was, not much.
LEE: We had a few sketches in the notebook. We had the Sharpie deck and a desire to put this thing up on Kickstarter as soon as possible, because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, so why not go really fast?
HOFFMAN: No matter how fast Elan was moving, one fear plagued him.
LEE: Am I going to embarrass myself in front of The Oatmeal?
HOFFMAN: In 2010, over 4 million unique visitors visited The Oatmeal every month. While Elan benefited from his collaborators pre existing internet fame, it took Exploding Kittens from a low stakes personal project into something many people would see and judge.
LEE: Matt had huge successes. My successes were really only in a company setting, nothing personal and vulnerable like this. And I was really worried that knowing that Matt was taking a big risk on this thing, is that going to be a disappointment?
HOFFMAN: The fear of judgment is a common disincentive for embracing co-creators, but in many ways, overcoming this fear is key to creating the best product. Judgment doesn’t have to be seen as negative. It just means that someone is holding you accountable. Going into the campaign, Elan kept his expectations low.
How Elan and Matthew launched one of the most-backed Kickstarter projects of all time
LEE: When you set up a Kickstarter page, you have to say how much money you expect to raise within those 30 days. If you do not raise that amount, the campaign is canceled. Whatever money you did raise, all that gets returned, end of story. And so we set our initial level at $10,000, which happened to be the actual minimum we needed for a minimum print run.
HOFFMAN: $10,000 would allow them to print a few hundred copies of the game. To assemble and ship out the games, Elan planned to make it into a fun group activity.
LEE: I’m going to invite all my friends over, buy pizza and beers. We’re all going to stuff cardboard boxes for one weekend and that’ll be the end of it, done, Kickstarter complete! Game out the door. We’ll go off and do other things.
LEE: We hit that goal in seven minutes. By the first day, we had raised a million dollars. By the end of the second day, we had 2 million, and by the end of the third day we had 3 million, and this thing was completely out of control. That was a hundred percent, The Oatmeal. It was Matt talking to his audience that he had built up over so many years saying, “Here it is… the embodiment of what I think is fun.”
INMAN: When all this money had been raised in the first day, I was driving my girlfriend to the airport and I put the Kickstarter up on the web browser in the Tesla. I was so excited. I’m just like, “Oh my God, kittens and fire and money. Oh, this is amazing.” And she was like, “Are you high? No, no. I got this cats in the card game and, acting like a moron, driving my stupid car with my stupid touchscreen, making a stupid card game.
HOFFMAN: While Matthew celebrated, as the person in charge of production, Elan felt differently.
LEE: I’m watching that thing go from 20,000 to 50,000 to 100,000, and I am losing my mind, because every one of those backers… I’ve got to figure out how to get a game to their front door. And I had no idea how, literally no idea how. It got so scary for me that I eventually would take little sticky notes and put them on my screen, so that I just couldn’t see that number.
HOFFMAN: However terrified, Elan marched ahead and continued to improve the campaign. He knew that what meant more than scaling their funding, was scaling the immense pool of eager co-creators.
HOFFMAN: There’s a lot of projects on Kickstarter, only a small number of them get to the altitudes that you got to. What was the strategy? What was the learnings of it?
LEE: This is crowdfunding, right? All the projects you’ve ever seen in your life, focus on that funding part and they ignore the crowd part. My premise was, let’s flip that. Let’s only focus on the crowd. No more funding. None of the goals of this campaign are going to be focused on money of any kind.
HOFFMAN: Many campaigns at the time overlook the platform’s ability to cultivate a community of co-creators. Kickstarter campaigns use what are known as stretch goals. If a project is looking to raise $10,000, they’d say, but if we raise $20,000, we’ll send you a hoodie, or if we raise $100,000, we’ll add in all of these extra features into the game. Elan decided to take the road less traveled.
LEE: Our stretch goals were not based on currency. We said, “show us funny stuff.” One of the characters in our game is called Taco Cat. We said, show us 20 pictures of a real Taco Cat and we will add 10 cards to the game. And they did it. They showed us these incredible pictures, right? They dressed up their cats with lettuce and tomatoes and rolled them in tortilla shells and the whole thing. But we said, okay, cool, show us 10 Batmans in one hot tub. I don’t know. That sounds funny. Anybody got that? Sure enough, a day later, there’s that picture. We asked them to make videos. We asked them to write poetry. We basically said, look, we’re throwing a party. Everybody’s invited.
HOFFMAN: One example I particularly enjoyed, if the community succeeded in the creative challenge, the Exploding Kittens team promised to evolve the game’s packaging and insert this sound every time you remove the lid.
HOFFMAN: Fun side note to fans of the game, the meow sound is in fact the voice of Elan’s wife, Ramona. This campaign sure realized his vision of human connectivity. Whenever Elan received photos, videos, or poems, he posted them in the game’s regular newsletter saying, “look at what you all created.”
LEE: We would just post the pictures over and over again, because again, we’re trying to point back at them. This whole campaign is just a mirror for the crowd, of the crowd.
HOFFMAN: That online party ran for 30 days. Matthew believes that this community-driven dynamic is what separated Exploding Kittens from other campaigns.
INMAN: I think what it really did, was it turned something, an experience that was transactional, buying and receiving a good, into something fun that you’re involved with. Rather than give me 20 bucks and I’ll send you a card game in a couple months… instead it was 20 bucks, let’s hang out and do goofy stuff together.
HOFFMAN: Through the backers, Elan and Matthew established a new kind of co-creator relationship. By creating a feedback loop for the community to take action and be creative themselves, they were having a direct impact on the product evolving and scaling. They were also energized by the chance to co-create a social phenomena, and therefore, when the product hit the shelves, they would feel a far deeper connection to the product’s success.
LEE: 700,000 copies of the game sold in 30 days, and that is truly, just unprecedented in the industry. We now have 700,000 promises to keep.
HOFFMAN: Before you can launch a Kickstarter campaign, you must cite an estimated delivery date when backers can expect to receive their order. While it’s only an estimate, backers are infamous for holding creators accountable to this target date.
LEE: At day one of the campaign, we promised we’re going to ship this game in six months. And we made that promise thinking, 400 units, that’s fine. By the end of the campaign, basically everyone told us the same thing, like 700,000 orders, you cannot make that date, there’s just not enough time. And it was really important to us to do it.
HOFFMAN: Elan and Matthew didn’t want to let their community down. To fulfill an order of this size, they knew that a weekend of beer, pizza and stuffing boxes just wasn’t going to cut it.
LEE: It was very clear… we’re going to have to deploy a lot of the solutions that giant companies like Hasbro and Mattel end up deploying in order to fulfill this many orders. It was like that scene in Jaws, where they see the shark for the first time, and he backs up into the boat, and he basically says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” It was that degree of terror.
HOFFMAN: To hear if Elan can conquer one of the biggest Kickstarter orders of all time — with all of his limbs intact — stay tuned until after the break.
We’re back with Elan Lee. To see exclusive clips from my interview with Elan, head to the Masters Scale YouTube channel. You’ll hear how Elan is using AI every day to streamline his creative process.
Fulfilling 700,000 orders of Exploding Kittens in 6 months
Before the break, we heard how Elan and artist Matthew Inman created the tabletop game, Exploding Kittens. The project became one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns of all time, engaging the games community to create their own social content and spark new additions to the product. Now, though, we rejoin Elan in the midst of a crisis. He’s tasked with fulfilling 700,000 orders of Exploding Kittens in six months. However, Elan’s fear went beyond an expected missed delivery date.
LEE: I think what was at stake at that moment was our initial reputation as a provider of games.
HOFFMAN: The danger of inviting in co-creators is that you are obliged to them. Once you’ve gotten them fully on board to your idea, you can’t leave them hanging. Elan found himself with a mountain to climb.
LEE: We had to figure out where to get cardboard from. We had to hire giant ships to move this thing across the water. We had to then rent out warehouses. We had to figure out trucks and rentals and postage and getting all these things everywhere. Holy crap, that’s a lot of work.
HOFFMAN: Overwhelmed, Elan reached out to Carly McGinnis, his old assistant from his time at Xbox. While she, too, didn’t have experience in mass production, she was organized and driven — exactly what Elan needed to tackle this challenge.
CARLY MCGINNIS: He has the vision and the ideas. The details — not so good at.
LEE: I’d see a butterfly floating by and I’m off.
MCGINNIS: So, I balance him very well in the sense that I’m all about the details.
HOFFMAN: During her time at Xbox with Elan, Carly learned how to work best with creatives like him.
MCGINNIS: Often they have brilliant ideas, but just at the last moment possible. And that somehow ends up being the best idea.
HOFFMAN: If you can relate to Carly, she has some advice.
MCGINNIS: What I’ve learned is, pad your deadlines, lie to them and outlining the cost of what it’s going to be if we don’t execute by this date.
HOFFMAN: While I wouldn’t endorse lying to your collaborators, creativity and production can certainly be a yin and yang. You need the co-evolution of both, in unison, to progress. Too much focus on production alone can stagnate creativity, but too much creativity in isolation, and the product or project won’t see the light of day. With the 700,000 orders still looming, Elan had little time to spare. He arranged an urgent lunch with Carly to fill her in on his wild adventure.
LEE: I said, look, I got to figure out how to make 700,000 copies of this game. Do you mind helping?
MCGINNIS: I trusted Elan, but I was unsure. Am I going to be able to do this?
HOFFMAN: Not only was this something outside of Carly’s wheelhouse, but she was also still working comfortably at Microsoft. To jump ship and join Elan on this project was a massive risk, but what appealed most to Carly was Elan’s drive to embrace her as a co-creator. From her time as his assistant, she already had a clear sense of their working dynamic.
MCGINNIS: I wanted to voice my opinion and Elan really championed me there. He didn’t micromanage me, he trusted me. Trust is kind of the biggest thing you’re looking for.
HOFFMAN: When you trust the collaborator with a lot of responsibility, you’re opening the door to a true co-creator relationship. This allows for co-creators to emerge throughout any stage of a product’s lifecycle, and not just at the moment of ideation. This organic approach to collaboration demands you sharing the spotlight, but what you gain is agility and diverse expertise. Elan’s trust in Carly to run production won her over. She decided to leave Microsoft and join Exploding Kittens. Bursting with equal parts, anxiety and excitement, Elan showed Carly how to play Exploding Kittens by writing down the instructions.
MCGINNIS: He had written them front and back on an index card. And he gave them to me and I looked at them and I said, I don’t understand this at all. What is this? We’re supposed to learn through this. And I remember thinking, God, we have so far to go.
HOFFMAN: Co-creation isn’t always a show of unconditional support. In this instance, Carly didn’t understand the game whatsoever. She showed Elan that the instructions needed to improve if anyone else were to share in his enthusiasm for the product. Over time, the pair got the rules down to a clear, understandable brief.
LEE: You’ll have a hand of cards. Each one of those cards is going to help you avoid drawing the exploding kitten. So, one of them might let you peek at the top few cards before you draw them. One of them might let you skip your turn. One of them might let you shuffle the whole deck before you draw. Your actual turn consists of playing as many of the cards in your hand as you would like, to alter the deck in your favor. And then, you draw the top card from the draw pile and hope it’s not an exploding kitten. Go around the table, continuing this process. Eventually, everybody is going to draw an exploding kitten except for one player. That player, last person standing, is the winner of the game. That’s it.
HOFFMAN: On the production front, Carly’s first step to developing a strategy was to tap the team’s network.
MCGINNIS: Kickstarter and the tabletop industry are extremely supportive.
LEE: We decided to call everybody we know. I was friends with a few folks at Cards Against Humanity and they have one of the biggest games in the world.
MCGINNIS: We had partnered to learn what they had gone through. They were also a Kickstarter. And they introduced us to a wonderful woman named Shari Spiro, who has a company called Breaking Games.
HOFFMAN: Having been one of the few independent games businesses to successfully fulfill an order of this size, Cards Against Humanity, and their partner, Shari Spiro, were the perfect industry figures to shadow.
MCGINNIS: She said, “Come to me, and I can help you connect with manufacturers in China. I can help you with the freight.” I know Cards Against Humanity has a sister company called Black Box. They are a fulfillment network. They were not quite ready yet to launch this business, and thankfully decided to use us as a guinea pig.
HOFFMAN: Carly saw this as an opportunity for a mutually beneficial co-creator relationship. The lack of experience, however, led to more than a few hiccups.
MCGINNIS: There were tears. We had a cargo ship just lose containers into the ocean. We had a cargo ship catch on fire.
HOFFMAN: Despite these challenges, Carly kept the production process on track. Six months after the Kickstarter campaign ended, and the last photo of a cat dressed as a taco was captured, Elan sent out an update to the game’s 700,000 backers.
LEE: Surprise, everybody gets your order tomorrow. I’m so proud of that, because every night was sleepless. Every night was, work until 3:00 AM, wake up at 8:00 AM the next day and start over. For six months, that’s what we had to do to get those things out the door. And we were on time with every single one of those orders.
HOFFMAN: Elan credits Carly with the ultimate success of the campaign. What he found in Carly was a counterweight co-creator, meaning the skills Elan lacked, Carly possessed, and vice versa. It’s important to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. In the race to scale, you’ll need a diverse skill set that is often impossible to find in one person alone.
Impressed by Carly’s ability to lead through chaos, Elan later made her the president of Exploding Kittens, Inc. With a Kickstarter campaign completed, Elan, Matthew and Carly finally had a moment to process the new state of play.
LEE: This was a success despite ourselves. We really did not understand what we were creating, or what to do with it after we were done sending out all those games.
How Exploding Kittens made it to major retail stores
HOFFMAN: Where in this part of the thing did it become a… “This isn’t just a Kickstarter, a fun creative project?” When does it become a company?
LEE: Yeah. I think step one was retail. Because we knew that all of the supply chain stuff, we could slowly bring in house. That was just a matter of hiring the right people and putting those structures in place. Retail is really tricky. The big ones are Walmart and Amazon and Target. And the way that those companies work is for toys and games, they really only have one buyer. And they only really have time to meet with, like, I don’t know, 10 or a dozen companies. So I thought, if they’re only going to meet with 10 people, how do we become number 11? And that’s tough. They almost never take on new people.
HOFFMAN: Elan met with one of the retail representatives and asked, “What is it going to take for Exploding Kittens to be sold in your stores?”
LEE: They said, “Well, you need a handful of games, and every one of them has to be a bestseller.”
HOFFMAN: Multiple number one hit games? Surely, it’s hard enough creating one. Regardless, Elan accepted this challenge. Before he could go about designing new games to be sold alongside Exploding Kittens, Elan had to decipher what made Exploding Kittens a success in the first place. What was the secret sauce that he could replicate for future success?
LEE: I think the secret is just one line: “We don’t make entertaining games. We make games that make the people you’re playing with, entertaining.”
HOFFMAN: This approach to gaming was inspired by Elan’s childhood, spent playing games with his brothers and sister.
LEE: We’re playing board games every single day. I honestly don’t remember what the games are. What I remember is laughing, throwing things, forming secret alliances and betrayals, the fighting and the comradery. I remember all that bonding. Because the games were just a tool set to make us the entertainment.
HOFFMAN: Elan insisted that all the games he designed, should have this ethos as their underlying principle.
LEE: Every single card is an invitation to have an interaction with another player. Anytime you play a card, you are about to hurt someone to help someone, to form an alliance with someone. You’re about to do that, like it or not because every single card is designed to make the people you’re playing with entertaining.
How Exploding Kittens, Inc. turned their customers into testers
HOFFMAN: With this structure in mind, Elan began to design more games for Exploding Kittens, Inc. Designing a game is a major feat in itself. Iterating on it to create an experience that users want to return to again and again is a whole other thing. The only way these games could become additional number one hits is if they tested through the roof, indicating to Elan that they’re ready for launch. But Elan wasn’t satisfied with the standard process for game testing.
LEE: Traditionally, the way that game testing works is you hire a group, they do these blind tests, everyone sits in a room. There’s the one-way mirror. You watch people play the games. It’s horrible. And I looked at that, trying to figure out, why are these tests so bad? Why are we pouring all this money into it and literally learning nothing? And the reason is because nobody plays games like that. None of that feels natural.
HOFFMAN: Elan believed that the whole industry precedent for game testing was useless. So he decided to try something that few other game companies had.
LEE: We thought, we got all these players from Kickstarter who love our game. They’re all playing it with their friends and family. What if we just wrote to all of them and said, we got more games. We’ll send them to you for free. All we want in return is, film yourself playing the game and send us the film. We just want to see how you play and what worked and what didn’t work.
HOFFMAN: Rather than test the games on strangers, Elan went directly to the people who loved the original Exploding Kittens game. These are testers who would already be excited to influence and co-create games for the business. Elan named this new program the Kitty Test Pilots. Hundreds of families registered to play the games in the comfort of their own home and share their feedback.
LEE: Our games have gotten so good as a result of this. We have figured out how to take six pages of instructions and shrink it down to one page, because these incredible families have helped us, guide us through that process.
HOFFMAN: The testing improvements helped Elan and the team get one step closer to launching a whole batch of vetted games. Not only did the testing environment radically evolve the process, Elan also experimented with how the business sought feedback from the users.
LEE: The industry standard for game testing: You finish testing a game and then you give them a questionnaire. There’s 25 questions on it. Did you like the setup? Did you understand? When you finished playing our games, there’s one question on the whole survey, which is, do you want to play again? That’s it. That’s all I care about. When a game hits 100% yes, we’re going to ship that game.
HOFFMAN: The games that came out of the Kitty Test Pilots included, Throw, Throw, Burrito.
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HOFFMAN: You’ve Got Crabs.
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HOFFMAN: And Bears versus Babies.
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HOFFMAN: President of the company, Carly, was able to form a partnership with Amazon to get these games into an online marketplace. To attract the major retailers, these new games needed to sell like hotcakes on Amazon and through the Exploding Kitten’s website. Thankfully, Elan began to notice a major byproduct of the team’s Kitty Test Pilots.
LEE: When those games go out, those families not only have prototype versions, but they also get the final version. That’s the greatest marketing campaign ever, because they helped make it. They’re the ones that go post to social. They’re the ones that go tell their friends. And they all get to shout, “I helped make this!” They’re the ones who go to stores, and when it’s not in the store, they demand that store starts stocking that particular game.
HOFFMAN: This is a great example of a promotional co-creator. The best case scenario for your business is that you inspire consumers to become stakeholders in the work you do and willingly share and market your products organically. When you create products that have this sort of an impact, you know it’s something special. With each game released, Elan made it impossible for the major retailers not to take notice.
LEE: We produced another game. It immediately shot to number one. We produced the third game. That one shot to number one. And a fourth game, same thing.
HOFFMAN: They’d done it. As impossible as the challenge seemed, to create multiple back-to-back hit games, Elan and his team of co-creators around the country pulled it off.
LEE: Once we got to that point, we now had leverage to go to Walmart and Target and say, add us to your list. And they finally did. Once we had that, we’re in an incredible position to negotiate now.
How Elan Lee and his daughter co-create together
HOFFMAN: Once Exploding Kittens and Elan’s other games hit the shelves of major retailers, success continued year after year. The production structure and testing process that they built over time could now scale and flourish. To date, they’ve sold over 65 million units worldwide. Despite all of Elan’s success, he’s not done reshaping the games industry just yet. His most surprising encounter with a co-creator occurred while laying on his living room floor.
LEE: I have a five-year-old daughter, and right around four, you start buying games for your kids, right? You go out to the store and you buy Candy Land and all the rest of it, and we would play those games and it sucked. It was so miserable. Those games are awful.
HOFFMAN: To someone like Elan, who really knows games, a game like Candy Land can set him on a tirade.
LEE: There’s no skill. There’s no strategy. There’s no decision-making even, right? It’s roll a die, move a piece, roll a die, move a piece. Why am I in this room? There’s no point in me being here.
HOFFMAN: While Elan was losing the will to live, his daughter was having a blast. However, one day, she did notice her father’s irritation.
LEE: She’s like, why aren’t you happy? And I said, well, this game isn’t fun for me. I know it’s fun for you, but it’s really not fun for me. And she looked at me and she simply said, let’s fix it. And my brain exploded.
HOFFMAN: Not only did Elan’s new co-creator show him the potential to take Candy Land apart and recreate it in a new image, but he also sought endless possibilities to build games with his daughter’s unique perspective. This childlike naivete is something entrepreneurs should follow. Children are great at calling up basic failings in the status quo that we as adults can take for granted. “Let’s fix it” should be a rallying cry for entrepreneurs everywhere.
LEE: I started thinking about Pixar, in particular, because Pixar looked at the movie industry and said, movies for kids are no fun for adults, but they could be. What if we made a movie that was equally fun for kids and adults? And I thought, why hasn’t anyone done that for games? Why isn’t this as much fun for me as it is for her?
HOFFMAN: Over the course of a year, Elan and his daughter sat on their dining room table, building worlds and creating innovative games from scratch.
LEE: Every night, we built games together. We started out building some terrible ones, and we had to work through the process of me teaching her what I knew and she teaching me what was really appealing to her and the character design and the mechanics. And we finished four games.
HOFFMAN: The games, I Want My Teeth Back, Hurry Up Chicken Butt!, The Best Worst Ice Cream, and My Parents Might Be Martians, didn’t get any special treatment just because Elan’s daughter created them. They went through the same rigorous testing as all the others.
LEE: They are now in Target, all four of them. We sit down and we play these games, and half the time she beats me, even though I’m not letting her win. They are equally fun for parents and adults. Holy crap. Wow, that was hard to design.
HOFFMAN: Your average co-creator often won’t take the shape of a five-year-old girl, but it’s a great example of how radical collaboration and a willingness to look for co-creators anywhere, can lead to your most extraordinary creations. By expanding the way we typically look for a co-creator, Elan sparked a new era of multi-generational games. And for his daughter, well, she can experience something few five-year-olds ever have.
LEE: She gets to walk down the aisle at Target and look at those games, and her name is on the box. And that’s the greatest thing ever is just, I feel my cheeks flushing. It makes me so happy to think about that.
HOFFMAN: Discovering and onboarding a new co-creator isn’t just a way to bolster your product. It also plays into the most fundamental element of entrepreneurship: relationships. Your relationships live beyond any product or business. The more we lean into human connectivity, the stronger our leadership and ability to connect with consumers and partners. Evaluate your network and see who could potentially be your next co-creator. Maybe start by inviting them over for a game night.
I’m Reid Hoffman. Thanks for listening.