Had you asked Ben Thompson in July 2013 to predict what the final days of his first Kickstarter campaign would be like, it’s a safe bet that hitching a ride on a bus to meet one of the 1,449 people who backed the project would not have factored into the prognostication.
And yet here he is one year later, wedged into a seat on the way to a Starbucks in Belltown, chewing on the reality that while hindsight is typically 20/20, every once in a while it’s a swift kick to the gut.
In a few minutes, he’ll disembark from his articulated coach, catch sight of the guy in question, and, after exchanging awkward pleasantries, press an item just slightly larger than a smart phone into the dude’s palm and be on his way again. It will look a little like a scene out of The Wire, but honestly, Thompson couldn’t give a shit at this point. He just wants to be done with this project that started as a way to capitalize on the popularity of his 10-year-old website, Badass of the Week 1 , but instead turned into a yearlong nightmare that had driven a wedge between Thompson and some of his most loyal fans.
So, deflating as it may be that he’s been reduced to hand delivering his product, he takes some solace from the belief that this deck is one of the last stragglers and that the angry emails and threats of a lawsuit will soon stop. Except once again he’s underestimated fate’s desire to torch his plans, because the project will drag on for another six months. And had Thompson known that at the time—hindsight being what it is—he may very well have hijacked that bus, crashed through the border gate in Blaine, and barreled straight into Canada.
Thompson just wanted to make a deck of cards. More specifically, 52 playing cards (plus wild cards), each adorned with original art depicting one of the most ruthless megalomaniacs from history. He’s something of an expert 2 on the subject: Every week since April 2004, Thompson has researched and written mini biographies on warlords and generals and pirates and samurai for Badass of the Week. In that same time period he’s published three books, all written with a postmodern, fuck-, shit-, and balls-filled literary voice that drips with Red Bull, would make your high school history teacher wince, and turns even the tamest military conflicts from the last 2,000 years into Michael Bay movies. The site, it may or may not surprise you to learn, racks up between one million and two million hits a month.
Yet, despite cornering the market for testosterone-laced commentary on bloodlust through the ages, he didn’t put an ad on the site until just a couple years ago. In fact, he hadn’t done much of anything to cash in on his Internet fiefdom—something that rankled Manny Vega 3 , a graphic artist who designed Thompson’s site and partners with him on a web comic project. “I’ve been trying to get him to do something that would actually make money for a while,” Vega says. “I mean, seriously, he has a whole lot of people on his website, but he doesn’t have a lot of things that make money.”
Vega finally convinced Thompson in spring 2013, after months of hounding, to see if his army of fans would fund a Kickstarter campaign, but they decided together that for their first project they’d keep things simple. There would be no gadget that had to be invented and prototyped and tested and manufactured. No complex board game with plastic pieces to design and injection mold. A deck of playing cards, on the other hand, would just require some art and a printing company to produce it. And it was the perfect product for Thompson’s audience, which he estimates is half active-duty servicemen and servicewomen and half “D&D nerds.” “We thought it would be fun, it would be cool,” he says now. “And I could sell them at comic cons, and I could sell them at a gun show if I had a table there.” Playing cards, they thought, would be easy.
Holy shit is what Thompson and Vega were thinking on August 13, 2013, followed closely by This is amazing and What the hell have we gotten ourselves into? They’d launched the Kickstarter campaign for their Badass: Spades and Grenades—Playing Cards with Balls on July 16 with a modest $10,000 goal and blew past it eight days later. Vega had installed an app on his phone that alerted him every time a new backer contributed to the project, and the buzzing got so incessant at one point that he had to turn it off just to get some sleep. With the project fully funded and 22 days left to go, everything that came next was gravy. And then in mid-August, Matt Inman 4 plugged the campaign.
Even if you’ve never heard of Inman, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with his unapologetically inappropriate (but sometimes oddly touching) web comic The Oatmeal. Since 2009 he’s amassed north of three million Facebook fans who routinely do his bidding, so when, on August 13, he posted
a link to Thompson’s personal site and his Kickstarter—to which Inman had also contributed art for a wild card—they dutifully followed and, in Thompson’s estimation, poured more than $30,000 into the project. By the time it closed two days later, nearly 1,500 people had ponied up $49,003.
That’s when the panic set in. After taking a break to celebrate, Vega says, they regrouped and had their come-to-Jesus moment: “Wait, we have to mail how many fucking decks?” At least initially, the unexpected sales spike wasn’t necessarily a problem. It’s not as if they needed to produce more art; they just had to double the print run. But the pair had already begun to run into issues, like the illustrator who backed out before the campaign even ended. Vega had hired four people, each in charge of the portraits for one suit. But now he had to scramble to find a replacement. “It was harsh.”
Next came the Patton problem. For the image that would grace the box and the back of the cards, Vega had mocked up a twist on the traditional two-headed face card: One half would be a standard king with a sword, while the other would be General George S. Patton, holding aloft the ivory-handled Colt single-action Army revolver that had become his signature weapon. It looked slick, but because U.S. copyright law requires that a person must be dead for 70 years before his or her image can enter the public domain—the general died in December 1945, 68 years earlier—Vega and Thompson needed permission. Which Patton’s estate was happy to grant, but for a price that far exceeded the pair’s budget. Thompson won’t say what the fee was, only that they “just couldn’t swing it.”
And then there was the cigar box snafu: High-level backers would receive a cigar box wrapped with the same art that adorned the card boxes, but as Thompson and Vega entered the production phase, the manufacturer raised his price by $2 per unit. Again, they had to move quickly to find a solution.
Originally the plan was to have the decks and additional items—which included the cigar boxes, uncut sheets of cards suitable for framing, and drink coasters—delivered to backers in time for Christmas. “I assured you that Santa would be making it rain beautiful, full-color representations of Vlad the Impaler down onto your family’s heads even if it meant that I had to personally bust in the front doors of the United States Playing Card Company with an armored car,” Thompson wrote in an update on Kickstarter. But thanks to the delays, the files didn’t even make it to the printer until after the new year. And the cards themselves didn’t reach Thompson until the end of February. Which is when everything went sideways.
It’s not unusual for a Kickstarter campaign to stumble along the way. After all, at least in most cases we’re talking about first-time entrepreneurs. “There are two categories of failure,” says Andy Lundell, the author of Kick Failure, a two-year-old blog that tracks—and mocks—bungled projects. “There are the projects that don’t get their funding, and the projects that do get the funding but it all goes to hell.” Kickstarter is littered with the former. Since 2009, the site has hosted more than 195,000 projects, but only about 76,000 of them have met their funding goal. And it’s hard to say exactly how many of those actually delivered a product that made everyone happy.
Take the saga of Clang for example. Sci-fi novelist and Seattle resident Neal Stephenson attracted a lot of attention, not to mention half a million dollars, when he launched a campaign in 2012 to develop a historically accurate sword-fighting video game. Less than a year later his team had a demo ready for download. And then…nothing. After several aborted attempts to find additional financing and move the project forward, Stephenson was forced to admit defeat in September 2014. “I’ve decided it’s cleaner and simpler to cut the cord,” he wrote in an update on the site. “I’m sorry we were unable to advance [the project] beyond the phase that you funded.”
Point is, no campaign is too big to fail. And in the case of many of those that do, it’s not for lack of trying. “People don’t always anticipate all of the costs or risks,” Lundell says. “They’re so optimistic and thankful that they get to do their project that they forget to treat it like a business—and they forget to nail down the boring details.”
Thompson was at home in Northgate last winter when his apartment intercom buzzed. “Hey,” a voice said when Thompson answered it. “I’m here with a delivery for you.” Oh cool, just bring it up. I’ll buzz you in. “No, no” the voice responded with a hint of exasperation. “I delivered a pallet with a forklift, and I’ve loaded it into your parking garage.”
The Kickstarter campaign may have had 1,500 backers, but a good number wanted more than one deck. In fact, several e-tailers had ordered them by the dozens, pushing the total number of decks purchased to 3,000. And 2,500 was the minimum print run, so when Thompson walked downstairs to meet the delivery man, he came face-to-face with 5,000 decks of cards 5 . “You really don’t know how many that is until you see them,” he says now.
There is no Kickstarter fulfillment service or distribution center. Which means that Thompson had to package, label, and ship all of that product to people who were once his fans and now his customers. And the weight of that reality was crushing. It didn’t help that he was also working full time and in the midst of writing not one, but three books 6 . “I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he says 7 . “I got anxious every time I came home and saw that shit sitting there.”
Further complicating matters: On March 1, 2014, Thompson learned that his rent would increase 20 percent one month later. Which might not have been the end of the world if his wife of just eight months hadn’t suffered an unexpected illness, been hospitalized, and lost her job. So they packed up their belongings—and 26 cases of playing cards—and moved to Shoreline.
The cards, which were four months late at this point, still had to go out, though. So with the help of his mom, his new wife, and her eight-year-old daughter 8 , Thompson stuffed decks into envelopes, rolled uncut sheets of cards into shipping tubes, and mummified cigar boxes with bubble wrap. (Handbooks with expanded Badass bios 9 that were add-ons for high-level backers were mailed to the wrong address three times before Thompson finally got them and could include them in the packages.) By the end of April everything was ready to ship, and after getting some nasty side eye for thinking he could back up a U-Haul filled with thousands of boxes to the post office and expect the employees inside to weigh and affix postage to all of them, he hired a bulk shipping company. Which was Thompson’s biggest mistake.
Unbeknownst to him, the company—which he doesn’t name, in part because he’s still fighting with it over the bill—sat on some packages for weeks until it had enough mail for a particular region to justify sending a large shipment. That meant backers in, say, Chicago were getting their cards while others in, say, Portland were still waiting. Meanwhile, every single international order—which accounted for nearly half of Thompson’s customers, many of them active-duty military—was returned to sender because the company failed to slap on the customs forms that Thompson had filled out by hand. Decks were sent to the wrong address or damaged in transit. Backers moved without informing Thompson and Vega, and their packages weren’t forwarded. The situation got so bad that the pair switched to a different, pricier shipping company in late summer just to try to be done with the project. And yes, in some cases, Thompson delivered decks by hand to people in Seattle. “It was like, ‘Look, meet me here. I have the stuff,’ ” he says. “It was like a drug deal.” 10
Thompson takes all of the blame and, remarkably, has a good sense of humor about the whole ordeal. He even laughs and rolls his eyes when he reveals that it wasn’t until the shipping stage that his mom, of all people, realized that none of the products he and Vega dreamed up bear his name. “She was like, ‘Where’s your name on all of this?’ And I was like, ‘It’s in here. Oh. It’s not here. Shit.’ ”
He learned a lot, though 11 , not least of which was how much it stings to disappoint the people who’d supported you. “I’ve never been late on deadlines for a book, and I’ve never missed a week on the website,” he says. “So to be a year late getting some of these people their stuff hurts my OCD and my obsessive, type A thing that I have going on. It’s a constant underlying anxiety every time you see anything associated with it. You feel defeated, but at the same time you just can’t be defeated.”
As of early December—one year after the Spades and Grenades decks were supposed to ship—Thompson and Vega were still sending out a handful of packages to replace those that had either been lost or never mailed to begin with. In one of the pair’s earliest updates to their backers, sometime after the project was fully funded but before it spiraled out of control, they hinted very strongly at the possibility of launching another Kickstarter campaign once they’d put the first one to bed. When I brought it up to Thompson, though, he seemed gun shy. Vega had been emailing him ideas, he said, but he wasn’t responding to them. The only thing he seemed sure about was that if they did this again, he’d be handing off fulfillment and shipping to a third party. “We’re not getting a damn thing sent to my house,” he said, laughing. “I’m washing my hands of anything that involves me handling the merchandise and shipping it out.”
But then a couple weeks before this story was going to print, I got a late-night email from Vega: They were putting the finishing touches on Epic Badass Legends, a board game that combines roleplaying and Dungeons and Dragons–style strategy with good old fashioned luck of the draw. The Kickstarter campaign, he said, would launch sometime in late winter, but most important, the process would be much smoother for everyone involved. “I hope that I am OVERthinking this campaign,” Vega wrote. “We are hyperaware that we don’t want to make the same mistakes again.”
To paraphrase King Henry V: Once more unto the breach, you crazy sons of bitches.
- The site was born out of the soul-crushing boredom Thompson endured in the classics department at Boston University in 2004. There were no summer classes, but he was a full-time employee and had to show up nonetheless. So to fill the hours he began writing over-the-top bios of historical leaders he’d read about in his spare time, with no expectation that anyone other than his friends and family would read them. “This was ’04, so Facebook wasn’t around,” he says. “So there wasn’t even a place where you could post funny things and have your friends read them.” ↩
Thompson grew up in Florida surrounded by instruments of death. His father, who spends his days now as a Civil War reenactor, used to trawl flea markets for antique weaponry—everything from Zulu spears to British cavalry sabers. That Thompson was allowed to play with them—“As long as I was careful!”—no doubt fueled his current interest in ancient, gory deaths. “It was a crazy house.” ↩
Vega was working for a video game company in LA when a friend introduced him to Thompson’s first book. Not only did Vega dig it, he had ideas for expanding Thompson’s empire. “So I sent him an email: ‘Dude, I really liked your book. … I’d like to talk about making some kind of game for this.” Thompson shocked him by writing back, and, though the game never materialized, they’ve worked together ever since. ↩
Matt Inman crowdfunded an effort to save Nikola Tesla’s New York laboratory from being demolished in 2012—which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t read about Tesla on Thompson’s site. After he cited Badass of the Week in a subsequent Oatmeal comic, “Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived,” the two became drinking buddies, along with Matt Harding of the Where the Hell Is Matt? YouTube series. “It was funny,” Inman says. “We had these three sort of Internet pseudocelebrities hanging out.” ↩
The sight was especially intimidating in light of his other projects. He’s going after the middle school demo with a series of (age appropriate!) books called Guts and Glory. When we met in December, he’d just submitted the first draft of one on World War II and was proofreading another on vikings. Between that and maintaining Badass of the Week, it’s tempting to write while on the clock, but he learned the perils of doing that at a previous job. “My boss came up to me one day and said, ‘Can you do me a favor and print whatever you’re working on right now?’ ” He refused and was looking for a new job not long after. ↩
This is how he got his first book deal: by Googling agents and sending one an email that said, “Here’s a link to my website. I get more than a million hits a month. I’d like to write a book about badasses.” Within an hour he got a response. And within a week he was under contract with Harper freaking Collins to write Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. He’s well aware how unfair that is. “I make balls jokes about ancient Rome,” he says, cringing slightly. “It’s crazy.” ↩
- Thompson claims to not be a badass, but that might not be entirely accurate. When writing his first book, his editor asked him to define the word. At first he struggled to find common ground between Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, and Tesla. “But I decided that it was determination to accomplish something, no matter how delusional or heroic it is,” he says. “A badass goes for it and tries to get it. ↩
Like his dad, Thompson is a gun collector and enjoys blowing off steam at shooting ranges. Over the years, he accumulated two handguns, a shotgun, and a Mosin-Nagant, a WWII-era Soviet rifle. But he gave them up for the sake of his stepdaughter’s safety. “It was hard to get rid of the Mosin because that’s kind of an antique,” he says. “But you just can’t risk it with a kid around.” ↩
There’s little chance Thompson will run out of badasses to write about anytime soon. For one thing, he’s compiled a spreadsheet of 1,500 people from throughout history, sorted by era, region of the world, and claim to fame (or infamy). But it’s his loose definition of the term that helps him keep things fresh for himself and his readers. “If I get tired of writing about a guy with a sword or a machine gun wasting all of these people, I’ll do two weeks where I talk about an environmental crusader or an ultramarathoner.” ↩
Thompson emailed me in December after delivering yet another packet: “This one was to a woman at Convention Place Station. She said ‘red coat’ so I ended up offering an envelope to a very nice little Asian girl and asking her if this is ‘the stuff you’re looking for.’ It wasn’t.” ↩
For a long time Thompson had no interest in teaching, despite his love for history. “I didn’t think I had the patience to deal with the kids who didn’t give a shit,” he says. But he’s definitely enjoyed imparting some of his twisted knowledge to his stepdaughter, who now thinks of Australia as a prison colony first and a travel destination second. “She’s changed my outlook on whether I could do it. So we’ll see.” That sound you hear is thousands of Seattle grade school students roaring their approval, as if on the verge of charging into battle behind a fearless, yet slightly deranged leader. ↩