A Conversation with Darin Ross About How He Successfully Funded His Kickstarter Campaigns
by Lindsay Katai
Darin Ross is better known to the Internet as “Luckyshirt,” his online handle. He’s casually amassed nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter and I don’t know how many on Tumblr because it won’t tell me and it seems rude to ask. He did this by being a person who said funny things — and that’s all. He started using the sites in the Wild West days of their beginning, when Follow Fridays and retweets and reblogs really meant something because we were all hungry for more people to follow. Back then, if you were funny and a popular friend pimped you out, you were almost sure to gain dozens if not hundreds of followers in a day.
For years, Darin’s use of social media stayed close to its origins of just being original and funny musings into the void, picking up more people and friends as he went — like a snowball or a wordy game of Katamari Damacy. Then last year, he took a break from the Internet and came back with a sprawling, mysterious art project, teasing everyone into taking part. That project was “Find the Starlight.”
I watched “Find the Starlight” roll out as a series of posts of just a photograph with two peoples’ faces blurred out in red blotches. Confused, I would click on the link and be met with cryptic messages, prompting me to be like, “Whaaaaaaaaat?” For weeks this went on. Photograph, link, cryptic thing. Photograph, link, cryptic thing. I had no idea what Darin was up to. Then, after what seemed a lifetime, a Kickstarter campaign for “Find the Starlight” began and it was clear this wasn’t a friend publicly losing his mind — it was a multimedia storytelling project. And it took off. Darin’s fundraising goal was set at $2,500 and with only 190 backers he raised $4,500 instead.
With the success of this came a second Kickstarter project, “SUPERFIGHT!,” a board game billed as Apples to Apples meets Cards Against Humanity. This time Darin’s fundraising goal was a lofty $10,000. With just over a week to go, the project already has 573 backers and has raised $27,885 at the time of this writing. With these two projects, I can’t help but think of Darin as a sort of Internet hometown boy making good. Fascinated by the turn of events, and being a backer of SUPERFIGHT! myself, I asked Darin if he’d be willing to talk to me about how this all came about. Not being a total jerk, he said yes.
So Find the Starlight — WHAT IS IT?
DR: It’s a very elaborate joke. The Starlight is just an animated gif I made of my friend’s cat.
Even after all this time, it’s hard to explain. It’s part conceptual art project, part book series, part studio art stuff, part treasure hunt. But at its core, it’s a story — one I have been writing in some form or another for years. It’s being told by a man who calls himself “M”. M is sending weird things to people and burying them in weird places. At the same time, he is sharing parts of the overall story online. A confusing bit at a time.
Were you previously writing it in short story form?
I was writing it in novel form. At the same time, I was working on an art project that had this element of hidden things to it. Then one night in my car it struck me that they are the same story. They always had been. And more importantly, they could tell the story with one voice.
And when did it become clear you’d need to go to crowdfunding for this? (pause) Crowdsourcing? Ugh, whatever the kids are calling it.
Well, originally I had planned to sell the art pieces. I had no idea how. I will never be able to hang a price tag on anything I create in that spirit. So I was thinking auctions. But as I made them, I realized I didn’t want to sell them. At all. I wanted them to just show up places. In mailboxes, in public places, everywhere. I very literally wanted to give it away. But the auctions were going to fund the pieces. So I was stuck. Then, someone on Tumblr saw that struggle and suggested Kickstarter. Three days later, it was submitted “in character” [ed: the M character] and pending approval. It was perfect for this.
You shared the nervousness you were experiencing while waiting for Kickstarter to approve the project. Why did you think it might not be approved, when I see projects all the time for, like, “Help us drive around the country giving sandwiches to homeless people in homemade forts?”
Is that one still live, because I’m either backing it or stealing it.
No, I think it actually got removed after going viral.
I thought they wouldn’t approve it because M submitted it. And everything was very… him. The rewards were just nouns. “A Page.” “A Bag.” Things like that. And the video was a film in reverse of a box being buried under the Griffith Observatory with clues to find it there. Someone did, and it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life. The guy who found it recorded himself finding it, and his excitement will carry me until I’m dead. So it was a project that pretty much just said, “Hey I’m weird. Give me money to be weird.” But they let it through. With one change. They wanted me to call it an “Interactive Storytelling Project.” So I did. Made it sound like some flash game for Carmen San Diego, but it got me through. Sandiego may be one word. I’D ASK HER BUT…
It is. It is one word.
And this is a project that is simply for your joy and artistic fulfillment, right? You’re just looking to put some good vibes out in the world?
Very much so. More importantly and selfishly, it’s the only thing I have ever found that really feeds the jerk of a creative monkey on my back. It takes everything I love about creating things and funnels all of that into one story that oh by the way is an amazing story. I know how gross that is to say, but it’s easy for even me to be tricked into thinking I’m putting makeup on a toddler. The story started all of this, and I think people are going to love it. That will mostly come with the books. But there are already fans of the characters after having read three paragraphs about them. It’s crazy. All the way around.
How did you come to the amount of money you thought you’d need to get this funded? Like, one may as well ask how to crowdsource a cloud, man.
Seriously. Then add to that the part where you get nothing if you don’t make your goal, and it’s a real game of darts in the dark. So I factored in the cost of the boxes, of some of the other things coming, and threw the dart. What I love about Kickstarter, for things like mine, is you can just scale the project according to how much backing you get. So I did. It went way over, so Chapter One got way bigger. It’s the most comfortable and perfect fit for a creative person I could imagine outside of the arrival of a physically attractive fairy godmother. Don’t make it weird, godmothers aren’t always blood.
But they are always old, Darin.
In our sample size of one. Yes.
The thing I love about this success story, which is what I’m calling it, is that you went to a base you already had. You were “Internet popular” just on personality and then when you asked them for their help, they went above and beyond. Amanda Palmer gave a TED talk recently called “The Art of Asking” and this seems to be that all over, which is exactly the opposite of how we’re used to being advertised to.
This is a real can of bees, too. Because for years I had been making jokes and being a real mess of a single dad. Just an Internet idiot. Then I left for a few months when I realized I was wasting all of my creative energy on this “Luckyshirt” guy. People laughed at his burrito misfortune, but it wasn’t feeding the monkey. Or me. So I stopped. When I came back, I was slinging this story at them. The jokes were gone. It was weird pictures of weird things from the story. There was a complicated puzzle to solve. And people went after it. Someone solved it, and received an iPod in the mail labeled “The Blue Key”. And all it does is receive weird texts from M. Then I asked them to give me money to keep doing that nonsense. AND THEY DID. Even though it wasn’t what I had done the entire time they’ve known me. They helped me because they saw what it meant to me. And I can’t think of a more humbling or amazing thing to happen to a maker of things. And I love drinking Amanda Palmers.
Half iced tea, half indie rocker.
The whole project seems like an “If you build it, they will come” situation that I think a lot of companies just plain don’t understand when trying to build their own Internet presence. You can’t just throw up a Twitter account and expect it to sell more whatever. You have to cultivate a relationship with people on their terms. (pause) That’s not a question apparently. It’s just me going on a rant.
It’s so true. Everyone keeps telling me to reboot and start twitter accounts for things I make. To me that’s like anyone else making an account for his or her arm. I don’t want to follow someone’s arm. I want to follow them. Because of that relationship. Just be a person, companies.
So when did your other project, SUPERFIGHT!, come into being? Was it a direct result of seeing the power of Kickstarter?
It was absolutely a direct result of that. In obsessing over the Starlight project on there for 30 days, I saw hundreds of other projects. And it was just a huge bucket of inspiration at a time when I was high on validation and support. It’s like this magic island where you can go and say “HEY I WANT TO MAKE A THING” and the island just drops money on you. Except the island is amazing people thank you everyone I love you. But yeah, who would ever walk away from that? I’m going to Kickstart things until the sun burns out. Which, if you go to the planetarium show at Griffith Observatory, you’ll learn is totally happening. So yeah. All you need is ideas now, man. And amazing generous people I love you thank you.
Was this another idea that had been kicking around your head for a while?
Very loosely. For years. But it was all so complicated and foggy. Then one night I was sitting on my couch and lightning struck. Just make it simple. Just make funny things fight funny things. People like funny things and violence. And simplicity if you get it right.
People do like those things.
So I decided to give myself a birthday present, and submitted Superfight based on nothing but an idea — one I believe is solid and awesome, but still just that. And once again, people got behind it. But this one was different. Seventy percent of backers are total strangers who were just browsing Kickstarter. No relationship. They backed just for the game. It was a very different experience when compared to the Starlight project. So the ideas still have to be good. Or people just have to feel REALLY sorry for you.
With this project, you have the printing and fulfillment in place. Did you get a quote beforehand and base the backing amount on that, or was this again an estimate?
I read an interview with the guys who Kickstarted “Cards Against Humanity,” and they were super helpful. Listed everything they did. So I just followed their lead. Priced the game and its expansions the same. Stayed independent rather than selling the idea to a publisher, and got my quotes. It was risky, as you never know what you’ll get with overseas manufacturing with regard to time and communication. But so far so good. The world is a pebble these days.
Walt Disney had it right.
Did he make a card game?
No, he made a ride called “It’s A Small World.” READ A BOOK, DARIN.
Is it on laserdisc yet?
Laserdisc! So is the game done? You have an impressive number of expansion packs you’re offering to backers.
I wanted it to be customizable. So that just sort of happened. There are these stretch goals people use to bait backers into pushing the numbers up. I started that way and hated it. I unlocked them all the second day. If they are good, I’m making them. Not just if people give me more money. The game could be printed today, but I am obsessing over it in a good way. Really refining it until it’s perfect. And getting a lot of help and input from friends.
And with this game, there’s clearly joy in it, but this is a project you’d like to make a profit on someday, right?
Absolutely. Profits I’ll use to make more games, then more profits, then more things to bury in more places. Find the Starlight is my true love. This will help me get back to it more frequently.
So you’re just planning on ouroboros-ing this? Will the circle be unbroken?
Is that a Cirque du Soleil reference or a hockey thing?
Ouroboros is the snake eating its own tail, aka, the Auryn from Neverending Story.
Yes. This grants wishes.
Anyway, what I mean is, is some of the money going toward, like, your kids’ college fund, or is that pretty much covered and this is all about doing more fun stuff?
No, some is absolutely going toward living. And my kids are 99 percent of that. If I get really lucky, this thing will take care of all of that for a bit.
So is part of the plan to get SUPERFIGHT! into stores?
DR: Oh, absolutely. There is no reason this can’t make it into comic book stores and Targets. It will take time. You have to get the copies out there and let people love it. Then their friends want it and off you go. This stuff has never been easier in human history. I’ve talked to board game cafes in other countries online. There are fulfillment centers that for all practical purposes give me a warehouse and shipping fleet. And I’m just some dad.
How did you get clued into the existence of a board game cafe? Was this guidance from the Cards Against Humanity guys or your everyday Google search?
Google searching like a tween looking for topless Beiber picks. Twitter searches. Facebook searches. Reading game blogs and forums. All kinds of nonsense.
Anyone can do this then. You’re saying it’s an exciting time to be alive?
Absolutely. On both counts. It’s all just sitting there. If my last comment was to be believed, you’ll have to work your ass off before you can even begin working your ass off, but if you love making things, it’s not work.
And maybe you’ll need some nifty skills in creating eye catching graphics and videos?
And that just barely. I have loved projects that were just a person sitting there talking. Design will always matter at some level, but I’d hate to see anyone discouraged because they are conceptual and not visual artists. If people see and believe in the core idea and in you, they’ll trust you to get the help it needs.
Well, I think that’s probably a good note to end on. Believe in yourself. Make it happen.
Swim until you can’t see self-doubt. Just kidding, you’ll drown before you get there. Just take a Kickstarter boat.
Thanks, Darrin! This was fun.
Thanks for having me on my computer!