Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Elan Lee (@elanlee), the co-creator and chief executive officer of Exploding Kittens, a leading gaming and entertainment company. Under his leadership, Exploding Kittens has expanded its portfolio to nearly 30 different games with more than 20 million games sold in more than 50 countries since its founding in 2015.
Before founding Exploding Kittens, Lee was the chief design officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios, where he led the Interactive Entertainment Portfolio. Prior to that, he was the founder and chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios and co-founder of 42 Entertainment. He began his career at Microsoft Games Studios as a lead designer on the original Xbox.
Lee has won a Primetime Emmy for the series Dirty Work; Game Innovator of the Year for Exploding Kittens; a Peabody Award for the world’s first alternate reality game, The Beast; and an IndieCade Trailblazer Award for a distinguished career in interactive entertainment, among others.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world class performers from all different disciplines. Could be chess, could be military. In this case it is games, all things gaming. My guest today is Elan Lee. You can find them on Twitter at ElanLee. Elan is the co-creator and chief executive officer of Exploding Kittens. Maybe you’ve heard of it, a leading gaming and entertainment company. Under his leadership, Exploding Kittens has expanded its portfolio to nearly 30 different games with more than 20 million games sold in more than 50 countries since its founding in 2015.
Before founding Exploding Kittens, Lee was the chief design officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios where he led the interactive entertainment portfolio. Prior to that, he was the founder and chief creative officer of Fourth Wall Studios and co-founder of 42 Entertainment. He began his career at Microsoft Games Studios as a lead designer on the original Xbox. Lee has won a Primetime Emmy for the series Dirty Work, game innovator of the year for Exploding Kittens, a Peabody Award for the world’s first alternate reality game The Beast, and an IndieCade Trailblazer Award for a distinguished career in interactive entertainment, among others. Elan, welcome to the show. Nice to see you.
Elan Lee: Thanks. It’s really good to see you too. Happy to be here.
Tim Ferriss: So to paint a picture for folks, downstairs I have what should function as a dining table, completely covered in games of every imaginable type, and the floor is further littered. There are dice everywhere. There are blank dice everywhere. Cards, there are blank cards. So I’m in the midst of immersing myself in all things, specifically tabletop gaming. I want to thank you because of all the games tested so far, one game has stood out as a friend favorite, and that is Poetry for Neanderthals. There are people out there who will catch me on Neandertals, and fine, I’ll say it both ways for you.
Elan Lee: Yeah, we asked for that one naming that. Fair enough.
Tim Ferriss: Where I’m hoping we could start because I’ve listened to quite a few interviews with you and there are other places where some of your bio has been covered in I think a very, very good fashion. I recommend people listen to Think Like A Game Designer in the episode that Justin Gary did with you as well. But why don’t we start, because I found a video online, which was you interviewing two game designers who worked on Hand-To-Hand Wombat. I found that short conversation so incredibly helpful with the nitty gritty of seeing how the sausage is made. I was hoping that perhaps we could start with Poetry For Neanderthals as a case study from the very inception, and you could just walk us through it.
Elan Lee: Yeah, absolutely. So Poetry For Neanderthals, it didn’t even have a name. Of course, no game has a name when you start, but that one came to me from some friends. I met Jacob and Francesca at this conference, and they came to me and they’re like, “Okay, you’re the Exploding Kittens guy. We’ve got this really cool idea. What if there was a game where you had to learn a new language and you’re really bad at that language. You’re in a foreign land, everyone speaks the language except you and you’ve got to try to get by?” They said, “The way that we can simulate you not speaking the correct language is you have the restriction [that] every sentence you speak, every word in that sentence, must be a single syllable word.” They give me some examples. They’re like, “Okay, so now listen, you Elan, you have to say, I’m really hungry. I want to go to the store, but there’s a dragon at the store that’s really scary and I don’t know what to do. Go.”
I’m like, “Okay, okay, sure. Me want to go get food.” Immediately I realized, oh, I sound like a caveman. That’s kind of fun. You’re right, you have simulated this environment where I don’t speak the right language. We started working together, and it took about a year of playing around. We got another designer involved, a guy named Brian Spence, and realized there’s something super fun here. There is a core gameplay loop. There’s something that every time people touch it, every time they play around with it, they start laughing. They start wanting to tell their friends about it. But holy crap, those sentences, they are a mouthful. We took the sentences down to five or six words, still too much. We took him down to three words, still too much. Took him down to two words, still too much. We finally realized, why are we complicating this? What if the entire game was, get your friend to say this word using only single syllable words? And that was it.
Once we realized that we were bringing baggage through for no reason, the game got really simple, really fun. My co-founder and business partner, Matt Inman, who’s the creator of The Oatmeal, he took one look at it and said, “We’re calling this thing Poetry For Neanderthals.” And suddenly we had a game. It was really those steps in that order that let us push that thing out the door.
Tim Ferriss: And could I just maybe give a layman’s take so people can envision what this game looks like. So I played it with two other friends. It was the three of us, and actually we did a lot of trial and error. So I think we also did some experimental work just in terms of how to optimize for three people. But imagine that you have one person who is the caveman or cavewoman, they have these cards and you flip over the card and at the top you have “Ghost,” let’s just say, as an example. And that will get you one point if you can give cues in these monosyllabic words.
Elan Lee: Only you can see that word, nobody else.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s right. Only you can see the word. And so you might say “Dead man,” and you start — it starts to get hard very quickly. And then if you get that right, now you can say the word “Ghost.” You’re allowed to say that. And so the three point, which is the three point option below that might be “Ghost town,” let’s just say. And there is an hourglass that is turned over, which gives you I think it’s maybe 60 seconds to try, something like that, to rack up as many points as possible. Usually you do this in teams, if you break the rules and you say something like “Casper,” there’s somebody with an inflatable club, which does not hurt, who whacks you on the head with this thing or I guess on some other body part. And so with three guys, adolescent at heart, even though this is designed I think for ages seven and up, we just got hours and hours of endless fun out of this thing.
It was so much fun because you also have these ridiculous things that come up. My brother’s wife, so my sister-in-law was trying — she had teeth and she said — no, no, she had “Mouth.” “Mouth” was the one-point word. And she said, “Teeth house.” And he was like, “Teeth house?” The stuff that comes out can be really, really funny. And it’s very easy to get up and running quickly, which is what made this I think more attractive than some of the other games I bought at game shops, which were a much heavier lift on the way in.
And I want to just as a way of setting the table, tell people part of the reason I was excited to have you on, and we chatted a bit before recording, and you and I are aligned on I’m sure quite a few things, but one is helping people, and I’ll include myself in that group to spend less time in front of screens. And games are a very easy way to do that if you find the right games and you choose the right tool to suit your personality. And those are the friends that you have. So I jumped in and gave a TED Talk there for a second. So thanks for putting up with that.
Elan Lee: Well, but hold on, let me just interject. What you just described. I mean, you’re hired, that was the perfect commercial. What you just described is a game that’s not necessarily entertaining, but a game that allowed those three people — you included — to entertain each other. And that’s music to my ears. That means, okay, success. We built a cool game there. That was the goal. We hit it. I didn’t even have to be in the room to facilitate that. You just had exactly the experience I wanted you to have. I’m thrilled. Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: So let me dive into a few of the stages. You met the game designers, who you named, and what led you to want to work with them? Because you must personally and as a company, I would imagine get pitched a lot of new games.
Elan Lee: A lot. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What was it besides the concept, because ideas are worth something, but they’re not worth as much as people like to think. So what was it that led you to want to commit to working with them and in what capacity was that? And what happened over that year? Was it simply that everyone had a lot of projects they were juggling and that had to fit in the gaps or something else?
Elan Lee: So we got to take a little bit of a look at the anatomy of a game. What that means is I believe the most important part of a game is I don’t have a great term for it. Actually I have no training in game design, so I make all this stuff up along as I go. So bear with me. But at a game school —
Tim Ferriss: I think you’re doing fine in life.
Elan Lee: Thanks.
Tim Ferriss: Making it up as you go. So keep doing what you’re doing.
Elan Lee: Yeah, yeah. Will do. All right. I think at the essence of any game is what I at least call the core gameplay loop. And that’s the thing that you’re going to do over and over and over again. So in the case of Exploding Kittens, the core gameplay loop is Russian roulette with a deck of cards. There’s a few bad cards in there. Draw a card, hope it’s not the bad one. You survive to see another day. Core gameplay loop. UNO, right? Classic game. Everybody knows UNO. UNO, if I had to describe the core gameplay loop, I would say it’s a lock and key mechanism. And all that means is you have a hand of cards, everyone’s a key. As soon as you play a key on top of a lock, which is in the center of the board, it becomes a new lock for the next player.
That’s the core gameplay loop. In that case, it’s numbers and colors, but still it’s just locks and keys and playing one converts one. So that concept of finding a core gameplay loop that’s compelling and interesting is really hard. Really, really hard. And the ones that I’m most attracted to when I hear them is core gameplay loops that are not actually entertaining. Core gameplay loops that make the people you’re playing with entertaining. Because I really think that’s at the heart of games. When I think back to my childhood and playing games with my brothers and sisters growing up, I don’t remember any of the games because I don’t think I should remember any of the games. The games were not important. It’s the tool set. Those games are tools for me to have fun with my siblings. And I remember that fun. I remember the laughter. I remember the secret alliances. I remember all that stuff because the games had really strong core gameplay loops that allowed me to have those interactions. All right, sorry, big rabbit hole there, but —
Tim Ferriss: Love rabbit holes.
Elan Lee: We’ll try to keep it short. Right. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: So that’s what long-form podcasts are for.
Elan Lee: Yeah, fair enough. All right. So the next thing. So for Poetry, when Jacob and Francesca came to me with this concept, I didn’t think it was a good game.
Tim Ferriss: And just for clarity, were they friends, were they out of the blue? Were they working for the company in part-time or full-time?
Elan Lee: So this was at a conference called ORD Camp in Chicago. It’s an invite-only conference. So very few people there. I show up, crazy introvert, I’m scared out of my mind to talk to people, but there’s only a hundred people there. So anybody who comes up to me and says hello, I’m like, okay, there’s something cool about this person. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.
Tim Ferriss: And there’s nowhere to hide. There’s nowhere to hide.
Elan Lee: Yeah, there’s really nowhere to hide. So when they approached me and said, “Hey, can we talk to you?” I just thought, I need to give everybody here the benefit of the doubt. I need to get over my shyness, I need to talk to them. And it turns out it was a great idea because what they showed me, like I said, was not a fun game, but a really interesting core gameplay loop. This idea that communication is easy, if you reduce it down to monosyllabic words, communication becomes really challenging and you need your friend’s help to get you from that caveman talk back to regular English.
Tim Ferriss: So over that, then, year period of time, what is happening, just to come back to the anatomy of the development of the game. How do you refine? Do you play test? What is play testing, all that kind of stuff?
Elan Lee: One of the biggest assets that we have at our company, and the thing that took me seven years to build is this program called the Kitty Test Pilots. And this is a group of families that have reached out to us saying, we love your games, tell us when the next one comes out. And we respond, great, want to test some prototypes for us? And we regularly send them out very, very half baked ideas.
And we asked them just to send us feedback. So what happened over the next year? So we took that idea, I showed it to some friends, I said, okay, what if you had to translate these sentences using only single syllable words? And what came back was, holy crap, this is cumbersome. This is so hard and there’s not enough time. And my turn took eight minutes, and what the hell is that? And we all this really bad feedback, but I knew that the core gameplay loop was really solid. So that’s when we went down to, okay, what if the sentences were only five words long? What if we reduced the timer to two minutes, then one minute? I think the final is actually only 45 seconds. Don’t hold me to that. Something in that range.
Tim Ferriss: Something. Yeah.
Elan Lee: But we started to realize I’m getting better and better results. The fewer words they have to do at once, but they want more time to do a bunch more words. So eventually we got down to, all right, let’s try out two things. One, you only have to do one word at a time. Let’s see if that’s interesting. And two, what does punishment mean? Because everybody laughs when you use a word with more than one syllable. But then it kind of ended. It was setting up for a joke, but the punchline never came. And so we thought, all right, we’ll put a buzzer in there. Or there’s a word you shout out, and I’m pretty sure it was Matt with his just perfect pitch sense of humor, said, well, it’s a caveman game, so give him a club and let them bonk each other over the head.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sure general counsel loved that.
Elan Lee: Oh man, you would not believe how lawyers hate us. Holy crap. Endless, endless conversations. But they made us in the instructions, they made us say, “Hit the other person over the head softly.” They insisted on that. And so we changed it without asking. We put it to “soft-ish” over the head, and that was our version of a compromise. Anyway, when we talk about the anatomy of a game though, we’re talking about that core game play loop. Okay, we’ve really got it now. One word, get through as many one word cards as you can, as fast as you can. You’ve got a few seconds to do so. And now we start to add the surroundings around the game. We need to pick really funny words that we know are going to elicit funny responses. “Teeth” is really great. “Teeth” was calculated. “Teeth” is not just a word that shows up in that game.
We had to think, all right, what are words where when you try to describe them, you’re going to start to stumble and the places you have to go yield really funny results. And things like “teeth” start to show up in the game. And then we started thinking about punishment and we started thinking about the “no stick” it’s called because everything in the game is just single syllables and on and on it went until we had our core game loop surrounded by this really beautiful kind of menagerie of things that enhanced the experience and made it so like, okay, you can start playing this game. Every single element is going to push you towards that core gameplay loop. And the core gameplay loop is going to rely, it’s the fuel running that engine, that loop running over and over again is the other players. And once we hit that and this beautiful, elegant, fast loop, that’s when we start throwing that thing in a box and pushing it out the door.
Tim Ferriss: Chipping it out. So could you give another example or two of core gameplay loop? Because on one hand it sounds like there could be a core gameplay loop that is almost like a theme much like you might have the Hollywood pitch of say Alien, which is Jaws in space, right? So there’s something very simple which encapsulates the melding of two ideas that make something interesting. But it could also be a game mechanic, which I know much less about. Could you give another example of a core gameplay loop?
Elan Lee: I love dissecting games to find these. So I’ll start with one of my own. So let’s look at Exploding Kittens. I described it really briefly before as just Russian roulette with a deck of cards. That’s not accurate. If we want to talk about the actual core gameplay loop, what that game is Russian roulette with a deck of cards where you get to decide where to place the bullet. And that is super important that actually the very first time we tested the game, it was just, here’s a deck of cards, there’s a few bullets, and we didn’t even know what to call it at the time. There’s a few bullets in this deck. We’re just going to take turns drawing. Someone draws a bullet, you’re dead. Everybody continues on without you. That game was no fun at all. And the reason it was no fun is because it’s us playing against the game.
The game has all the burden of entertaining us, absolutely uninteresting. We introduced these other cards into the game called defuse cards, and all the defuse card did was it said, “Look, if you draw that bullet instead of dying, you can put it back in the deck anywhere you want in secret.” Now we’ve got a game because now it’s not — it’s not actually Russian roulette. It’s not a random game. You have to survive me, you have to outthink me. I just put this thing somewhere in the deck and now it’s your turn to go. Did I put it on top? Maybe you don’t want to draw that card. Did I put it on the bottom? Maybe you don’t want to draw that card. Did I know that you knew that I knew that you knew that I didn’t put it on the top and so you skipped your turn and drew the second one down? Well, maybe I knew that. Right? Suddenly, the game fades away and I’m playing against you. And that’s the core gameplay loop of Exploding Kittens, and I believe why it’s been so successful.
Tim Ferriss: So we’re going to bounce all over the place, which is I guess I’m going to make it a feature and not a bug of my style of conversation, but let’s chat if you’re open to it about Kickstarter for a moment. Because I know a lot of people outside of games specifically will still be interested in Kickstarter or crowdfunding in general. So you, I believe at one point, had a fraud alert email printed out and framed, and I think somewhere the limit was set like 10,000 and maybe it got bumped like 50,000 for this new bank account for things. What was your initial target for the Kickstarter campaign and where did you end up?
Elan Lee: The initial target was we were trying to raise $10,000 in 30 days, and we set that alert. The bank would let us deposit a check up to $50,000. They were being very generous, and the check that we tried to deposit at the end of those 30 days was almost $9 million.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Yeah. So I have specific questions around how you did things differently and you had some very strong advantages going in. You had your background. You had Matt and The Oatmeal and all the followers of The Oatmeal. So you had a deck that was loaded in a sense, but still ended up being, maybe still is the most backed in terms of number of backers, Kickstarter project, or at least at the time that was the case.
Elan Lee: Still the case by a lot, actually. So in order to talk about Kickstarter, we have to talk about two things. One is alternate reality games, and the other is The Oatmeal. So alternate reality games, my background being sort of trained at Microsoft and at the Xbox, and learning about communities and the appeal of games and why we play games together, I then went off and started with some friends, this company to build alternate reality games. And all you really need to know about alternate reality games, although I could talk about them for a long time, is the central premise is together you are stronger. Together as a community, you can do stuff, you can become extraordinary versions of yourselves. And the games are set up to deliver a story out in the real world that is convoluted and you have to piece it back together. It’s like my mentor Jordan Weisman likes to call it, internet archeology.
So archeology is you find all the little bits and pieces of the vase. You put it together in order to figure out what it is about that society, how that society lived, how those people lived. Alternate reality games are the same thing. We write a beautiful story, start to finish with a very compelling narrative, and then we break it up into little pieces and we hide those pieces everywhere in the real world, on the internet, on phone lines, fax lines, live actors, everywhere. And you the audience working together because you’re stronger together go and perform that feat of archeology, find all the pieces, put them back together, look at your beautiful digital vase, and then learn the story based on what you found.
So I built a lot of those and I was really trained over and over again, really beaten into my psyche community first, community first. They’re so much smarter than you are. Learn to entertain a crowd. That’s what this is all about. All right. We decided to launch this Kickstarter campaign. We had this really compelling hook. We knew the game was really good. We put up the page and the very first thing that happens is The Oatmeal goes into full effect. Matt has spent at that point about a decade building an audience, earning their trust, convincing them that he does just really high-quality work.
Tim Ferriss: And for those who don’t know, could you just explain what The Oatmeal, so at that point, what it looked like?
Elan Lee: Yeah. So at that point, The Oatmeal was and still is a webpage, theoatmeal.com. And Matt has spent 10 years writing short form comedy, one panel, sometimes up to four panel comics, sometimes very few long form comedy, or I should say long form pieces where he tells stories about his childhood or he — it’s a lot of social commentary and they’re hilarious. They’re beautiful. Some of them have won Eisner awards. They will make you cry. Matt is truly one of the most talented artists and comedians I’ve ever met. And yeah, he’s a guy who’s just so much smarter than I am. It’s an incredible collaboration. And I got to meet him through a mutual friend. I pitched this game to him. We talked about it. He said he’d really like to help. And off we went. And when we launched the Kickstarter campaign, honestly, it was only three weeks after I met him.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. That’s fast.
Elan Lee: Yeah, really fast. We built this —
Tim Ferriss: Didn’t realize it was that fast.
Elan Lee: We built it fast because we had nothing to lose. We didn’t think it would be a huge success. We just thought, this feels really good. We don’t have to overthink this. Let’s just go.
Tim Ferriss: Now, is it fair to say that also at that point you had the game mechanics refined and Matt was bringing in a lot of the sort of artistic comedic flare in terms of the back hair cards and the artwork. So you’re effectively adding art to game mechanics that were ready to go, but kind of lacked an artistic vehicle. Is that fair to say?
Elan Lee: That’s totally fair. There are 56 cards in the game. And so Matt’s task was not to design the game, although we both worked hard to refine it. Matt’s task was write 56 one-panel jokes. And he did. You flip through that deck and the first thing you’re going to do is just laugh. I mean, it’s such beautiful art.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: Okay, so back to our story. We launched the Kickstarter campaign and Matt posts about it. And he says, “For the first time ever, I’ve done a game. I hope you like it.” And millions of people showed up, literally millions of views to that Kickstarter page. And we got funded, we were trying to raise $10,000. We got funded in seven minutes. I mean, it was out of control. And our first day we made a million dollars and our second day we had $2 million, and our third day we had $3 million. And it was just like, this is a runaway train. We have certainly caught lightning in a bottle. We have unleashed the full potential of The Oatmeal. Here’s finally a way to productize that incredible brand. Welcome Exploding Kittens to the world. But then after the first week, it fell off a cliff.
And the reason is just because everyone who Matt could reach, who was interested in this thing, had taken a look, either made a purchase decision or not, and that was it. The tank was empty. So I sat down with him and we’re like, well, we’ve got two choices. We can either just sort of ride off into the sunset and say, we made $4 million bucks. That’s incredible. We were trying to raise $10,000. Let’s just take a bow and we’re done. Or we should try to push this thing a little bit and just see what else is possible on Kickstarter.
At the time, the way that Kickstarter worked, the kind of only lever you had were these things called stretch goals. And the way a stretch goal works is you say, “Look, I’ve got this product. I’m going to charge you 20 bucks for it, and we’re going to try to raise $10,000. But if we raise $20,000 for free, everybody gets three more bonus cards. And if we raise $50,000, you get a carrying case. And if we raise $100,000, gold-plated cards, whatever it is.” That was the tool you had. “Give us more money, we’ll give you more shit.”
We kind of thought, there’s got to be something else we can do. There’s got to be something else. And I suddenly like my eyes went wide and I realized, holy crap, I’ve been training for this moment my whole damn life. We need to activate the community. Instead of thinking of this as crowdfunding, let’s think of this as CROWDfunding, right? And so we did stretch goals just like everybody else, but instead of tying it to money, we tied it to just insane shit that we could ask the backers to do. We basically said, “Look, we’re going to throw a party and everybody’s invited. Instead of giving us more money, we’re done with money. Instead, we’ve got this character in our game called Tacocat, half cat, half taco. Show us a picture of a real tacocat. And if you do, if 10 people do that, we’ll throw in 10 extra cards.” And that’s a stretch goal.
“And you know what would be funny? What about give us a picture of 10 Batmans in a hot tub, whatever the hell that means, we want to see it. Somebody does that, we’ll give you a fancy carrying case.” And we just went nuts. We wrote these challenges that were insane and funny, and basically said, “We just want to have fun, please have fun with us. This is going to be — we’re only here for another 20 days, so why don’t we just celebrate the whole way through?” And the audience jumped at it and they did everything we asked. They took those pictures and they wrote poems, they filmed videos, they went out on the streets, they met each other, they had parties together, they ordered pizza. All the fun stuff because we basically said, “Money doesn’t matter anymore, let’s just have fun.” And it was a great invitation.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So many places I want to go with this and of course, all of this alternate reality training for this sudden IRL Olympics that is brought to bear in Kickstarter.
Elan Lee: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: The first is just to put in context the “money doesn’t matter” comment, because it seems like at the time, you were around four and you made additional millions of dollars. Is that because there was a pre-order button on the page, and as buzz built, even though the tiers weren’t predicated on people spending more money, you had more new orders coming in as the buzz around these challenges and so on traveled?
Elan Lee: That’s exactly right. We didn’t ask for more money, we just said, “This is the page where we’re going to use this page as mission control. This is where we’re going to put out all the new challenges, this is where we’re going to tell you what you’ve earned when those challenges are complete.” None of those challenges, again, have anything to do with money. But because it’s a Kickstarter page, there’s also a back this project button right there. And so the dollars kept rolling in.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I love this because you’re doing what I think is so beautiful when it works, and I want to ask you more about it because I’m sure you have more thoughts, which is how do you turn, say, casual fans into super fans, super fans into proselytizers? And then you basically, and I know this is simplified, but if you do that well, you basically don’t need a PR marketing department to the extent that you would otherwise, right? Absolutely. And now you had them doing all sorts of stuff. So pets disguised as fighter jets, real unicorn enchiladas, and it goes on and on and on.
The second major question that I have is, how did you track all of this stuff? Because it seems like, at least in today’s social media environment, perhaps it’s more scattered now and was more centralized then, but how did you keep track of all this stuff? And I guess you don’t need to keep track of all of it because really you’re saying, “If we get 10 Batmans in a tub and we get 10 of those, unlock.”
Elan Lee: Yeah, exactly. We tracked it very, very poorly. Look, we had a two, sort of arguably three-person team at that point.
Tim Ferriss: What does arguably three-person mean?
Elan Lee: Yeah. Well, some friends of mine would sort of drift in and drift out in their spare time.
Tim Ferriss: Right, right, right.
Elan Lee: I’ll tell you, I learned something amazing. So we had a Gmail account associated with the Kickstarter page, and —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy.
Elan Lee: — apparently there is a limit if a Gmail account receives a certain number of emails over a certain number of time, a particular amount of time, that Gmail account gets shut down.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no.
Elan Lee: It turns out that number is 10,000 per second.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Elan Lee: And we hit that trap.
Tim Ferriss: Holy shit.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So do you just assume, you’re like, “All right, we’re not going to read 10,000 a second, we assume there’s some Batmans in a tub in there, so fuck it. We were planning on being able to deliver anyways, let’s just, let’s do it?”
Elan Lee: All right. So you asked the question, how do you convert those casual fans into super fans? The way you do that is you don’t make those assumptions. You actually do need to read through those emails because the conversion process is shining a light on them.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. Totally.
Elan Lee: You have to send out an update that says, “Look what you did.” And you have to have the pictures right there. And the first draft of that update said, “Look what happened.” And we realized, whoa, that’s the wrong message. It has to say, “Look what you did,” nothing to do with us, nothing to do with just facts, you, you, spotlight on you. And that’s when people started to convert because they’re like, “Oh, alternate reality training, we are more powerful together, we are a community. Let’s all keep working together.”
Tim Ferriss: So you’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure that the approach you take to distributing your games has changed over time since once you establish yourself, it’s like once you’re Guns N’ Roses and you’ve had Appetite for Destruction, the way you approach things is a little different, right? But I’ve read you elsewhere warn, which I thought was very astute so I’ll mention it here and then I’d love for you to maybe flesh it out a bit, warn people about stretch goals where for instance, they’re like, “We’re going to give a t-shirt,” and it’s like, well, wait a second, how much experience do you have with man manufacturing, fulfillment, SKUs, multiple sizes? And if you have a tabletop game, it’s hard enough to learn how to be in the tabletop business if you’re new, let alone deciding you’re going to have also a t-shirt business to try to figure out, not to mention the distraction cost. Are there any other best practices slash pitfalls that you would warn against?
Elan Lee: I haven’t looked at the numbers recently, but there was a time about two or three years ago when I looked at the top 10 Kickstarter campaigns of all time. And we’re always in that list somewhere, people are constantly beating our record. They haven’t beat our number of backers, but certainly made more money than we have. And I looked at the top 10, and of those 10, we were the only company still in business.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Elan Lee: And it’s because when that much money comes in it, well, sorry, before that much money comes in, to earn that much money, there is this incredible temptation to branch out and to become a t-shirt company and send out posters and say, “We’re going to hand autograph every single instance of this thing.” And it’s such a mistake. You are being backed to focus on fulfilling one item. Just do that. Just stop trying to give people more party favors, stop trying to be more popular. The way you make those friends is by fulfilling the promise you made to those people. And it’s very rare that people adhere to that. It’s such a shame.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to, I’ve just been so excited to talk to you, man, I really appreciate you making the time. And despite my caveat at the beginning before we started recording, which was, I think I’m having an allergic reaction, I’m actually slowly pulling it together, going from my zombification earlier to semi-coherent. So thank you.
Elan Lee: My pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: I want to give you credit where credit is due. There are many ways I could do that, but top 10, to still be in the top 10 of all time is remarkable for a lot of reasons, one of which is as Kickstarter gains in popularity, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison. In the same way that if you look at, say, the top 100 box office earners of all time from a film perspective, it’s very hard to compare something from the ’50s or ’60s with, say, 1990 because of theater penetration, inflation, right, that’s a thing.
Prices go up. So it’s astonishing that you guys have had that degree of longevity. And part of why I think you have been, and this is speculation, but part of why I think you have been so successful, and not just once but multiple times, is you’re very good at applying positive constraints and so I would love to know, for instance, as a company, right, so it’s one thing to go from a successful project to fulfilling that project, and a lot of people are killed just in that process, it’s quite another to build out a company that then expands, raises funding, takes on private equity, and has done everything that you guys have done, which is, it’s very rare. What are some of the constraints? Because if I look at your games, right, I look at the form factor, the size, it seems like there’s thought put into maybe the maximum size, I don’t know. And then I look at the complexity and I’m like, okay, we’re not dealing with metal figurines. And so how do you think about the parameters that you place on your games?
Elan Lee: Yeah. Oh, there’s so much to talk about here.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s do it.
Elan Lee: One of them — all right. Okay. You open a game box, and I’m going to break that down into two parts, there’s the game components, and then there’s the box itself. Okay. First, let’s talk about the box itself because it’s this ridiculous conundrum. If you were to go and buy a new iPhone, that box is beautiful and they spend 10 or 20, $50 building that hard cardboard box and it’s beautifully printed and it’s glossy. And you know what you do? You take out the iPhone and you throw the box away.
My margins on my box are so tiny that I need to spend four cents, five cents building that box, and you’re going to take the game out and then you’re going to play it and you’re going to put it back in that box, and that box has to survive 20 years. It’s insane, it is so hard to do. And so the first thing to talk about is the constraint. First, we have to understand play patterns, we have to understand how the audience actually uses this product. And most games will spend, they’ll stay within their margins. They’ll say, “Well, we can only spend four cents on the box, so we’re going to build it, we know the thing’s going to disintegrate, but so be it.” We don’t have that approach at all. We lose money on every box, and that’s cool. We’re okay with that because we know this is a lifelong commitment we’re making to you.
Tim Ferriss: Now, just to be clear, when you say box, this is the packaging surrounding the game, you’re not saying on every game.
Elan Lee: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: Correct. Exactly right. We break it down by, there’s a certain amount of budget allocated to each component and the box is one of those.
Tim Ferriss: Component.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Now, so now let’s look at the actual components in the box, and I had to learn about all this stuff. I had no idea that there was such a thing as card thickness or weight of different cardboard components. I didn’t know that there was such thing as, did you know there’s a catalog of sand timers that you can look through? They’re not all the same. Forget how much time passes through them, but the quality of the sand, the quality of the plastic, does it have one layer or two layers? Are they multiple colors? Have you dyed the sand? All this stuff. And we look at all of it.
And for our mantra as a company is opening that box has to be a delight. Everything you touch in there has to feel beautiful, it has to feel like someone loved this thing, because we’re about to ask those players for a lot. We’re about to say, “Put down your phone, holy crap, put down your phone, read 15 minutes worth of instructions,” that’s a huge ask, 15 minutes, and explain it to everybody else at the table, and then try playing the game and you’re probably going to screw it up and read them again and then try it again. The dropout rate is enormous, but if they feel like someone really cares about this thing, someone really devoted time, maybe it’ll give us more of a chance. And so that’s the biggest constraint we place is we’re like, okay, just put the budget aside for a second, know that what everybody else does not really apply here. We need to make a beautiful product, we need to make something that people fall in love with as much as we are in love with it. And that’s the translation. Our love will equal theirs.
Tim Ferriss: So question about size, not to get too personal.
Elan Lee: No.
Tim Ferriss: No. But so, I would imagine that with the components, there are materials cost, and that could be just a volume question, how much of X material you are using. The games that I have seen produced by Exploding Kittens have all seemed easy to travel with. I don’t know if that is a side effect of other design principles or if that is sort of a first principle, or do you have games that are much larger?
Elan Lee: We do.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: We do. We’ve tried a bunch of things. So when we talk about size, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Travel is huge, we know people want to be able to transport these things from place to place, bring it to a party, bring it to a family reunion. That stuff is super important. But when we put a box on a shelf, we’re fighting with all the other games on that shelf. And if you think of a box as a billboard, the biggest billboard’s going to win. So having a smaller box is not necessarily advantageous there. But now let me pitch the flip side of that, which is we’ve got to ship these things from the manufacturing plant to a warehouse, and how many boxes can you fit in a shipper?
Tim Ferriss: Fit on a yeah, on a pallet, and then in a container.
Elan Lee: Exactly. Right. So all of that matters a lot. So it’s this very delicate balance. What we’ve started doing, because we prefer smaller boxes, we’ve started doing deals with retailers like Target and Walmart to say, “Look, we’re going to give you a smaller box, but let us build…” these are called shippers, they’re big cardboard frames that sit on the shelf and then the game sits inside of it. So we’re trying to get the best of both worlds, right? Big billboard, lots of presents on the shelf, but the game is actually really small and convenient and you can take it with you anywhere.
Tim Ferriss: Do you guys, and I should know this, but I don’t, how do your sales channels break down? And we can edit this out if you don’t want to talk about it, but I’m curious, in the beginning you had D2C, D2C, D2C, right? Direct-to-consumer, you’re shipping, you’re handling all of that. As you become more popular and particularly given the ease of use of your games, the doors open up to using distributors and getting placement in places like Walmart, Target, et cetera. What does that look like now for you guys versus in the — what did it look like for the first three or four games, and what does it look like now?
Elan Lee: So first three or four games were 100 percent D2C. All we did was sold the game ourself. That’s what Kickstarter basically was, right? Then we moved into Amazon, and Amazon very quickly eclipsed our ability to sell our own game. And then the retailers, retailers went through this incredible shift, they’re like, “Hey, our game sections used to have four games. It used to be like, we’ve got Connect Four and Monopoly, and that’s about it.” And they said, “Let’s actually build a real game section.” And they reached out to us and said, “What’s it going to take to get you on the shelf?” And we said —
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Anchor tenant.
Elan Lee: Yeah, right. Seriously. I mean, seriously, we were — talk about right place at the right time.
Tim Ferriss: That’s cool, man.
Elan Lee: Yeah, seriously.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a big deal.
Elan Lee: It was huge. It was huge. And so we got to kind of build the games departments with them and to say, “Yeah, but you’ve got to teach us everything, right? We don’t even know what a shelf is, we don’t know what price to ask for, we don’t know anything.” And they worked with us and we built it together and it was really awesome. And now I can’t give you a retailer-by-retailer breakdown, but I will say that retail accounts for about 60 percent of our business now.
Tim Ferriss: What is the remaining 40 percent?
Elan Lee: It’s a mix between online, hobby, international, and direct to consumer.
Tim Ferriss: What is hobby?
Elan Lee: Oh, sorry. Yeah, I had to learn this too. So there’s two —
Tim Ferriss: I mean, I know the word.
Elan Lee: Yeah, yeah. Right, right. So hobby is this generic term that covers a lot of things. It basically means a store that primarily sells games. So if you think of kind of mom and pop game stores, they’re typically where you’re going to go to buy more hardcore games, more strategy games.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Elan Lee: But they’re starting to really get into party games. So they have a lot of interest in us. But while we can sell directly to Target and Walmart, there’s hundreds of thousands of hobby stores, so you have to work through a middle manager to deal with those people.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, distributor of some type or something like that.
Elan Lee: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So this is going to strip away the company for a second, because I’m curious. Let’s just say there’s something like Iron Chef for tabletop games. If you want that, you can run with it. I’ll take my customary 15 percent.
Elan Lee: Yeah, all right.
Tim Ferriss: But so it’s like the unveiling of the components, let’s just say, which would be some constraints. I’m not going to give you specific ones, but let’s just say you yourself kind of locked in a room, like old school Japanese manga artists, this would happen, the publishers would be like, “You need to finish X number of issues, we’re going to keep you fed, but you’re going to be in a room until you finish,” which is very intense. But let’s just say that you had a week to design a game. You’re allowed to have some play testers come in for the second half of the week.
Elan Lee: Okay. Generous of you. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: You’re welcome. I’m a very lenient dictator. I’m known as the thoughtful warden. How would you personally approach it? You can have pen and paper and all of the mock-up materials that you need. How would you go about it?
Elan Lee: First of all, you don’t need much more than pen and paper, honestly. That’s it. So the way I would go about it is I would say, okay, given this, maybe these blank cards and these sharpie pens, which I travel around with everywhere, that is all my bag is filled with —
Tim Ferriss: And blank cards, you mean like a playing —
Elan Lee: Yeah, like poker cards.
Tim Ferriss: — deck of cards? Yeah.
Elan Lee: But blank, white on both sides. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Where do you get those?
Elan Lee: Amazon, and I order —
Tim Ferriss: Amazon. All right.
Elan Lee: — literally, I order them by the pallet at this point. It’s nuts, because they’re so cool, right? You need to design a game, you’ve got the cards. You need dice, I don’t have dice, great, I’ll take six cards, right? One, two, three, four, five, six, shuffle them up, draw a card, hey, you’ve got dice, right?
Tim Ferriss: Cool. Yeah.
Elan Lee: They’re everything. They’re absolutely everything. So the first thing I would look for is what can I do with these very simple components that creates a core gameplay loop that I’m excited about? And I can rattle off 12 of those in an hour. That’s honestly not the hard part.
Tim Ferriss: 12 different gameplay loops that you’re familiar with?
Elan Lee: That I’m excited about, that I can just invent it. They’re not that hard. It’s like, okay, look, I’m going to give you a card and I’m going to keep a card and whoever has the highest card wins, but first we’re going to have a conversation and, I’m making this up as I go, I’m going to try to bluff you, I’m going to try to get you to discard your card because you don’t think there’s any chance you can win and you can still earn a little bit if I can get you to fold with — right? Those are easy. I can come up with a ton of those, right? And again, you notice the crux of that was, we’re entertaining each other. The conversation is actually the game, the cards don’t matter. That’s just my mantra over and over and over again.
So we do that, come up with a bunch of those, and then I need another person. I need at least one person that I can show these to, play the games with, and I only care about one question. In fact, we do all these play tests, we don’t even give out surveys anymore. There’s only one question we ask, which is, “When you finish playing the game, did you want to play again?” And a game is done when 100 percent of the people say yes. And it never starts that way, it’s always a whole bunch of nos, and let me tell you why and all that stuff, but that’s the only question I care about. When you finished, did you want to play again?
And if I can get a little bit of positive feedback there from a person showing a bunch of concepts too, and one of them, they say, “Ooh, let’s play that one again,” then you’ve got to start thinking about, okay, why did they want to play that again? Well, maybe they had so much fun, they wanted to play again. Maybe they thought they could do better the second time, kind of a sense of mastery that maybe they could achieve by playing again. And I try to identify what that thing is, what that compelling, that thing that kept pulling them back in and double down on that, right? That’s the thing I want to shine most in the game, I’ll start building the surrounding components all to emphasize that thing over and over and over again. And then generously, you let me have play testers at the end, I’ll start showing it to them, right? That is the point where I’ve got, my components are done, my core gameplay loop is done, I’ve got a few of the peripheral things that are starting to get those cylinders to fire. Now let me put it through the paces and see what people think.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so let’s say day one, so day one, you get seated in your comfortable yet not-too-comfortable cell, you have this hamster bottle full of coffee.
Elan Lee: Yeah, yeah. Good, good. I love it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You’ve got unlimited ramen and you have a table, you’ve got your blank cards, paper, sharpies. What is your brainstorming, if that’s the right word to use, look like? Right? Is it questions? Is it drawing cards? Visually or otherwise, it’s just you sitting there staring at the wall, kind of running through things, rehearsing different things in your mind, what would that look like?
Elan Lee: I think the way that I approach that is I always imagine two of me, and when I have — I need to physically touch and hold things, right? So even if the cards are blank, I do need to hold six cards and shuffle six cards. And so if I’m holding them and I think, okay, me standing in front of me, if I were to give you this thing, what conversation could we have? I think it’s a lot like script writing. I start with the conflict. What is it that’s going to drive the conversation? We can’t be getting along, we can’t have the same motivation. Me handing this thing to you better create a conflict that now we’re going to try to resolve. And that’s really it. I think that’s where all good ideas start from is here we are in a room, there can be only one, so how are we going to resolve that? Because here we are, staring at a bunch of blank cards.
Tim Ferriss: Looking at the company, it strikes me that you have chosen lanes very well to plan. And what I mean by that is, you have not, as far as I can tell, maybe you have, so correct me if I’m wrong, but you haven’t gone off into the incredibly complex, $200 game that requires three hours to get the basics down, after which it requires probably 20 hours of play to get to sort of intermediate level. There are a lot of those games, and a lot of the hobby shops seem to favor those games for a lot of reasons that I think are understandable. I mean, the diehards love diehard products.
What other guiding principles do you have? For instance, two-player versus you need three or four players to get started. Any other elements that are integral pieces of the DNA of your design process?
Elan Lee: This is stuff I just don’t think often about. It just sort of happens. So this is awesome. All right. When I was growing up, the biggest frustration I had with games was, first and foremost, the instructions. I don’t have the patience to even read 20 minutes, let alone the seven hours to get into those crazy games. And so I really wanted to make games that 10-year-old me would really get a kick out of. And if you read, one of the things I’m most proud of about our instructions is any of the instructions you look at, the very first thing your eyes are going to be drawn to is this box that says, “Hey, don’t read these rules. Reading is the worst way to learn how to play a game. Instead, go to our website and we’ll just walk you through it in four minutes.” And we made a video. We have a how to play video.
Tim Ferriss: In video.
Elan Lee: Yeah, right. And we did that for every game, and I insisted on it. And it’s expensive, but I insist on that. Absolutely insist to every game, don’t read the instructions, even though we spent months working on the instructions. So that’s one hugely important thing to me. You should be able to pick up the game in five minutes and you shouldn’t even have to read to do it. You should just sit down, watch a thing, you’re done.
Second thing is, of course, like I was talking about, the game just has to be a tool set for the other players to be entertaining. I think the other ones though are a game cannot feel fragile. And I don’t mean the physical components, I mean, it can’t be too easy to cheat. You shouldn’t ever feel motivated to outsmart the game. The game needs to just say, look, you already know you’ve already got everything you need to play. We’re just going to tweak the world a little bit. What if you could only speak using single-syllable words?
We’re not getting involved too much. This thing will always stand out no matter what you throw at it. That’s really important as well, because so many games, I have a bookshelf with literally hundreds of games and so many of them, I realized I accidentally broke the rules. The game was just too fragile. I didn’t mean to, it just keeps happening. And then I think also, a game should be beautiful. You should look at a game and smile. It should be a source of joy. These things should be dopamine engines, and part of that is you want to hold the thing and show it to all your friends. And that’s actually probably the actual final one, which is when you are done playing, your first instinct, well, after “I want to play again,” your second instinct, I’ll say, is, “I’m going to put this in my bag and take it to my buddy’s house because I am going to get a little bit of more joy by sharing this with someone.” And the thing starts to have a life.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ll give you just an anecdote on Poetry for Neanderthals. My recommendation for folks, if you play this, first of all, your mileage may vary, right? I don’t believe that the whole world is just comprised of different-sized Tims. That’s not the case. However, my recommendation is, don’t do what I and my friends did, which is we decided we were going to play with three people to 100 points, we had to win by a certain margin of points, and that’s not doing any exercise for six months and deciding you’re going to do the leg workout from Arnold Schwarzenegger from 1974. We all felt it the next day. We’re like, wow, some portion of our brain has not been used in that way.
Elan Lee: That’s amazing.
Tim Ferriss: We really put it under extreme duress. But I do recommend people check it out. I want to flash back to your mention of the hundreds of games that you have. As someone who was a super devoted D&D player for a long time, which may seem, I’ll just explain to folks, may seem to contradict something that I named as the appeal of a lot of your games, which is the simplicity. D&D, especially when I was playing — and I have First Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide and so on, I still have all of my modules and campaigns and everything, is extremely in-depth. But it is also one of the best games I’ve ever found for co-creating a narrative and finding one another and making one another interesting and entertaining. It is just one of the great wonders of the world as far as I’m concerned.
Elan Lee: Would you say it enhanced your friendships with the players?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, 100 percent.
Elan Lee: Right.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, there were these occasional flareups, as you might imagine, especially if a dungeon master was in a pissy mood and decided to really damage someone who was getting on his nerves, but it was the defining, let’s just call it, sport of that section of my childhood. Because I was a runt, I got the shit kicked out of me constantly at school. There were a handful of other kids who fit the same description and we banded together, I guess much like Stranger Things but minus the aliens and everything, to play D&D. That was where we could shine.
But the reason I bring it up is that I have played relatively few games. I’ve played a lot of the classics. I’ve played Chess, I’ve played Backgammon, I’ve played Japanese Chess, I’ve played Go, et cetera, but now sort of sidestepping my way nervously into the gaming world, tabletop games have exploded. There are a million different genres and what I’ve heard in some interviews, not with you, but of game designers, is you have to keep up with the times. You’ve got to watch where the ball is going. It seems like an arms race on some level, and I’m skeptical of it. I’m skeptical of that because it seems like you could end up chasing fads and you decide, “Oh, Pokémon GO is really big. People are running through Central Park tripping over benches.” And if you do it incorrectly, you basically just fizzle because that was a flash in the pan, not to say that that’s true.
I’m wondering about the hundreds of games that you have. If you were to teach a three-hour class on the periodic table of elements for games and you’re like, “These are some of the canonical games or types of games that you must be familiar with, just like a chef has to know salt, oil, sweet, sour, umami,” some of these basics, what would some of the candidates be for that?
Elan Lee: Oh, okay. Oh, yeah. Okay. Stretching here because this is going to be — okay. First of all, let me say, I will admit I am a fish out of water here. I’ve never played D&D literally ever. I’ve never played any of those crazy 10-hour strategy games. I’m missing out on that experience. I would love to have that experience. Lately I’ve been pretty busy, so it just hasn’t come up. I don’t even know how to talk about this, but I will say that I have played a ton of board games and a ton of card games, and there is — you’re right. There’s a language, there’s a core ingredient list that’s important.
All right. The first one that’s become really popular right now — I’m sure there’s like a fancy industry term for it, but it’s kind of like a fill-in-the-blank game: Cards Against Humanity, What Do You Meme, Joking Hazard, Apples to Apples, and the basic structure is always the same. There’s a writer’s room somewhere, they told a whole bunch of funny jokes, they cut them up into pieces, and now you are going to get credit for reassembling those jokes. That’s the basic principle, right? So, you have a card, it’s your turn, you play a card, everyone’s got a hand of cards, you play your card — I’m going to not to quote another game, so I’m going to just make up a completely false game, which is, “What is the best thing I could wear on my head?” It’s a dumb example, but it illustrates the point.
Everyone else has a bunch of cards. I’ve got a banana, a beach ball, turbine, et cetera. We’re all going to play a card. Whoever’s turn it was is going to vote on which one they thought was the best, that person gets a point, off we go. There’s a bunch of games like that. They’re very popular right now. It’s an important kind of genre because it’s really funny. The best ones make you laugh so hard you can barely breathe. They’re just incredible.
The next one — let’s see. Where should we go next? Okay, the next one, I think, is called — I’m going to call it deck building. And the idea is there’s a whole bunch of cards, each card does something very, very special and powerful, but they’re all community cards at first. You play the game by trying to remove things from the community into your own private stash so that then you can deploy them and beat the other players. Every card has a power and a weakness. You’re trying to collect the best ones you can in order to obliterate everybody else. That’s also a very popular, pretty standard one.
Tim Ferriss: If someone wanted to do a sort of a chef’s menu tasting of these different games, is there one that comes to mind that fits that?
Elan Lee: Yeah. For that one, there’s a game out there called Dominion, which is —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, very popular.
Elan Lee: Yeah, that’s a good one to start with for deck building. Okay. Next is, of course, collectible trading card games: Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering, things like that. I won’t go into too much detail on that because, again, I must admit, I have never played any of those. I just don’t know anything about them.
Tim Ferriss: Justin Gary, who came up earlier, is a good person to look into it. I think he was the youngest ever national champion in Magic: The Gathering. Really knows that genre inside and out so people can check him out.
Elan Lee: Yeah, perfect. There’s physical dexterity games, physical or dexterity games. The idea is to play this game, you have to do something physical and whoever does either the physical thing the best or makes it so they can impede other people’s physical progress will win at those kinds of games. We have one out there, it’s one of my favorite games ever. It’s called Throw Throw Burrito. It’s dodgeball and card games all mixed into one. You try to collect cards while simultaneously throwing soft, squishy burritos at the other players. Collect a card, gain a point, get hit with a burrito, lose a point. Trying to do both those things at once is where the chaos comes from.
Let’s see. I’m sure there’s like a ton more that I’m missing. I’m kind of glancing over games here trying to —
Tim Ferriss: If there are any games where, even if you can’t name the genre, you’re like, “Really, you must play this,” in the same way that if someone came up to me and they said, “I want to be a long-form non-fiction book writer.” Not that I would be the most qualified teacher of all time, but I would definitely have certain books in mind where I would say, “Okay, here are five or six you’ve got to read.”
Elan Lee: There’s a few games I’ve encountered in my life that have felt so natural that it doesn’t feel like anybody invented them. It’s like two plus two equals four, like nobody invented that. They just realized the way to phrase it. There’s a game out there called SET that I believe falls perfectly into that category. I’m not even going to describe what it is, because you should just go and try this game.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a cool game.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve played SET. It is a very cool game.
Elan Lee: It’s one of those games that I used to play this with my sister, who’s 16 years younger than me. When she was 10 and I was 26, she would regularly kick my ass at that game, and it’s because it activates this part of your brain that either exists or doesn’t. I’m sure a lot of people are just horrible at it, but it is so neat to see a master hit that flow state with this game. They’re discovering patterns that are right there in front of everybody else, it’s just they can see them and you can’t. It’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: Side note. This is not going to mean anything to most people, but in my limited anecdotal experience, I would love to know if I were able to have a few drinks with the creators of this game, if they find women to get into those flow states more easily, because I have, at least in my experience, seen that. It raises all sorts of cool questions, I think.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Yeah. I wonder how you describe that skillset. What are the words to describe that skill? I have no idea, but it’s so beautiful to watch a master. It gives me chills. Let’s see. The last one I’ll say is — I’m trying to find the right category for something like Monopoly, because there’s a whole genre of game where it’s like resource management, resource collection.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Trading like Settlers of Catan and so on.
Elan Lee: Let’s talk about Settlers of Catan for a second, because for me there is a really interesting category there. That is one of the few hardcore games I’ve played. I know a lot of people would call it not hardcore, but whatever. I once challenged a group of designers. I was like, “Describe to me the core gameplay loop of Settlers of Catan.” By the way, I don’t know the proper way to pronounce that word. Catan, Catan.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, me neither.
Elan Lee: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Tomato. Tomato.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Right, right, right. “Describe to me the core gameplay of Catan,” and all three of them said the same thing or variations, which was, “That’s a game about collecting resources, spending those resources to expand the fastest.” And I thought, that’s not what that game is. That’s not how I play that game. That game is a social game. That game is a trading game. I don’t even care about the game. All I care about is my interactions and relationships with the other players, because that’s how you win or lose. It was so fascinating to see that these are really experienced game designers. We were playing a different game, completely different, even though we both read the same rules.
Tim Ferriss: Question: were they experienced gamers — maybe people don’t like that term or they automatically think digital, but were they experienced game players but not extremely experienced Catan or Catan players? Because my friends who love — I’m just going to say “Catan” because I’m American and like hard “A”s — they do think of it as a trading game. There’s a lot of game theory. For instance, there’s some people who won’t make a trade unless it clearly benefits them. But I have a friend who’s very successful, and if something doesn’t clearly significantly hamper him in the early stages, he will make a trade because of the social capital that he builds up the set of credit for later, asking for a trade. He’s very successful.
Elan Lee: That’s fair. You’re right. I don’t know that they were successful or experienced Catan players, but that’s great. That’s really astute. I hadn’t thought about it in that context. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: We may come back to the periodic table of elements and this is — I’m becoming immersed in this world, number one, because I want to spend more time off of screens. I want also help other people do that, and the way I’m hoping to do that is by designing a game of some type or collaborating with people to build a game.
Elan Lee: Good.
Tim Ferriss: I just think that’s the only way for me to really even make an attempt at trying to understand it is to roll up my sleeves. You invoked a name earlier that I want to revisit: Jordan Weisman.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And you called him your mentor. Who is Jordan and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned or things that you have modeled from your mentor?
Elan Lee: I met Jordan Weisman at Microsoft. Jordan Weisman is one of the most famous game designers ever. He designed BattleTech. He designed Crimson Skies. The list goes on and on, but I met him — you know when you go to a virtual reality center and you play any of these immersive games, where you’re sitting in a big robot fighting against other robots? He designed all of that and invented all of that, and actually opened the first virtual reality spaces ever in history. I met him at Microsoft. At the time, I was hired right out of college onto this Xbox group and they hired me as a producer. I don’t know anything about producing, but they hired me. I thought, “Oh, cool. I think I work in the video game industry.”
Tim Ferriss: What does that even mean? Because in Hollywood, producer can be a million things.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Fair enough.
Tim Ferriss: What does it mean in this context?
Elan Lee: The person in charge of a project. They actually call it the program manager there. It’s the person who’s responsible for schedule and budget and staffing for a project.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Yeah.
Elan Lee: They hired me right out of college into this role and the creative director for the whole studio was this guy, Jordan.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry to keep interrupting. Why would they hire you right out of college?
Elan Lee: Because I was a terrible, terrible, terrible student. I failed out of many colleges, but I had some really good internships. The star internship I got just talking my way in the front door was at Industrial Light & Magic.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, you son of a bitch.
Elan Lee: Yeah, right? I got to work on Star Wars and I got to put that on my resume. When I applied at Microsoft, I basically said, “Ignore my transcripts. Ignore my history. Star Wars. Star Wars. Star Wars.” And they said, “Sure. Yeah, come on over.”
Tim Ferriss: Is it true that you are responsible for the beautiful neck of Jar Jar Binks?
Elan Lee: I like that you put in the right qualifier there: the neck. Yes. I did not work on Jar Jar Binks; I worked on the connective tissue on his neck that tied the CG face to the physical actor’s body so that it didn’t tear as he moved around. That was my job.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. You don’t want any injuries in the Star Wars universe, unless they’re very interesting. All right. So, you get hired, but you’ve done this internship, that shines through, you get hired to be the producer?
Elan Lee: Yeah. They put me on the Xbox. They basically said, “We need six games. Here’s $200 million. Don’t fuck up.” That was it.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry to belabor this. Hold on. This is one thing — okay. $200 million is a lot of money. What gave them confidence that you could go from the neck of Jar Jar Binks to managing $200 million? I mean, were there other safeguards in place? That’s a lot of money.
Elan Lee: They didn’t give me $200 million. They gave Jordan $200 million. I just —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, okay. Okay, okay, okay.
Elan Lee: All right. So Jordan hired me. I must have been working there for two weeks, where he pulled me aside and he said, “You’re a terrible producer. You’re just awful.” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” But to his credit, I don’t know why. He said, “I think you might be a really good designer, so we’re going to switch roles.” I don’t quite know what it is he saw in me, but he said, “I’m going to help train you and you’re going to help design games instead of produce them. We have very talented people for that, far better than you. Let’s try this.” He immediately just started throwing me on projects, with projects like Halo and saying like, “Go do this. Go help with this thing.” It was great. Obviously, the first six games for the Xbox that came out were great. They set the tone for what the Xbox was and I got a ton of credit, again, all because of Jordan, because he saw something in me and said, “Go play in this arena instead.”
I think maybe the best way to describe who Jordan is — years later, we’d started a few companies together right at the point — when was this? This was when George W. Bush had just won his second term. All my friends were upset. Everyone kept, “Oh, God. The system is rigged. It’s not fair. He shouldn’t have won again. He was so bad the first.” All this stuff. I don’t care what your political persuasions are, but a whole bunch of people were just complaining. I would always ask the same question, “Well, did you vote?” And they would all say, “Well, no, it doesn’t matter.” I got so upset. I was like, “Oh, there’s just this one tool you have and you’re not using your one tool.” I sat down with Jordan and he said, “This reminds me a lot…” I was complaining about this thing. “All my friends, they’re not voting and they still have the audacity to complain about it.” And he said, “Okay, this reminds me a lot of the story of how the US was founded. There was a bunch of upset people and they eventually did something about it.” And he said, “You know what we should do?” Because it’s Jordan, he said, “We should start a clothing company.” Right?
I was like, “Well, I’m not following this at all, but, yes. You know what? Let’s go. Let’s do it.” What we did was we started this clothing company, where we made these beautiful shirts. It was mostly a t-shirt company. We put out a whole line of t-shirts. Each one was gorgeous, beautiful. We hired the best artists in the world and just designed these shirts. But every shirt had hidden, inside of it, a secret code or hidden message somewhere in the shirt. Sometimes it was right on the printing, like you had to fold your shirt a certain way and get the graphics to line up and you could read — suddenly, a secret message would appear. But we used things like invisible inks, we use things like glow-in-the dark inks, thermal inks, like get your shirt hot and suddenly a message would appear. If you could figure out the message, you’d take it to the website, you enter in the message, and a little movie would start playing, a little two-minute clip. It was basically a TV show. Every shirt had its own two-minute clip. They fit together like a TV show. It was episodic and each one would end in a cliffhanger. “If you want to know what happens next, awesome, go buy another shirt.” That was our business.
Tim Ferriss: How did he go from the prompt of you being upset about voting to make the conceptual leapfrog move to that?
Elan Lee: Because Jordan’s like the most brilliant guy in the world. The episodic story that we were telling was about a band. And the band had a very oppressive producer that was stealing all their money, was just making a huge mess for them. It got so bad that eventually a member of the band got murdered and —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that is bad.
Elan Lee: Really bad, right? Who did it? That was the crux of the story. What we never told players of this game, this clothing-based game, because this was Jordan’s actual brilliant idea, was as you progressed through this, the players figured out that this is a beat for beat retelling of the founding of the United States. Every character has a historic counterpart. The bass player, Adam, was John Adams. The leader of the band, Jeff, was Thomas Jefferson. And by listening to the story and piecing it all together, you’re actually learning the story of the founding of the country and why they did it and what they were rebelling against and why they were so unhappy and why they created a way for them to work their way through this system. I’m so proud to say — our players, millions of them, they started canvassing their neighborhoods, showing up to Rock the Vote parties, and they got — I don’t remember the exact number, so bear with me, but it was hundreds of thousands of new registered voters through this clothing company. That’s really the beauty of Jordan is I can go to him with a statement like, “None of my friends voted,” he can say, “Let’s start a clothing company,” and the answer is a hundred thousand more people voted next time. It’s so cool.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing.
Elan Lee: It’s so cool.
Tim Ferriss: Jordan may have some unusual hardwiring that enables him to do certain things, just like Michael Jordan may have some unusual hardwiring that allows him to jump and do certain things physically. However, there are probably certain principles, certain commandments that you could distill if you had to. If Jordan said, “Look, you can have 10 hours of conversation with me and then you have to teach the 10 Commandments of Jordan Weisman to this freshman class…” Or it could be junior class, whatever. Just let’s assume they’re serious. I’m not going to ask you to name 10, but do any come to mind whether sort of quintessential Jordan?
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: They don’t have to be commandments. They could be anything that comes to mind.
Elan Lee: Yeah. There’s a few that are immediate, because he just drilled them into my head. One is “Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.” Try as hard as you want to market something, get a crowd. That’s what actually matters. Another one that he still says all the time is, “You’ve got a violin, I’ve got a barn. Let’s put on a show. Don’t overthink this, just go. Tomorrow, put on a show. You’ll learn a lot and that’s fine. You’ll fail and that’s fine, too. Just go.” Yeah, that one was — man, took me forever to figure out, but so important.
Tim Ferriss: Now, does that apply in the context of how you knew Jordan in the sense — and I’ve heard other people say this. “You can think about it for five hours or you can test it for five minutes and you’re going to get the same benefit.”
Elan Lee: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. Yeah. He really burned that into me. I started the alternate reality company with Jordan. If I were in charge of that company, we would have been paralyzed. I would’ve been too scared to do anything. But Jordan called up Steven Spielberg and said, “We’ve got this company. We can market your game better than anybody else in the world. You should hire us.” And they did. We had no product, we had no idea what the hell we were doing, and suddenly with Steven Spielberg, we built the world’s first alternate reality game because Jordan made a phone call.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on. Was he like croquet partners with the Spielberg family, went to the same social club? How does that happen?
Elan Lee: All right. It was a little different. I was at Microsoft — all right, so here’s how this story actually rolled out. I was working at Microsoft doing this new designer, no idea what the hell I’m doing, and one day Steven Spielberg walks into my office. Seriously, right? He sits down and he says, “I’ve got to talk to you.” He says, “Your boss, Jordan, just paid Warner Bros., I don’t know, $600 million, whatever it is, for the rights to my new movie, AI. Apparently your job is you’ve got to make four video games about this movie. So I thought I should sit down and chat with you about what this movie is so we could get started.” That’s how I met Spielberg. Jordan just sent him to my office and said, “Go talk to that guy.” Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Not the worst day. Not the worst day.
Elan Lee: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Man, that was a weird place. It was so inspiring, so much fun, but stuff like that would literally happen every day. The way that actually rolled out, unfortunately, we built four games. We built an adventure game, we built a racing game, we built a gladiatorial combat game. Jordan said, “Look, the thing we really have to do is we need glue between these things. We need a way to take players from one game to the other game to the other game. We’ve got this incredible narrative, but how do you understand how they all fit together? We need the glue.” So, we hired this incredible writer, a guy named Sean Stewart, to write a story about the glue.
He wrote it. It was a tearjerker, just this incredible, incredible narrative. Then the movie was done, we finished all the games, we went to the premiere. I don’t know if you remember this movie, but the movie is about an android boy who is adopted by a human family, who eventually — all this android boy wants is to be loved. He wants his mother’s affection, and eventually he is denied that. He is abandoned in the forest, no one loves him, he’s left to fend for himself, he witnesses everybody die. He, in fact, witnesses all of humanity go extinct and never actually achieves love. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think anybody’s walking out of that movie thinking like, “I can’t wait to play the Xbox game,” right?
Tim Ferriss: Those people who came out and they’re like, “I’m really depressed, but I’m not yet ready to kill myself. How can I push this just a little further?”
Elan Lee: Yeah. So, we went back to work and we thought, “Oh, it’s heartbreaking, but we’ve got to cancel all of these games. We just can’t make any of them.” So we canceled them, but we thought like —
Tim Ferriss: No, wait. Hold on a second. Now, presumably when you sat down and Spielberg’s like, “Okay, kid, let me tell you what this movie’s about,” you had some insight into the storyline and the arc of this movie. So did it come as a surprise or were you just like, “Maybe they’ll change it. Maybe the studio will be like, ‘Steven. Please, Steve, baby, we’ve got to change the ending.'” To what extent was it a surprise or were you’re like, “Hey, we’re getting paid well, let’s do our best, and then…”
Elan Lee: It was a surprise, but it was intentional. This was a collaboration between Spielberg and Kubrick. Spielberg adopted a Kubrick script and he really didn’t want a lot of people to know what it was going to be about or the final implementation. We did have the script, but it was a version like 10 versions back, so it was very, very different. But by design, that was part of their kind of surprise marketing was like, “Nobody actually knows what this is until we’re ready to show you.” Unfortunately, we were some of those people.
Tim Ferriss: Makes it rougher for the game designers.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Oh, man. So we have to cancel all the games. We’d spent a year building these things. I was sitting down with Jordan basically crying, just like, “This is the worst. Everything we worked on is getting canceled now.” But we thought, “You know what? Remember that glue? That was pretty cool. That narrative was really, really good.”
Tim Ferriss: And by glue, you mean sort of the narrative connective tissue that was woven by Sean?
Elan Lee: By Sean Stewart, yeah. Yeah. It was, again, this just beautiful story. It didn’t have any engine associated with it. It was just a few hundred script pages of the story of characters that lived in the same world as AI and went through it with them, landing from set piece to set piece to set piece, which at the time were the Xbox games. We thought even if you remove the Xbox Games, this is still a beautiful story. I wonder if there was a way to put it out into the world. I remember I was sitting, again, heartbroken with Jordan. We were at a sushi restaurant and in Seattle, and I was saying, “Ah, there’s got to be a way we can put out at least that story, at least that,” and his phone rang. He looked at me and he said, “What if that was the story calling us right now?” My brain just exploded. I was just like, “I have no idea what that means, but it feels really significant.” Then we sat down and we started building what is now known as the first alternate reality game for Warner Bros., for Spielberg, because we still had this contract, we canceled all the games that we had to deliver something for marketing their game, their movie, excuse me. So we decided, “All right, what if we take this beautiful story, cut it up into a million pieces, hide it all over the planet, and let players reassemble it, and the finale of our story is the launch of the movie?” Which turned out to be called The Beast.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. What a great story.
Elan Lee: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for sharing.
Elan Lee: That was so fun. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You have such a broad spectrum of experience with games and interactions of all different types, a human with component, player with player. There’s such a multifactorial set of experience that you have. Right now, you have this company, you have many games. If you were able to operate under a pen name and make a game that it doesn’t have to do at all with Exploding Kittens, is there some game that you’re like, “God, if there were a way, if I just had the time, if I could have my druthers, a type of game or anything?” Maybe you don’t want to share it or who knows? But is there something you’re like, “God, I wish this existed in the world and I would make it if I were just in a slightly different spot?”
Elan Lee: All right. I’m going to tell you something I’m not allowed to tell you, but I’m going to tell you anyway ’cause, man, you set me right up for this one, so here you go. I have two kids. I have a five-year-old and a one-year-old. Last year, my five-year-old was four. Of course, I tried playing games with her, I hate playing games with her, hate it. It’s because the games you can buy for kids are awful. They’re the worst games. “If I have to play Candy Land one more fucking time…” So I dread it, and she’s having a blast.
She’s getting attention, so she loves it. She’s like, “Daddy, can we play again?” I’m just like, “Oh, please, no, anything, anything but play again.” I started thinking, “This feels really broken.” You know when someone like Eddie Murphy disappears for a while, and then he does a bunch of kids’ films and everyone’s scratching their head and they’re like, “Why are you doing a bunch of kids’ films?” That’s not what we know him for. All right. I’m about to tell you that story. I started thinking about, why are kids games so awful? What I realized is the model is wrong. What if the model instead was Pixar, where —
Tim Ferriss: I was just going to —
Elan Lee: Yeah —
Tim Ferriss: I knew you were going to go to Pixar.
Elan Lee: Right. Right.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, so good. So good.
Elan Lee: Right. Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: So what if the kids could have an experience that they love and the parents could have a different experience through the same tool set that they love as well?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: For the last two years, every night with my daughter, we get out the paper and the stickers and the markers, and we just make games every night. Every night. We made, I don’t know, 20, 30 of these things, but a few of them are really good, really good. She helped me design them, and we worked. We play them all the time, and now she’s sharing them with her friends, and —
Tim Ferriss: I don’t want to insult your daughter’s intelligence, but she’s five currently, right?
Elan Lee: Yes. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: It’s quality time, so it’s not like you’re like, “Come on, pull it together. You need to earn your keep around here. What does this look like, a nonprofit?” But how do you interact? I think this would be helpful for parents —
Elan Lee: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: — even if they don’t care about game design.
Elan Lee: So my daughter is still in that phase where everything is about her. She has no awareness if I’m having fun or not, everything’s about her.
Tim Ferriss: I think there are a lot of adults who are still there.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Fair enough. Yeah, I could tell you stories there too. The interactions with her, the game design is like, “How do I make sure that she’s being celebrated, that she is winning a game?” But for me, what’s going on in the background is, “I cannot let her win. I have to be trying my hardest and she has to beat me anyway.”
Tim Ferriss: Okay. That sounds hard.
Elan Lee: It’s so hard, it’s so hard.
Tim Ferriss: Like severe, severe handicapping.
Elan Lee: Yeah. It’s really hard and we went through a ton of games where that wasn’t the case, where I found, “Oh, I’m letting her win again. Let’s scrap this thing and try something else.” we eventually ended up with a handful of games that all satisfy that criteria that I don’t let her win, and she wins anyway, that I’m having a blast, she’s having a blast. The best thing is, at the end of it, she says, “Can we play again?” I’m like, “Hell, yes. I’m so glad you asked. Yes, let’s play again.” the part I’m not allowed to tell you, but I’m going to tell you anyway is this little five-year-old is going to have a handful of games in retail this coming year that she helped design.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s so cool.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s so cool.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man. Getting the dad gold star.
Elan Lee: It’s so much fun.
Tim Ferriss: When she’s a teenager and she’s like, “I hate you, Dad,” and you’ll be like, “Never forget what I did for you.”
Elan Lee: She’s got such a skewed perspective. Imagine if she thinks this is just normal, “This is what all families do. You make games and you put them in a store.” That’s what —
Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining she’s at the bouncy castle at her friend’s sixth birthday party, “Oh, yeah. What are you up to? Are you having fun?” “Yeah, I decorated a cake.” She’s like, “Oh, that’s cute. Yeah, I have three games at Walmart.” So speaking of sales, it’s going to be an abrupt, awkward transition —
Elan Lee: Okay. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: — but I bookmarked something you said earlier that I didn’t want to interrupt with at the time, but when you were talking about the first three to four years of games coming out of Exploding Kittens, direct-to-consumer and then adding to Amazon, and you had a line that was something along the lines of, “Amazon quickly eclipsed our ability to sell our own games.” Is that because when people would search for, I’m just making this up, “Exploding Kittens,” the SEO was such that people would be taken to Kickstarter? Most people are unfamiliar with Kickstarter, therefore the conversions would be very low. But once it’s on Amazon, which also functions as its own search engine, but happens to have very good discoverability on something like Google, did that increase sales, or is there something more to it?
Elan Lee: Everything you said is true with one extra point, which is, when a Kickstarter campaign closes, the Back This Project button changes to a link to a website. So now there’s an extra barrier to entry. You go to the Kickstarter page, you click this thing, it takes you through to another page. From there, you’ve got to navigate to where the purchase button is. That was too much for people. Amazon is just, “Here’s the buy button right here.”
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any idea, this is going back to the archives, I know, but it just occurred to me that probably their recommendation engine could not have hurt you, “If you like this game, you may also like Exploding Kittens,” but I don’t know if that was a rounding error or if it ended up adding up to significant, additive sales. Do you have any idea?
Elan Lee: I actually don’t know for sure. What I know about Amazon is when we launched, there were so many stories that had come out about the phenomenal success on Kickstarter that what worked to our advantage was, here’s this incredible thing, “More people backed this than any other project ever, and it made all this money and you can’t have it.” That was the story, ’cause there was literally no way to get it. You missed the 30-day window. So when we finally said, “Hey, it’s available on Amazon,” we had something like 20,000 orders in the first hour.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Elan Lee: It was just nuts because suddenly it was, “All right. Well…”
Tim Ferriss: Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, right?
Elan Lee: There you go. That’s exactly right.
Tim Ferriss: Because the launch itself became a story that helped to —
Elan Lee: Huge event, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — further perpetuate the sales.
Elan Lee: Right. So now, we’ve got 20,000 orders in an hour. Now we’re at the top of all the search results on Amazon. You search for the word “Game,” and it’s all Exploding Kittens, because the algorithm feeds on itself. So I cannot claim any credit for that. That worked in our favor perfectly. All we did was just take full advantage of it and just kept leveraging it.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. “Exploding Kittens, Lightning in a bottle. Holy shit. Now what?” Right?
Elan Lee: Now what?
Tim Ferriss: That when you build this company, which we could spend dozens of hours just discussing the company-building process —
Elan Lee: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — one of my questions for you, because again, this is serving my interest, ’cause I’m curious in all of this, but you don’t necessarily have to name Voldemort and the things that you don’t like, although I’m curious, maybe another time over a glass of wine or something.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: With the success of Exploding Kittens, no doubt, you had a lot of inbound from people who want to option it or adapt it for different uses in all sorts of different media and formats and so on.
As a company, probably at some point there was at least a discussion of, “How can we expand this franchise without damaging and maybe even strengthening our core business?” What might that look like?
What paths of exploration have been most fruitful or enjoyable?
Elan Lee: Oh, I like this one. Okay. So we deployed the same principle after Kickstarter as during Kickstarter, which was, ‘We’ve got to stay focused.” For the first little while, all it was, was “We must fulfill every single order.” We made a whole bunch of promises. We thought we were shipping out a few thousand games. We have to ship out 700,000 games our very first order. That was literally our first purchase order. It was like, “Okay. Well, that’s really hard.” So we’ve got to first figure out logistics. We’ve got to figure out warehousing. We’ve got to figure out everything, everything, ’cause we —
Tim Ferriss: Customer service.
Elan Lee: Right. I
Tim Ferriss: Tracking.
Elan Lee: Seriously, I thought, “We’re going to fulfill this out of my garage. I’m going to invite a few friends over. I’ll order some pizza and beers and we’re done.” An average game will sell maybe 50,000 units a year, and we’re doing 700,000 in 30 days. It’s just nuts, absolutely nuts. So the first thing was, “Stay focused.” I’m so happy to say we delivered every single one of those items on time, with the exception of the orders to Russia, which is a whole ‘nother story that makes me very upset, but we got them out there.
All right. I have to tell you the Russia story, ’cause holy crap. All right. So we didn’t have many, we had 16, maybe 20 orders in Russia, and we shipped them all out.
Then we started getting these emails from our Russian backers saying, “I never got my game.” We’re like, “Wait, you definitely got your game. We’ve got the confirmation right here.” They said, “Nope, never got it.” All of them, “Nope, never got it.” So I call up the customs, there’s a special name for it, customs in Russia, essentially. All of them go through this one warehouse. I said, “Hey, I’m trying to track down these 16 orders, what’s going on?” They said, “Oh, yeah. Those were never delivered.” I said, “Well, I’ve got the confirmation right here that they were delivered.” They said, “Oh, it’s illegal to import games into Russia, so our policy is to destroy them and then mark them as delivered.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Illegal to import games.
Elan Lee: Yeah. I never figured that one out. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: There must have been some very interesting political contest going on. Can you imagine?
Elan Lee: I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that one. Of all the things to consider a threat like this silly little kitten-based card game. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I will say, though, I have heard many stories, in many cases, first-time game designers getting themselves into financial difficulties because especially if they have a predominant overseas backer base, when games are inspected, damaged, having holes punched through them.
Elan Lee: Right.
Tim Ferriss: You can get yourself into an accounts receivable, accounts payable problem.
Elan Lee: It’s nuts. It’s such a huge problem.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: Oh, man, shipping and insurance on that shipping is so expensive and everyone expects it to be free or nearly free. When we show people the bill, we’re like, “Look, the game costs 20 bucks, but it costs us $150 to get that thing to you.”
Tim Ferriss: Holy shit.
Elan Lee: They’re just like, “Well, I’ll pay 10 of it, ’cause that’s what shipping costs.” Ugh.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: So it’s really hard, especially for new game designers.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Not that I’m recommending people do this, but presumably you can constrain your geographic range on Kickstarter —
Elan Lee: We can.
Tim Ferriss: — so that you can minimize some of the complexity here. I say that this is former life, but I’ve shipped hundreds of thousands of units with my first business, real business, which is a sports nutrition company. The stuff that you run into, especially if something has, in this case, a reasonably high retail price, let’s just take Canada as a simple example, it gets shipped to Canada. Okay, fine. You might say it only costs, well, I’m throwing this number out, I don’t know what it is right now, but let’s say it’s $30.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, fine. So you figure out a way to cover that. But then it lands at their door and they say, “Well, based on this price, that customer, you need to pay us this additional cost —
Elan Lee: Oh, it is — yeah. Then, if they don’t pay it at the door, they cannot accept the shipment. Now you know what you’ve just made? You’ve just made an enemy, because they’re like, “What the fuck? I already paid you for shipping, and now I had to pay this additional,” and it is endless. It’s endless. I hate shipping so much, so much.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So don’t underestimate the challenges of shipping, folks. You really need to plan in advance for how you’re going to handle a lot of these eventualities.
Coming back to, now, this could be an antiquated interview, but I was looking at some notes from a past interview that you did, and I’m just going to read here. Maybe it’s changed, but “We have a completely open-door policy when it comes to new games. Designers pitch us games in person through our website, via email, over Zoom every day.” You mentioned you’re looking for games that have a strong gameplay loop, simple enough, et cetera, et cetera, some of which we’ve discussed. Has that policy changed?
Elan Lee: Yeah, we had to.
Tim Ferriss: That seems like you could have a tremendous amount of inbound — yeah, it had to, right? Let’s just say even at that time, though, what are some of the other things that you would be looking for, because there must have been other tent poles you were looking for if you’re getting a lot of unsolicited —
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — submissions.
Elan Lee: Well, I made this really bad assumption, which was that people who have game ideas have good game ideas. So the things that we got through the door were like, “Hey, when I was a kid, we used to play this game, and I don’t remember what it was called, but it involved three cards and you’re trying to collect four, so let’s partner up on it.” I’m just like, “Okay, I can dismiss that one email.” But oh, my God, there’s like 200 of these a day and I don’t have time to do my real job. So what we had to do was hire a very talented group of people to go out and get the games from things like conventions, and there’s a bunch of inventor meetups and local meetups and things like that. They filter them, they show me, honestly, not that many anymore, maybe 10 a month, and they already know what I’m looking for. I’ve said no to so many of them that now they understand exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for, and —
Tim Ferriss: What are some of those things?
Elan Lee: Yeah, it’s a lot of the stuff we’ve discussed, honestly, the core thing that I’m always looking for is, are players entertaining each other? That’s the biggest fault I find in almost everything presented to me is, “I made this thing, it’s really beautiful. The game is working so hard to entertain the players.” my response is always like, “I don’t care about those kinds of games. I don’t want a game to be in the spotlight. I want the players to be in the spotlight. Stop showing me games that are working this hard,” and it’s hard. It’s really hard to find.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a great example of focus and positive constraints. I just want to underscore that, at least from my perspective as I hear you describing this, because if your charter is to create great games, you’re fucked. It’s just so broad. How are you ever going to implement processes? A follow-up question would be for me, at this point, how many employees do you guys have?
Elan Lee: About 100.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Is it necessary to go scouting for games? Is there a cost advantage to doing that versus just whipping those geniuses in house, feeding them Twizzlers and Coke and —
Elan Lee: Yeah, that’s right, on a little hamster wheel. Yeah. Okay. So 100 employees, let me talk about what those employees are doing, first of all, and why we went up to 100, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elan Lee: Because we started with two or three, and for a while we were outsourcing everything. The components of the process of making a game is not only, “Okay, we’ve got a design, we’ve got a PDF. Here’s all the art, here’s the rules, done. Send it off to manufacturing.” After that, we outsourced everything. We outsourced the company that manufactured them. We outsourced the company that would then transport them from that plant to a warehouse. We outsourced the sales channel. We outsourced the marketing channels. We outsource just absolutely everything. What Matt and I decided to do was to just, “We’ve got this incredible opportunity, what if we just tried to learn from this as much as we possibly can? What if we just try to be experts at everything just to see if we can, find the failure points, hire smarter people to then fill those gaps, but remove the reliance on external houses?”
So most of those 100 people are sales, marketing, production, logistics, distribution, accounting, legal, nothing to do with the actual creative side of the company, because that we can do with a very small team. It’s all the other parts that we decided to try ourselves, failed at it, hired way smarter people, and then built those teams in house. It helps us become masters in this field. It helps us not have to do what other companies do, and instead, blaze our own trail and figure out, “Okay, we want to deliver…” Okay, perfect example. The Exploding Kittens box is pretty small. I want a huge piece of cardboard around it.
If we had a bunch of external dependencies, we’d fall into the same category with every other game. Nobody gets treatment like that. That’s impossible. But now because we’re dealing with Target and Walmart directly, literally calling them on the phone every day, and we deal directly with the manufacturer, and we own that cardboard stock, and we own the ink to put on that cardboard, now we can have really interesting conversations with them about, “What if we put this thing on your shelves and we think it’ll increase sales in this way? What if we put a little secret component in the corner and we will do a whole marketing campaign about people finding that?” It’s a kind of conversation that nobody gets to have in this industry. The only reason we get to have it is because we are an end-to-end house of which very few exist in the world.
Tim Ferriss: So end-to-end house has a lot of vertical integration advantages, let’s say. Not risk-free, right? It takes fuel —
Elan Lee: 100 mouths to feed, amongst other things, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, 100 mouths to feed, and it takes fuel to grow. For people who are unfamiliar, could you just give us some milestones in terms of funding and everything else? Because it’s a rarity, as far as I can tell, it’s certainly not something that I’ve come across a lot, and I’m relatively new to the space, but this does seem to stand out.
Elan Lee: Yeah. So I’ve started a bunch of startups. This is, I think, my fifth or sixth. Every time the milestones are always like, “Hey, we got our seed round or friends and family round,” and, “Hey, we just got this retail channel. We just got this distribution deal.” For this one, it was really weird because for the first few years of the company, we owned 100 percent of it and we had no one to answer to. Instead of us going out saying, “Please, please, please, sell our game,” we had people knocking on our door saying, “Please, please, let us sell your game,” so the milestones were really strange.
It wasn’t, “We accomplished this thing.” It was, “We allowed somebody else to do the thing that they were asking for, to sell our game, to distribute our game, to market our game.” It went that way for a long time. We had a bunch of people coming in saying, “We want to invest in this thing,” and we had this incredible luxury to say, “Money is the one thing we just don’t need. There’s all kinds of stuff we do need, but money is not it.”
I remember one day, so this was maybe the first big milestone, one day, this guy, Peter Chernin came to our office —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I know the name —
Elan Lee: — a legend in Hollywood, and he said, “I really want to invest in your company.” We said, “Yeah, no, thanks.” He said, “Hold on, just hear my pitch.” He said, “You are at the top of your game. You’ve done all the things you should be doing. You’ve grown as far as you should absolutely grow, but the next step is to stop being a game company and start being an intellectual property company. What that means is TV shows and movies and theme parks, and it turns out I’m probably the best in the world at those things.” Matt and I huddled up and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. This is a really good point, one that we had never considered. We don’t know how to grow beyond this point. We’ve done this as big as we can.” So we took an investment from The Chernin Group, and that was a huge milestone for us.
We had never had partners. We’d never given away anything, and suddenly we did. I would say we spent 12 hours fretting that decision once we signed the papers thinking, “Oh, what have we done? Oh, no. There’s another chef in the kitchen. What does this mean?” Then Peter called us up and he said, “Okay, if you could make a TV show, who would you want to make it with? Who’s the top people in the world?” Both of us, without hesitation, we’re like, “Oh, well, Mike Judge and Greg Daniels.” Again, those two people are worth Googling. That’s Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, The Office, Office Space, like holy crap, the absolute best people in the world, and we’re like, “But, we know…”
He said, he’s like, “Whoa, that’s a really big ask.” We’re like, “Yeah, we know, but you asked who would be our number one choices, so there it is.” He said, “Okay, cool,” and he got off the phone. Next day, he called us up and he said, “Can you come over to my house this afternoon? Well, I really want to chat about this TV thing.” We said, “Sure.” We went over to his house and sitting in his living room on the couch were Greg Daniels and Mike Judge. They looked at us and they said, “Peter tells us you’ve got this really cool game that you want to make a TV show out of, and we should be the executive producers. So can you please talk to us about it?” It was at that point when Matt and I stopped —
Tim Ferriss: It’s one of those “Spielberg walks into your office” moments.
Elan Lee: Yeah, right? It’s just these superpowers that some people have, being able to align with them and saying, “Look, together, the sum is greater than the individual components.” Peter’s superpower is that networking our superpowers, we’ve got this really delightful IP, maybe this is a chocolate and peanut butter moment. It turns out, and it really was, right? So now —
Tim Ferriss: Did you say chocolate and peanut butter?
Elan Lee: I did say chocolate and peanut butter.
Tim Ferriss: Getting all European on me.
Elan Lee: I know. All right. All right.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please, continue. No, I like it.
Elan Lee: So the punchline here is now we have a Netflix show in development and it’s executive produced by Greg Daniels, Mike Judge, and Peter Chernin, and that’s, holy crap, we’re this little startup that started in my garage trying to raise $10,000. Now we’re at the absolute top of the game, and that doesn’t happen on our own. There’s no way we could have hit that on our own. That was a huge milestone in us realizing, “It’s okay to give parts of this thing up as long as we choose really wisely, as long as it’s people who share our vision and want to make this thing bigger than we could on our own.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So for people who are curious, The Chernin Group is TCG, tcg.co/portfolio. We’ll give you an idea of some of the properties/companies and people they’ve invested in. There are a lot of very good ones. I see here Food52, which I know; also, MeatEater, which I know because Steven Rinella took me on my first ever hunt —
Elan Lee: Oh, that’s awesome.
Tim Ferriss: I’m actually in one of the episodes where we went to Alaska together. Exploding Kittens is right next to MeatEater. Then you have Hodinkee, which I know because my friend, Kevin Rose, used to be the CEO; Barstool Sports, and it goes on and on, Rooster Teeth, which I have actually been to their offices. I know those guys. I don’t know them well, but I’ve been there. Scopely, which I’ve actually been looking at more closely recently. Hello Sunshine, which some people might recognize, Reese Witherspoon. They’ve had very nice outcomes with Hello Sunshine, and it goes on and on and on. So these guys, much like you, are good at focus.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: They have very particular types of companies. Now, I don’t know if this is public, it might be, but how much money did you end up raising?
Elan Lee: I don’t know if it’s public, but I don’t mind saying, we raised $40 million at that point.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Okay. So you raised $40 million. Now this is a world, not specific to The Chernin Group, although I’m in some of the same companies, but I’ve invested in a lot of mostly seed stage or series A stage companies. But with that money comes guidance, it comes health. There’s certain, also, expectations that they have as professional investors.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How does that play out?
Elan Lee: Okay. So first of all, it’s important to say that 40 million is still sitting in our bank account because we just didn’t need it. So it’s sitting there. But it was important to have that as a signifier, right?
Tim Ferriss: No, and just to say, it’s not so much the money but once they have a portion of the company their hope is at some point to have a liquidity event.
Elan Lee: So that was really important for me to understand, is that once you take on an investor, it’s not a matter of when you exit the company. It’s not a matter of if you exit the company, it’s now a matter of when you will exit the company. And that took me a second to understand, but what’s really interesting, so I remember, “Okay, now the Chernin group is on board and now we have to have board meetings.” That was a new one for us and our very first board meeting, so one of the partners at the Chernin Group is a guy named Jesse Jacobs, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And we sat down with him, we’re like, “Here’s our first board meeting, here’s our presentation.” And at the end of it, he said, “That was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen.”
And we’re like, “Okay, well, we really did our best. We clearly don’t know what we’re doing.” And so to their credit, we worked so closely with him after that, he’s like, “Okay, you get a mulligan, we’re going to do this thing over, but let us train you. Let us work with you. Let us hook you up with experts. Let us show you other people’s board decks, and you’ll see what a healthy company looks like, because you two have been incredibly lucky, and you have to plan on that not lasting forever.” And they were totally right. It was really important for us to gain that new muscle and hire a new group of people. We hired our first-ever accountant, we hired a CFO. That was a very new thing for us.
Tim Ferriss: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You didn’t ha —
Elan Lee: No.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Well, look. So wait a second. So you’re going in QuickBooks. I mean, what? What’s going on here if you guys don’t have an accountant?
Elan Lee: Yeah. Well, I really love Google Sheets, and so I literally wrote everything myself.
Tim Ferriss: Holy shit, man. Wow.
Elan Lee: That was our first five years.
Tim Ferriss: You must have had a lot of free time for those first few years.
Elan Lee: I wouldn’t call it free time. I would say I had a lot of lack of sleep.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that sarcastically.
Elan Lee: Yeah. Fair enough. All right. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right. So you get your accountant.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So you start getting systems in place.
Elan Lee: Start getting systems in place, and we start figuring out, I think the Chernin group and Jesse specifically, really started to lead the charge in terms of like, “Okay, you want to be good at everything. What does that actually mean? Who do you have to hire? What are the milestones?” I remember telling them, “We want to try everything, and if we fail, we’ll get help. That’s how we’ll know what we can and can’t do.” And they said, “Great, what does failure mean?” And I thought, “Oh, shit. I haven’t thought through that definition.” And they just forced discipline on our company. They didn’t impose anything. They said, “Look, if you want to do it that way, we will support you, but you haven’t even defined your terms yet. So let’s start there.” And it was so helpful. It was so helpful. And yeah. God, I love those guys. I’ve, like I said, lot of startups, lot of investors. I have never sung an investor’s praise like that before because they just held our hand. They’re just like, “We support you. We believe in you. Let’s do this together.”
Tim Ferriss: Do you provide equity incentives to employees, or is it predominantly salary-based?
Elan Lee: We provide equity to all employees. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. And feel free to plead the fifth or whatever the legal is on this, but I’m curious because I’m deeply interested in how startup founders navigate decisions like these. What percentage of the company did they buy in their strategic investment? Or it could be a range. I’m curious what the appetite looks like. Because that also starts to inform the dynamics that are at play after the investment closes.
Elan Lee: Yeah. So I’m specifically not allowed to say, unfortunately, but what I —
Tim Ferriss: No problem.
Elan Lee: — but what I will say is, what was very important to us is any terms of any deal that we sign with anybody, we remain in complete control of the company. We’re interested in help. We’re not interested in having bosses.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So is it fair to say they might approach it like a private equity investment, but you want to ensure that you as equity holders are in a position to still retain control of the company?
Elan Lee: That’s correct. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Okay. Well, so you have a tiger by the tail, man. I won’t push, I’m not going to dig for more specifics, even though I’m super, super interested personally. Because it’s kind of part of my education too. Let me ask you this —
Elan Lee: We can talk offline. How’s that?
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. So let’s say this. 10 years from now, 20 years from now, at some point you’ll be like, “You know what? The seasons of my life, they are changing. My daughter now has 20 more hit games than I do. It’s time to hang up my spurs.” When you have all the Skittles that money can buy, or just you’re satisfied. You’ve checked that box. What do you think you’ll spend your time on? Let’s just say you’re no longer running a company of this size.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What do you think you’ll do?
Elan Lee: I think for me, the thing that I’m most interested in is — all right, let me phrase this actually a different way. I think the through line between all the companies I’ve ever started and that have kept my interest for the longest is empowering a community. And I love doing that through story. I love doing that. I really hate it when a spotlight’s on me. I get shy, I get weird and uncomfortable, but I get — okay, I’m going to tell you. My proudest moment so far has been, I was at an airport and the flight was canceled or it was delayed. The flight was delayed, and it was so late at night that nobody could get a new flight. And so we had this terminal of all these grumpy people, everyone. They were just getting on the phone trying to find new things and getting turned down.
And we’re all realized, we just have to sit here for four hours and it sucks. And everyone was complaining, and you could just, there’s this horrible negative energy. Except for this one group of kids sitting on the floor in a circle just laughing their asses off. And I couldn’t help but go over to them and look over the shoulders and see what they were doing. And sure enough, they were playing Exploding Kittens. And it was like this unbelievably beautiful moment for me. And whenever I tell people that story, they always ask, “Did you tell them who you were?” And the answer is, of course not. That’s the opposite of what I want.
I am so delighted that I could give them a toolset to laugh with each other and have this horrible experience transformed for them into a positive one. And I do not want any credit for that at all. I just want — I loved getting to witness that. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that here’s this 40-something year old guy staring at a bunch of teenagers at an airport. But for me, it was a very nice moment. And so when I think about what comes next, it’s like, “I want more of that.” I want more of tool creation to create those just little pockets of joy. And I have a lot of ideas on maybe how to do it, but I don’t know which one is actually going to be it.
Tim Ferriss: So someone in my family worked at a chocolate factory, and at one point — they went in loving chocolate, and at some point they just had too much chocolate, and it developed a different connotation. So I’m curious how you have preserved the desire and, I don’t want to say novelty, but the freshness of what you just described in face of building a company that leads you to think about games outside of having the experience of sitting on the floor with your friends.
Elan Lee: I once took a skydiving class, like a week-long skydiving course, and at the end of it, I asked the instructor, I was like, “Do you ever get bored of this?” And he said, “Do you ever get bored of having sex?” And I thought, that’s exactly it. That’s how I feel about games. That’s how I feel about this job. It’s not a thing with an expiration. It’s a little dopamine factory for me and the people who get to have these experiences. I don’t know how you get bored of that. That’s just eternal.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All right. Well, I suppose yet another vote for more games in people’s lives. So Elan, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve certainly gone in all sorts of different directions. Is there anything else you would like to add? People can find Exploding Kittens at explodingkittens.com, and everywhere, of course. And there are some social links, but you’re slowly ratcheting back on those, which I think will be best for your mental health, longevity, and pretty much everything in life. Is there anything else that you would like to add? Any requests of the audience, closing comments?
Elan Lee: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is I’ve become enamored with partnerships. I really love — like, all the best things that we’re making now are collaborations with somebody else way smarter than me, with really interesting perspectives. We just made this game with Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller, and it’s like, “What a amazing brain.” I can’t believe I got access to that for a few months and got to play with him. And what I thought about since then is we as a company, Exploding Kittens, have this really unique ability to say, “All right, smart people out there, all right, people who have built followings and built audiences. You know what’s a tough statement that you can’t make on your own? ‘I made a game.’ Because it turns out it’s really hard to do.” And I’m really proud to say that we enable that. If you have a conversation with me and we go down the path for a few months, I can let you say that. And that’s been so satisfying lately. We’re doing a few of those, and it’s just been, ah, it’s so fun. For a guy who gets very shy in social situations, using that as my calling card, oh man, I am so set up for success now. I wish I had thought of that earlier.
Tim Ferriss: So there are many different types of dance partners. I mean, Penn Jillette is amazing. Been on the podcast, I was looking, it was I think 405. So several hundred conversations ago on the podcast. But how do you choose? What are your ideal dance partners? What are the characteristics?
Elan Lee: It’s really simple. It’s people who love their audiences, and maybe that sounds trite, but so many of the people that I encounter do not. If your audience is a tool for you to gain money, if your audience is a means to an ends — not interested at all. But for those who are like, “I cannot help but entertain these people, if I made nothing, I would still entertain these people. If I had no stage or audience, I would still do this exact same thing.” Oh, I love those people. They speak my language. We just go on for hours. So that’s my absolute favorite.
Tim Ferriss: So if somebody’s listening and they’re like, “Hey, I think that’s me.”
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What do they do?
Elan Lee: They reach out, they write to — let’s see, what’s the easiest one these days? If you write to just support at Exploding Kittens, that’s like this really lovely group email that goes out to a whole bunch of people. I guarantee it’ll make its way to me.
Tim Ferriss: All right. There you go. You heard it. You heard it here. All of those audience lovers out there, and there are some good ones, I mean, there are — I will agree with you that it is not everyone. I would say it’s actually probably even on the smaller side. Like, if your audience stops delivering any financial value to you today, $0, can you derive from this audience? Would you still engage? And I think the answer for a very high percentage is no.
Elan Lee: That’s absolutely right. I believe —
Tim Ferriss: The love is conditional upon financial outcome, and I understand that if you are making ends meet and having to focus on paying rent and sending your kids to school and so on. There are necessities in life. I understand that. However, the cult of the influencer, I find, to be a real amplifier of fun-house mirror tendencies in human nature. I do think it’s a very distorting playing field in a lot of sense. Not to take this off in a strange direction, but —
Elan Lee: You’re going to start a whole ‘nother hour here. All right, go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: I know. I was just going to say that what I think folks need to be very cautious of is, even if they start off with the most sincere of intentions, if you are not explicitly aware of and take steps to counter the seduction of the algorithm, you will be rewarded, vis-a-vis your audience, by more and more extreme caricatures of yourself, and you will therefore get propelled into becoming a mask. I’ve seen this with dozens of people now, where they used to be fairly moderate in their views, their expression, their gesticulation, their volume, and now they’ve painted themselves into a corner.
Sometimes they don’t even realize it, where the personality that their audience, in a sense, and the platforms, have shaped them to be is what they are. And that’s a very precarious place to be, especially, and you’ve had this experience, if you’re on a platform where you do not own direct means of communicating with that audience and if you have your organic reach throttled, and suddenly 70 percent of your positive reinforcement goes away, that is a risky business, financially and psycho-emotionally.
Elan Lee: Psycho-emotionally, especially. Yeah. Oh, Tim, so well phrased. I cannot — the reason that I’ve dropped off of most of social media, honestly, is because it feels like that’s a precarious place. It feels like it’s so easy to be there for the wrong reasons. It’s so easy to, by nature of attracting the wrong people, let them shape who you are. Let them shape the products that you make. Yeah. I don’t see the value in it anymore. And I’d rather just surround myself with fun, loving, amazing people who are nurturing and help me make amazing things.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Man. Hey, man, That is where I hope to focus more in the upcoming year. And I haven’t had any social apps on my phone. Actually, I’ve had one, I had reinstalled Twitter to be on someone’s Twitter spaces, but that’ll probably come off soon. Have not had any social apps on my phone for about two years now, because I do not believe that 99.999 percent of people out there can overcome armies of data scientists and extremely effective algorithms with self-control. I don’t think it’s possible. Don’t be that person who’s like, “I don’t think I’ll get addicted to heroin. Let me just try it a few times,” right? Chances are you don’t have an immunity bracelet.
Elan Lee: That’s right. That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Build, build, build. All right, man. Well, this has been really lovely. So nice to connect —
Elan Lee: Thank you. Such a delight.
Tim Ferriss: — and spend time together.
Elan Lee: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Really, really enjoyed it. And I will just say to everybody listening, as per usual, we will have links to everything we discussed in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. E-L-A-N. There are no other guests on this podcast with that name. So if you go there and search, you will find this episode in the show notes. And until next time, just be a little bit kinder than is necessary, build more, talk less, and have some fun, folks. Get off of screens, play some games. Thanks for tuning in.
Elan Lee: Thanks, Tim.
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