State of the Erf Address
Okay, I hope everybody brought enough siege units, because this post is a
My fellow Stupidworlders! Ten years ago, in March of 2006, I was sitting in a food court in Alexandria, Virginia with Jamie Noguchi, eating bad bourbon chicken and making plans for a new story comic. I read him my plot outline for an 80-page graphic novel. He sketched the first ever dwagon:
I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about the history of Erfworld in December, when we reach the 10th anniversary of our first comic pages going up at Giant in the Playground. But this week, it is the first anniversary of the launch of the Toolshed! I have a lot to tell you about what's going on right now.
Things are Frankly Awesome (but a year ago, they were terrible)
When I think back to March of 2015 and remember the worries that I had for the future of Erfworld, and compare that to our situation now, the phrase "brightest possible timeline" springs to mind. Those were stressful and scary days. "Keep the Lights On" as a goal for Milestone 1 was no exaggeration. Continuing as things were heading would have left me sleeping on somebody's couch. The Toolshed was our last, best hope for making Erfworld a stable and functioning enterprise. I thought it was a good idea, but we didn't know if it would work.
The creative side was suffering as well. We'd just had a ridiculously long, unplanned hiatus for David's move. Far too much of my own time and attention was being diverted to the survival-level stuff, and away from writing, lettering, and working with the artist. I'm not unhappy with the updates we were posting at the start of Book 3. I constantly revisit those pages as I write the rest of the book, and they're pretty solid. But I knew they could have been better. And when you love a story as much as I love telling this one, that's a sickening feeling.
Our creative situation finally fell apart in September, just as the financial situation was showing some light. It's easy to look back now and understand that things had to get worse before they could get better, but at the time it just felt like totally booping up. When I announced that David would be leaving and that we did not have any replacement lined up, I expected that it would be the last straw for a lot of our supporters. I wouldn't have blamed anyone for pulling their pledge and thumbing their nose at Erfworld. There are only so many times you can bet on a horse that comes up lame.
Instead, what happened? Toolshed subscribers and pledges both jumped by more than 40% during the four weeks we were on hiatus. The Pin-Up Calendar & New Art Team Kickstarter funded to $50,000, more than 800% of the original goal. Nobody on the team thought that would happen, that it was possible.
What you all collectively did for Erfworld in that span of time is something I will never forget. Financially, creatively, and emotionally, the fans saved us. Ever since then, I've been working hard to repay your faith by making the best story I can, and keeping those new pages coming.
Dream Team x 3
So let's look at where things are now. It's pretty unbelievable. We have our dream team on the creative side, combining Xin's priceless command of the world and characters with Lauri's exquisite talent and devotion to the final page being right. I feel like Book 3 has become the best of the series so far, and it's the kind of story I really set out to create in the first place. With the fear of catastrophe lifted, I can finally give it all the attention it needs. Lauri and Xin and I are in constant contact via chat, and they both are fantastic to work with. Our process has come a long way in a short time. Everyone on the art/writing team feels accountable to one another, and we've got each other's backs.
It's not only about the comic, though. On the business side, we've had periods in the past where our handling of store orders and fulfillment and customer service stuff was embarrassingly bad. These past few years, as Linda has taken over and been able to manage those things (and to manage me, I'm difficult) full-time, I think everybody who emails us or is expecting something from us can see how well it gets taken care of now. It's an unbelievable relief that I can hand most of that over to Linda, and know it'll get handled.
On the web side, you really don't know what we went through from March 2011 until we formed the current team in December 2014. You think we've lost a lot of artists? We must have had two dozen developers come and go in that span. We lost two entire teams and started over with a new code base twice. We had volunteers (and some pros) who wildly overstated their skills and credentials. Lots of people disappeared completely from contact, especially when they had a deliverable due. One guy invoiced me for 12 hours of reading software manuals before he got started (and a lot of other things that the team agreed were nonsense). One company with a stellar reputation ditched the project when they lost their lead developer. They waited 2 weeks to tell us.
So now we have a dream team on the web side, too, and it feels unbelievable! John has been here since the beginning, running the #Erfworld IRC channel and generally being a friend and great guy since long before we needed him to be an awesome coder. Brendan is a hotboop net security specialist and also an old friend from the comedy music world. He took over as project manager, and it's thanks to him that we've held the team together without losing anyone else for a very long time now. And Steve Napierski of Dueling Analogs fame is our go-to design and front-end guy for the design and upcoming redesign. He's even getting a considerable amount of graphics help from Lauri. The new site (now slated for an April debut) will look beautiful.
But it's been Red who really turned things around, and made the Toolshed happen. He's been an obsessive Erfworld reader for years. When we hired him 15 months ago, his situation with health and employment had been terrible for some time. I worried that he'd be just another volunteer coder who bailed on us. We really couldn't afford to have that happen. But he knew what he was doing and he knew Erfworld and wanted this to work almost as much as we did. Long story short, we bet the farm on Red, and he made it happen.
Now his situation is much improved, and getting better all the time because of working for Erfworld. The web team did some of their work on an hourly or Milestone basis, and we've been able to catch up and pay them everything they were owed. But they continue to work constantly on bug fixes and new development, and so they get a share of the revenue each month. "Erfworld saved my life," Red recently told the team. I replied it was only fair, because the Toolshed saved Erfworld. And he built the Toolshed.
And, of course, the Toolshed success is all thanks to you.
Now the Bad News: Toolshed Numbers Adjustment, Milestone 3 Locked Again
You might have noticed that the number of supporters and the amount of money pledged shown at the top of the site has taken a major dip. As of this posting, we went from well above Milestone 3 to significantly below it. So what happened?
Well, subscription crowdfunding is kind of new. There are things about it which had to be learned the hard way. One of these is that some people who make a recurring pledge will become unbillable. They won't cancel, and they won't update their payment information, so your system will keep counting them as subscribers, and their pledges count toward your total. This can go on for months and months, unless you cancel them yourself.
Another thing is that Paypal and Stripe are like Charlescomm. They gotsa get paid, mistah. And even though they're perfectly up front about their fee structure, it's impossible to set up recurring billing in such a way that they're taking less than about 5 or 6 percent. After one year of Toolshed data, our processing fees amounted to just a bit over 5%.
Patreon has been aware of these issues for longer than we have, but they didn't publicly say anything until November. That's when they started experimenting with making the project pledge totals reflect what the artist actually receives, minus all the processing fees and the 5% that Patreon itself takes off the top. (Thanks to coding the Toolshed in-house, we do not give up 5% additional to Patreon, of course.) In December, they made that change permanent. Here is what they said about it.
The apparent effect this had on Patreon pages was huge. Amanda Palmer's page lost more than $6,000 in (phantom) pledge money. If you look at a popular webcomic like SMBC, you can see the drop:
The longer the page has been around, the more delinquent/unbillable patrons it was carrying. At the 1-year mark, the Toolshed is already seeing a very big chunk of the pledge total as uncollectable money. Something like this:
The one-year anniversary of the Toolshed seems like the time to learn from Patreon's experience, and follow their lead in dealing with this problem. Here's what we're going to do:
• Starting immediately, if we have not been able to process your pledge for three months running, we will cancel your Toolshed subscription. You can sign up again, but we will attempt to bill you for the three months of pledges at that time (or a maximum of 3 months' pledges, if you've been unbillable longer than that). If we can't bill your card for the pledges that are owed, then you won't be able to subscribe.
• The Toolshed figure is going to reflect the total pledges, minus 5%. The Milestones may be nice round numbers but they're not really arbitrary. They represent things we can do if we have that much money coming in, and 5% is more than the 2-3% we initially planned for when we set them up.
This will also result in losing a chunk of subscribers (as many as 5 or 6) around the 14th of each month, when we do our billing cycle. Try to remember that, in case it happens to coincide with a controversial page and you assume people are quitting in disgust. :)
New Milestone 3 Goal: Moar $$$ to Xin and Lauri
So this means that we have lost Milestone 3, which is no fun. But since we have, then it seems like a good time to make another adjustment.
When we rolled out the Toolshed, Milestone 3 included an item for an artist bonus. That was meant for David, as a way of saying "Milestone 3 is what we really need to keep things rolling, but if we get into territory above that, then the artist should get a share."
Instead what happened was that the Kickstarter was almost all for paying the new art team, and everything above $34,000 raised their per-page rate. I changed "artist bonus" to "spot art budget" on Milestone 3 at that time. I was feeling that keeping the Kickstarter revenue for art and publishing, but the site revenue being for paying me and Linda and the web team was the way to go.
Over the last few months, Xin and Lauri have consistently delivered truly amazing art. I think this has had a lot to do with the growth of new subscribers in the Toolshed. Make no mistake, thanks to the generosity of our Kickstarter donors, the artists are making a page rate that's equal to what the top publishers in the comics industry pay. But if they've done such a good job and helped us grow, they deserve a stake in that as well.
So here's the plan. Once we unlock Milestone 3 again, then 20% of everything above the $1500/otu mark will be split between Xin and Lauri. This is another reason we have to adjust the number to what we're really receiving, because I can't owe them a percentage of phantom dollars.
This is partly my decision, and partly the web team's. They get paid on site revenue and this will impact them a bit. But Xin and Lauri are doing something special, and the web guys and I want to show that we know it.
What Else is Going On?
Well, I moved to a new house in January. (Note the lack of schedule slip.) I hated the apartment I was in for four years, because it was made of paper mache and near a busy intersection. I don't talk about it often, but I have a few strange neurological quirks including hyperacusis. This new place is much, much quieter. And Linda has her own office, with a paper tape dispenser. No more plastic tape sounds. I'm so happy!
Also, I want to say that I am really proud of the Erfworld community we've built on this site. The level of polite and intelligent discussion on the recent Charlie update bowled me over. I love that Shmuckers are being used for tipping all over the site. I love that I went to update the thumbnails on the site and we had more good submissions than I can promote right now. It makes me glad to have brought you all together to interact and play along. Thanks for being the best webcomics audience I know of.
Where to From Here?
Well, the new website will be going up in a couple of weeks, we hope. We keep running into development questions that nobody thought to ask, and we're trying to get the new site to do some things it has never done before. Still working daily, Skyping weekly and chatting constantly on that. Hamstard awaits his new home.
Obviously, we're hoping we can snap back and hit the "real" Milestone 3 pretty soon. As for Milestones 4 and 5, I'd be thrilled to be talking about hitting 4 at this time next year, and 5 on the third Toolbox anniversary in 2018.
In the meantime, we don't need to do anything drastically different. For once, there is no crisis. We've got some ideas for some new merch that we'll probably do before too long. Gotta order more plushies, and we're thinking about a Decrypted blue. If we need to raise capital for anything, we may not even need to do another Kickstarter. If Red can code our own Patreon, he can probably code a Kickstarter, too. Might as well save their 5% when the time comes, too.
And I hear it enough times to know that you're mostly just here for the story. New site features and things will come along, but I'll keep the distractions to a minimum. We'll keep working hard to make Erfworld the best webcomic/story/whatever-it-is that we can make it. I'm grateful to have you all here, and thanks so much for all your expressions of love and support.
The state of the Erf is strong, my friends! Thank you, and Titans Bless Erfworld.
Thanks for the update. The part about pruning unbillable subscribers makes total sense, I assumed you'd be doing it already. It's nice to hear that things are looking rosy for Team Erfworld. I had no idea you were working on yet another new site.
Could you also please comment on the state of the Kickstarter rewards that are outstanding? There hasn't been an update on the "Print Book 2 & Draw Book 3" Kickstarter since September, and I'm still waiting on my non-physical rewards from that campaign, and I assume others are too.
Also if you decide to do another Kickstarter in the future, I'd advise against rolling your own solution. Yes, you may save some money on Kickstarter's fees, but the visibility of the Kickstarter platform and the size of the community there help a lot. Even if you get a larger percentage of each individual pledge, you're likely to get fewer pledges overall if you code your own.
I was one of those unbillables. I knew I forgot something when I got my new card. Unbillability remedied.
Thank you for the timely reminder and for a peek behind the scenes!
The story remains incredible and your assessment of the art team is spot on. It looks like we're already back to over $1500 per OTU, and I hope it continues to climb. Xin & Lauri are working some serious magic. Even kicking in a few bucks a week, I feel like I'm robbing you guys sometimes.
It certainly doesnt feel like ten years, but I can remember the day the first banner popped up plugging Erfworld in GITP and wondering what the hell an Erf was. I was instantly blown away the moment I saw giant Elvises terraforming a world and on the next page seeing a dude get hit in the eye with an arrow. I was instantly and irrevocably hooked and i have loved every moment of it since. I have mostly lurked because my company requires "quota time" from websense and it doesnt afford you much time to write a comment and then refresh the next time slot. But I am trying to participate more, and now that i have a new job, I may even join the toolshed like i did when it first came out.
I cant thank you enough for the amazing stories. Countless hours breathlessly reading the action sequences, especially the end of each of the books, I couldnt read or click fast enough to keep up with what my mind wanted. Its immersive, incredible, funny, tragic, and beautiful. Its stupid but I sometimes think about how my Signamancy looks when i go on interviews, or try to use Thinkamancy to make myself more confident on those interviews. Thanks Rob, Xin, Jamie, and everyone who has or does helped with this.
I don't normally post or anything... I started reading thanks to Order of the Stick, way back in the day. Erfworld was there, it was a nice something to read when there was no OOTS update. Truth be told, I reckon it was pretty touch and go for me to keep reading once you shifted to your own website and stopped updating over there. I read so many webcomics, and Erfworld was fun, but it was just a footnote to another comic to me.
Flash forward to today though, and Erfworld is basically the only webcomic I read now. All the big name stuff that I used to read, your QC, your OOTS, your XKCD, SMBC, all sorts of things, fallen by the wayside. But I CANNOT stop with Erfworld. I've read it and re-read it and re-read it again. I eagerly await each new page. I even liked Erfworld on Facebook so I can find out (close to) straight away when new pages are up, and I don't really like ANYTHING on Facebook. I joined the toolshed when it appeared a year ago (or from the looks of my sub, a couple of weeks after it first appeared), because this is one of the best things I do with my time, and it just seemed criminal to be getting it for free. Heck, usually I don't even log in, so you get my pledge AND you get some ad revenue.
Anyway, this is all a bit of a long-winded and self-centered way of saying that I think you guys do... just AMAZING work. I'm so, so happy that the comic kept going, and kept getting stronger, and that things are in such a good place now. I hope this continues for as long as it can, as long as it needs to. I hope everything works out for everyone!
TL;DR: Thank you.
It's satisfying to see hard working, genuinely talented people can achieve the financials and glory of doing great work the way they enjoy it. All these, despite being nice, thoughtful people toward both your readers and collaborators!
Rock on Erfworld, here's to another successful 10 years which we will enjoy together.
Hey I've been kind of swamped (what else is new), but I just wanted to follow up in this thread and say thanks to all of you who jumped in to get us over Milestone 3 again. It happened in the same day as I posted this. We've gained back a number of the subscribers whose payments were unbillable, and we even got a new Titan level supporter (that makes three!)
I can't answer everything everyone said, but I would like to answer some specific questions and comments.
@MntlOrgnsmDsgndOnlfrFangirling (what a name!) - I can't say for certain when I will get back to posting backer story updates. It's important to me, but I'm still trying to reach a spot where I am comfortable that the production of the main comic updates won't suffer from my divided attention on the writing. It'll happen, I just can't make any promises about when, sorry.
@arin - Hope that Luckamancy unlock came in the nick of time!
@Omnimancer - A lot of projects benefit from the Kickstarter platform by attracting new backers who've never heard of the creator before, that's very true. But after five projects there, the numbers suggest that Erfworld isn't really one of them. An unusually large percentage of our backers are self-directed. A better approach for gaining readers would be to just pocket the 5% and turn some of it around into advertising on other webcomic sites. That's something we've hardly ever done, but we want to start doing a little in the future.
@Smeee - Stripe and Paypal are effectively equal in their fee structure, so either is fine.
@Lady Aa - I've got the ability to see that in my own dashboard reports, thanks to Red. Maybe we can pretty it up a bit and present it as part of the Toolshed page. I don't see why not.
@satyreyes - Yes, the ads were a constant drain on my attention for months and months. It really seems like we've got a handle on them at this point. They're still not perfect, but they're behaving pretty well, paying pretty well, I've gained back a lot of time that I can apply to other things. Thanks for turning off AdBlock!
@Vorteks - And I saved the toughest question for last. You're right that I probably should have made a mention in the State of the Erf that there are still a number of personalized rewards that have yet to be completed on our end. It's fair to say that we won't be doing any new projects until we've delivered the sketches, Erf IDs, poems, questions, etc. that we still owe to you and a few dozen other backers. We're working out a plan this week to deal with the art, since that obviously won't be David's work as originally promised. All I can say is that it remains on our to-do lists and our whiteboards, and we'll be fitting it in as time and schedule allows. Your generosity and patience are both appreciated, and I'm sorry it has dragged on this long.
Thanks for the update and the comment on my name :) (my only regret is that I couldn't fit the vowels in there too and that M.O.D.O.F. wouldn't have been self explanatory (not that I feel like I'm not at the right place for obscure references))
It is nice to know that you care to do these things properly and will not compromise quality :D
Hey Rob! I like your focus, and your attitude. Ultimately, it IS all about The Story - and what a wonderful story it is!
As you know from our email exchanges, I am struggling financially, but gaining ground on the struggle. I am SO very proud that I am able to contribute to Erfworld's success in such a tiny way, but we Tiny Ways do add up!
So friends, even if it's only a tiny pledge, go for it!!!
I also talk Erf every week at my D&D game, we Gamer's should definitely spread the word and preach the Gospel of Parson Gotti, Hallelujah!
Thanks for informing us about all of that. It's good to hear that you're doing well! You all deserve it, because you're doing such a great job! And I must say that I'm so impressed by this community's support, especially when the Xin kickstarter happened and simultaneously a lot of Tools increased their membership, doubling it on average!
I'm also impressed that after creating your own Patreon equivalent you're planning on doing the same with Kickstarter! Looking at the amazing successes you've had with it I think it's a fine choice to do that, because 5% kickstarter fee means thousands of dollars.
Are you planning on doing the same with PayPal, too? 0.35 Cents + 1.9% is significant as well, but I guess if you're doing your own PayPal equivalent you'll have to pay bank transaction fees instead which can be quite a lot when the money comes from overseas.