How Exploding Kittens Raised $8.7 Million and Broke A Kickstarter Record

The next Cards Against Humanity has defied all odds and achieved a record number of Kickstarter backers. Its creator opens up about the crowdfunding phenomenon.

02.20.15 2:49 AM ET

The most-backed Kickstarter campaign in history began with a simple deck of cards.

“It was literally a deck of poker cards that I had taken a Sharpie to and scribbled all over,” explained Elan Lee, co-creator of the overnight Internet phenomenon Exploding Kittens, a crowdfunding of unheard-of success that closed today with over $8.7 million in pledges—or, roughly 87,000 percent of its initial $10,000 goal.

The gameplay goes like this: Players take turns drawing from a deck of cards until someone draws a kitten and, you guessed it, explodes. But they can also strategically deflect the kittens onto opponents or “defuse” them with things like laser pointers and catnip sandwiches, use the power of a unicorn enchilada (to see the future, AKA three cards ahead), and tap select cards like the TacoCat to activate special powers.

It’s not hard to see why retro-hungry millennials sprung so hard for Exploding Kittens. The game’s engaging concept and artwork by “The Oatmeal” comics creator Matthew Inman gave Exploding Kittens a cheeky Cards Against Humanity appeal. (Lee credits the Cards Against Humanity crew for lending them “pure, friendly, amazing, altruistic advice” once Exploding Kittens blew up.) Who can resist a game in which you can strategically deploy The Thousand-Year Back Hair, Bat Farts, and Bear-A-Dactyls to take down your enemies?

As Lee discovered, becoming a part of the Exploding Kittens story was, like, LOLcats and cute animals, catnip to the Internet. The tech and transmedia veteran who co-founded startups like digital content studio Fourth Wall and EDOC, a line of T-shirts embedded with hidden codes tied to a murder-mystery narrative, tapped into his background to turn the Kickstarter platform into a call to arms for the Exploding Kittens movement. Supporters not only kept buying game decks, they also took to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with goat selfies, PotatoCat pics, and other thematically related social media cues, all for a game none of them have yet laid eyes on.

“I thought we were just building a page to ask for $10,000 and get this thing off the ground,” said Lee, who spoke with The Daily Beast while planning pizza parties at cat shelters around the country as special backer rewards. “But you don’t want to treat Kickstarter like a storefront; you can go to a store and buy a game. What you want is to feel like you’re getting in on the ground level, that you have a voice. If the product and the page reacts to your voice, suddenly you’re a part of the team. I’m used to building giant collaborative stories where people come together and they’re all working towards a goal, and the story changes every day based on input from the audience.”

Over the course of its 30-day campaign, Exploding Kittens made Kickstarter history every which way. It met its goal in just two hours, raised its first $1 million in seven hours, and had $2 million in its first day. With 219,382 backers, it is the most supported Kickstarter in history. So strong is the Exploding Kittens force, it’s blown away previous Kickstarter champions like the Veronica Mars movie, which closed with 91,585 backers and $5.7 million.

First conceived as an addictive but rather bland game dubbed Bomb Squad by Lee and his former Xbox Entertainment Studios colleague Shane Small, the “chocolate peanut butter moment” struck after “The Oatmeal” comics creator Matthew Inman played a few rounds with Lee during a Hawaiian vacation with mutual friends.

“Matt came up to me and said, ‘This is the most fun card game I’ve played all year—I want to join your team. But we have to change the name. Why don’t we call it something like Exploding Kittens, because the Internet?’ And that was it. That was literally how the thing was born,” said Lee.

The campaign offered two versions of the game—a single deck selling for $20 and a double deck that includes a second NSFW pack of cards for $35. To Lee’s surprise, a staggering 95 percent of donors sprung for the more expensive reward: “I think it tells us two things: One, that most of our audience is pretty excited to be not safe for work. And the second thing it tells us is that this audience really loves this product, really loves “The Oatmeal” and the artwork, and if there’s more out there they can get they don’t want to miss out.”

Success has come to the Exploding Kittens crew so quickly that Lee returned millions in capital he’d raised to start a new high-tech TV startup to investors. Instead, he’s planning on spending the next two years on Exploding Kittens, a company so newly incorporated that its three principals don’t yet have official titles.

“It was so crazy to watch this thing build and build, and in the blink of an eye it became bigger than the other project. My world was turned upside down and I had to reconsider what the next few years of my life would be like,” said Lee.

“Kickstarter, to me, is this mad scientist laboratory where people put forth these amazing ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to make real—but I’ve backed more than 150 projects on Kickstarter and so few of them have shipped,” he said. (It’s true: Lee’s backed everything from games to high-tech socks to butter knives on Kickstarter.)

So the next priority for Lee and his collaborators is a basic one: Fulfilling all the orders on time as they build the one-time weekend side project into a business. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I don’t want to squander it.”