One of the things I really like to do with Meeple Like Us is write the stuff that I wished had existed before I made certain decisions and agreed to certain things. It’s something I do a fair amount in academia too – when I can’t find a paper that makes an argument I want to cite, sometimes I just go ahead and research/write the paper. It’s kind of like an adult colouring book but for pompous self-aggrandising. It’s nice sometimes just to fill in the blanks.
It’s in that spirit I want to put this post in front of you – the post about Patreon that I would have valued at the time I was preparing to launch our own. I’ve already written some honest reflections about Patreon – particularly the anxieties and incentives behind ours. That post is more about the psychology of opening yourself up to the process and what It’ll take from you in return. Today I want to look at the nuts and bolts of the financials and the rise and fall of patron growth. Our third anniversary is coming up and we’ve been running a Patreon campaign for about ten months now. That’s long enough to draw some conclusions, as well as show you where the money goes.
As with the last Patreon post we did, I feel a little uncomfortable opening up in this way. It always feels a little like stripping in public, and trust me – nobody wants to see me do that. Nonetheless, if someone had done me the favour of flashing a little of their Patreon skin it would have gone a long way to contextualising what would follow for myself. Hopefully someone finds this useful.
Why Ask for Money?
I’ve been primarily responsible for spearheading many projects over the years – free textbooks, multiplayer text games, and various software tools for education. I’ve never asked for a penny for any of them because first and foremost they were about me. Things I wanted to do and other people were mostly just invited along for the ride. In the end if nobody appreciated the end product they were still fun to work on. That was how it worked with Meeple Like Us for the first two years – I had a question about board game accessibility, I answered it to the best of my ability, and I made the results and observations available to anyone that wanted them. Every teardown we publish is under a CC BY 4.0 licence which means, provided you attribute, you’re free to do pretty much anything you like with our findings. As long as my curiosity was being sated, everything else was irrelevant.
The thing is, the accessibility figures have stabilized . We have a pretty accurate snapshot of the hobby – or at least the part that is most heavily emphasized in the BGG Top 500. Or rather, we have a snapshot as best we, through heuristic analysis alone, could assess the situation. Our averages and stats are available on the site, as is our masterlist. The ‘average recommendation’ for each category we cover hasn’t changed in any significant way for about 18 months. I don’t expect it to change at any point in the future. Sure, different games occasionally offer different insights, but basically my question has been answered and published accordingly. As far as my initial incentives went, the project is done. Nothing majorly different is likely to emerge with continued investigation. All that remains is corroboration of already pretty robust data. Robust, of course, within the ‘margin of error’ that come from a single person doing the majority of the work.
At this point what I normally do with an investigation is put a line under it and move on to something else. The thing is – the feedback I have received from hundreds of people has been they find the site valuable. They are finding great games that they can play with the people they love and often they did not realise accessible games existed at all. They’re benefiting from this build up of annotated recommendations, not for the grades themselves but for the discussion around each grade. They see As and Bs in the masterlist and dig deeper, then make their own decisions. They use our recommender to short-list games and then see which they fancy. The tools we’ve written are used by schools, libraries, universities, advocate groups, charities, gaming stores and gaming clubs. In that respect, the investigation can’t ever be done. The more data points we add, the more effectively we link people up with great games that they can play.
The thing is that I’m not getting ‘research data’ out of Meeple Like Us anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’m not getting the amount of research data I’d need to justify the time that goes into it. I could swap gears and do something different and get a much richer, more publishable stream of information – either something new or within the topic of board game accessibility. There are much better ways available to me now to create publishable units of work for journals and conferences. Research output is no longer a driving incentive for the site. It just doesn’t serve that purpose any more. It did, and well, but no longer.
I still enjoy doing the site though, and people seem to think the work is valuable. The obvious question that emerges then is ‘Do people find it valuable enough for me to justify the time I sink into it, when that time could profitably be spent elsewhere?’ In basic Capitalist terms – can this site survive as a (heavily subsidised) funded endeavour?
Thus, Patreon – I’m looking to see if the financials of this project can ever reach the point where it merits the operation and opportunity costs of the work. So far, the answer is ‘no’ but there’s time for that to change.
We don’t operate a tight ship on Meeple Like Us. We can function with a smaller percentage of what we spend on almost everything. We pay for ads every post, for example. We have a web hosting package considerably more sophisticated than we need for this specific site. We could very easily tighten our belts, but given this is a labour of love there’s a point where you need to ask yourself why the belt-tightening is even necessary.
Our monthly expenses break down into following core expenses, averaged out:
- Facebook Ads – £60 p.m
- WordPress – Jetpack – £3 p.m
- Content Delivery Network – £7 p.m
- Web hosting – £15 p.m
Instantly £85 a month goes towards regular activities. Of these the advertising figure is perhaps the most eye-opening but the simple fact is Facebook is an awful company and they charge you for access to the audience you have built. Of our 1250ish Facebook subscribers, if we don’t serve an ad for those that have liked the page only 100-200 of them will see any new post we publish. Assume around £5 a post to make sure that the people who have chosen to see our updates can actually see our updates. If I sound ridiculously bitter about that, it’s just because I’m ridiculously bitter about it. This is why I keep telling people that if they can’t support us on Patreon they will genuinely be worth their weight in gold if they boost our signal on social media and Reddit. A single Reddit post that doesn’t get aggressively downvoted will send more traffic our way than any six Facebook ads we run.
We also spend some of the Patreon money on games for review. We can probably request review copies of most things at this point but I always feel somewhat beholden there. If I request a review copy, I’m obligating myself to a review. I also try to operate on a policy where I won’t request a review copy of a game I’d otherwise buy myself. I try to ensure a clear break between ‘review copies’ and ‘games I want for my library’. When the overlap comes in, it’s after the fact. If my primary interest in a game is that I want to play it, it seems only appropriate that I actually buy it.
In terms of game and supporting component purchasing, it breaks down to another £30 a month. That’s both physical games and apps. I sometimes use apps to explore games at inconvenient player-counts or just to work out whether the physical game might be worth attention.
On top of that we have convention costs – Over the past ten months we’ve been to two – the Glasgow Games Festival and Tabletop Scotland. We also went to UKGE last year but that was paid for by my employer because we were giving the equivalent of a ‘research seminar’. Convention costs, averaged out over the ten months, is another £30.
There are other things that need to be taken into account – banking fees, registering with Companies House, branded T-shirts, occasionally foreign currency fees and so on. They add on a bit but they’re also erratic and irregular so we’ll discount them for now.
With these we’re at £145 a month, although if we needed to pare operations to the bone we could probably get away with considerably less. If we were happy with nobody reading anything we do, and relying on publishers for new games, we could probably get ongoing monthly expenses down to maybe £40 or so a month. We could cut down web hosting, and remove the software that we have written that takes advantage of the hosting capabilities that we have. We could let the site lag or crash rather than pay for a content delivery network. We don’t though. the expenses we pay are what we think is needed to operate the site at a convenient level of impact and flexibility.
Total in American Silver Dollars – $188 p.m at time of writing.
Even this is lower than it might otherwise be because of our ongoing Depth Year and a question mark over whether we’re attending UKGE this year. The figure would be closer to £195 ($250) otherwise. I’m also going to discount the money that we are pledging to other creators, which I aim to be approximately 10% of what we are receiving. That’s not really a business expense. It’s a ‘pay it forward’ expense.
Notice here that not one penny is spent on ‘actually funding someone to do the work’, because at the moment that’s just not paid for at all. The best I can say is that these expenses sort of pay for my hobby, except I don’t ever need to spend another penny to continue enjoying gaming for the rest of my days. I have hundreds of games. I’m over forty years old now. How many more days can I realistically have anyway?
The income we get is broken down into a few categories:
- Personal funding from myself
- Consultancy (I won’t disclose the figure but ‘not very much’)
- Amazon Affiliate funding
By far the largest chunk of this money is Patreon. For most of our time operating a Patreon it’s been under the privacy system – you could see how many patrons we had but not how much money we were bringing in. Graphtreon comically estimated that we might be making as much as $800 a month from the site, which just goes to show how much you should trust averages. Before I get into figures, I want to show you the graph of our Patreon income from when we started and when we opened up the info. All Graphtreon can do with that is say ‘This is how much it was then’ and ‘this is how much it is now’ and then draw a line between them. Ideally, that line would skew upwards.
See that long line where nothing changes? That’s because we went eight months without improving from our position early on in the year. Or rather, by improving in some measures and degrading in others. We were very, very fortunate to receive an extremely generous pledge of $100 p.m. early on from Totalbiscuit, but he then sadly passed away. As such, our early performance was an aberration and the rest of 2018 was spent ever so slowly making up lost ground.
The spike at January 2019 was when we opened up our pledge information and also redesigned our tiers. That’s been successful, sort of, but I don’t really want it to ever feel like we’re trying to bilk ever increasing pledges out of our already generous patrons. I’ve said many times that I’d prefer 75 patrons that pledged a dollar to 10 patrons that pledged $10. It feels more proportionate, it shows greater public support, and it’s also considerably more robust. Every large pledge is an anxiety because of the impact it has on the bottom line of a small site like ours- a dropped $10 pledge has percentage points of ramifications. Pledges go away all the time – we have many more patrons now than when we began but comparatively few that have been with from the start. New pledges are the life-blood of a project because they’re helping deal with the attrition rate of a subscription model. In retrospect, I probably would prefer to do year on year pledge drives via Kickstarter. If Patreon never gets to the point it justifies the existence of the site I will cancel all pledges and try one last ditch effort with crowdfunding. At least that way a failed campaign gives me a definite point where I can say ‘Fine, we’re done’.
Anyway, over the past ten months our average Patreon monthly income has been £178. In 2018 we pulled in $2138.89 from Patreon, which seems like a lot until you compare it against the expenses. Basically with Patreon alone we have about £30 a month that we haven’t already spent on site activities.
That’s not the only source of income we have though, but the others are pretty small in comparison. I directly transfer approximately £20 a month of my own money into Meeple Like Us – basically I’m one of our more generous patrons myself, although I don’t do it through Patreon. We also occasionally get some affiliate money from Amazon, but that only comes to perhaps £10 a month if we’re lucky. Consultancy brings in even less than either of those income streams but I’m hoping that will change as time goes on.
The total of our income then is around £215 ($277.58) a month although at the moment I’m actually paying money to work on Meeple Like Us so realistically it’s £195. Occasionally we get little bonuses like free Facebook credits and so on but it doesn’t really make a difference to the bottom line.
All that means that every month we have a ‘profit’ of £70 ($90), but the actual figure is a little bleaker. Take away my personal support and it’s down to £50. If we were to go to UKGE this year it would go down to… well, judging by last year’s expenses it would go down to about -£10. Remove the Depth Year that is forever pushing our expenditure lower and it’s probably closer to -£25 or more.
In other words, the difference between ‘being in surplus’ and ‘losing money’ is whether or not we go to UKGE and that’s an incredibly precarious position to be in. Currently we have a balance of £363 in the Meeple Like Us account and that’s already pretty much been spent on future expenses. It doesn’t take into account UKGE at all.
Now, this isn’t a sob story – after all, all of this money used to come directly out of my own pocket so it’s not like I haven’t personally benefited from running a Patreon. But the thing is – if I stopped running Meeple Like Us I’d personally be better off and would have more time to play games. I wouldn’t lose access to an important research project because it’s already accomplished what I wanted. From this point on, the value of Meeple Like Us becomes whatever the community assigns it.
The Rise and Fall of Patreon Patrons
We’ve done very well in increasing the number of Patrons backing us, and honestly while that hasn’t been mirrored by an increase in income it has come with a decrease in anxiety. By one important metric, simple number of patrons is a very valuable sign of visible support. I definitely don’t underestimate the value that comes from knowing a certain number of people think the site is worth money when they’ve got no real reason to give it. I’m not convinced of the 1000 True Fans idea, but it’s always good to know that you have people out there that value your efforts.
The problem though is that you always need to bear in mind that any patron is temporary. No matter how much they might like your work and support your efforts, everyone has their own life situation they need to manage. Sometimes financial circumstances change. Sometimes people think ‘That’s enough’ after pledging for a while. Sometimes its always intended to be a short-term thing. Patreon reports the number and value of pledges but it doesn’t do anything to reflect the intensity of support. Nobody pledges you their sword or axe here and you need to make space in your mind for losing people as time goes by. The trajectory of a Patreon account is not always upwards.
The chart above shows our pledge growth from day one until the time of writing. You can see we started off very well, but every month there’s always a decay in pledges. Sometimes that decay outstrips the growth, and that’s where the real problems arise for sustainability. You can’t just look at the total pledges – you need to look at the direction of momentum. Some months have been very good for us in terms of pledge growth. Some have been terrible in terms of pledge decay. Too many of those in a row can knock the wind out of your sails and that’s certainly how I was feeling towards the end of December. October had been a bad month, November hadn’t been great, and then December came with its own problems. Remember, each pledge that’s there isn’t a guarantee – you can’t ever be satisfied with where you are in Patreon, you always need to be thinking about the growth needed to offset the future losses. We had a good January, but so far February has been a story, once again, of losing ground.
The table above puts that graph into specifics. Notice how in October we only lost one patron overall, but still dropped $14 a month. That’s because some of the larger pledges we had were decreased. We got new patrons, but not at the rate needed to maintain equilibrium. December left us with the same number of pledges with which we started, but again – the new pledges we got didn’t offset the ones that left. That more than anything else is why our private Patreon gave a misleading impression – patron numbers trended generally upwards but Patreon income was still erratic. We hit a high back in September 2018 but we haven’t yet made up the lost ground. If every month was like June or July of 2018 I’d have absolutely no worries about the long term funding profile of the site – all that would be required would be patience. Even if every month was November 2018 it would argue for ‘slow and steady’. Unfortunately it’s more often a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ in a weird foxtrot where sometimes we’re ahead and sometimes we’re behind.
Patreon tells creators when a pledge is reduced, but it never tells us when a pledge is deleted. That is… a bizarre design choice. It basically means you can never be sure where you are – you could have had a massive waterfall of deleted pledges in the night and be none the wiser until you check. It’s not like Twitter where it never tells you who unfollowed you. You can see pretty easily from your creator dashboard which pledges are deleted. You just don’t get told when it happens. I never contact anyone who drops a pledge – it feels a bit too manipulative. I appreciate every penny as long as people can spare it and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel guilted into giving anything more than they already have. Generally what I rely on instead are responses to the ‘exit survey’, and they tell a reasonable and predictable story – people have their own financial worries and they absolutely should focus on themselves first. Here’s how my exit survey looks over the course of the last ten months – parts that are blacked out are just to hide personal comments people left.
The problem for me as a creator is that I can’t do much about anyone else’s financial situation and that means ‘My financial situation changed’ comes with a sense of helplessness. There’s nothing that I can do to fix whatever issue is at the root of it – it’s not related to the site (although I assume occasionally that reason is chosen mostly out of politeness). Similarly with those unhappy at Patreon – there’s not much I can do about that and I suspect that particular reason is going to become more popular as time goes by. For a few of the ‘some other reason’ ones I can make an educated guess. Pledge decay is outside your control and pledge growth is difficult to sustain. All of that needs to be factored in to your decisions when it comes to what you’re hoping to get out of the service. A lot of the time you’re going to see yourself falling backwards, at least in my personal experience. You need to be prepared for some months to hit you hard.
The Tipping Point(s)
I have two specific things in mind for the continuation of Meeple Like Us. The first is a funding goal – $500 p.m. The second is a date – 6th of April, 2020. If I hit that funding goal by that date (our fourth birthday) then I’ll be happy to commit to the site indefinitely. As long as people think it’s worth that level of funding, I think it’s worth my investment of time. Mentally I carve off $250 p.m. as ‘expenses’ – that’s the point where money stops disappearing into simply sustaining what we already have. Past $250 p.m. it starts to become ‘payment’ for work done – to me, sure, but also potentially to other people.
A conservative estimation of how time I spend on Meeple Like Us would be around 15-20 hours a week. That includes writing posts, site administration, backend sysadmin stuff, handling social media, and playing games for the purposes of the site. Our monthly output is at least the following:
- Four reviews per month
- Four teardowns per month
- Two editorials or special features per month (of which this is one)
- One depth year diary per month
- One Patreon roundup per month
- One media roundup per month
Often there is more – software and special features and the like. A month will have at least that in terms of posts for the blog. That’s thirteen posts, each of which is going to be a good 2000 words or so. Word count is not a great way of determining value (even I know that) but it’s a good metric for working out how much people are rewarded for effort. $250 for 26000 words would be less than a penny per word. That’s considerably less than any freelancer should expect. It would be $20 per article, which is a rate nobody should ever accept for paid work. I’m absolutely not doing this to make a profit from the site. I say this occasionally but for some freelance work I have done I was paid upwards of £150 an hour. If it was about the money, I’d give up the site and just spend a couple of hours a month doing more stuff like that.
The tipping point here is mainly – ‘do I believe this community values the work, with reference to how much they value other creators seeking community funding’. Are we willing, as a community, to ensure that people are minimally rewarded for work that is of a communal good? Not rewarded to the levels they may think the work warrants, but simply enough to fund someone at a bargain basement rate to produce unique content? I understand that Patreon is not a great benchmark for that – the monthly subscription model is psychologically pungent. However, it’s the one I’m using and the penny per word rate I’m seeking seems suitably modest a goal under the circumstances.
If the answer is ‘no’ for Meeple Like Us I can make my peace with that. I can move on knowing that I’ve done the best job I can do with the resources available. This is a personal project that has given me considerable joy but that doesn’t mean I’m shackled to it forever. I hope the answer will be ‘yes’ but I’ve already pretty much resigned myself to the fact it won’t be. I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m not expecting it.
We’re actually doing relatively well for a written blog, but numbers by themselves can be deceptive. We’ve spoken in the past about the psychological costs of opening a Patreon but what would have been worth its weight in gold would be a realistic view on what you actually get out of starting one up. As a working-class middle-aged man from Britain, talking about money is often considered somewhat gauche. Attaching monetary value to ‘pro-social’ projects is often considered tasteless. Opening up your wallet to show the moths flying from it is considered undignified.
All I can say is, ‘I wish this post had existed when I started our Patreon’, and I’m hoping someone will find their plans improved and their expectations refined by the fact the post exists now. Let me know either way!
Maybe you’re not a creator yourself. Maybe though you find value in the work that others, not necessarily Meeple Like Us, are doing in and around the hobby. Perhaps you might consider whether you can reasonably offer some support so that people can keep on doing the work of exploring, and critiquing, and analysing the world of tabletop gaming. Nobody should feel compelled to support a creator at the expense of their own quality of life, God no. Look though at the number of pledges even a mediocre Kickstarter gets within minutes, from people that likely will never even play the thing when it arrives. Our hobbyist media on the other hand is mostly funded by creator enthusiasm – not by choice, but because it’s sometimes the only currency that’s available. Love can only go so far though. Kissing don’t last, as George Meredith said. At some point you need something more tangible to keep you going. If that’s not forthcoming, you need to consider whether what you do had the value you hope it does and thus whether it’s worth your own time and effort to sustain.