Bill Gates once wrote, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Cards Against Humanity is a good embodiment of this principle, even if their spin on that saying might contain more swear words.
According to co-founder Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity celebrated its tenth-anniversary last night. It’s an impressive milestone, considering the company got started with a scant $15,570 raised on Kickstarter before it quickly started generating millions of dollars in revenue, and if the planogram at my local Target is instructive, became the most popular tabletop game of the holiday season — taking up more space than Monopoly and Clue combined.
We’ve written previously about how it’s possible to build massive businesses with minuscule amounts of money, even just $10,000, but it’s worth unboxing a couple lessons from this company’s impressive if unlikely success.
Eric Paley has written about the paramount importance of use cases, and though a product like this might seem like the ultimate frivolity, it fills a distinct need. Board games have become more mainstream over the last decade, but that growth came mostly in the form of Euro-style resource management slogs like Settlers of Catan, and “Ameritrash” experiences which have strong sci-fi themes and required dedicated focus for hours on end.
The “party game” category hadn’t seen meaningful innovation since the Reagan era and the advent of Pictionary. Enter Cards Against Humanity, which perfectly combined the mid-century aesthetic and cynical sense of humor favored by late Gen X and Millennial audiences. It’s a fun game that can be set up and played quickly with no knowledge of Cthulhu required.
Unlike so many upstart consumer brands, I don’t think Cards Against Humanity has ever purchased a Facebook ad. Instead, they focus their marketing efforts on creating outrageous campaigns that earn them media far beyond their ability to pay.
Sometimes, this takes the form of partnerships with established brands, like the popular PAX video game convention, for which they created PWNMEAL (oatmeal for gamers). In a more highbrow effort, they teamed up with celebrity chef David Chang for a cuss-filled critique of haute cuisine.
More often, their efforts take the form of de novo, Dada-esqe happenings. They earned $180,000 selling bull excrement and another $500,000 selling Trump Bug Out bags. Most famously, they solicited $71,145 from their fans in return for…nothing. Another time they raised $100,000 to dig a giant hole in the ground as a response to existential ennui following the election of President Trump, all the while earning press from NPR, The Guardian, Engadget, CNBC, Time, Business Insider, Polygon, Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, Polygon, and many more outlets.
None of these marketing programs were expensive, in fact, many likely broke even, but all of them did a good job and creating opportunities for building word of mouth appeal.
In an era of billion-dollar fundraises, $10,000 doesn’t seem like a sufficient sum to accomplish anything impressive, but with a long enough time horizon, and an off-kilter sensibility, you can create an important company with less money than you need to buy a used Mazda.
Joseph Flaherty is the Director of Content & Community at Founder Collective, a seed stage VC firm that has backed Uber, BuzzFeed, PillPack, SeatGeek, Cruise, HotelTonight, The Trade Desk, and a couple hundred other startups.