Student Startup Spotlight: JailBird Finds Kickstarter Success

Student startup JailBird Games hit their Kickstarter funding goal after launching the company at the University of Washington.Perseverance may end up being the defining trait of student startup founders during this unprecedented time in human history. The pandemic has spared no sector, large or small, in terms of impact and challenges. Students who take the Foster School’s Creating a Company (CaC) course (part of the Entrepreneurship Minor for non-business students) learn the value of pivoting—but the creators of the card game JailBird wanted to share a little bit about putting those lessons into practice.

The team spoke with the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship about how they overcame manufacturer issues that would sink less determined entrepreneurs. How they fought to pursue this dream with most of the team working full-time post-graduation. How they reached their fundraising goal on Kickstarter in just 8 days (with the campaign still active until October 28).

Team JailBird Games includes Nathan Lee (Computer Science and Engineering ’20), Emma (Yingying) Deng (Mathematics ’20), Daniel Simic (Finance and Entrepreneurship ’20), Tori Teng (Human Centered Design and Engineering ’21), Apala Srivastava (Economics ’20), Anushka Raheja (Informatics ’20), and Lydia (Chuxuan) Sun (Applied and Computational Mathematical Sciences ’20).

Q: How did the team react when JailBird hit its Kickstarter goal in under two weeks?

Tori: We hit 100% (funded) at 1:30 am right when I was about to go to bed. That was the best night of sleep I had gotten in a while. I am insanely proud. We could have given up a long time ago, but our desire to bring something fun into the world in a not so fun time kept us going.

Apala: I just smiled all day.

Emma: We hit it past midnight, and that was the beginning of my birthday! I screamed, rolled on my bed, and smiled through tears.

Anushka: The pace at which we were gaining traction was just right. It was positive validation for our whole team since we were working day and night on the campaign since July. Our goal is to now dive into work and get JailBird out in the world.

Q: Describe how the Kickstarter came together with everyone working in a virtual environment?

Nathan: We have been running Zoom meetings since March, but the transition to Kickstarter was a huge feat. Instead of doing everything linearly (Ideation, Prototyping, Playtesting, Designing, Manufacturing, Marketing, Sales), Kickstarter is like trying to do it all at once WHILE riding a flaming bicycle made of glass.

Apala: People were doing full-time jobs and school alongside all the work that goes into a Kickstarter campaign. It was unbelievable.

Emma: We always had a discussion of starting a Kickstarter even when we were still in the Creating a Company class. We knew it would be a lot of work. Then, as pandemic hit, we pivoted completely from offline sales strategy to online marketing. We started to film and make promotional videos (with no experience before). I brought up in one of the meetings ‘we are doing videos, anyway, why don’t we do a Kickstarter?’

Anushka: Being in the middle of a pandemic and not being able to promote our game organically was a setback. The only reason we could release a successful Kickstarter in the time-crunch that we did was because of the people in our team. We constantly tried to set up meetings for check-ins and work-sessions, we have even had meals together online! In fact, the night before we launched our campaign, we started a meeting at 7:30 pm and ended at 3:30 am. Having a team that could motivate me with laughter and bird puns in the middle of a very stressful time is a blessing.

Apala: It was possible because we are friends. Each one of us cares so much about this game we created and this family we have built that it makes it easy to deal with hard things.

Q: What lessons did you take from Creating a Company (and other Entrepreneurship courses) at UW?  

Apala: Take supply chain very seriously. You almost don’t realize how big of a deal this is, especially if your partners are located internationally, until it’s too late. Our manufacturing partners in India ended up delivering us our product many months late. The product was so inferior in quality that we were unable to sell it. Not only did we lose time, and almost all our money, but also risked losing all our presale customers’ trust in us. Some of the delays in delivery were also due to Covid-19, which brings me to this: it never hurts to have a plan B with respect to everything!

Nathan: The further out I am from the CaC class, the more naive I realize I was. I approached our game and our team as a project as opposed to a business and learning that distinction has been a process.

Daniel: Do not expect to have your hand held. All the relationships we built, the designs we created, and everything relating to our company was done by us without any help. It’s a great learning experience, but you want to make sure you understand that you are expected to be able to work on your own.

Student startup JailBird Games hit their Kickstarter funding goal after launching the company at the University of Washington.

The JailBird team at 3:30 am the morning of their Kickstarter launch

Tori: To me, the biggest value of the Entrepreneurship Minor is how it brings students together from vastly different backgrounds. We all studied completely different disciplines in school, and this diversity of thought and experience has made our discussions so much richer. Bring together a bunch of passionate people with different but complementary skills, and you’ll get some pretty cool stuff.

Q: What inspired you to create this game in particular? What makes it both unique and fun?

Nathan: I originally wanted to do a criminal-themed game. It opens up a line of mystery, mischief, and betrayal that I personally love in games. We were thinking of a name, I think Apala spit out JailBird, and it just stuck. Evidence comprised of poultry. Oh yeah.

Daniel: In our game, there are some elements you would recognize if you’ve played Exploding Kittens, but what I would say our most unique mechanic is the Police Round.

Emma: I suggested since it is a crime-themed game, we should introduce police, and maybe even bribing. I tried so hard to make the game balance with 3 players and for 6 players by building out probability models and simulations on Excel. But it does not work so well because the coin system deflated badly with 3 players. We play tested hundreds of versions by constantly experimenting with different game mechanics, and now, JailBird has the perfect balance between chaotic, strategic, randomness, and betrayal.

Q: What would you say to UW students who want to create their own consumer product or game?

Tori: Remember to keep playing your game! Like most creative work, they are always going to be a work in progress, and you should welcome feedback to continually iterate and improve upon it.

Nathan: Hire a designer (preferably off of Fiverr).

Daniel: It is literally the most important aspect of a game specifically. It relates to branding and any design you make. Our design team created all our marketing materials, our cards, the box, and the entirety of the art that you’ll see on our Kickstarter page. It is such an integral part of the process that I cannot stress enough how important it is.

Nathan: Also, the indie/board game industry is one of the nicest and most supportive industries that exists. This is mainly due to the community. It’s just a bunch of people who like playing and making games.

Q: Is JailBird the end goal for this team or are you hoping to do expansions down the road, or possibly a new game?

Daniel: JailBird is not just a game, it’s our company. While our first product is of the same name, we have come to a mutual understanding that we’ll be making many more games that we, and our customers, will love.

Anushka: I truly believe that our team has awesome ideas brewing already. That said, we are still in the process of making JailBird real. We have a lot of work to do before we can think about that.

Tori: I just know that this has been the best experience I’ve ever had working on a team. Whatever we decide to do, I know it’ll be crazy and exciting. That’s the JailBird way of course.