It Can Be Done: Penny Arcade Raises $500K on Kickstarter to Run Site Without Ads

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By Devon Glenn

Penny Arcade, the webcomic devoted to all things video games, has raised $528,144 from 9,069 backers in order to remove all of the ads from its site for one year.

In the introductory video, founders Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins said they needed cash for rent, employee salaries, and other things that make an actual business run. But they wanted to do it in style. Their explanation is priceless (and I’m sorry, but you need to read this whole thing):

People don’t like advertising almost as a general rule; Advertising is simplyThe Way It Is. People who make content learn to like it, because they want to make content, and they also want to eat food and sleep under a roof, and the opportunity to do both at the same time seems like a pretty good idea.

After the “dot com bubble,” we ran the site entirely on donations for over a year. The word crowdfunding hadn’t been invented yet; back then, people simply called it “begging,” but I think it’s clear that those days are long past. We look back on that period with incredible fondness, and I don’t think we’re the only ones. It was just two of us then, not the juggernaut that it is now; we have mouths to feed, as it were. I think we had assumed it wasn’t possible to do it that way anymore – to operate a site at this scale without advertising dollars – but it occurred to us that we’d never actually asked. People often want to know how they can support the site in a way that doesn’t involve t-shirts or looking at advertising, and I think we may have a way. What I’m saying is that we want to sell out, and we would love to sell out to you.

Consider the value of an ad-free reading experience as a project goal. Kickstarter usually produces one tangible object: a book, and album, or a gadget that others can say they helped build from nothing.

Penny Arcade, in contrast, is a pre-existing website. And judging by the screenshots of what the site currently looks like, the ads weren’t doing any harm. Below is a picture of one such harmless banner ad. It doesn’t jump in your face and try to distract you while you’re reading; it just sits on the side of the page and blinks a little bit. What’s the big deal?

 

Scrolling down the project page, the answer appears. “Without the almighty ‘pageview’ to consider, why not populate the RSS with full comics and posts?” the founders wrote. “Why not enable and even encourage apps, first and third party, for people to read it however they damn well please?” There were also promises to “restore old services we used to offer” and to “convert the entire site to a Creative Commons license.” By removing the ads, the creators were offering better content and more freedom to use it.

The Kickstarter stats page shows that more comics fail than succeed on the microfunding platform. Today, there are 826 projects that didn’t make it compared to 682 that did. What made these guys worth more than half a million dollars was the fact that they had a core base of loyal fans. Not millions of fans, but around 9,000 fans who loved the site enough to pay for it.