UPDATE: After 7 months of radio silence the PR agency replied publicly. We have updated and responded at the bottom of the post. 12/21
The cat’s out of the bag. The title says it all.
This has been one of the most difficult posts to write because it hits so hard. A painful reminder to why I’ve been an emotional wreck this year and why 2017 has been so tough.
What should have been a great victory turned into one of the most emotionally harrowing experiences I’ve had to deal with in my life.
Now that we’ve finally managed to start delivery to our backers, we felt that we could finally tell the whole story.
It all started months before we actually launched the campaign of Upstart: The Board Game.
I was at the tail end of researching a PR Agency that could represent us for our crowdfunding campaign. I was having meetings with several agencies and canvassing prices.
As I was researching I came across a Michigan based agency called Woodshed Agency. They focused on crowdfunding and had supposed operations in New York and California.
I sent them an email on July 16 and had a call with Jeff Wenzel (the founder) on July 19, 2016.
After going back and forth, on August 26 they sent us a proposal and on August 29 we came to an agreement and sent them a retainer payment on September 5 with an agreement that if we hit our funding goal they would also get a small percentage of the proceeds.
There were several reasons why we chose to work with them.
- Jeff seemed like a straight shooter. They did crowdfunding before so they had to put themselves out there publicly. In crowdfunding reputation is everything. He was developing podcast content and was (and still is) very visible.
- Paul Lewon, one of the partners, also was connected within gaming circles. He was active within the community. Again, community in crowdfunding goes hand in hand with your reputation.
- Shaun, the third partner, filled in the gap for developing our video content and ensuring our messaging was appropriate for international audiences.
Things were going well. And the sad part is that, for the most part, we had a very good working relationship with them. Weekly calls. Clear briefings.
And a few weeks before we launched, we got into a technical snag. We had planned to launch using a Hong Kong bank account and found it would take at minimum a month to set it up (as a corporation).
As a dual citizen of the US, I tried to open a personal account but because I have lived most of my life in the Philippines, I didn’t have enough of a credit record/local paper trail to open an account in the US.
We brought it up to Woodshed Agency. They said they could receive the funds for us and wire it back to us. They said they had done it before with one of their Australian clients.
At this point we were desperate. We had a schedule to follow. Events were lined up for promotion.
The working relationship to this point was good. So, we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. We had a paper trail so we felt comfortable. Paul even introduced us to the head of games at Kickstarter. “Why the hell would someone risk so much of their reputation in such a small community?”, we thought.
We were wrong.
We hit our target. Time went by. They communicated delays with the transfers. We did a test transfer of 100 dollars to our account in January. It went in.
Then, radio silence.
February. Email after email. No response.
April passes and our production was getting delayed because we couldn’t put down payments.
Still no response.
Over 5 months. We started to panic. We emailed constantly. Sent Facebook messages. Then we got this, and even replied level-headedly:
Since that last message in May, they have not been in communication with us and have disabled Facebook messaging for their business page.
So here we were with a commitment to deliver to our backers and to our community. And no money.
It took us more time (hence the delays) but we managed to pull things in and have been using our last bit of savings and resources to make sure people get their games.
There are several reasons why we chose not to go public about this until now.
I personally hoped this could be resolved internally. But after 7 months of no communication, a legal demand letter, and most recently, blocking Ina on Facebook, it’s become clear that they have no intention of reaching out to come to an agreement, a resolution, or of giving us a single dollar of our crowdfunding money.
And it’s not like they have no means of communicating. They are active online and on social media. Still actively promoting and doing business as usual with start-up people like us.
At this point, we were at a juncture. Do we just cut our losses and move on or do we tell people what happened?
If we don’t tell people what happened, it could happen to someone else.
Someone told me that crowdfunding is founded on people’s dreams. It’s filled with regular folks who work hard to see their projects come alive. When you’re using the resources at hand, however limited they may be, TRUST is something we can’t do without. And so we calculate our risks as much as we can, and trust.
So in a territory where trust is a currency that so much of people’s good intentions, dreams and hopes rely on, we need to have each other’s back.
We are cutting our losses and doing what we can on a legal front, but we need to warn the community.
A few weeks ago, someone who knew our predicament messaged Ina with a Facebook link of a different company that Shaun and Jeff ran. The reviews showed a good number of people calling them out on shady practices involving money from a couple of years ago. That is those people’s stories to tell. But what I know is, if information like that were made accessible, then this could have been avoided and we would’ve have simply opted not to do business with them.
This is us making that information accessible to people.
A little over a year ago I made a choice to do this full-time. For most of this year, I’ve struggled and lived off side gigs, loans and savings. I had to close two of my bank accounts because they hit negative balance. This has taken a personal toll as I tried to make my business work.
Instead of moving forward, I felt like I had to start again from five steps back.
But like most entrepreneurs, we worked with what we had, tightened our belts and went back to work with no drama. And like the game of Upstart this is a breakdown we overcame. It taught us to focus on what’s important. It had us ask “Is it all worth it?”
And for us, it is a resounding yes. We have seen and continue to see the impact Upstart has on lives. And bringing this product to our community and to the world is worth it all.
For those of you have been wondering, “How can I support?”
- Spread the word. We don’t want this to happen to more people. There are already warnings about working with PR agencies but it needs to be shared again. And people need to know what happened with this company. Let’s make this information accessible.
- We also do need support in terms of financing. In terms of our product, our backers are covered. The games are getting assembled batch by batch. Overseas delivery costs have been a challenge though. We originally intended to deliver at scale but with the limited resources we had, we had to change strategies. And as much as possible, we don’t want hand outs. This can look like:
- Connections to schools, entrepreneurial organizations and training groups who may want to run paid Upstart programs or get certified in our training methods.
- Getting pre-orders for our surplus from production
- If you are already a backer, covering part of delivery costs.
In the end, I still hope things can be resolved amicably.
I want to thank everyone who has supported us. Without the community, I don’t think I would have survived this year.
Thank you for being so patient and understanding.
And thank you to those who may have heard about our predicament one way or another and have helped us deal with it whether through kind words or sharing resources.
Upstart won’t stop with this set back. And with Upstart in the hands of our community by the end of the year, I see bright things in our future.
UPDATE (Dec 21, 2017):
So Woodshed Agency has decided to give their side of the story publicly. In the 7 months since May, and even up to this writing, they have not responded to our emails and legal demand letter. Let’s be clear. They have NOT been in communication. They have NOT replied to our legal demand letter sent on the week of October 17.
Before we get distracted these facts remain:
We are fulfilling our backers orders despite getting zero of our backers’ funding. We remain to be accountable to them.
Woodshed continues to sit on our backers’ money.
This continues to be a PSA.
Was I telling half the story? Probably, and that’s because they never spoke to us.
There are a lot of inconsistencies in their post, so I want to clarify and address some of the things they brought up:
1) This is the first time we are hearing any of this.
Again, instead of communicating with us in May (or any other month before and in between) and handling all of this internally, they’ve decided to distract everyone from the fact that we haven’t received anything.
Yes the agreement was 10% commission. We also paid them upfront $2,575 that they said would also cover social media costs. We made clear that extra costs were a concern. Right before we agreed and sent them the retainer we asked Jeff to clarify a provision on extra costs. Jeff ensured us in that conversation that we wouldn’t need to cover anything more than that retainer. Looking at everything considered, their computations don’t add up.
These “reimbursable funds” that they are now bringing up have never been brought up during any of our conversations before and after the campaign. Moreover, they have NOT been in communication. They did NOT communicate extra expenditures or the extent of which they plan to spend. After the campaign, IF there were things we owed them, these were NOT communicated. (Also we don’t understand why they’d spend up to that much knowing full well the 10% they’ll be getting in commission would be less).
My last conversation was that they’ll be transferring us the money minus their 10% commission from the actual amount transferred to them by Kickstarter.
At no point in time, did they discuss additional fees, reimbursements or other expenses owed to them that we should take into consideration. Just silence on their end. ZERO communication.
And now all of a sudden, they have the time and resources to reply to our public post. Without actually replying to our emails and demand letter. And despite what they say, as of posting, our lawyers haven’t gotten a reply from the Woodshed camp since we sent them the demand letter in October.
2) On “going public”
All of the times we reached out have been private. From May-November, we’ve tried to keep it internal. We only made this public because we felt that we owed it to people to know, and like we mentioned, after being ignored for months, it became clear that they did not have any intentions of reaching out or coming to an agreement.
On “reaching out” to clients. As mentioned, Ina got blocked. She reached through the channels that were available to her in that moment, which were existing clients. This was already in November. It was one message to about 4-5 people done out of frustration, with the request to “pass the message”. She said she did it because she wished someone had warned HER about them.
Right after that, she was sent a link of people who had unfortunate experiences with them (names blurred for privacy):
This specifically is the reason why Ina compelled me to write about our experience.
3) Calling our campaign a “failure” and the “fake”pledges
They’ve taken quite a bit of crowdfunding money considering we weren’t “funded”.
And yet here we are, fulfilling OUR commitment to our backers.
A week or so before the deadline, Woodshed, who knew the crowdfunding territory in and out discussed contingencies. This was, for us, the first time we had a serious conversation about not getting funded.
They were the ones that suggested getting big pledges to cover the gap, and to maybe swipe ourselves and then just get the money back. Please understand that this was NOT even in our radar and it came from them. And we don’t have the capacity to “swipe”. We didn’t know this was practiced. We also have no access to “fake credit cards”. What we have though are friends and family willing to “pool-in” support in the last 48 hours.
Did we want pledges to come solely from strangers and a wider market? Yes. But in the end, like a lot of crowdfunding-finishers have shared, it’s not uncommon for friends and family members to help projects cross the finish line.
In the end, the amount transferred by Kickstarter was the $16,687.01 (minus the Kickstarter fees). And it was very clear that even with the dropped pledges. The money we had left (even minus the 10% that would have gone to Woodshed) would still have gone towards fulfilling our commitment to backers.
4) On the question of our ability to fulfill on our commitment to our backers and our “supposed” Indiegogo plan
It was very clear at the end of the campaign that the amount we’ve raised was enough to fulfill on our backers. Ina and I discussed with Woodshed before the end of the campaign that given the profile of our backers, with most coming from the Philippines, a huge chunk of delivery costs we anticipated were removed.
We also decided to lower the print run from 1000 copies to 500. Doing the numbers, we knew we could do it.
At no point was the Indiegogo a plan. Or even a discussion with Woodshed. This is an outright lie. If you check the page, we never formally launched and it only had one pledge level: a donation of the first edition board game to a beneficiary.
We had no doubt that we could fulfill on our commitment even if we had to subsidize in the off chance we couldn’t pay for any unforeseen costs.
Even now, with 100% of the Kickstarter money still with Woodshed, we are fulfilling our promise anyway.
With their distractions aside, again this is a Public Service Announcement.
- We are happy to be fulfilling on our commitment to our backers. They’ve been our priority since day one in spite of everything that’s happened. And it’s OUR commitment to THEM.
- For Woodshed to suddenly come out of the woodwork to say we’ve failed, as they sit on our backers’ money speaks volumes in itself.
- For Woodshed to suddenly say the backers are THEIR priority, even if they’ve never had contact, as they’ve disappeared for months sitting on our backers’ money speaks volumes in itself.
- Also we’ve heard that spiel before:
- For Woodshed to suddenly find the time to post a lengthy rebuttal, after months and months of ignoring us, and not communicating despite all of the times we’ve reached out. Again, speaks volumes in itself.
- To date they have not replied to our emails. Our lawyers have not heard from theirs. For them to publicly say that there’s been communication, when there hasn’t been any, again speaks volumes in itself.
- With us being able to fulfill on our commitment to our backers anyway, the intent of us going public is simply to let people know what happened.
- The intent of this post is a PSA and review of our experience. Up to you how you take it.
And if there’s any doubt we didn’t try to reach out and put everything on the table here’s the email threads:
And that’s when they went silent.
Like they said, in the end, the lawyers will do the talking.
Also published on Medium.