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Features / Miscellaneous

How Kickstarter Changed The World: Founder Yancey Strickler on the origins of the platform

First published in Printed Pages Summer 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

Illustrations by

Jim Stoten

In the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, New York, there stands an old pencil factory which was once the largest in the USA. Built by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company – which was based at the site between 1874 and 1956 – one of its claims to fame is that is thought to be the first factory in the world to produce coloured pencils.

Its newest incarnation is already underway – as the headquarters for the creative funding platform Kickstarter. It seems fitting. Just as almost all of our individual creative lives began with the pencil, increasingly Kickstarter is the way artists, musicians, designers, writers, filmmakers and performers begin their creative projects.

The facts speak for themselves. Last year, 2.24 million people pledged just under $320 million dollars through the site, successfully funding more than 18,000 projects. It distributed more money than the National Endowment for the Arts, a US Government agency. And it’s not just up-and-coming creatives who appreciate the game-changing nature of the platform – Hollywood star Zach Braff funded his new film as a Kickstarter project (and recieved some vitriolic criticism for doing so).

The initial idea for Kickstarter came to Perry Chen in 2002 when he wanted to bring Kruder & Dorfmeister to play a gig in New Orleans but was unable to raise the necessary cash. If only, he thought, there was a way for all those who would have liked the concert to happen to pledge money in advance. With the idea lodged in his mind, Perry moved back to New York in 2005 and made ends meet waiting tables. One of the regulars in the Brooklyn restaurant where he worked was music journalist Yancey Strickler; the two became friends, then co-consiprators. Later they added a third member to the team, Charles Adler, and in 2009 Kickstarter was born.

Ahead of the move into their new Brooklyn base, we spoke to Yancey over Skype about the past, present and future of this new creative force and we explored its significance with some of those who have used it for their own projects.

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Drawing for Dollars, the first ever Kickstarter project

Tell us a bit about how this idea became a reality…

I think a lot of it was talking through the idea and theorising how people would use it, talking to friends of ours who were in bands or made films or made art and testing our assumptions with them. “This is what we think it means but what does it mean to you and what parts scare you or make sense?” That was really helpful. We had a crew of friends who heard us talk about this endlessly and who probably thought this was just some pipe dream that would never happen.

There were a lot of mistakes and a few lucky breaks which I think came about because of how determined we were, and when I say “we” I really mean Charles and Perry. I had a day job still through that period and they were on it full-time for nearly two years with nothing really happening. Those were really hard times, but Perry’s a very determined person and he wasn’t going to let this not happen.

How hard was it to convince people that this was a good idea?

I think artists tended to get it because they know it’s fucking hard to make stuff. The conversations we had with people who were not in the creative space, who were more on the business side, were much more difficult. They had this core question that we came up against again and again which was, “Why should I give someone money?” And we were like, “Because you think it’s cool, or you like their work or you want it to happen, or you get bragging rights.”

But for them, the objective, Adam Smith, rational capitalist system of belief it required a leap of faith and I think for certain segments that was hard for them to get. It’s an interesting challenge to explain what something is when it doesn’t really exist.

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Zack Braff used Kickstarter to fund his latest film Wish I Was Here, to the dismay of many

And obviously you launched at a time when the world economy was hobbling, was that a help or a hindrance?

We didn’t intend to launch in the middle of an economic apocalyspe, we just wanted to launch whenever we could. I think there’s a couple of ways of looking at it. One there was less disposable income than there had been over previous years so that clearly had some impact. But at the same time there were certainly less options and grants were beginning to dry up – that’s happened more in the years since 2009.

Every social movement or emergent behaviour is a product of its time and I think ours certainly is too. It’s a lot of things coming together at once – it’s technological tools making it easier for us all to be creative, the web enabling us all to be publishers and broadcasters, all these dynamics come into play. And just in the past week I’ve started to think about this. For a really long time we’ve held out this dream of somehow there emerging a way for us to pay for art…

At this point the Skype cuts out for a few seconds and I have to explain to Yancey that I missed his last points…

I was just saying all kinds of amazing shit! We’ve always held out this dream of audiences being able to pay artists directly which has been floating around the web for a while and certainly indie culture has always been some form of that. But the idea that this could happen in a systemised way and could replace the money that’s lost from the rise of piracy and all these sorts of things was pretty out there.

I am just starting to see that Kickstarter has managed to clear that hurdle, in terms of making it culturally and socially acceptable. I don’t think that was there before – that it was ok to give people money in this way and there was a systematic way for people to do that.

And clearing that hurdle is a really big deal and opens the door not just for us but other ways of thinking about creating things directly with artists. I think there’s a path that comes out from this and I don’t know where it goes but I think it’s really exciting.

How quickly did it take off?

It began working pretty immediately but in very small ways. We launched Tuesday April 28 at like 4:30pm which you can tell is a very strategic launch time and the first project was successfully funded that Friday. It was for $35 for a project called Drawing for Dollars. That project is still very emblematic of what Kickstarter is; a guy saying give me $5 and I’ll draw a picture of something for you and it worked. That’s kind of what it still is, just on different scales.

To see people pledging money to other people they didn’t know was just miraculous. But there was a moment a few weeks in, a project launched by a woman called Alison Weiss. She’s a singer songwriter, a young woman about 21 or 22 at the time and she did a project to make a new EP. Her video was spectacular – very endearing, very personal, very charming in a way that project videos hadn’t really been up to that point.

It’s still a template people use and she had these great rewards like she’d write a song about you or she’d play a show at your house or she’d record a mixtape of whatever five songs you wanted.

All these things demonstrated the way she thought about being an artist and what it was to be a fan. We all often say that was the moment Kickstarter was truly alive because here was this person we had no connection with who really took it in directions we didn’t anticipate.

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The city of Chatanooga got a new sign for its public signage courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign

You mentioned then the rewards system, how important is that to your model?

There’s always been a notion that there is an exchange of value – we have always been adamant that this is not charity and the system only works when a successfully-funded project benefits everybody, not just the person receiving the funding.

So rewards are huge. They are what move this out of the sphere of donation and philanthropy and allow it to be lots of other things at the same time. And rewards are where people get to express themselves and express who they are. You learn a lot about what type of artist a person is by how willing they are to open themselves and their process up to their backers.

Tell us about the new headquarters in Brooklyn? Are you very anchored in New York?

It’s a big cavernous space and we’re going to build it into a permanent home for Kickstarter with a movie theatre and an art gallery. We’re looking forward to making it a living, working expression of what Kickstarter is. I think we’re a cultural company and we have hopes of one day becoming a cultural institution that people really think of representing the best parts of what it is to create and make things. And I just think New York is the natural home for that. We’re very New York in so many ways and we’re really proud of that.

And New York is a city where a lot of different creative disciplines come together. Are you surprised at the range of areas in which people have launched projects?

That’s what is exciting about it – you have a chef sitting next to a comics artist sitting next to a robotics guy sitting next to a documentary filmmaker. The shared experience that is true of all those people is the difficulties and challenges of creating and the need to build an audience, the desire to get ideas out there.

That equalisation of the various strains of creativity is a really encouraging thing for creators. Each project kind of validates Kickstarter for its community so it’s very non-strategic on our part. That fluidity and organic growth has been a pleasant surprise to take in and watch.

How much quality control is there?

We’re committed to just allowing creative projects, we don’t allow charitable projects or things along those lines and so we have defined a use case for Kickstarter in a very broad way.

What I really like is that whatever way this grows it’s not decided by someone on high or someone with their own self-interests – it will be decided by the entire creative community, both creators and audiences. So quality control is not something that matters to us. We want to prevent people from abusing the system but apart from that, no. We never look at someone’s projects and decide this is not a good enough artist or think this documentary is not going to be good enough. That’s never once been a thought process we’ve had.

There’s both amazing art and bad art that gets created through something like Kickstarter but that’s perfectly fine. We believe the right for someone to explore their creative selves and bring something to life is more important than an audience’s assuredness that everything they look at is going to be great. The path of creation is so unpredictable and you never know what’s going to come out of it. And we really believe fundamentally in people’s right to attempt to create.

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The squirrel population of Atlanta was recorded by a Kickstarter funded census

But has that led to any criticisms?

When people are making things they’re taking a risk, they’re leaping out into the unknown and some people are very experienced at that and some people aren’t, so the outcomes of projects can vary.

Some things come together perfectly and hit every deadline and everyone’s extremely happy with it; others are more painful and harder for the creative to bring to life. That’s not something you can control, that’s the nature of creativity and that’s something we’re really exposed to through Kickstarter because of how transparent the process is.

People have really very quickly taken the transparency of the process for granted – they’re like obviously that’s how things work. But being able to follow each step along the way, that didn’t exist three or four years ago. That is a behaviour created by the Kickstarter community and how they’ve built projects.

The myth of the lone wolf artist creating things is ultimately to the detriment of the artist because seeing the process and the effort and the toil that goes into creating something makes us feel more empathic towards the creator. The auteur who just has genius running through their veins is alienating. We love seeing their work but that demystification is an important part of allowing all of us to connect with art in a more fundamental way.

And so that transparency is so important and there’s such a freedom that comes with using Kickstarter – you are declaring your own goal, you are only being judged on your ability to do that and everything is under your control. But with that freedom comes responsibility and you are making a trade – that you’ll be accountable to your audience and you’ll be directly accountable, it’s not through an intermediary like a record label.

And are you able to look ahead, what are your hopes for Kickstarter?

I don’t really have any specific hopes. I guess it would be for this to last in a state similar to now; to see more projects come to fruition and the creators using the site going on to have real world success. That’s really the one big hope that we have – that the cultural impact of the people making these projects will be significant.

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The first Hackerspace in the Iraqi capital Baghdad opened in October 2012 thanks to a Kickstarter campaign

It’s Wednesday night in east London and in the basement of the Book Club bar it’s standing room only. The suits and the hipsters and the rest have come to learn more about The Kickstarter Economy at an event hosted by publishers Future Human. Two main themes emerge from the evening. Firstly, creative platforms like Kickstarter represent only a very small part – apparently just 9% – of the wider crowdfunding phenomenon.

The second theme to emerge builds on something Yancey touched on – there is something deeper, something socio-cultural at play here. Time and again the idea of platforms like Kickstarter democratising decision-making comes up. In an age when it’s easy to feel powerless, the ability to act as agents of creation is intoxicating.

Gregory Vincent, founder of UK platform Sponsume describes the appeal like this: “It’s not about old men in suits, it’s not about a small elite, it’s about the people deciding. It takes power back from top-down systems and gives it to the general public.”

Host Sam Jordison is more blunt: “It’s about taking on The Man.”

In the weeks after this event, I interviewed several people who had used Kickstarter for their own creative projects. Vera Greentea, a young comics artist, has funded five books through the platform.

“I remember the first time I heard of Kickstarter. I was still in school, wondering what to do with my degree and not yet considering being a writer. Though I wrote often, it just didn’t seem like a viable career move to stop everything and write a book and hope to be noticed. Kickstarter sounded like the most incredible resource for a wet-behind-the-ears unknown aspiring whatever to experiment with art.”

So for her it was a way of jump-starting an artistic career. For Darren Wall, aka Wallzo, Kickstarter was a way of circumventing a publishing industry which told him there was no audience for a history of the British software house Sensible Software. “The response, on the whole, was fairly lukewarm. Not that I blame them; I was informed that the prevailing experience of most publishers was that video game books did not sell in great numbers, and my proposed solution – making them more expensive and more specialist – was just too niche. Unsurprisingly, they all politely declined my proposal. But I was still convinced there was a market.

“In the early stages of planning the first book the now-legendary Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter campaign was launched. This was the point I think everyone realised just how revolutionary crowd funding could be. They asked for $400,000 and received over $3 million after just a month of funding. Seeing that success – and, most importantly, realising that a huge number of gamers were now visiting the site – it felt like the perfect place to try and launch my idea.”

He reached his $30,000 target in 17 days, but not everyone makes it. A Forbes report estimated that of 93,000 Kickstarter projects launched in 2012, 50,000 failed to meet their target and 11% of them raised no money at all.

Game designer Michael Fox knows the Kickstarter experience is not all dazzling successes. He too turned to the platform after bank loans were unforthcoming (“We were laughed out of there!”).

He takes up the story. “We launched at the end of November and our closing date was December 24th. Christmas Eve. If I could go back in time I would, then slap myself and tell Past Michael to bloody wait until January.

“It was surprising was how quickly we realised that we weren’t going to hit our target. I’d organised interviews, features on websites, everything I could think of in order to promote the campaign, but when it came down to it, well, it wasn’t enough. The campaign itself was good enough, I firmly believe that, but we were fighting a losing battle from the start.

“Kickstarter as an entity in the UK hadn’t hit the level it has in the USA – it still hasn’t. It may never do so. The dollar’s insanely weak against the pound too, which totally didn’t help.”

Luckily there’s a happy ending. “The little community we managed to foster who really wanted to see us succeed was lovely, and many of them jumped in on our latest project (Fox & Chicken) within hours of it launching. Having people who believe in your work is incredible, and knowing that that group will invariably increase each time is fantastic.”

The complexities of the Kickstarter process are well-known to Jules Pieri, co-founder and CEO of The Grommet which specialises in helping people take their crowdfunded ideas to the next level – breaking into the real retail space.

“Crowdfunding platforms help to prove whether the product concept in question makes sense,” she says. “Creators get support, or they don’t. Crowdfunding platforms are also great at helping creators to recruit a network of early adopters who help to shape their product, but they are not as good at providing an accurate read on retail acceptance. Crowdfunding investors are not typically representative of the mainstream consumer.

“Also, scaling post-crowdfunding is difficult. Several months later, the successful campaigners deliver their 5,000 unit initial product run to customers. That effort alone is all-consuming but it’s not yet a business. How do they continue to produce to meet the minimum orders that large retail requires? What should the commercial terms and pricing be? How about packaging, logistics?

“What looked easy on Kickstarter – building awareness and securing sales – becomes back breaking. People are getting romanced by ‘massive success’ on Kickstarter without realizing that the 5,000 unit volumes are just chicken scratch in real-world consumer product terms.”

So yes Kickstarter has the capacity to change the world. But as with every seemingly simple narrative, there’s much more to it that initially meets the eye.