When looking at the year 2010, one of the big stories would have to be Kickstarter. Launching in early 2009, the website quickly became a major resource for artists and inventors of many stripes, with comics creators in particular taking advantage of it’s fundraising function. Many people, from Tony Harris, Jeremy Bastian, Kody Chamberlain, Shaenon Garrity, Sarah Glidden, Lucy Knisley, David Hopkins and more, have spoken about their experiences using the site. Commentator Johanna Draper Carlson started a small Internet debate with her essay “Why I Won’t Be Giving to Kickstarter Projects,” a stance she later softened after lengthy discussion with several creators who utilize its resources.
CBR News spoke with co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler about all things Kickstarter, including how the site attracts investors and creators as well as where he sees this model going.
CBR News: A number of people we’ve spoken with over the past year have worked with Kickstarter, and it made us curious to learn more about what you do. Where did the idea for Kickstarter come from?
Yancey Strickler: My co-founder and partner Perry Chan first came up with the idea for Kickstarter back in 2001 or 2002. He was living in New Orleans and wanted to put on a concert, but was having to front a lot of money for it to happen. He wished there was some way he could know beforehand what level of interest there was. Out of this came the idea of a conditional funding trigger where, basically, if a certain threshold is met, then people are charged. If they are not met, then no one is charged. He and I met in 2004 or 2005 here in New York and he told me about this idea. My background was in the web, as was his, and we both just immediately thought, this could be an interesting way for artists to raise money. One of the things we saw is that there was no shortage of good ideas. The shortage was in people who were willing to put money behind them.
Traditionally, when it comes to raising money, people want to know, “What’s the profit potential on this, can I make a lunchbox out of this?” You can apply for grants and then wait five years to hear whether or not you got it. A lot of people live off their rich uncles, but there aren’t as many of those as there once were. We saw that while the money wasn’t there, the ideas were and the support was. We felt like this might be a way to help stem that tide. It took us a while to get things going [and later] brought in a third founder, Charles Adler. The site launched in April of 2009 and it’s been going pretty well since.
Was there an existing model for what you were trying to do?
I don’t think so. We really rejected the idea that to use someone’s website once, suddenly you’re a member and it’s this lifestyle that you’re a part of. That you’re supposed to care about all these greater things. We thought that was a big assumption that sites made. We just wanted a creative place that was a tool that we would feel comfortable using. If someone wanted to come in and list their one thing and then move on with their lives, that’s totally fine. We didn’t want to ask any more of people than that.
When we were just two guys with a piece of paper, everyone would ask, “What’s the cut you get of the movie that’s made? When the project gets made, what do you get?” We always said, nothing. We just didn’t think it would work that way. From the very beginning, we were always thinking of it as how can we use this to create more art and create more culture. We looked at it from our perspective and we thought if by using this we would betray our work, that would never be interesting to us. We’re stubborn people. We like things to work a certain way and I think that something like Kickstarter helps because those are a lot of the same people that we’re working with. People who are just like, “I know what I want to do, just give me the chance to do it and stay out of my way.” That’s really the overall philosophy.
How does it work, exactly? If the project is successful and meets its goal, then Kickstarter takes a percentage?
Right. If the project reaches its funding goal by its deadline, we take 5% of what they raised as our fee.
What happens in the event they don’t reach their goal?
Then no one is ever charged and no one gets anything. If the project isn’t funded, we don’t get any money either. When I see a big project launch, there’s not a smidgen of me that thinks, “What would our 5% be?” No one here thinks that way at all, but I do like that our interests are aligned. It’s good for people to know, if this doesn’t work out for you, it doesn’t work out for us either. We’re all rooting for the same thing. The five percent fee we rolled out last September. The first few months there was no fee, just to see if people would actually use it.
The lack of ownership is something that’s great and I know appeals to many people. I have to ask, though, looking through the site, there a lot of strange projects on it. Do you ever go through the project list and scratch your head wondering, “Really?”
Sometimes. I think that people are often curious about how things get on Kickstarter. We were pretty mysterious about it for the first year or so. There was no real reason for that except that we’re weird. Basically when we started, we hoped that anybody would use it, so we gave all our friends accounts that let them create projects and let them invite other people. Probably two hundred people had invitations. People started writing into customer service saying, “I want to do a project.” We were like, cool. I became the person who wrote to everybody. For everyone who wrote in for the first nine or so months of Kickstarter, they emailed with me. We emailed about their idea, and it was amazing. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever had the privilege to do in my life. You get people writing and saying, “This is my dream, this is what I really want to do,” and suddenly you’re collaborating with them on it and helping them think about it.
From the beginning, we had a couple of guidelines. One is that we didn’t want there to be any charity or cause projects. No “John has cancer” or “Ginny needs a prom dress” or anything like that. If I’m writing my first novel and next to me someone is trying to save Haiti, my first novel shrinks and looks frivolous and really throws off the whole moral weight of the site. The purpose of the site was to help create more art and foster more creativity, so we thought, at least at the very beginning, those two things can not coexist. Over time, we’ve seen other things that haven’t felt right for Kickstarter. The other one would be businesses. If you’re coming here trying to make some money and your idea is best expressed through a PowerPoint presentation, then Kickstarter is not going to be the right venue for you. A lot of comic book artists are making a living off of this, so it is a business in a sense, but first and foremost it’s a creative project. It’s someone trying to create something, so that’s really the guideline we apply.
Now, you go on the site, write a little paragraph saying what you want to do, and someone gets back to you within a day. There’s four of us who read through those, and really, what we’re just doing there is letting the charity and business people know that it’s not right for them. Anyone that’s writes in within any one of our categories — any musician, any filmmaker, whatever — we give them some idea of what our expectations are for what they’ll do and how they should think about their project. We don’t apply any sort of aesthetic judgment. I certainly see projects that make me cringe sometimes. I think that’s the case with anybody. In general, those projects do not succeed.
One of the assumptions we made early on was that every artist knows their audience better than we ever would, so how can we try to get in the middle of that? We’ve always thought, you know what, let’s let people do their thing. If they ask us for advice, we’re happy to give it. We’ll give you some ideas about using Kickstarter, but really, you’re on your own. Not everything turns out exactly the way that I would want it, but who am I? I’m just some guy. That’s the approach we try to take. Getting a project on Kickstarter is really easy. If you’re trying to start a small business or open a diner on Route 12, you’re not going to have a lot of luck with us. We think it’s really important to try to protect the community that we have. To make sure there’s a place where, if you look around, everyone’s doing amazing creative things. It feels cool to be a filmmaker and be listed right next to someone who’s doing some crazy hacker robot thing next to someone else who’s making a webcomic. Having that sort of ecosystem where all these people are coexisting, I think, is a great thing. I hope it pushes people to think more collaboratively and even think outside of their own mediums more too.
As you mentioned, Kickstarter is still young and much of the early press was about this new fundraising model and this project that raised money in this novel way. Now it’s ceased to be a focus of interest and it’s becoming viewed as a tool. Did you think that would happen, much less this early?
We certainly hoped that it would work, but we never had an assumption that it would. I remember when we launched, my own personal goal was that we have one project get funded in the first month. I thought that would be pretty neat. We had two, I think, our second day. That shocked me. It’s all just been amazing. Every project that makes it, I get excited about. I’m a total nerd when it comes to this, and I get excited for everybody because it’s so cool that people will get to make this thing, now. This thing will exist that wouldn’t have before.
As it becomes less of a novelty and more a tool, do you see a shift in who proposes projects or what they’re proposing?
A tool is a great thing for Kickstarter to be. We want to be the tool. The biggest thing that’s changed is that people don’t have to explain it as much. I’ve seen a lot of explanations for how Kickstarter works and what it is, and I would love for people to just know. That would be neat. In terms of who’s coming to us, what’s funny is that a lot of it is in reaction to what are the projects that are happening now that are big. Back in April, we had a project launched called “Diaspora,” which was by four NYU kids trying to create an open source distributive social network. They raised $200,000 and they were on the front page of the “New York Times.” They were a huge, massive project. Our biggest project at that point. In the wake of that, we suddenly got flooded with people pitching their social network for scuba divers or their golfing iPhone app. These people weren’t interested in Kickstarter before, but because of Diaspora and this lure of what they saw as free money, they started coming to our world.
The nice thing about being a platform like ours is that we can really respond to these things really well. At no point did we ever think that we knew everything that Kickstarter should be. We’re very into engaging with whoever and expanding and contracting when it seems necessary. It’s enabled us to be nimble and have a great sense of what it is that people are interested in. I’ve wanted to have a trending topics section on Kickstarter, because you can track current events really well through the kinds of projects we get pitched. Something like Haiti happens, and we get a bunch of projects about Haiti. As we start to hit a broader scale, I think there’s something interesting that could happen there.
One of the things we preach a lot is that we think everybody has a project. Everyone has that creative passion that they wish they could get to. Even if it’s just you and a friend having a long dinner and coming up with a weird idea that you both think is secretly genius, rather than let that idea die on the vine, put it up on Kickstarter and see if fifty of your friends are into it, and if they are, then make it. Why not? Trying to lower that barrier to creation and trying to make it easier for people to make the things they want to see. I think if it were just a little bit easier, people would be more willing to try things rather than think it’s too impractical, I don’t have the money, no one will care. All of the things that we tell ourselves for why we abandoned our ambitions.
One comics commentator, Johanna Draper Carlson, wrote a piece entitled “Why I Won’t Be Giving to Kickstarter Projects” earlier this year. It was interesting because, while she felt many of her criticisms were valid, she came back and softened and said that she was judging certain projects and certain criteria.
I was scared of this, the whole platform being judged by one bad project or something that rubbed people the wrong way. As it gets bigger, I would hope that people see a greater concept of what Kickstarter is, even if they happen to see a bad application of it. She came back and did a second post, as you said, offering some caveats and recanting here and there. I think there is a reaction to Kickstarter that you see often among more established artists. I’ve seen this particularly in film and comics and I guess music as well. People feel like it’s getting a little too easy for the kids. In my day, I had to do it this other way, but now these kids, all they have to do is put up a thing on the internet and people give them money. I can understand having that reaction. I’m an old curmudgeon myself, and I think that about a lot of things. You want people to earn it.
But it’s not simple. It’s not like money just rains on you. You have to work it, and if you haven’t built up the gravitas by being an artist who, if you’re not good, then at least [is known] in the community, then it’s not going to happen. There are some barriers there. I do think it’s a mistake to think that all the gatekeepers we had in the past that made it so hard put hair on your chest and all these things [are still completely valid]. Absolutely, there’s something to that. There’s something to the training that that gives you. I also think there’s something to giving people more tools and allowing them to make things and maybe not have to run that gamut. Especially now, when that whole world is so much harder and if you aren’t established, good luck. I’m very sympathetic, but in the end, I think people understand what this really is. You might have an emotional reaction to a bad project and say, “I had to do it the hard way, look at how these people are doing it.” I think it’s understandable, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair in all cases.
I would guess that’s why you’re careful to have no aesthetic standard. What for one person is not very good can very quickly become, “I don’t like this kind of project.”
If we were applying aesthetic judgments, then we’re the new guy in the boardroom, just a little bit smaller. That’s not cool. The barrier that we do try to set is just being in the right spirit of this. Not coming in asking who’s going to give me how much money. Instead, [we like the attitude of], this is a really amazing opportunity for me to share what it is that I can give to the world and what it is that motivates me and I hope you’re in. If all this goes the way I hope it does, then the money’s going to be the least important thing that I get out of this. Instead, it’s going to be about this community that I have and the fact that I have an excuse to talk about my work for forty-five days. I think that the successful Kickstarter projects do those things. A lot of the ones that don’t succeed do those things as well, but maybe they just don’t have the love in the world that they thought they did. That’s what I would love for every project to embody. It’s a hard thing to write on a guidelines page or to explain to someone in an email. But that is the spirit that I’m after. Certainly not every project attains that, but a lot of them do, and those are the ones that really do resonate with a lot of people.
It seems like many projects that have succeeded are from people who are very active online, have a portfolio of work available, a background or a history of some sort and aren’t just random people throwing up a random idea and hoping for cash.
I thought that might be the case really early on. Then we ended up running numbers to check this, and it’s still true that the comics category has our highest category of recommended projects. I think the reason for that is that the people who are creating these projects are really good at presenting themselves. You can only really make it to this point by having a background of work, a nice portfolio. You have a lot of images and assets to share. You have a story to tell. You’re a natural storyteller already, so explaining why you’re doing the project shouldn’t be hard. In all these ways, the comics projects have really proven to be wonderful.
What are Kickstarter recommended projects, exactly, and how does that work?
The first thing we, the community team, do every morning is go through every project that launched the day before. We watch every video, read every description and spend time talking about each one. The ones that just stand out to us, having looked at like ten thousand projects by now, those that we immediately recognize, “This is something really cool,” we choose to recommend it. It makes it a little bit more visible. We do that because we want to make sure people are seeing really good applications to Kickstarter. I don’t think it has a huge impact on whether something gets funded or not, but it is just sort of us saying, “This is cool, we like this.” Not a lot more than that.
What are the numbers as far as how many projects have been posted versus what percentage received funding?
We’re closing in on 10,000 projects and over 3,500 successfully funded. Over a quarter million people back projects on the site. Over 20 million dollars pledged to projects on the site. The success rate for projects in terms of making their goal is about 45%. The last four months now, we’ve had over a million unique viewers each month, and that’s been increasing steadily. The growth of the site this year especially has been pretty remarkable. It just gets bigger every day.
How long is this a sustainable model? I’m sure you get that question a lot. Some people still ask that about the internet!
[Laughs] Exactly. I think it’s sustainable. I mentioned this in an interview the other day — not once in our office have we had a conversation about crowd funding. The only time we talk about it is when a reporter asks me what I think about it. For us, it’s just a means to doing what we really care about, which is helping people create more art and express themselves creatively and do things that they love. People support these projects for a lot of reasons. They do it because they’re friends, because they’re fans, because they’re family, because they come across the video and think the person is cute or whatever. There’s a million different reasons for responding, but they’re responding because of the person themselves. It’s what they’re doing, but it’s also who they are. It’s about your looking at this and saying, “I have this strong connection with this and where it’s coming from. I want to be a part of this.”
I think that’s something very different from say shopping or from other ways that we spend money and get things. This is much more direct. It’s much more in line with farmers markets, but in a much broader way. You don’t have to have special access to be a part of someone’s story or be part of making something that’s amazing. You don’t have to run some crazy gauntlet to get there and have the opportunity to tell your story and have the opportunity to ask people to become a part of it. Shared experiences being the most important thing. I think is something completely unique in that the first time you do it it feels amazing and you just feel so connected to it. You walk by the movie poster with your date and grab her arm and you’re like, we helped make that movie. We were a part of that. That’s a really special feeling that people don’t forget
People who created things who in the past have relied on institutional money and things like that. They know that money comes with a lot of restrictions. You have to compromise. It’s not yours. You don’t own it. You’re sharing it with all these other people and corporations. What happens if you want to make a movie that’s seven hours because that’s really how your idea would be best expressed? You don’t have that option. But something like this, you’re dealing directly with your audience, really sharing every part and saying, this is my creative self. Come be a part of this.
I am extremely bullish about it in all kinds of different ways. I think this is the way a lot of things should be done. Maybe not everything, but it offers tremendous opportunities for people on both sides of the equation because it’s not the sort of thing where someone is making and someone is buying. We’re all making. Everyone’s creating these things together. I want people to see it that way and I want people to think about backing a project is becoming a part of somebody’s story and that you get to claim that story as part of you from now on. How cool is that? Where else can you get that opportunity? You can do it for a buck and a couple emails, and suddenly you’re in with some amazing thing. It could be one of your favorite artists. It could be some nobody that you just saw and thought, that person is rad — they deserve my two dollars.
I think that in every big, overarching theme of all these things is that it’s about humanity. It’s about who the person is. It’s about you being the person connecting with them. It’s not about whether it’s going to turn a profit. It’s not about how reasonable the big idea is. It’s just about, we want to make this. I think that’s great and I want to be a part of it. I think that philosophy, that mindset can extend in any number of ways. We’ve been around for a year and a half. We’re not the first to do this, but no one ever paid it any attention or understood really what the possibility was before Kickstarter. I think Kickstarter is going to define it in the years ahead. I don’t know, but I’m excited to see whatever that might be.