Kickstarter is feeling the love (or doesn’t hang up!)
Full disclosure here: We love Kickstarter. Through their website we’ve been fundraising to print the first, fabulous, tricked-out print issue of The Gopher Illustrated. We got in touch with the Kickstarter team, and they were like “Ummm. sure, why not!” so we got excited and coordinated an international phone call through internet phone jacks and a recording device stuck to the earpiece and a pencil and paper in case the recording device didn’t record. The site’s co-founder, Yancey Strickler, picked up the phone and miraculously answered all of Michu’s questions while she tried not to drop the phone, the call, the pen, the tape recorder or the stream of the conversation. Yancey, on the other hand, told tales of funding success, about the nature of giving and the inadequacy of language. He may even invent a word, maybe. We hope so. Oh, and he loves us too!
- What is the story behind Kickstarter? What made you want to start this project? and how has it grown?
Myself and my partner Perry Chen started working on this a few years ago because we had projects of our own, and in response to a problem that a lot of our friends faced and it is just sort of the world that we come from, which is artists who are struggling to make something happen. They don’t want to get rich, they just want a chance. The best part of creating and being an artist is having an audience. We thought that the possibility of being able to build an audience while funding your own work is just a very natural combination and a very cool opportunity. So it really came from there and developed from that impulse, but it was entirely coming from that world.
- And the idea of making it a web platform was there from the get go?
It was. We first had this idea about four or five years ago and we spent a lot of time developing it, and refining it and figuring out how to use it, but yeah it definitely was always going to be on the web. Kickstarter works really well in the whole social media scene that people talk about. It is sort of about making connections and having meaningful conversations and exchanges, Now it’s easy to build an audience – it’s hard to tell the depth of that audience’s interest – but it has never been easier to broadcast an idea, or a goal or a passion. If you combine Kickstarter with some of the other tools that are out there, its really not that hard to chase the dream and try to fund it.
- How many people make up the Kickstarter team?
There are eight people; there are five of us in New York and three who are elsewhere in the United States.
- What constitutes a typical day for the Kickstarter team?
Well, we spend a lot of time talking to creators about their projects. We’ll do that through email and stuff like that, where people will send us their ideas and we’ll talk to them about it. Kickstarter is invitation only, so we love to talk to people about their ideas, and that’s probably the coolest thing i’ve ever had the opportunity to do: just talk to people about their passions and try to help them find a way to make them real. There’s a lot of that, there’s a lot of looking through every project we have on the site, we have many new projects coming in every day, and we really try to get to intimately know them all. I guess I spend a lot of time backing projects. I think I’ve backed over a hundred projects at this point. I tend to get really excited when I spot things that I like and I feel obligated to put in some money. Its about the opportunity to talk to people about their projects and passions, and in my working experience I’ve never had the opportunity to do things like that, apart from like dinner parties that I wish would last longer. Being able to do that, being able to have some role or have some way of helping people is just awesome. All of us would say the same thing, that’s really what it’s about.
- Kickstarter has grown quite fast. How many projects would you say are on the site?
I would say about 1200 was the last count. Also, when people get invited to Kickstarter they also get five invites to share. So certainly a lot of it has come from that. But I would also say that a significant portion comes from people just e-mailing. People can always email projects at firstname.lastname@example.org and send us some information about their project or something like that. We don’t really screen projects or anything like that, we just talk to people to make sure they understand Kickstarter and that their project is a creative one. We’re really focused on creative projects, not personal charity or charities of any kind or donation kind of stuff. We want it to be that if you’re doing something creative, you’re going to produce something and that for a reasonable amount of money someone can get what it is that you make. So really that’s what we do, we try to educate people to have them understand how to best use Kickstarter.
- Do you reach out to potential backers? Do people do this themselves? How many backers would you estimate Kickstarter has?
Most backers come from those presenting projects. When I start a project, the first thing I’m going to do is post it on my Tumblr or whatever, and then I’m going to send out an email to people who love me and are going to support me. I know my mom will forward it to ten of her friends at work. It always starts that way. It always starts gathering momentum from your personal network of people who care about you. In many cases that’s enough. But when a project really starts to break out is when it starts spreading three or four degrees away and when you start getting feedback from the Kickstarter community, people who have no idea who you are but like your idea and maybe want something that you’re offering. The whole reward concept is really important and have played a big part in projects that are really successful, projects that really exceed their goal. And the reason that happens is that the projects are offering something people want to own. For example, the Poorcraft project that wanted to make a comic about how to live cheaply as an artist at least doubled her goal, and it was because she ended up selling like a thousand copies of her book, which she never expected to do. But they were ten bucks (each), it sounded awesome – I ordered one and can’t wait to get mine – and her success was all about her offering something that people were interested in. It’s just like a store in some ways, some people are like “I want that and I’ll give you ten dollars for it if that’s what the price is.” Because of the structure of Kickstarter this is not always obvious, but it is such a big motivation. As much as we might want to be magnanimous, generous people at all times, ultimately we’re always going to care more about what we want than why that other person needs the money. There’s always that part of it where it’s like.” Your idea is intereresting, but now it’s really interesting because of this button you offered for two dollars and I really like the design and I would totally wear that.” So the fact that it helps you is great, but I also get something that I want.
- You mentioned something about Crowdsourcing earlier. There are all kinds of buzzwords flying around Kickstarter: That it is a twist on the patronage system, crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, a democracy on ideas. Which of these ideas would you consider most accurate? What is the weirdest term you’ve heard associated with Kickstarters financing model?
Yeah I don’t like any of them. I wish there was a better word! Probably crowdfunding, it seems to be the most applicable. If I’m talking to someone who has never heard of Kickstarter before, it’s hard to avoid using that word, just to give them an idea. As the web makes these connections, it really lowers the barrier for… for example, what it means to be a friend is dramatically different before than it was five years ago. Now I sit across from you at a dinner party and exchange a few words and the next day I get a facebook friend invite. Now you’re a friend just like my oldest friend from high school. It’s really sort of weird how connections work. So it’s really sort of natural that you try to use those connections in this positive way, use them to fund things, to build momentum behind things, to build an audience for things. In terms of terminology, crowdfunding is probably the best, crowdsourcing works too, but they’re words with not-so-great definitions.
- Would you venture out and maybe invent one?
- You know you’ve thought about it, when you’re alone and say “damn, I hate those words!”
Yeah, well… you know… yeah. Maybe we will.
– What’s the weirdest project you ever had on the website?
– One has to be this guy called Fred Bennenson -who we actually ended up hiring- he did a project to translate Moby Dick into japanese moji icons, and is one of these things that is completely frivolous and has no real purpose on itself, I personally always like projects like that. There’s another one that is a little bit sillier were this couple in L.A. decided they wanted to photograph every Sizzler restaurant in the United States, and is, you know? why does anyone need to do that? That one didn’t succeed unfortunately so I guess it wasn’t that great of an idea. But things like that I like, another one that I really like is Giant Crowd Painting from Emily Grenader who wants to paint this enormous mural of a crowd scene were every person in the painting would be someone who backed the project, I think it was $30, I pledged $30 so I’ll get to be one of the people on the crowd and I just have to send her pictures of myself in this certain pose and I’ll get a print back and I can blow up the portion of me, so basically I’m getting someone to paint me for thirty bucks. That’s one that I like, that’s a really cool, creative way of using Kickstarter.
– Awesome! What was the worst project you’ve seen and was it successful?
They are all great. Really what makes a bad project is someone not putting much time or thought into it. There are ideas that are better than others, but generally I don’t pay attention to ideas so much as their commitment and understanding of how this works. The worst project to me is someone just fucking around. And actually, I just thought about a better example for weirdest project, which is these guys who claimed they had invented a time machine and they wanted to mass produce it but is all a weird joke project, their video is like a seven minutes long thing that is really weird and makes you uncomfortable and the rewards are really funny like “you pledge $1,000 and they’ll take you to see your own funeral” and is all so ridiculous. I have to say I adore it, is like a piece of performance art for me.
– Speaking of projects, recently there was a bit of controversy surrounding this project by Deacon where some comments were complaining that it went against the idea of providing a platform for the underdog because of Deacon’s fame he had access to buzz with which other projects cannot compete. Did this prompt any internal debate within Kickstarter?
It didn’t. I understand what the people were saying. I also thought they were wrong. There isn’t “that person who uses Kickstarter” it doesn’t have to be about this and is not just for small artists, is for everyone. If you look at our projects, we had one project called Designing Obama that was done by the creative director of the Obama campaign, collecting all of his work and putting it this deluxe book, and he raised $85,000. He could have easily gone to any publisher and said that he wanted to publish that exact same book and would have got a huge advance if that was what he wanted. But instead he likes the idea of bringing in people, have them involved and being able to control his own work. He didn’t need this money, but it was a far better way for him to create and it was a way for him to follow through on what his goal was. I see that as 100% valid and a great project for Kickstarter. Quentin Tarantino could put a project tomorrow and it would be awesome and there would be many reasons to do it, because if he’s making a movie thru Hollywood he doesn’t really gets to own his work, he really doesn’t get the profits from his work, he’s basically trading the rights for his art for the opportunity for if to exist. He could come to Kickstarter – and I’m sure he could raise ten million dollars in a month – and he’ll fully own his work, he can make a 17-hour movie about sock puppets if he wanted and none of us would care because we love him and we’re supporting him as patrons. So, I think that Kickstarter can work for absolutely anyone, this idea that is only for struggling artists is not true, anyone who feels passionately about an idea, that is sincere, that has something that they really want to see happening and are willing to work hard can do it; and that is who we want to be using Kickstarter. Things like that, the Deacon thing, was definitely interesting to see some of the misconceptions about Kickstarter, that we’ll have to communicate better, the fact that it really is for anyone.
- Are there any plans for future Kickstarter portals internationally?
We hope that it can happen in the near future but is not up to us, is up to Amazon. Basically all of Kickstarter (happens) in transactions that run on Amazon Payments, we basically built this very complicated system to run with their system and right now they only allow people in the U.S. But, to them, expanding internationally trhu South America and Eastern Europe is huge priority and the minute they do it we’ll able to do it as well. I don’t think we’re to far off, is definitely something that we want to do, we never intended Kickstarter to be something for people in the US but is just sort of worked out this way.
- I heard that you guys moved in to new offices
Yes, it is our first office! Until now we’ve been working from our living rooms, and is our very first week in it, very exciting and weird!
- Well, I guess some people must be really happy to have their living rooms back
They are, they are, all of our significant others are very happy.
- And to finish: there are many projects that are similar to Kickstarter: FirstGiving, PledgeBank, MobIncentive, etc. What do you think has made Kickstarter stand out?
I think there has been a couple of things: one is that we’re rally flexible with how we work, some of the other projects push you into raising certain amounts of money or require you to do this or that. Here every project we have we say “you know your audience you ought do better than we do, so do it how you want. The other big difference is that we really stress rewards, (because) if is about giving or donations it becomes really fatigue at the end, and also there is only so many time you can be asking someone to give before they don’t want to give anymore, but if is more like a commerce transaction -giving something and having something in return- it becomes very different. And the last thing I would say that is that by having video and blog updates makes (Kickstarter) a publishing platform, making it so much more about the person. Many times is not even about the idea but about how you feel towards the person, towards the video that you’re watching, like “I totally understand this person” or “he could really be my friend”, ” I see where they’re coming from”, etc. You make connections with people and that is such a powerful thing and such a strong driver to what we do. We Kickstarter try to stand out of the way and say” this is your show, this is not every project, this is yours, we trust you gonna do a great job”, and “we’re here if you need help” also.
- Anything else you may want to add?
Well, I love the Gopher and I think that the Gopher project is awesome!
- Thank you!
[ all images courtesy of Yancey Strickler and Kickstarter ]