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Kickstarting Cultural Production
Yancey Strickler on Crowd-Funding Creative Projects in the “DIY Universe”

By David Kennedy-Logan

For Yancey Strickler, Kickstarter cofounder and Head of Community, there are traditional measures of success for the online funding platform: the dollars raised for creative projects (some $335 million since Spring 2009), say, or the diversity of endeavors successfully supported (31,000, ranging from Minneapolis’ newest restaurant to a film about China’s most famous dissident artist to a project documenting Cambodian master musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge). But equally gratifying is seeing projects—like a new documentary about Brooklyn kids becoming chess champions in the midst of poverty—grow from merely a good idea to fully realized. “These things are existing in the world just as creative projects alongside all others,” he says in a new interview with David Kennedy-Logan. “There’s no core difference, like it’s just some weird Internet thing. It’s a movie. It’s a movie that’s on the Today Show. For us that’s the real measure of success.”

David Kennedy-Logan

For the unlikely few who aren’t familiar with Kickstarter, could you give a short summary of what it is and how it got started?

Yancey Strickler

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects. It’s a place for people to post ideas of things they want to do, things like making a film or a work of art or a piece of design or an album or a play. And they invite their communities to be a part of it. People contribute money to help make the thing happen. The site launched 3 1/2 half years ago—on April 28, 2009. Since then, more than 74,000 projects have launched on Kickstarter. Perry Chen, our CEO, had the idea for Kickstarter back in 2002. He was living in New Orleans and wanted to put on a concert but didn’t have the money or the organization to do it. So the show never happened, and it was a very frustrating experience for him. Through that, he had this idea: what if he had put this idea to the public and allowed them to help decide whether it should happen? And what if people could commit money on the condition that they’d only be charged if everyone else agreed it was a good idea? The site really began from that thought. Perry then met me and Charles Adler—we’re the other cofounders—and together we started working on it.


You mentioned the number of projects that been funded through Kickstarter. What about the total number of dollars that have been distributed?


Of the 70,000 projects that have launched, 32,000 have been successfully funded—44 percent of all projects. As of today, $390 million dollars have been pledged to all projects. Eighty-five percent of all dollars go to successfully funded projects, so that number is around $335 million.


Earlier this year you announced that Kickstarter was on pace to distribute more money to artists in 2012 than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Do you expect that to still happen, and more importantly, what do you think that says about our institutional systems of support for artists?


Yeah, that was something I had mentioned in an interview in February. I had been looking at the NEA’s figure, trying to get a sense of the state of arts funding in the US and the biggest source of arts funding. I honestly still don’t know what that is. But I looked at the NEA’s budget, which was at $154 million, and it was near its all-time high. It was interesting to look at the amount of money they were putting out into the world, not just for funding individual projects but also for education and other things, and to get a sense of where we stood. Looking at that number, it was certainly apparent and probable that Kickstarter would distribute more money than that. In 2011, it was $99 million budgeted through the site. I’m not sure what the number is for this year so far but it’s more than $200 million already. So already this year, Kickstarter has distributed a greater number of dollars directly to projects. I look at that as a sign of the public’s real interest in and real support of the arts.

Obviously, this is a tough time economically, and people are having a harder time getting by. But even in the midst of this, three million people have chosen to spend $390 million in support of creativity, in support of art. For things that are not core necessities. A lot of Kickstarter’s projects are idiosyncratic. They’re quixotic; they’re dreams that people are trying to make reality, and to me this level of support is a demonstration that art and culture and creativity are things that we value—that we value maybe especially during tougher times.

In terms of being larger than the NEA—and one of the largest sources of arts funding in the world at this point—we’re certainly excited and proud of the way Kickstarter’s really struck a chord with a lot of people, but we would be completely happy to be the millionth largest source of arts funding if it meant that there was just a lot of money out there. You know, the mission behind Kickstarter is for more art and creative work to exist in the world. That’s why we created this company. That’s what we do every day, what we intend for this company to do forever. And so to us that doesn’t necessarily mean on Kickstarter, it just means that we are in service of that idea. A lot of people are in service of that idea, and we want more people to be in service of that idea, because creativity and the production of art is a very core, fundamental aspect of everybody. You know there’s this desire to speak and to create and to have other people hear it. I view that as just a very basic thing.


And it’s true isn’t it that Kickstarter has no advertising? As you’ve gotten bigger, I’m sure it’s not for lack of offers, but is that just a core principle—that Kickstarter doesn’t accept advertising?


Yeah, we would never, never in a million years. No no no. We’re an ideology-driven business, and one whose core principles are built on the support of art and creativity and on enabling people to do things and come together around creativity. But we also have a business model, so if a project is successfully funded, Kickstarter charges a fee of five percent of the total amount raised, and that’s what we use to keep ourselves going, and we’re a sustainable business off of that. We’re really proud of that. But there’s no need for any other fees. You know, that’s enough. Our sense is that we just want enough for this thing to continue to exist, for everyone to have health insurance—we’ve got 45 employees—for us to be able to provide for our team in the ways that we need.

And, you know, our five percent fee is lower than any nonprofit’s fee or any bank officer’s fee or the terms that a movie studio or a record label would require, where they take ownership of your work. I don’t think that there’s a better offer out there. You keep full ownership of your work, you keep complete creative control, and all you’re asked to pay is five percent of what you raised to Kickstarter (and then credit card processing fees). It’s a phenomenal deal to artists, and we’re really proud to do it at such a fair number that comes below what anyone else was ever charging before.


Speaking of record labels, I know you have a background in music and music journalism. I’m wondering if you see your enterprise, or other things like Wikipedia, or Drupal, or Etsy, or other open source things that we’ve seen become successful on the Internet, as an example of the DIY, indie, or punk philosophy in action?


Wikipedia and Etsy are definitely companies that we greatly admire and who we view ourselves in a similar headspace with. We think the world of those spaces. There is kind of this creative universe on the web, this DIY universe: companies like them or VHX or Metafilter or Code for America—a lot of great companies doing things to support people who are creating, and trying to do it in a really ethical way that embraces community. It’s great that those places exist because they could be models of other ways for businesses to be run, where you can approach your work with a mission and you can do that while also being a successful enterprise. There aren’t a ton of models like that out there. There are some really great ones, but there need to be more.


Switching to philanthropy, there’s a big topic in our world of this concept of evaluation, or metrics, demonstrating impact—in other words, trying to measure how much “good” is being accomplished in the world as result of our funding. I know you’ve said that it’s important for people to realize the distinction between Kickstarter and philanthropy and charity, but I’m curious if you have any systems of evaluation, any kind of metrics about what happens to projects after they go out into the world.


It’s something we think a lot about. But no, there’s nothing. There’s no metric really. When a Kickstarter project gets funded, the creator then goes off to do their thing and they keep backers in the loop with updates. That’s really the way that things are tracked.

What we’re finding now, 3 1/2 years in, is that production cycles of a lot of the early successes and projects have finished and that there are projects existing out there in the world. Today there is a KS-funded documentary called Brooklyn Castle, which ran four Kickstarter projects. It’s an amazing movie and just got a rave review from Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. It’s opening in 100 theaters, and this morning the Today Show called it an early Oscar contender. Just seeing that takes our breath away, because we saw this documentary start from the very beginning. And to see it out there in the real world—that’s what it’s all about.

Earlier this year, Publisher’s Weekly estimated that Kickstarter was the second-largest publisher of graphic novels in the US. And there are these things just coming out and they’re being stocked at Forbidden Planet and local stores. You know, you go to bookstores and there are KS-funded books. You go to movie theaters and there are KS-funded movies. Amanda Palmer debuted at number 10 in the Billboard charts. And so you’re seeing these things start to exist in the real world in a really big way. And so what’s amazing to me about that is that all these goods, all these works, these are the product of thousands of people, or hundreds of people, these backers who came together. There’s a community who made this happen, and now it’s just out there in the world alongside everyone else. And you know the people who backed it certainly know its origin, the fact that it started on KS, and that they were the first backers. A lot of these projects credit the backers in the end credits. But still, these things are existing in the world just as creative projects alongside all others. There’s no core difference, like it’s just some weird Internet thing. It’s a movie. It’s a movie that’s on the Today Show. For us, that’s the real measure of success.

But, to your question, we’re certainly interested in knowing on a macro, platform-wide scale, what is it that’s happening with this project, where is it that people find success or run into trouble. We are certainly studying that stuff. And we really look at Kickstarter as a work in progress, an experiment. This was a notion of a way that people could come together to make things. And we’re watching it and studying it to see how it works, how it comes together.

Earlier this year, we created a public stats page, where you can go and see most of the raw numbers behind everything that’s happening on Kickstarter. It’s updated live multiple times a day. Every time we push any code to the site, it updates numbers with whatever they are at that second. We put this up there because we just liked the transparency of it, and letting people see what’s happening. Every project operates with such extreme transparency—there’s a giant scoreboard showing how much money they have, they’re walking people through the creative process, you’re pursuing things in public to a remarkable degree. And it’s such a core part to the site and something that we’re eager to see become an even bigger part.


As Kickstarter gets bigger and more influential, do you have to pay closer attention to how the public feels about or reacts to the projects that get funded? Is it a potential concern that a Kickstarter project could come back to haunt you? Or is that not a concern because you basically have enough trust in the group “ratification” process that any such project would never come to fruition?


You know, not every project is going to go according to plan. The creative process is unpredictable and sometimes people bite off more than they can chew. It’s just something that happens any time anyone is trying to create anything. There’s not a method of creation that is without risk. That’s one of the glorious things about it. There’s so much power and excitement in that risk. We had a blog post recently called “Kickstarter is not a store.” It was trying to explain this idea that you’re not buying something that is shrink-wrapped and ready to ship. You are participating in the creation of something. And that’s a wholly different action that is way more compelling and way more exciting and has a potential to just create amazing moments and interactions. There is significant power in that.

So if and when projects go wrong, certainly it will make people look at Kickstarter and ask what it means, and there will be many moments like that. What we believe is those will be learning moments for everyone, and backers will be sure that they support projects where they either have a high level of confidence that this person is capable and can execute it or they support projects that are by people that they love, where even if things don’t work out they are happy to have played a role. For creators, I think what will happen is that more and more the bar will get raised by people just being very honest and transparent about your background and your plans and the contingencies and the issues that you may face. Our belief is that the trend line that this points to is greater transparency, and the community will recognize it and will increasingly become more adept at being very honest and clear about what is happening. Our belief is this is probably the natural order of this ecosystem. When you have people coming together to create things, most things are going to work out wonderfully and people are going to be thrilled with the results. And sometimes it’s not, and those people will have a varying degree of regret about it, and people will move on.

There’s a dynamic there that really makes sense because it’s reflective of how things work in the real world. Consider the hyper-efficiency of our markets where you buy something on Amazon and magically 48 hours later it shows up on your doorstep perfectly, just like you imagined it. Or the way iPhones come off the line in China as if someone was just plucking them from trees. There’s this magic to it. Things have become so sophisticated, engineering has become so advanced, and supply chain management is such an enormous feat that it feels magical. But the truth is, these things take a lot of work. There are many authors behind these things, many processes, and these things are not apparent to us. This machine has been built to make it all seem magical. And Kickstarter is the opposite. Kickstarter shines a light on what is the process. What are the bumps in the road in how our things get made? And ultimately, I think more people understanding what that process is and the fact that even something as simple as an iPhone case takes many steps and that someone had to sweat hard to figure out how to do that—that’s really how products are made, that’s really how things come into existence. It’s through effort and ingenuity and passion. I think a societal-level understanding of that is to everyone’s benefit. And even for me, I learn so much in backing these projects. I back something like the Cosmonaut, which is a stylus, and a stylus is not even an object, it’s just a shape to me. But the creator shows this amazing four-minute video of how one gets made in their factory in South Dakota, with this beautiful classical music playing over it, and I’m like, “Whoa, I know what a whatever kind of machine is now,” and it’s really exciting to get that window into it. So I think that opening that up, showing people soup to nuts how something goes from an idea to an object, how someone goes through the process of making matter conform to their vision, that’s an intense thought. It’s really amazing. I think that alone is worth the price of admission.


Back to the philanthropy versus Kickstarter comparison, the Kickstarter approach seems to really highlight the final, deliverable, creative product …


It has to be a finite thing. It has to be producing something. It doesn’t have to be tangible necessarily.


You have to be able to know when you’re done with it.


Right, exactly.


So Kickstarter highlights the defined, deliverable product or project, as opposed to certain philanthropic funding that can be seen more as providing a credential or a seal of approval that gets attached to a person—I’m thinking of something like a fellowship or a MacArthur “genius” grant, things like that. Is this part of the philosophy of Kickstarter—to encourage artists and creative people to focus on the work, get the work done, rather than on the trappings of “career”?


Yeah. I think that’s fair. I was a music journalist before Kickstarter, and one of the side projects I had going then was a digital-only record label I started with a couple people, where we just put out records by bands that we really loved. And we’d go see these bands and say, “Hey, that CD-R you sell at your show for five bucks, we’d like to put that online and make a lot of people hear it.” And we’d work out this deal where they’d keep full ownership of their work and all they were doing is giving us the right to package it and sell it. And they got all the money; we took no money ourselves. Some of the artists had a lot of success—High Places, Crystal Stilts, Juliana Barwick, the Rural Alberta Advantage, all these bands started out with us. What’s interesting is that some of these bands were making good money this way. They were really able to support themselves as very young bands just selling things directly. And pretty soon, record labels came calling and were interested in signing them.

I remember having conversations with some of these bands about that moment of, “Should I sign with this label?” What was interesting is that they knew that economically, in terms of ownership, it wasn’t a better deal. That being on their own was a greater risk, but they would have more control, and they would take a greater share of the funds from what they sold. But what the label represented to them was legitimacy. To them it was: I can finally say to my mom or dad or husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend, I made it. That thing I’ve been doing, that thing you’ve been giving me a hard time about, asking me when am I going to get a real job—I can point to a piece of paper that validates me and says that I made it. And that was ultimately what they needed and what was the most emotionally resonant. And I would feel the exact same way.

But what I think is interesting and what I really hope could happen is that having a successful Kickstarter could have that same meaning, and maybe it would have an even more interesting meaning as a validation to your community by your community. Mom and Dad don’t get to see just that you made it, they get to be a part of you making it, they get to be a part of the process of you making it, they get to watch it happen. It’s not some negotiation that they can barely imagine how it works. It’s something they get to participate in. I think that would be really cool. Kickstarter is just people, coming together around things. It doesn’t have the fancy dress to it, and it certainly doesn’t have the incredible aura of a MacArthur grant. But that’s fine, there’s room in the world for all kinds of things. And we don’t require anyone to say they were funded on Kickstarter or put our logo on anything — quite the contrary. That would be lame. But we’re certainly happy if people want to talk about us as part of their story. Our belief is that we’re in this for the long haul, and we think that this kind of approach is better off. It makes it more clear to the creative community what our values are and who we are, which is something that matters a lot to us, and in the long term will probably lead to a better experience for everybody.

David Kennedy-Logan is a Minneapolis-based writer, designer, cartoonist, and illustrator. After four years in the Walker’s education and community programs department, he has spent the past seven in the communications department at The McKnight Foundation.

Yancey Strickler

Photo courtesy Yancey Strickler

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