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The Trivialities and Transcendence of Kickstarter

by ROB WALKER / New York Times

We had this idea, some friends and I, for a small public art project in New Orleans last year. The problem was, it involved some professional printing that would cost a few thousand dollars, which none of us had. Usually that’s where such conversations end: it would be cool if we could do X, but we’re not going to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, even if we knew how to pursue such a thing. So let’s get another round of beers.

But this time something occurred to me: What about that Kickstarter thing? Kickstarter has been around online for just over two years, and various artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and designers have used the site to raise more than $75 million for 10,626 “creative projects,” to use Kickstarter’s preferred term. That money has come from 813,205 “backers” — individuals making mostly modest contributions (the most common is $25) to support specific efforts. The selling point of “crowd-funding,” as this phenomenon has come to be called, is that it is an alternative to the wealthy patron or the grant-giving foundation. Kickstarter has become the most talked-about example of this democratizing technology: an arts organization for the post-gatekeeper era.

So what kind of “creative projects” does Kickstarter enable? Well, a couple of artists raised $2,181 to send funny handwritten letters to every household in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood; someone pulled in $8,441 to help finance the creation of “a searchable ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 hip-hop songs”; a couple of people got $30,030 to publish a version of “Huckleberry Finn” that replaces Mark Twain’s use of a notorious racial epithet with the word “robot.” At times the sums have been a good bit larger: $67,436 to build a statue of Robocop in Detroit; $161,744 to make a computer-animated adaptation of a Neil Gaiman story; and nearly $1 million in pledges to finance a band to wear iPod Nanos as wristwatches. Clearly, the crowd had some spare cash, and if it paid for all those other ideas, why not ours? (It involved artists creating signs advertising absurd hypothetical uses for neglected buildings in New Orleans.) We decided to give it a try. We’d turn to Kickstarter: the people’s N.E.A.!

It wasn’t until much later that I met the people who created the company and figured out how it works. I had imagined Kickstarter as a neutral mechanism for liberating creativity, as bias-free as the Internet itself. With no profit-driven executives or credential-obsessed curators, the site could allow creators to raise cash for any idea, however unlikely, eccentric or even foolish. But that is not the case. The founders suspect that if they had taken a purely values-neutral approach, they would have failed. It may be hard to believe, navigating the unruly mob of idiosyncratic ideas cataloged on Kickstarter, but the reason it works is that somebody is in charge.

Perry Chen, who is 35 and Kickstarter’s chief executive, started thinking about the idea in 2002. He wanted to hold a concert in New Orleans, where he was living at the time, but he lost his nerve thinking of all the money he might lose. Chen imagined a Web tool that would have allowed him to raise the money he needed at no personal risk. Three years later, when he was living in New York City, where he grew up, and paying the bills as a waiter, he explained his idea to Yancey Strickler, a Virginia transplant with a manner as laconic and soothing as Chen’s is fidgety.

“I’m not so sure about this,” Strickler, 32, recalls thinking. He might have been dubious because neither of them had much experience fund-raising, running an arts organization, starting a technology company or writing code. Chen was a founder of a gallery in Williamsburg; Strickler’s only qualification was his work as an online music critic. But experience wasn’t the problem. It was the democracy factor that nagged at Strickler — it sounded suspiciously like a popularity contest. “If you let people vote for what they want — that’s ‘American Idol,’ ” he said to Chen. “That doesn’t produce great art.” But Chen had a retort: “What about someone like a sculptor in some small town in the middle of nowhere? They have no way to get into a gallery. No one around them appreciates what they’re doing — but the Internet could.” The Internet could support any idea stranded on the margins of traditionally financed culture-making.

Appealing. So they agreed on a strategy, added a third founder, Charles Adler, and spent the next few years getting nowhere with it. Strickler admits he had basically given up. But Chen wouldn’t let the thought go. Finally the right set of contacts led to people with the right technical skills. Kickstarter started in earnest on April 28, 2009.

By that time, other online services — some successful, some not — had familiarized people with the idea of connecting individual donors to small-scale money-seekers. DonorsChoose let teachers raise money for classroom projects. A site called SellaBand applied the idea in the music sphere; IndieGoGo started up as a vehicle for filmmakers (and has since expanded). But from the start, Kickstarter had a particular philosophy.

First, users must define a specific “project” — a word the founders did not choose lightly. A project suggests something finite; it is not supporting a career or underwriting a start-up. Second (and contrary to my attitude when my friends and I started our little campaign), Kickstarter isn’t for handouts. It encourages — indeed, it mandates — an exchange of value. Creators must offer “rewards” to their backers: written notes of thanks, custom T-shirts, handmade objects. Finally, to add some marketplace discipline to the proc­ess, project makers must pick a target dollar amount and a deadline. If they fall short of the goal, they get nothing. These guidelines aim to subtly shape the proposals, and ultimately the creations themselves. “Once you add constraints, that’s what happens,” Chen explains. “We want that to happen. ‘Kickstarter project’ has some specificity to it, just like a tweet.”

Two years later the founders still avidly discuss the question of what is or isn’t a Kickstarter project. Early on, to be a project creator, you had to have an invitation: the founders turned to friends and harangued them to do cool stuff. They wanted Kickstarter to be full of ideas that they actually liked.

This later evolved into an approval system. Anybody could pitch a project, but Kickstarter had to give it a green light. (The stock example of a proposal they reject: “Buy Jenny a prom dress.”) In late 2009, the company raised funds from people like Jack Dorsey, a Twitter founder, and Caterina Fake, a Flickr founder, as well as two venture-capital firms, and now has 25 employees and not enough space for them in an office on Rivington Street. On a recent week, Kickstarter received 1,890 proposals, each evaluated by a “community team” of about a half-dozen people. About 40 percent are rejected (although most of those flagrantly ignore the site’s guidelines — which bar charitable fund-raising, offering financial incentives and of course anything involving Jenny’s prom dress — or are incomprehensible).

With so many ideas pouring in, Kickstarter could adopt a passive stance and simply let “the Internet” take over. But instead, approved projects often get a little advice: make a video, adjust your rewards, lower your funding goal and so on. Kickstarter is as much about unlocking creators’ marketing potential as their creative potential. The company takes a cut — 5 percent — of the money raised on successful projects. (The transactions are processed through an service, which takes a slightly smaller cut.) The founders say it is profitable.

As both a business and a facilitator of culture, Kickstarter has an interest in projects succeeding, not only in the sense that the money comes through but also that the projects are well received. This entails more than simply waiting for people like me and my friends to show up. One of Strickler’s chief responsibilities is hobnobbing with film-school faculty, museum curators and music-festival organizers. This year the site introduced a feature called curated pages, which gives (thoughtfully chosen) entities like Sundance Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, the New Museum and Pitchfork space to highlight Kickstarter projects proposed by people associated with their organizations, or anything else on Kickstarter that they happen to think deserves promotion. Kickstarter doesn’t ask for money from these organizations; it simply wants the best brands in culture-making to effectively endorse it as a resource. Most recently, the company hired the artist Molly Surno to function as something like a talent scout, courting and working with artists who might have compelling ideas that could be framed in a Kickstarter-y way.

In the beginning, the founders weren’t sure what this Kickstarter way of framing creativity would look like. An answer came in the first month, when a musician named Allison Weiss in Athens, Ga., started a campaign for her new EP. She was trying to raise $2,000 in 60 days. She did it in about 10 hours. Ultimately, 205 backers gave her $7,711.

Raising money through Kickstarter, as most successful and all unsuccessful project creators will tell you, is actually harder than it sounds. Weiss’s pitch remains a model of the form. Her promotional video was funny and down to earth but also demonstrated she was capable of delivering. She wittily but firmly emphasized that her backers would “get cool stuff.” She clearly saw Kickstarter as a useful tool for reaching not just an abstract “crowd” but also her community of friends, peers and fans.

Chen puts it this way: Getting heard about entails a second creative project to drive the central one. You don’t have to make a video, but most money seekers do, and the successful ones avoid making it too slickly ad-like or blatantly amateurish; lighthearted hints that the creator is a little uncomfortable asking for money are a recurring trope. Taking the time to come up with creative, memorable rewards is more likely to get results.

I can confirm that I had no idea how much work a Kickstarter campaign would be. We had to dream up rewards that someone might actually want but that wouldn’t consume our budget, and I lost a weekend learning how to use video-editing software. But there was also this: for a month, I was shaking down every friend, and online “friend,” I could think of, hoping our pitch would go viral, fighting back irrational anger at longtime pals who ignored me and feeling insane gratitude toward total strangers who chipped in $10 or $25. (Disclosure: Chen, maybe because of the New Orleans connection, popped up among our backers, to the tune of $2. I didn’t know him and I had no plans at the time to write about the company.)

My experience, I admit, had some effect on the questions I later asked project makers. “It was wildly stressful,” Steven Zucker, who teaches art history at Pratt Institute, replied to one such query. He and his collaborators Beth Harris and Juliana Kreinik set out to raise $10,000 to add a new batch of material to, their free online alternative to a traditional art-history textbook. It felt, they told me, like a “referendum” on an effort that consumed them for years. (They ended up with $11,513.)

One afternoon I spoke with Gerd Ludwig, a photographer whose work includes impressive documentation of the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion for National Geographic, but whose usual publishing clients expressed no interest in sending him back to the scene of the disaster on its 25th anniversary. His studio manager suggested Kickstarter. At first, Ludwig, 64, shied away. “I thought, This is for younger guys,” he says. But he reconsidered. He raised $23,316 (almost double his goal) and gave himself the assignment that no editor would. His satisfaction goes beyond seeing this new work make its way into exhibitions. “When people vote with their pocketbooks, I find they’re supporting issue-driven projects and subjects,” he said. “It’s actually really reassuring. To put it in a simple phrase: I don’t think anybody would put out a hundred dollars for a paparazzo to follow Britney Spears.”

Ludwig is probably right about that, although it’s interesting to consider why. After all, millions of people do, in effect, pay the paparazzi to follow Britney Spears, by purchasing magazines and driving up the hit counts of ad-supported Web sites that traffic in precisely such material. But no gossip addict feels ownership of or responsibility for tabloid culture.

Many people are serial Kickstarter donors — more than 300 have backed 35 or more projects. Cindy Womack, for instance, has given to 128 projects ($45 was her biggest gift) usually involving theater or comics. She works for a theater company in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. “I’ve known too many really talented artists who can’t stand in front of three people and explain, ‘Here’s why I need money,’ ” she says.

Lewis Winter, a designer in Melbourne, Australia, has given financial support to 373 projects (including three portrait commissions, an interest of his). “My motivations probably aren’t that different to the Medicis’ . . . just my budget,” Winter told me via e-mail. His average pledge is about $15, and his most generous was $140. “I think Kickstarter helps people do something a lot of us have forgotten how to do — ask our neighbors for help,” he continued. That said, he also had some caveats about the crowd as patron in the digital age, noting that projects typically get many more Facebook “likes” than actual backers: “Apparently a whole lot of people like something so much they’re not even willing to give it a dollar.”

Most project creators I spoke to were interested in how to get the attention of potential donors and were especially curious about how the company makes certain decisions. For example, Kickstarter highlights projects on its blog and names three “Projects We Love” in a weekly e-mail newsletter. Those projects seem to quickly rack up pledges. The crowd may be voting with its dollars, but Kickstarter’s endorsement does seem to matter, just like any other gatekeeper’s.

I sat in on a meeting where the newsletter picks were made. During the half-hour or so Strickler and the team discussed the choices, I was struck by how often they talked not about the projects but about the pitches. “His video is so boring.” “What are the rewards?” “Why is this cool?” They were focused on the project ideas through the filter of “the Kickstarter project” as a form. “We have values,” Chen told me, and they boil down to prizing creators who respect its proc­ess. They favor creators who think through the rewards for backers, get the word out and engage an audience. In other words, the process doesn’t shape the aesthetic. It is the aesthetic.

Strickler sees this in a larger framework. Commerce, he says, shapes cultural output in subtle ways; he sees Kickstarter’s approach as a new alternative. “Money demands answers,” he told me. “People want to put money into things that they think will be successful, and to be successful you have to participate in the market, and the market has very specific rules.” That traditional set of rules, he continues, “dictates what people make” — like paparazzi photos, let’s say. A Kickstarter project, as a form, “really does open up what forms art can take,” Strickler muses.

That’s a great pitch. And the fact that Chen and Strickler have a genuine point of view about the forms creativity can take, and how to expand them, is the reason that Kickstarter is the breakout star of the crowd-funding notion. They embrace the crowd but don’t allow a free-for-all. They champion the underdog — but in particular the underdog who self-markets with aplomb. But if they hadn’t cared what “a Kickstarter project” would mean, then it would not have meant anything at all.

That said, the founders acknowledge that the parameters of Kickstarter-ness are constantly rejiggered by how creators use the site and what backers respond to. Just look at the recent mega-success of that Nano watch band. The project was in line with the spirit of the site, Strickler told me, because its creator couldn’t get money through traditional channels. But the creation is now crossing over to retail — via Apple stores, no less. No wonder Wired recently assessed Kickstarter not as the champion of artistic underdogs but as “a lab for daring prototypes and ingenious products.”

If that had been my impression of Kickstarter last year, I might not have considered it a plausible solution to the age-old dilemma of the cool idea with no obvious market. Our campaign was no easy-money spigot; the effort and stress were more than I bargained for. But I’d probably do it again. We exceeded our goal (barely) and were able to finish a project that, just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have even started.

Picture information: The dipr, left, for dunking cookies in milk, and Edible Cups, right, exceeded their Kickstarter goals.

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