May 9, 2014 12:13 pm

Interview: Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter

We are all patrons of the arts now, says the 35-year-old CEO of the crowdfunding website. It has raised $1bn in five years to finance 60,000 creative projects – by both unknowns and high-profile artists such as Spike Lee
Yancey Strickler©Gino Sprio

On the roof of London’s fashionable Shoreditch House, a near-miracle: it is warm enough, in the middle of April, to swim in the private club’s outdoor pool. Yancey Strickler, visiting from his New York base for a few days, does not in all honesty look like he wants to join the springtime aquatics. Not even in celebration: on the day we meet, it is the fifth birthday of Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform for creative projects that recently announced an important milestone: $1bn raised, to support more than 60,000 projects during its short history.

Strickler, a co-founder of the company, recently became its chief executive, and the rhythms of his day do not seem to include time for leisurely afternoon swims. Since his appointment, he says, every minute of his day, from nine in the morning to eight in the evening, is accounted for. But there has been a pleasant surprise to temper the increased workload. “Email, which was the centre of my life until six months ago, has suddenly become much less important to me. I spend nearly all of my time on face-to face meetings. I have become a Luddite!”

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Peter Aspden

He savours the irony: tech start-up whizz-kid reduced to human interaction shock. “I am so obviously the hub of so many things, it is important to meet people, all the time. I did not expect that at all.” It must feel good, I say. “It’s a great way to communicate,” replies Strickler drily, and then breaks into a broad smile.

What’s not to love about Kickstarter? Since the day it started, it seemed to have arrived fully formed, noble in its aspiration, elegant in its simplicity. Here was the principle: anyone who had an idea for a creative project could post it on a website and ask for backers to fund it. Interested parties would receive small, and not-so-small, rewards, according to the amount they gave. If the fund target was met, the project would go ahead; if not, no money changed hands.

The broader crowdfunding concept preceded Kickstarter – just think of Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign in 2008 – and Strickler and his cohorts do not claim to be the first. Nevertheless, artists and creative thinkers instantly found​ a new source of revenue, while art-lovers found a low-cost way of supporting them: send $50, and wear the T-shirt. Kickstarter, in the meantime, took 5 per cent of all successfully funded projects. The size of the fee was determined because it was “small and round,” says Strickler. It was an “intelligent guess” at what might be acceptable, and it stuck.

Kickstarter’s success has risen exponentially. Last year alone, three million people from 214 countries pledged $480m to fund projects. (That is $913 a minute, say the company’s statisticians with a zeal that positively bounces off its website.) Since the beginning of this year, the Kickstarter “team” has increased from 70 to 85 people, who have moved into new headquarters in Brooklyn. Pictures of the Kickstarter team are a little scary, if you happen to be middle-aged. They are not only extremely young but disarmingly casual. In a “Meet the Team” photograph, you can see lime-green sneakers, a bunch of flowers, a basketball, and a Rubik’s Cube: the epitome of 21st-century boho-slacker-smart.

Charles Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler

From left: Charles Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, co-founders of Kickstarter

Strickler, a mellow and articulate 35-year-old, founded the company with his friends Perry Chen and Charles Adler, whom he name-checks frequently for fear of hogging undue glory. He says they spent many long evenings discussing the venture, throwing out a lot of “really bad ideas”. But once Kickstarter got going, it looked more or less like it does today. “We have never had to do the pivot,” he says, referring to the moment when a new start-up company needs to start up all over again to correct errors and misjudgments. “The idea that is here now is the idea that we started with.”

He goes on to explain the concept behind the company. “There are three main umbrellas under which money changes hands: investment, philanthropy, commerce. We have something in common with all three: investment, because you are putting money up front; philanthropy, because you feel you are doing a good thing; and commerce, because you get something back for your money. But we are also distinct from each of those. It is kind of a fourth category. It is very small in relation to the big picture but it is different.” The site is emphatically not for charitable fundraising, he adds. “It is an exchange between adult, like-minded people who know what they are doing.”

Not everyone who uses Kickstarter seems to understand this fourth category. Many hand over cash to campaigns from gadget makers – 3D printers and wearable technology such as smart watches are popular projects – thinking that they are buying the device - something Kickstarter tried to address with its 2012 blogpost “Kickstarter is not a store”. Still, several backers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which raised $2.4m on Kickstarter, were angry when the start-up sold to Facebook this March for $2bn, expecting they should get a say in the deal or a cut of the proceeds; Kickstarter, however, affords no such shareholder rights.

Strickler says the projects he had in mind were those that were likely to be ignored by the behemoths of the culture industry – “government grants, record labels, anything where the profit incentive was the most important thing” – and that simply “wanted to exist”. He was thinking in particular of his heroes, such as the director David Lynch. “I thought, it must be really hard, even if he is David Lynch, for him to get a movie made. It’s not necessarily going to make millions of dollars for the studio. But there must be plenty of David Lynch fans out there who love his work, and just want to see and hear what he has to say. So we were trying to make a place where people could support stuff just because they like it.” (Lynch has not yet used the site to raise money.)

With the Kickstarter model, says Strickler, “the only question you are asked to answer is, ‘Why should I be excited by this?’ It is not, ‘Is this going to provide four sequels and some lunch boxes?’”

In the early days of Kickstarter, the founders’ aims were modest, he says. “In my head, I thought if one project reached its target in the first month, that would be awesome. We had three in the first week.” The idea instantly appealed, precisely for the small-scale nature of most projects: micro-financing for micro-proposals: a new comic-book, a low-fi video, a singer-songwriter needing help to complete an EP.

Spike Lee©Getty

Director Spike Lee raised funding for his new film on Kickstarter

But it wasn’t long before more substantial cultural figures worked out that they could make Kickstarter work for them too. Last year, funding was completed for the financing of a new film by Spike Lee, the film director who is not known for his modest ambitions or limited resources. Scant details were given: “I’m doing a semi-genre film about ADDICTION,” pitched Lee. “These people are ADDICTED to BLOOD. Yet they are not VAMPIRES. It’s going to be SEXY, HUMOROUS and BLOODY.” More than 6,000 backers pledged $1.4m to get the project made. The film is expected later this year.

Lee was typically forthright in the defence of his use of the crowdfunding site. “The truth is I’ve been doing KICKSTARTER before there was KICKSTARTER, there was no Internet,” he wrote with characteristic bombast. “Social Media was writing letters, making phone calls, beating the bushes. I’m now using TECHNOLOGY with what I’ve been doing.”

Another high-profile user of Kickstarter is the veteran rock musician Neil Young, whose eternal grumblings about the decline of sound quality in the digital age led him to ask for funding to develop the PonoPlayer, which allows master-tape quality transmission of music on portable devices. More than 18,000 people have pledged $6m to the project, making it the third-most funded venture yet. Those who pledged $5,000 or more received an invitation to a VIP dinner and PonoMusic listening party, hosted by Neil Young in Chicago. Five bucks bought you “love and thanks” and a mention on the Pono website. The player is expected in the coming months.

. . .

Those who admired the democratic impulse of Kickstarter’s early phase decried the arrival of figures such as Lee and Young, who were surely more than able to look after themselves. But Strickler is adamant that this, too, is a legitimate use of the fundraising platform. “I like the idea that it is a singular tool,” he says. “That it can be used by Spike Lee, and also someone whose favourite film-maker is Spike Lee, feels very right to me.” Even the most renowned artists of our time are subject to the pressures of being profitable, he adds. Appealing to fans is a release from that pressure.

“The projects might not have been successful. Those fans could have said, ‘I don’t care.’ The system is very black and white. But people did want to see them happen. So it is totally legitimate. I understand the criticism, because we are so used to things getting ruined. But anyone who wants to criticise someone for having the boldness to create something – I don’t like that. It’s hard to put things out there. And it’s a lot easier to criticise.” When it comes to discussion of Young, Strickler even sounds a little star-struck. “To hear Neil Young saying the word Kickstarter is so bizarre. It’s amazing he even knows what it is.”

But he does, and so do a lot of artists who are finding success. The Kickstarter imprimatur is beginning to make its presence felt at the highest level: last year the company was namechecked in the credits of Inocente, the winner of last year’s Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar, and in the American thriller Blue Ruin, winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at 2013’s Cannes Film Festival.

But other, no less impressive, artistic ventures find it more difficult to raise money. The Shakespeare’s Globe project “Globe to Globe”, hoping to tour Hamlet to every country in the world, has also turned to Kickstarter but has, at the time of writing, raised just under one-quarter of its £200,000 target, with 11 days to go.

“I have backed it,” says Strickler enthusiastically. “I think it’s amazing. I hope it makes it.” He tells me that another “high” culture pitch, from the New York City Opera, also failed to meet its goal. “I want those kinds of things to be able to find support. We will see. It’s not the bread-and-butter of the internet.” I ask Strickler if he always expected film pitches to be such an important part of Kickstarter, and he nods. “What is popular on Kickstarter is a pretty accurate reflection of what is popular in the rest of the cultural world: film, music, games, technology. That feels like an accurate temperature of where the world is right now.”

User with VR headset©AFP

The virtual reality headset made by Oculus Rift, which raised $2.4m on Kickstarter

Strickler grew up on a farm in Virginia, to “a lower-middle-class family, who didn’t graduate from college but who were educated”. The only thing he cared about, he says, was books, “and that’s still true”. From living “in the middle of nowhere”, he travelled to New York where he took a variety of menial writing jobs (“an amazing education in killing the ego”) before becoming a music critic for Village Voice magazine. “My greatest skill as a rock critic,” he says with cheerful self-deprecation, “was that I had a really weird name, so people would see my byline once and remember it.”

I say that much of the idealism behind Kickstarter reminds me of the music scene in the early 1970s, when David Geffen could hang out with Jackson Browne of a morning in Laurel Canyon, and talk about anything but profits. But that dream soured, we both agree, when the money to be made from music made itself apparent. The CD revolution was “a little dirty”, says Strickler. “A lot of how we judge the music business is based on the digital transformation of the 1980s and 1990s, and of course it was not sustainable in any way. The way perceptions change when there is a golden ticket at the end of the rainbow is significant.”

In the afterglow of that time, he says, the emergence of a phenomenon such as Kickstarter, despite its internet-dependence, has an almost old-fashioned feel. “The communal production of art is not that crazy a thought,” he says. “We have just been lured to sleep by the mass media, and the enormity of cultural production in the last 80 years.” He points to the “subscribers” in history who financed ventures such as Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad. “There were 700 of them, and they enabled him to spend five years translating 16,000 lines of Greek. And then they got their names in the first edition.”

He recognises that Kickstarter is now a global brand, itself promoting cultural events such as its film festival in Brooklyn, which it is plans to replicate in London, and operating in five countries outside the US. “This year we are focusing on Europe,” he says. “Our goal is to be everywhere in the world.” Can he imagine it getting out of control? He bridles. “The aim is to have a sense of purpose but not feel the need to control it much beyond that. This is a canvas that everyone can plug into. Seeking control can be a dangerous thing on the web.”

Individual empowerment, he says, is the thing. He recalls the very first major article written about Kickstarter, in The New York Times. “There was a quote from one of the backers, who said he felt like a mini-Medici.

“And I was, like, hell, yeah!”

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer.

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