Kickstarter has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because I will soon be taking a project I have been pouring my heart and soul into for the last year onto it in hopes of funding large scale production. For one website, Kickstarter has certainly seems to have done a lot to change the way in which creative projects, both large and small, are funded. I have both celebrated and marveled at the wonderful projects that have received funding through the platform, including Frank Chimero‘s The Shape of Design which reached its funding goal in its first day on the website and ended up raising more than four times what Frank asked for. This portfolio of funded projects seems to be the proof in the pudding that the system works. (Incidentally, I looked up the etymology of this proof-pudding business, as I almost always do with idioms before I put them in writing, and it turns out that whole phrase is actually “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” which makes a lot more sense.)
All of this success raises some big questions for me; as great as Kickstarter seems, I am hesitant to believe that it has caused such a landslide shift as it appears. I think it’s a fairly widely accepted fact that it is damn hard to make money as a creative person, especially as an individual and especially on the Internet. Let’s pretend you’ve designed and screen printed a poster that you want to sell. It’s already going to be difficult to fetch a fair price with respect to all of the time that you put into it; these days Kinkos can produce something similar in a few minutes for a few dollars. It’s going to be even harder if you’re not represented by a gallery, co-op, rep, or some other larger organization that pulls more weight than you do as an individual. It only gets more difficult when you attempt to sell your posters online; now your customers can’t physically see or touch the poster before buying. Also, you’re now in a much larger market, competing with every other poster-screen-printer out there. Plus, you probably need to increase your prices a bit to cover shipping and handling. Sure, the Internet does allow you to market to a much larger group of people, but at the end of the day (unless you’re Olly Moss) it’s probably going to be real tough to make decent money in this way.
Yet, nearly every single Kickstarter project I hear about is getting generously funded, usually well beyond its goal. How can this be? Has Kickstarter somehow tapped into some well of old-wealth benefactors with an affinity for iPod Nano watches and chubby styluses? I have some theories:
It is sometimes easier to sell an idea than it is to sell a product
Though it may seem counter-intuitive at first, it is often much easier to sell an idea than it is to sell a product, and I believe this contributes to the success of Kickstarter. When you’re just pitching an idea, people’s minds will fill in the blanks, usually favorably, especially if they respect and admire you and your work. I could decide to back Frank Chimero’s book imagining that it will be an intensely personal diary of Frank’s thinking about design while someone else could be picturing a how-to book for his simple and smart illustration style as they’re entering their credit card info. In actuality, he could write a book that is nothing like either of these; two idea customers that may not have been book customers.
Backing > Buying
The simple shift from the idea of buying a product to the idea of backing a project is a very powerful one. Even though the vast majority of Kickstarter projects seem to result in a product of some kind, and all projects must reward their backers, there is a very intentional sense of benevolence developed by Kickstarter. You’re not buying, you’re backing. Most video pitches will mention that supporting their projects is supporting independent designers/inventors and DIYers everywhere, which accomplishes a couple things: it validates retail therapy by making people feel better about spending money on stuff, justifies generosity by allowing certain backers to look at their reward as a consolation to their philanthropy, and gives both these groups of people a story to tell instead of just a thing. Kickstarter is not the first to utilize this model, which I have seen Project M use when trying to raise money for water meters in Hale, Alabama. They sold t-shirts with “425″ printed on them for $425, the exact cost of bringing clean water to a disenfranchised home. By asking for a specific donation and giving their donors a t-shirt, they were able to raise a lot more money than they would have likely been able to if they had just asked for donations of any amount. In this way, donors know that their money helped a whole household and they get a t-shirt to remind them of their good deed.
You need to be established to have success on Kickstarter (generally)
It seems that most Kickstarter projects I come across get funded. However, this is probably because the projects I am hearing about are the ones getting a lot of traction, the ones started by the designers and innovators that have always inspired me, the ones started by people that have established themselves in their field or on the Internet in general. The fact of the matter is, I am sure more Kickstarter projects fall short than get funded. (Can anyone point me to the data to support this? I can only find data on number of successful projects.) In my research for this post, I came across this article about how Kickstarter is a “scam.” While I think the author jumps to some pretty steep conclusions and makes a lot of assumptions, he/she has some interesting points. It cannot be denied that someone like Frank Chimero has a much easier time funding his project than some other designer whose name is not so well known. Frank has earned the trust of his followers with years of thoughtful writing and speaking. It is important to recognize that Kickstarter is really about funding people more than projects. This is the way most of the world works, in fact. Likable, relatable people are often hired over more qualified applicants for a job and web startup funders point-blank publicize the fact that they fund people, not ideas. (So if you’re a jerk, stop it. It’s detrimental to your success.) It seems the only real way for an uninitiated person to have success on Kickstarter is to get the support of an individual or blog that is established.
What does it all mean?
For all of the reasons that the Kickstarter model is brilliant and works so well, I am wary of it. It almost seems too good to be true. So now we have to ask the hard questions: Kickstarter is a great way to sell ideas, but what happens when people start getting these actual products back, in their hands? How many people will have expected something different, or will be disappointed in the end product? Will they come back to Kickstarter and continue to fund other projects? How many people that receive funding will fail to deliver what they promise? Kickstarter doesn’t take any action to insure fundees follow through (nor should or could they) so when is the first large scale class-action lawsuit going to come from a Kickstarter project? Kickstarter has been fortunate enough to get almost exclusively good press up until this point, but I unfortunately feel like a heavily funded project going wrong in a big way is inevitable. I just hope when it happens it doesn’t do too much damage to the service’s image.
I am also concerned that Kickstarter may create, or exaggerate, the divide between the established creatives and the up-and-comers such as myself. I was a bit surprised to see Gary Hustwit’s forthcoming documentary Urbanized on Kickstarter. Hustwit’s 2007 documentary, Helvetica, was wonderfully successful, as was the follow up Objectified, and I enjoyed both very much. While I am happy that Hustwit had so much success on Kickstarter with Urbanized, I am sure the film would have gotten made with or without the help from his near 2,000 backers on the site; Hustwit and his team were 8+ months into shooting the movie when they launched their Kickstarter project. This is starkly different from the “make my dream come true,” “this will never happen without your help” Kickstarter projects that have defined the service. If individuals or groups that have had the kind of commercial success that Gary Hustwit has start to pop up more and more on Kickstarter, I fear they will pull attention and money away from the little guys, the projects that rely on the platform.
I am wholly in Kickstarter’s corner. I love the idea, I love the projects and people they have helped fund, and I really truly hope that they continue to grow and make it easier for anyone to put something beautiful and meaningful into the world. I ask these questions out of love.