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A Creative Ecosystem

Yancey Strickler '00Ever have a good idea for a creative project, but lacked the means to kickstart it? Yancey Strickler '00, Perry Chen and Charles Adler had their own good idea: a way to help other creative people succeed in turning their ideas into realities.

They founded Kickstarter, a website that Strickler describes as "the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world." The site launched on April 28, 2009 and has since helped projects big and small get the funding they need to succeed. In December 2010, a project to create a wristwatch for the iPod nano raised nearly $1 million.

The site allows project creators to post their ideas and solicit funds in exchange for rewards given to backers. Projects must set a funding goal and time limit (from one to 90 days) in which to reach that goal. If the project meets its funding goal within the time limit, all of the backers' credit cards are instantly charged and the project creator receives the funds. If the funding falls short of the goal, all pledges are canceled.

A project typically offers multiple tiers of pledge options, with increasingly more valuable awards offered for larger pledges. For instance, the poetry journal Supermachine offered those who pledged $15 or more a copy of the issue b­eing funded; those who pledged $30 or more received a one-year subscription and signed copies; backers who offered $100 or more got a lifetime subscription, signed copies, back issues and another poetry book.

If the project is successfully funded, Kickstarter takes 5 percent of the funds raised. If it doesn't succeed, there are no charges. On a day-to-day basis, Strickler leads the site's "community team," which is responsible for working with creators to help them prepare their projects. Strickler's team also curates the site and handles any editorial content — as he puts it, "basically anything outward-facing comes from our team." The pages promoting the projects, however, are maintained by the creators themselves and Strickler's team does not typically get involved.

In the early days of the site, Strickler was the entire community team, but as the site has grown his day-to-day connection with the site's content has diminished. He still starts off every day looking at what projects were launched the previous day — an average of about 70 projects a day. Kickstarter has more than 20 employees.

After graduating from the College with a B.A. in English and Literary and Cultural Studies, Strickler worked as a writer, primarily as a music critic. He was editor-in-chief of a site called eMusic, a digital music store. In 2005, he met his Kickstarter co-founder, Perry Chen, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and they became friends. Chen told Strickler about an idea he had for what is now Kickstarter.

Strickler's work with eMusic led him to work directly with artists and he quickly saw how Chen's idea would work well for many of those artists trying to get started

"I was thinking about how hard it is for artists to come up with money and the many hoops and compromises they have to make to get money even once they get access to it," says Strickler. "Everything on the site has some sort of creative background, though we define the word 'creative' pretty broadly. It means art, film, music, technology, food design."

The biggest category of projects found on the site is film. At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, five films premiered that were funded on Kickstarter. Film, music, art and then photography make up the largest portion of projects started on the site. A wide swath of recognized talent and hidden potential makes up the pool of project starters that come to Kickstarter to find funding.

"The people range from Oscar winners and TED fellows, Grammy winners and New York Times bestsellers, to accountants and amateur photographers and schoolteachers. As an ecosystem, one of the things we really love is that it's so diverse," says Strickler.

One of those people who came to Kickstarter with a creative idea and a need for money to make that idea possible is Gordon Stillman '07. Stillman is a Richmond, Va.–based photographer who began the Virginia Sustainable Agriculture Documentary Project (VSADP), which explores sustainable food in central Virginia through photography. The goal of the project is to spread awareness about local food and help the environment.

"I started the project with the end goal of publishing a book and having gallery shows but didn't at the time know how I was going to fund any of it. I probably began the project about the time that Kickstarter began," says Stillman.

Stillman turned to the site in October of 2010, campaigning to create a book including 50 photographs, interviews with families and growers, and a short essay on sustainable food. For a little less than two months, Stillman promoted the book on Kickstarter in hopes of meeting his $5,500 funding goal to produce at least 100 hardcover books. When the pledge period closed, Stillman's campaign succeeded: 59 backers contributed $5,732 to the project. 

The site doesn't allow just anyone to post any project soliciting money. There is a proposal system, where prospective project managers write in to explain what they want to do and Kickstarter employees will consult about the idea to make sure it meets the site's guidelines: no charities, no general business expenses, some connection to the creative world.

According to Strickler, the project success rate is a little less than 45 percent — meaning more than half of those who advertise a project on the site do not end up receiving any funding. Strickler says that this number has been consistent since the site went live. He notes that most of the failed projects are those that are not promoted at all. Those who get just three backers, says Strickler, succeed more than 90 percent of the time.

"It's got to start with yourself," Strickler explains. "First thing you should do is tell your friends, then tell the Internet community that you're a part of."

As the site has grown in size and recognition, the average number of pledges to projects has increased, which Strickler points out suggests that "people aren't competing against each other for dollars." In fact, once a backer is drawn to the site by one project, it could mean more success for the rest of the Kickstarter community: more than 50,000 of those who have pledged money on the site have backed more than one project. Stillman is one of those.

Strickler has met many of the project creators in person and shows pride for the strong relationship the site has with the community it's created.

"They're really driven people and it's incredibly inspiring," he says. "I routinely just feel happy to see people committing themselves to an idea and believing in it with all they have."

For those who have succeeded on Kickstarter, what they now have is enough funds to bring those ideas to life.

This article first appeared in the William & Mary Alumni Magazine by the W&M Alumni Association.