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How Kickstarter became the new model for funding the arts

‘A lot of where poor decisions get made is looking toward expediency or trying to get something over with,’ Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler says.

When Yancey Strickler told people about the groundbreaking idea that would become Kickstarter, a lot of people told him he was crazy.

"Of course," Mr. Strickler says from Kickstarter's headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. "My friends heard me talk about this for four years and I'm sure they thought, 'There's Yancey talking about that thing again that will never happen.' "

But against the odds, Kickstarter did happen. When it launched in 2009, the fundraising website reinvented the funding model for creative pursuits forever. Instead of paying for music or movies after they are produced, fans can pledge money before a project even starts. If an artist manages to raise a predetermined amount of money in a set period of time, he or she get the funds. Contributors are later rewarded with copies of the work or some other tangible benefit.

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Mr. Strickler's co-founder, Perry Chen, came up with the basic idea for Kickstarter in 2001 when he was trying to bring a couple of DJs to New Orleans to perform. But the idea languished until Mr. Chen shared his idea a few years later with Mr. Strickler, who jumped on board. (Charles Adler joined a year after that.)

The three co-founders worked for several more years – brainstorming, planning, stopping and starting – until they finally launched Kickstarter's website, eight years after its genesis. Now, Mr. Strickler is Kickstarter's chief executive officer, and the site has raised more than $1.25-billion for creators around the world and spawned tens of thousands of successful projects.

Mr. Strickler, 35, a former writer and music critic, shared his insights with The Globe and Mail about how to be innovative, ignoring the naysayers and being inspired by entrepreneurial rapper Kanye West:

What was your reaction when Perry first floated the idea for Kickstarter? Did you say, "Brilliant. I'm in!" Or did you have doubts?

I think there were things about it that immediately connected with me, like the difficulty of doing things that might be cool or fun if you need a resource like money. It instinctively made sense to me from that perspective, because there were a lot of artists and bands and filmmakers that I would totally give money to do things, but there just wasn't a way.

That said, I think Perry had to walk through it with me a few times for me to really get the potential of it and see it the way that he did.

That raises the big question, though. How do you know when to listen to your doubts or forge ahead?

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It would be great if a giant sign popped down from the ceiling that told you, wouldn't it? I think it's about instinct, and instinct isn't a natural thing. I think it's like experience filtering through you.

But listen, as great as this thing was, it had infinite opportunities to die on the vine. For Perry it was eight years in between having the idea and it existing. And even now, there's ample opportunity to screw things up.

I think it's the cliché: the mix of the idea and the dogged persistence.

You said there were naysayers who told you your idea wasn't going to happen. Isn't that how innovation often dies? When people listen to those who say, "That's not how the world works?"

To sell this sort of thing, you have to have a really strong point of view. And you have to have confidence in your sense of perception. You have to think, in this one aspect of the world, I think I'm a foot taller than the people around me and I can just see things a little differently. Where other people might see a specific action, maybe I see the shape that is causing that action. It's that sort of perspective of understanding the superstructure behind our existence, recognizing the water you swim in.

That's the hardest thing to realize, that so much around us is not the natural order, but choices made by people who came before.

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Was there something special about you or Perry or Charles that enabled you to see beyond the "normal" way things worked?

Yeah. Absolutely. Perry is a brilliant person with a real singular point of view. He's someone who does not take the conventional wisdom on anything. I operate similarly and Charles does as well. If we all simply looked at the world and accepted it as it is, and didn't bother to challenge it, it would just be status quo forever. But I think having that hunger and perspective is really core and what will guide you.

Did the fact that there were three of you help to make Kickstarter come to fruition?

Definitely. Think of anything you care about, and how desperately you want to talk about it to someone whom you love and respect. It's so satisfying – that unloading and seeing another person's face respond to it. It's gratifying at the most terrifying moment. It's just having the ability to share these thoughts, even if it's from the perspective of: I hope I'm not crazy. This conversation will at least tell me something.

On the other hand, there must have been arguments along the way. Were you a harmonious team or did you have "yelling-it-out" moments?

No, there would be moments of creative tension, but never eruption, and never anything personal. I'm a very calm, relaxed person, and there's just no way things would come out like that.

We're happy to get riled up about the work, though, and that's a positive thing. Two people who deeply care about something and are coming at it from different viewpoints – those are fantastic moments, and something pretty good is going to come out of that. The beauty of those moments is to have them with people whom you love and have mutual respect for, however it is you might be conversing.

What's your personal innovative process?

I don't rush to any conclusions or any real judgment. A lot of where poor decisions get made is looking toward expediency or trying to get something over with. I do my best to take the time to understand what the heart of something is. It may appear that X is what we're talking about, but really, X is a symptom of Y.

So, I think about what the greater truth is about something and then I'll write it down and map it out: What do I think the situation is? What would I like it to be? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities? And the second I have that down and feel like I have a bit of an idea, then I just like to talk to people.

There are a handful of folks here I want to talk to about everything because they are really sharp and have great perspective, and there will be some of that creative conflict that will help me see things a little bit differently.

Are there people who inspire you with their innovation?

The contemporary case for me for the past five or six years is Kanye West. I think his sense of self is remarkable and he has a true creative spirit. What I really like about him is that he's not concerned with where culture is going, he's concerned with where he is taking it. He is someone who is not accepting any conventional wisdom at all and is creating his own zeitgeist on a daily basis and succeeds at it massively, to such an extent that most people don't even know it's happening.

The person from the past that I really admire is Harry Smith, the first ethnomusicologist. He would travel to Appalachia in the [U.S.] South and he made some of the first blues recordings and folk recordings. But he was also a wonderful conceptual artist and animator and author, and just someone with a real open heart for the world who consumed as much as he could and was able to very thoughtfully and lovingly reflect it back. I love that so much of his legacy was not just his work, but the amplification of others' work.

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More


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