The In Crowd
Sites like Kickstarter are redefining the fundraising process for entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. Detroit's Jerry Paffendorf is among its first wave of visionaries
Published: July 20, 2011
When he's wholly in his head, Jerry Paffendorf's brows tell the action: "And what-ifs" are arched in wonderment — "wait but thens," are comically furrowed. And when he's only half in his head, all 6 feet, 7 inches of Jerry become West Coast relaxed. He rolls his own cigarettes, using them to animate the arsenal of voices he uses when storytelling. You could think of Paffendorf as a modern and more charming one-man rendition of Revenge of the Nerds, written for the stage and performed impromptu at a public park, but also streaming online somewhere.
Paffendorf has the mind of a hacker, and while he lacks a true programmer's technical savvy he has the vision and enthusiasm to recruit others to handle the coding. He's delved into the possibilities of digital avatar integration across virtual platforms (if that sounds abstruse, we'll explain later), and he's always trying to innovate the more playful aspects of sharing information online.
It was those interests and proclivities that put Paffendorf on the forefront of using a recent approach to online fundraising (crowdfunding, as it's called in general) and its first and most successful website (Kickstarter) for his DIY brand of art activism. And at least in part because of Paffendorf, Detroit has become one of the leading cities for the utilization of Kickstarter for community and arts projects. If Kickstarter is a new national network, Detroit is one of its pulsating nodes.
To get an idea of Paffendorf, consider his last, big, pre-Detroit project. In Brooklyn, with software engineer Christian Westbrook and tech writer Mark Wallace, he founded Wello Horld, a company later described as a "real-time social Web, where you can see, be and do anything, with anyone, anywhere online." Wello Hurld had the potential to make any website a real-time communal experience.
"As you're taught to do, we went around and knocked on the doors of a few venture capitalist firms," he says. "One day, we met with a group who was just an absolute gorilla in the valley. They had a huge fund, a good reputation, and had a couple real successes. It's the kind of situation creatives dream of being in — big money to make your cool idea happen outside your head."
The aforementioned ape was Red Point Ventures, a VC outfit from the valley whose portfolio includes investments in companies you know, such as Ask.com, Cloud.com, Alltell (recently purchased by Verizon), Myspace and Netflix.
If Wello Horld was going to be the next big thing, Red Point seemed like the group capable of making it happen.
"Fun," says Paffendorf, visibly invigorated by the very word, brows arching. "That's all, man. I'm telling ya, it was about fun. We just wanted to make it more fun to be online with your friends. How does fun go wrong?"
In retrospect, he says, his move to San Francisco might have been "the writing on the wall." And a year and a half in, things were getting bad.
"I got to see — the dark side," Paffendorf says in his best baritone. "There really is no such thing as free money. At the time, you aren't even thinking about the fact that they're actually buying you."
Red Point's initial investment in Wello Horld was $2 million.
Early one spring morning in 2009, co-founders Westbrook and Paffendorf, along with a handful of other members of the start-up team, were fired from Wello Horld. Just like that, as he recounts it. (A call for comment from Redpoint went unanswered.)
In his post-employment daze, one idea kept popping up. It was out there. The notion involved turning conventional corporate structure on its head by way of an anti-establishment micro-real estate online adventure. If successful it'd be Paffendorf's "Hackers of the world, unite!" moment. Kind of. A tech-punk move nonetheless. He'd always been searching for new ways to mesh virtual activity with real-world positive consequence. New ways of thinking, he surmised, meant a new location. So, where does a futurist go when he's down and out in the Valley of Heart's Delight?
"Detroit seemed pretty damn real," Paffendorf says.
But before his rendezvous with Detroit, he had a dinner date, back in Brooklyn, with friends of a friend, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, a couple guys Jerry's age who were about to launch this crowdfunding site they were calling Kickstarter.
Since going live in April 2009, the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has changed the way creative people, potentially more than 100,000, have found funding for hopefully cool and unconventional projects. People use it to make records, music videos, short films, to launch food-product prototypes and video games, to independently publish books of all sorts, to bring to life small inventions, art installations, clothing lines — and even a bronzed life-sized statue of RoboCop.
The basic idea was seeded in 2002, when New York native Perry Chen, then about 25 years old, was living in New Orleans, thinking up ways to put on a jazz concert for which he had zero capital.
Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler: "Perry had the idea that if he could somehow truly gauge the level of interest, there was in the concert before he produced it. ... If not, the concert wouldn't fail because there wouldn't be one."
A few years later, Perry, who'd previously worked as a day trader, had moved back to New York and was working as a waiter at a diner frequented by Strickler.
"We'd talk whenever I came in and, over time, we just became friends. Since I had a bit more experience working on the Web, one day he pitched me the idea for the site — which I thought was pretty awesome." Shortly thereafter they began working on the idea outside the diner, bringing in digital interaction designer Charles Adler, who's since become Kickstarter's creative director.
> Email Travis R. Wright