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
"Crowdsourcing" and "crowdfunding" have since become commonplace Web jargon, but Strickler says those words weren't part of their vocabulary.
"Our mindset wasn't about the terms or even the general concepts of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding," he says. "We were just thinking about how the only ideas that ever got money were the ideas that had the potential to make money, and, funny, most good ideas we hear about aren't necessarily money makers. Most ideas are just this weird, sort of abstract thing that exists inside someone's head that they want to see in the real world. People don't want to be right, they just want their idea realized. But we seem to have this cultural structure that if it doesn't make money it isn't valuable. We just wanted to change that."
Until 2006, the guys were rolling with the name Critical Mass. "Then we realized that it had already been claimed as a name for so many other things out there," Yancey says. "Perry threw around new names until one sounded like it could work. We moved from Critical Mass to Kickstarter."
Kickstarter's website launched April 28, 2009. "There wasn't much fanfare at all. There wasn't a launch party or anything," Strickler says. "I still had a day job."
A week and a half later, Allison Weiss, a young woman from Athens, Ga., seeking funds to make a record, posted a new project and included a home video, incidentally sparking the site's first evolution.
"It was just her in her kitchen, playing her guitar sometimes, telling people what she was planning on doing. She was holding up these hand-drawn signs that broke down her funding level gifts. It was cool and incredibly effective," Strickler says. "We all just looked at each other like, 'Holy shit, this is a breakthrough!' Someone had already seen a greater opportunity on this platform than we did. She was just really smart; I think she was the first person who taught people how to use Kickstarter through the quality of how she presented her project."
Weiss set out to raise $2,000. She reached her goal in just 10 hours. "We'd never seen that before," Strickler says. "And she ended up raising four times that. We used to cap the funding when it reached 100 percent of the goal." After her project, Kickstarter no longer capped the funding widget on the site, instead the crowd could now choose, as they already had on their own, to overfund a project.
More milestones followed.
Four or five months in, Strickler recalls, Scott Thomas, who had been design director for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, presented a publishing project. He wanted to publish a hardcover book of Obama-inspired art, aptly dubbed Designing Obama. "That was a big project for us," Strickler says. "Thomas was trying to raise $65,000 thousand, which was already huge, but he ended up raising more than $84,000."
In March 2010, one year after Kickstarter's modest launch, Strickler says the third big turning-point project began. It was a campaign to launch Diaspora, an anarchistic, open-source answer to Facebook project. "Four NYU students created something amazing and timely," Strickler says. "Right around the time they were ready to launch their campaign, the right people were really starting to freak out about Facebook's privacy policies and information-sharing." Though it wasn't initially intended to, Diaspora's Kickstarter campaign turned into a sort of anti-Facebook protest fundraiser. The NYU students asked the crowd to contribute $10,000. They ended up raising just more than $200,000. "That definitely reconfigured the whole landscape," Strickler says.
Currently, Kickstarter receives about 250 to 300 project proposals every day and backers pledge more than $1 million a week. Each project submitted to the site is vetted by a seven-member team at Kickstarter — only 55 percent of projects proposed make it to the website. And of the campaigns that launch, only 45 percent meet their mark. The typically successful project, however, raises 125 percent of its fundraising goal.
In the last year, at least in some Detroit circles, it seems Kickstarter has entered vernacular: "Why don't you just Kickstart it?"
Five recent Detroit projects include the Salty Dog, a wood fired noborigama pottery kiln being built from "rescued bricks" that was recently fully funded. There's also an effort to send the Detroit Youth Poetry Slam Team to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in San Francisco (12 days left, 91 percent funded). And the documentary Girls Gone Vinyl, the Untold Stories of Female DJs, will be made, as it met its goal of $15,000 just days ago. With 37 days left in his campaign, illustrator Mark Rudolph has already obtained 126 percent of his funding goal to produce a graphic novel adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dagon." But with only 37 hours left in its campaign at the time of writing, Spontaneous Combustion Motor City, an improv comedy festival, is only 29 percent funded.
When it comes to launching campaigns, Strickler says Detroit is pretty prolific, in the top 10 cities or higher depending on the month.
"But what's more interesting than the stats is this fetishization of Detroit as America's Berlin and this whole idea of industriousness and wide-open landscapes," he says. "All of that works in the modality of Kickstarter. There seems to be something shared."
Strickler says that while Kickstarter offers a new way for people to make things happen online — "to define for themselves how their world looks" — he sees a movement of people making similar efforts to make things happen on the ground in the Motor City.
> Email Travis R. Wright