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Viewfinder: A Discussion with Kickstarter Cofounder Yancey Strickler

Kickstarter’s Yancey Strickler is exactly the type of guy you want repping for a creative digital startup. He’s amiable, smart and exceptionally witty. He knows his talking points, and he truly believes in what he’s doing. He glows with the hope of the digital world, all the while shunning the idea of growing his business […]

Kickstarter’s Yancey Strickler is exactly the type of guy you want repping for a creative digital startup. He’s amiable, smart and exceptionally witty. He knows his talking points, and he truly believes in what he’s doing. He glows with the hope of the digital world, all the while shunning the idea of growing his business like an MBA would.

Kickstarter Cofounder Yancey Strickler at the Walker Art Center, October 25, 2012. Photo courtesy of Katie Hill

I am assuming that, as a reader of this blog about arts, you know something about Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing funding model for creative projects, so I won’t go into details. According to Strickler, Minnesota is a Kickstarter-happy state: more than 400 projects have been funded $4.2 million at a 58% success rate, higher than the national average of 44 %. Worldwide, 98% of projects that raise over 60% of their goals are funded. Kickstarter has raised “over $400 million for quixotic art projects during the great recession.” Amid the barrage of statistics, Strickler told the individual success stories of Zak Sally’s Sammy the Mouse, Andy DuCett’s Why We Do This, and Alex Hawkinson’s SmartThings all of which reigned from Minnesota, with the latter project raising over $1 million.

Strickler’s presentation reflected the brilliance of the site’s design: it balanced data and numbers with personalized stories to promote tiny businesses, and it’s a lot more like a public grant application than a business plan. It also forced conversation about the commodification of artistic process. As a funder, do you care more about the reward or that someone out there is making something creative? As a project lead, is your audience supporting you because they like what you do or because they want something in return? If you are a working artist, is it worth the amount of marketing and PR you know you have to put into your Kickstarter to make it successful if your supporters are just going to take what you gave them and run? How much will running a massive two-month-long PR campaign cost your creative process and exhaust your Facebook friends’ generosity?

mnartists.marketplace, a joint effotr of mnartists.org and The Walker Shop, hosted a reception for local artists to share Kickstarter success stories and connect on creative entrepreneurship. Yancey Strickler enjoyed hearing about their specific projects made possible by his company. Photo courtesy of Katie Hill.

Because this lecture took place at a museum and not a tech summit crawling with venture capitalists, Strickler was able to focus on what Kickstarter does best: small creative projects. He talked about Kickstarter funding for independent comics, board games, video games and films that wouldn’t otherwise make it to production. He discussed that half of the Kickstarter team spent their time vetting the 300-350 projects that came in on a daily basis, to make sure that they followed the rules. It was fascinating to learn the ins and outs of the company’s success and hear about its creative spirit.

In its ideal form, Kickstarter sounds really fantastic, and those creative projects are magnificent. But overall the company adheres to the project-only guidelines Strickler laid out somewhat inconsistently, or users interpret the guidelines rather loosely; I don’t think any proprietor of a Kickstarter-funded restaurant or publication wants to think of their endeavor as a “project with a beginning and an end.” Audience members also emphasized that Kickstarter appears to work with companies that may not benefit the little guys, as evidenced by their partnership with Amazon. But, as Strickler pointed out, Amazon had the right technology at the right time during Kickstarter’s development, and “half the sites on the internet are run by Amazon,” including Netflix.

As an avowed cynic, it was hard for me to believe the uber-charming Strickler when he thwarted questions about potential scams with, “You can feel who is sincere.” But I was a total sucker for his story of his favorite Kickstarter. He funded a Los Angeles 24-year-old’s sailing journey around the world (how this is a creative project and not a life experience, I’m not sure, but it’s very romantic), and received a Polaroid photo in return: “I gave her $15 and I have this photo from the South Pacific,” he said. “I’m part of her story. It’s not a commodity.”

But right next to Richmond’s Kickstarter video, you see the numbers behind it: 148 backers, $8,141 raised. It’s about the stories you tell as well as the monetary value you put on your adventures.

Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to katie(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)