Kickstarter: Microphilathropy and Community Building

Oct 13, 2011


Surely, many of you have heard of Kickstarter and likely have interacted with it in some way. As funders, the Kickstarter movement is of great interest to us. It’s a worthy example of how a little can go a long way, build community and realize people’s creative ambitions.  Kickstarter promotes itself as a “New way to fund and follow creativity.” It allows for project creators (artists, filmmakers, writers, designers etc.) to raise funds to support their projects. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have a dialog with Kickstarter’s Communications Director, Justin Kazmark.

Our conversation began with Justin candidly describing the genesis of Kickstarter, which all originated in 2002 when one of Kickstarter’s founder’s Perry Chen wanted to test the market for a creative project before launching it. Six years later Chen had two other partners, a developer and a firm idea, with the site having it’s debut in April of 2009.

Beautiful Trouble. A project that received it’s full funding yesterday.

As Justin described, Kickstarter launched right at the beginning of the economic downturn. Since then we’ve all witnessed continued economic volatility. “Now, Kickstarter is the largest funding platform in the world with more than $100 million being pledged in just two and a half years.”  With this online model seemingly small dreams are coming true and micro communities are being generated with creative projects as their nexus point.

The project creators who use Kickstarter often find themselves inadvertently creating community through their Kickstarter pages. Justin described the phenomenon of “serial backers” of Kickstarter projects. Even amongst the staff at Kickstarter offices there are those that support multiple projects. Much like the way Shannon Simmons (Barter Babes project) describes the accidental community she’s created through her alternative way of engaging with economy, people involved with Kickstarter are finding the same results. Even for those projects whose goals aren’t met, Justin notes that they often have created a community of followers and supporters despite not having raised their funds. Having a community on board with the purpose of the project gives natural fuel and motivation for the project creator, often having successful outcomes in the networks they’ve built.

Justin described this as a natural community building process: “Building community around the project is a big part of it. Many project creators feel this is more important than the money itself – it’s about connecting one on one with people that could be your supporters and at the end of the project the creator has a very real sense of who their community is.” In our minds, this is why Kickstarter is unique – it goes beyond funding and exchange of money, and is tangibly helping to build creative movements. Additionally, it goes both ways, because as Justin notes, the majority of backers are part of an existing community with the project creator, but often times it’s a lot of strangers who end up pledging to a project they believe in. This kind of altruistic giving seems to be addictive for project backers, because out of the more than 1 million people that have made pledges 150,000 of them have backed multiple projects. Impressive.

Kickstarter’s distinctiveness stems from relationship building and the innovative way in which reciprocity is naturally built into their platform. For every pledge that is made to a project a reward is given back to the person who pledged. The pledge rewards can range from a digital download for a $3 pledge to an invitation to Morocco to sit in on a recording sessions for $2000 pledge and endless examples of rewards in between. This funding structure not only allows the backer to feel empowered in sharing in the progress of the project, but also receives something tangible back. This is the kind of clever community building that can come about from smart, complementary, and realistic funding structures.

A current favorite Kickstarter project. Megumi Sasaki’s second film.

Kickstarter is really at the intersection of commerce and patronage. Justin says that more than anything, “they want to help see creative ideas come to life. Back in the day, for example, the Medici (family) supported the arts philanthropically. Kickstarter empowers users to help on a small level. When a project creator launches a project the first thing they do is get the word out to family, friends, personal networks and people want to lend their support because they believe in them. Some support because of mass appeal and they want the reward.”

Kickstarter has always been about helping creative projects and Justin describes this as a response to what the founders saw in their friends and communities at the time of the project’s inception. “It’s a perennial problem – there is no way to fund creative ideas. Kickstarter is very much about getting individual creative projects to life.” It’s a very simple initiative in some ways, with very specific categories that are accepted in their project proposals. “There is nothing ambiguous about this”, Justin says. He attributes their success in large part to the clear definition that is required from the project creators. “There is an encouragement for project creators to get in front of the camera and articulate what it is they want – this brings authenticity and a genuine approach to raising funds.” This is precisely what we find so compelling about their model. It’s unabashedly personal and as such artists, filmmakers, writers and other creative folk are getting funding for their dreams, because they are making their dreams known.

After having had the opportunity to chat with Justin our fervor for supporting grassroots funding movements only increases. We want creative individuals to find seed money to make the projects of their dreams. Some members of the greater Kindle community have had wonderful success with Kickstarter and we hope they continue to. It is initiatives like these that will help to bring creative power back into the hands of the creators themselves.