In This Together: Lessons From a Kickstarter Icon

Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler helped invent a formula for getting the masses behind a great idea. Step one: Get comfortable with taking a few chances.

If you’re online, you’re likely exposed a few times a day to a world Yancey Strickler helped create.

As the cofounder of Kickstarter, one of the leading crowdfunding websites, Strickler helped promote the notion that ideas thrive better when people are invited to take part in their creation, rather than when incubated in private. Since its founding in 2009, the site has attracted $3.5 billion and 14 million backers to more than 140,000 creative projects, the company says. And as CEO, Strickler expanded the staff team from three to 130.

In the process, he’s helped invent a new business model for those looking to create a fan base—one worth heeding for associations that need to attract and retain members and customers. Not bad for somebody whose previous job was writing music reviews. But talk to Strickler about his path to becoming a leader, and you’ll notice that he’s retained his enthusiasm as a music fan, talking more about passion and a let’s-put-on-a-show team-building mentality than marketing strategy and financial targets.

Cultivate an orientation toward change—of not hiding from it, of wanting to be aligned with it.

“None of us had run anything before,” he says of Kickstarter’s early days. “I think we just were resolved to be very straight, very non-hierarchical. I think that there was a sense of, ‘We’re just in this together trying to figure this out.’”

Strickler’s tenure as CEO (he left the company late last year) taught him a few lessons about what attracts the masses to a project and the roles that leaders can play in making that happen. But his core message, which he’ll bring to attendees at the 2018 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Chicago in August, is the same as it’s ever been: Look for the passion around what you do, take risks, and find ways to encourage more people to feel that same enthusiasm.

Power of Personality

Consider GoldieBlox. In 2012, Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling conceived a variation on Lego and Erector sets that was designed to attract girls who might otherwise be put off by engineering and building. GoldieBlox was a fun project with a serious purpose—to engage more girls and young women in the STEM professions.

Those elements, combined with Sterling’s own storytelling skills, made GoldieBlox a hit on Kickstarter. It attracted more than 5,500 backers who pledged more than $285,000—nearly twice Sterling’s target. It has since sold more than a million toys and is an established part of the highly competitive toy-world firmament.

Her project “just had everything,” says Strickler. “Everything about it was very compellingly done. It had a sense of story, and it made the success of the project feel like a victory in general.”

That last point is an important one, Strickler suggests: The success of any project depends on stakeholders feeling like they have a relationship with the people in charge. Many projects take off because of timing—“a right-place-right-time kind of thing that is hard to control for,” he says. But “the other thing that’s incredibly powerful is reputation. People come out for someone who’s done something in the past that they care about, who stands for something in the world, who seems to matter in ways that other people don’t to them. … That is probably the biggest reason a project is funded on Kickstarter and why people are interested.”

One of Strickler’s favorite Kickstarter projects was one of its earliest: Emily Richmond’s project to sail around the world. Backers who contributed $15 would get an inscribed photograph from one of the sites she visited. (She’s still at it.)

“I did that, and a couple years later I got an envelope in the mail with a strange stamp on the outside,” he says. “On the inside was a map folded up, and on one side of the map there was a letter written where she described this island she was sitting on, and at the end she took this Polaroid picture and tucked it in. That was amazing. That actually made me a part of it. I couldn’t believe the feeling of that, the experience of that. It just created a level of intimacy and participation and connection through something that happened on the internet.”

Creating an inspirational idea and developing an attractive reputation around it can help a project get funded once, and Kickstarter is built around one-off projects—an album, a film, a toy. But Strickler says entrepreneurs need to cultivate consistency in what they do to keep those backers around for the long haul.

“You have to consistently stay in character, whatever that character is,” he says. “If you’re all mystique, you have to continue to engage in that way. … You can also be J.D. Salinger and not want to do any of those things, but you have to be consistent about it. You can’t do that and then tweet about the NFL. If you’re asking for engagement, you’re asking people to live through you.”

Risk as a Virtue

None of that is easy, of course. And for all the guidance Kickstarter provides to entrepreneurs and all the lessons to be learned from success stories, only 36 percent of projects reach their creators’ funding target.

Strickler attributes the failure of many projects on the site to disengagement by the creators themselves—if somebody wants half a million dollars for an idea but can’t be bothered to even post on Facebook about it, it’ll get all the attention it deserves. (Indeed, most successful projects tend to be small-scale. See the “Success and Failure” sidebar.)

But a certain amount of failure doesn’t faze Strickler. Kickstarter is a business model, but it’s also a business laboratory, and failure is part of any lab environment.

“We always felt that if the system produced a success rate of 100 percent and every project got funded, there would be something wrong with that,” Strickler says. “We’re trying to create a system where you are able to explore new ideas and try to do new things. And a system like that has to be tolerant of some amount of risk.”

In the same way, Strickler encourages organizations to cultivate flexibility and acceptance of risk into their own cultures—and to expect pushback when they do.

“Cultivate an orientation toward change—of not hiding from it, of wanting to be aligned with it,” he says. “When you have that sort of orientation, I think it’s possible to explore what the future could look like, to create space for a team to think about some context rather than right now.”

To embed that creativity into their culture, organizations need to give it practical support, Strickler says. Many organizations, for instance, maintain small funds for “skunkworks,” or employee side projects. But they needn’t be private: They could take a cue from the open-facing Kickstarter model and include as many stakeholders in the organization as possible. Strickler suggests that an association might use the anniversary of its founding date as an opportunity to get the team brainstorming about what its future might look like.

Regardless, Strickler says, a successful organization will function much like a successful Kickstarter project, blending creativity and engagement with some commonsense business savvy.

“I think every organization needs a mix of creative people and managerial, doing-things people,” he says. “Those aren’t the same person. I think any organization that turns its back on the possibilities of new ways of thinking about things probably isn’t that concerned with its future.”

(Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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