Charles Adler of Kickstarter joins Nick to discuss The Founding Story of Kickstarter — Community, Competition, and Customer-Obsession. In this episode, we cover:
- Walk us through your background and path to tech.
- Growing up what inspired you most?
- How did the idea for Kickstarter begin?
- Was there an MVP – was there an initial target vertical?
- When did you know that it was working?
- What was the biggest mistake you made during the journey?
- When competition arose… did it scare you?
- Is Kickstarter today still delivering on the initial vision you and your co-founders had?
- What was the hardest part of growing a venture-backed company?
- What advice would you have for founders before selecting VC partners?
- Organic growth and categories?
- We often talk on the show about the importance of customer obsession, really knowing what they care about and spending time to understand that — what has been your philosophy and approach w/ customers?
- Many founders and investors talk about the importance of diversity. We talk about the importance of climate change and the environment. We campaign for socio-economic equality. How do you think founders (and investors) can be more intentional about building their beliefs into their business and their culture?
- What are you focused on now… tell us about Lost Arts?
- Why do it alone?
- Community has been a common thread/focus across many of your efforts. Is community core to everything you do… if so why?
Transcribed with AI
Charles Adler joins us today from Chicago. He is the co-founder of Kickstarter, co-founder of Live Labs and also founder of Lost Arts. Charles has 20 plus years of building products, companies in teams in technology from fortune 500 firms to startups. Charles, welcome to the show.
Yeah, thanks a lot, Nick and happy birthday.
Thanks, man. Appreciate it. Yeah, so just talk us through your background and sort of your path to tech.
Yeah, you know, I guess this is gonna maybe sound a little odd, but odd is okay. I generally tend to think that my path to tech started from an interest in architecture. And what that means is back in high school, I was fascinated with this particular area of architecture, which this short hashtag version of that would be the Bauhaus, if anybody’s familiar with the Bauhaus listening, which was a school in Germany around the birth of just prior to the Nazi era of Germany, kind of horrible period of time. And I was fascinated by this, this community, this school, and what came out of it. And, you know, I think the, without going too deep into this kind of history, the thing that fascinated me about that community around the school, in that era of what all now called design, sort of kind of broadening outside of architecture, that was also connecting with something else that fascinated me at the time, which was, you know, late 80s, early 90s, which was computing and at the time, the that era of computing that was interesting to me was basically just networking and bulletin board systems BBs is, which was me dialing into a buddy’s computer down the street or across town, and engaging with his computer, whatever he gave me access to, or she, and then dot, dot dot, the internet in like that kind of error getting into college, and then the web. My mind kind of blew up. And the thread for me has always been design, but with the conduit of technology,
When did you first start building and tinkering and I don’t know what led to Kickstarter.
Yeah. That’s,that’s a much later story. We’ll get there, I’m sure. But, um, yeah, I mean, I was playing around with code back in again, like late 80s, early 90s, which was when I was in high school. Again, that kind of like DDS, dial up modem, haze, 2400 baud, I think I did 300 baud modem, whatever, in that era. And then, you know, that just continued when I got into university. The thing I guess I would say that point out, like, I’m not a CS major, I was actually studying mechanical engineering. And but happened to go to a university that was heavily funded by the DOD, the Department of Defense. And by virtue of that gave us somehow we had access to the internet, which I went to Purdue here in Indiana. And and so the tinkering kind of continued, which was, you know, I think this like sloshy play between computers, network computers, and then you know, the internet. And, yeah, I don’t know, I’ve always been a bit of a Tinker, take, take her partner and try to build her back up again, kind of guy.
Cool. So was, what was your first business was a Kickstarter or something before that?
But what I would say is like prior to where you’re trying to get to, I was in consulting to design technology consulting for about a decade, who maybe just shy over a decade and left that world running and screaming, frankly, but learned a lot and went to go build my own studio, which was, again, focused on product development, but for a different niche. And then that led to Kickstarter. And so that, like, I’ll give you the quick timeline, it was you know, let’s call it like ADH to put a date to it, which is playing with computers and tinkering with technology and code and design, but it didn’t have a word for it at the time. You know, the mid 90s to early aughts, which was this sort of consulting era in my life. And and then the what I would say is like the entrepreneurial bug like taking action on that both this endeavor source ID, which is my studio, and then very shortly thereafter Kickstarter was oh three Kickstarter for me started in ’06, ’07. I can’t remember exactly when when I came on board, but Oh, ’06, ’07 at the tail end of Oh, six beginning of Oh, seven. Got it.
So was it? Yeah. Was it ideated by the co founders, and then you joined up? Or was it kind of a team? Sort of? I don’t know.
Yeah, no, it was. There’s sort of a sequencing to it. So the quick backstory to the what it was is like the genesis of the idea of Kickstarter, and then the coming together of co founders, I’ll kind of take that in sequence. The the genesis of the idea for Kickstarter anchors very cleanly with Perry. So there’s three of us who started the company myself, Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen. Perry, back in the early aughts, like 2001 / 2002, we didn’t know each other at the time, but he was living in New Orleans, a mecca of tech. I know. Right. And he’s living in New Orleans, and wanted to put on a concert. And as a cash poor artist, musician, which is what he was doing at the time, making electronic music. He started to look at the tally of what it would take to put this concert on paying for talent paying for the space paying for PA right all the equipment that you need to run the event promoting the event and like a really like white knuckle crossing of the fingers. And like, goddamn, I hope somebody shows up. Right? And and I should say like, the motivation was not at all economic. It was purely cultural. He just wanted to see it happen and wanted to share this, this art form that he was really passionate about with people in New Orleans. And when I was like, you know, it never happened that irritated him. He and I think this is very synonymous with the three of us, like we didn’t grow up thinking about being entrepreneurs, I don’t think any of us had, like lemonade stands growing up, right? The three of us, I think our continuity as founders was really grounded by our love, empathy and belief that the arts are critical to society. And felt that the arts as a category and an artist as an individual, was really at a detriment. And so the equation between those two things, I guess I’d say is you know, what Perry saw at that point when he was trying to put this event on was man if there’s just some way that I could at least fund the bare minimum to get this project off the ground this event right at the quality that he felt necessary that he you know, that he wanted to see the the event go off as and anything beyond that is awesome, but that was bare minimum, right. And so you know, that gives you kind of an inkling into what we would eventually call all or nothing funding. We can talk more about that as well. But you know, how we how we three got together and it was very casual kind of sequential thing Perry had been thinking about this but not really doing anything with with the itch. For a number of years, he decided to move back to New York, which is actually where he grew up and investigate and pursue the project with more effort. And as any good entrepreneur who is waiting tables as any good entrepreneur slash artist, he was waiting tables at a restaurant in Brooklyn and became friends with this guy Yancey, who was regular at the restaurant. Yancey at the time was working in community and marketing for a company called E-music competitor iTunes. And so that at least gives a nod to the fact that Yancey understood and was part of a community of musicians and artists. And so, you know, Yancey came on board eventually. And then for me it was really just a mutual connection and the I guess the the instigation for the connection was a little bit more pragmatic, which was Perry doesn’t have a technology background. doesn’t have a design background doesn’t have a product background. Yancey though working at a startup, you know, really focused on marketing. And, and so for me having this product background, the need that in the gap that they were trying to fill was really trying to articulate this idea into a holistic product. And I suppose the casual part about it was I happen to work with a guy here in Chicago. years ago, at this agency I was at that happened to be Perry’s freshman, dorm mate.And that was Perry’s, like one of Perry’s few connections into tech. And that’s where the introduction was made at the time, I was living in Brooklyn. And so we just got together got on the phone, and the next day just got together at his his apartment, and dot dot dot 2009 Kickstarter was launched.
So what’s the so you got to tell us? You know, you guys get together, you start discussing this thing that’s been on his mind for years. You know, what is the first? What is the first iteration of Kickstarter look like? And was it a big departure from what we know today?
Yeah, so there’s some funny stories in there. I will say, first and foremost, that Kickstarter from day one is Kickstarter today. And I think that was there’s a lot that we were fortunate in regard to the equation between vision and product seemed to hit day one. And you know, there’s a lot in that, that I think that I’m very grateful for, there’s a lot that I think I wish we had to strive for product market fit, because I think that would have been an interesting learning. But we didn’t have to. But I think you know, just as you’re you’re bringing me down memory lane, I am reminded of walking into Perry’s door in his bed stay apartment, and I was living in Park Slope Brooklyn at the time, just for anyone who’s familiar with Brooklyn. So I’d ridden my bike over to his apartment and got into his apartment, the first thing he showed me, was some design work that for like, logo and identity work, that he had gotten back from some design firm in Brooklyn. And I was like, hell Nah, like, I know a little bit about what what you’re thinking about, because we had a phone call yesterday, but this ain’t it. The irony was, like, you know, very surface level commentary about, you know, what I would say is like, graphic design and brand and communication wrapped up into a logo. And, and the other little tidbit in there was similar to, you know, many companies in that era, and just prior, we fell victim to domain constraints. And what I mean by that is the, the Kickstarter URL that you know, today, Kickstarter, full word.com was not available. And so the logo represented the company and the domain that was available, which was Kickstarter minus the last E. So if you think about flicker, right, and that whole era, I mean, the same thing problem with flicker, like they couldn’t get an afford flicker with an E. So they just cut off the last E.
It’s your fault that we have all these misspellings. Hmm,
Well, not my fault. I mean, that was, you know, flicker, Stewart, and those guys, you know, started that trend, but, but we were kind of falling victim to that same thing. Luckily, by the time we launched, we were able to negotiate and get the real domain, which is kind of awesome. But yeah, so you know, I think at the time, just kind of getting a little bit to your point, like at the time, there’s a lot of this is gonna go down another Memory Lane piece, there were a lot of write the docs, if anybody is old, like me, they’ll recognize rightly, as the precursor to Google Docs. So Google bought rightly, it became Google Docs. So a lot of rightly docs, basically Word docs, if you will, articulating just I you know what, I would say ideas, there was a really now I guess, somewhat infamous sketch that Perry had done, we’ve, we shared it in a blog post kind of enumerating the history of the company. That is pretty accurate. Actually to what we built at sort of a wireframe level. And, you know, I think the the, the other thing that I can delve into was the nature of that relationship, which I would say is like, you know, there as much as there’s three of us, and the answer was already involved at that point in time. The, you know, the, the that moment was really around product. And so the collaboration was really, at that moment in time, Perry and I for, frankly, up until we launched. And, you know, the first month was a lot of heavy exploration, a lot of whiteboarding. A lot of me going through and getting up to speed and getting an understanding of what was the what was the backstory? Like, what got him here? What was he trying to? What was he? What did he see? And then? And then for me, how did I interpret that? And how did I see innately the same thing, and that was actually very immediate. But, you know, it wasn’t like co founder day to write in at the moment, as I as I mentioned earlier, like he, you know, he didn’t, he doesn’t have a background in design, he never built a product before he wasn’t steeped in, you know, quote, unquote, tech. And. And so as he put it, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. And the way we kind of hand shook the agreement was, let’s jam for a couple weeks. And if at the end of that, like, Perry’s got, what he’s got, we’ll, we’ll you know, he’ll write me a check. And off we go. If he’s not done, we’ll figure out what needs to happen. Next, and part of the context, remember, like I was running my own studio at the time that was starting to ramp up. You know, my ego was psyched about that. And but I was, in a very deeply struck by what the proposition was that Perry was after because it connected with, frankly, a lot of stuff that we skipped in the backstory, which kind of stems from that comment I made earlier about, you know, I’ve, I’ve always been curious, which is, which can be dangerous. But I’ve always been very curious about creative people. And that curiosity led me to building and launching a number of side projects. One was in the 90s, an online basically radio station on the internet, we now call it podcast or something like that, right. But this was streaming, using real networks, audio streamer, and the studio or the nightclub, or the DJ booth was my apartment in Chicago on Sealy Avenue. And that was, you know, literally, like techno DJs friends of mine that were streaming every Tuesday night on the internet. And that was about giving, you know, I think connecting all these things together, which was I saw some incredibly talented friends of mine that didn’t have opportunity the way others might have. And I saw the internet as a as conduit to give them greater visibility. Right. Another version of that same project turned into effectively like a magazine again, on the internet. I think we call it a blog now. And, and I was in, you know, early aughts, kind of of the same era of as blogging was starting to take shape. And so I say all that just because, you know, when I talk about the genesis of Kickstarter, and, you know, I think the bond that the three of us had, we all were part of different, but similar creative communities, generally always centered around music, and have done things in our own right outside of Kickstarter. In support of those communities. Yancey ran a record label for a number of years. Perry had a Art Gallery in Brooklyn for a number of years and made and produced music. So that was, you know, that was our continuity. And arguably, this might be one of your questions. That is actually where we started. Like That was our demographic that was our market, which was music and film and the arts.
Bringing those to life giving the the creators the what the funding or the the audience necessary to bring those things to market?
Yeah, essentially, you know, giving them a platform to coalesce their community of friends, family fans, if they had them, right, if they were, you know, bigger than playing in their garage or whatever, give them coalesce that community and give them access to raise funds for a project, an album, a film. A community garden, what have you.
Got it? So, talk us through kind of those early days. Did you? Did you start with these campaigns? And how did you access the audiences to the creators? Bring them or?
Yeah,you know, that is,it’s interesting. That was, that was always this question that we had is, you know, was our audience. And, you know, I think there’s what I’m gonna express is a certain amount of naivete, which we all suffer from until we go through the experience. But you know, the, we kept constantly went back and forth. I remember, and I pretty sure this was pre and post launch, maybe and or on the post launch. But this this kind of debate as to whether our audience were the creators, people running campaigns funding a project, or the audience of backers? is our job to build an audience of backers? Or is it to build a repertoire of creators, and where we eventually settled, which a might be logical to many more, but it wasn’t us at the time, was creators, because craters are ones we’re gonna bring the audience, which is interesting, because we’ve always spoke about it that way, even in those early heady days in Paris apartment and in Bed Stuy. Which was that, you know, we’d always design the platform, the engagement, the interaction dependent on the creators promoting their own projects, they had to catalyze and get their audience excited. And that actually still holds true today, though, you know, obviously different than that, there’s, you know, there’s certainly people who, interestingly enough, scour Kickstarter to back projects, right. But yeah, in those early days, it was, you know, really focused on on creator development, and that’s, you know, kind of a product statement. The early days. I mean, I think everybody on the platform for the first couple of months, were friends of ours. Right? I mean, we each launched campaign, because, like, Who else? You know, none of us were connected. We didn’t know anybody, other than, you know, our artists friends. And, you know, what was interesting is actually quite frustrating. If I kind of bridge from my background in product development and design, a big part of my toolbox, I would argue, is kind of qualitative research. Right. And that coincides really well from a product development standpoint with you know, agile methodologies, right, basically just get something built in distributed as early as possible, even if it’s in like a private alpha. And by nature of what Kickstarter was, you couldn’t do that. Right. And that was a little frustrating, but you know, what, that what that led to was this from a, you know, I would say, like growth standpoint, or or market development standpoint, was we would for years because it took a while for us to get from idea to object to product launch. Right. So if I mentioned, I met Perry and then Yancey in like, end of ’06 beginning of ’07. We didn’t launch until April 28 of 2009. That it’s like, a century in current, you know, Silicon Valley
Were you doing all the building?
No. So I had hired wheat, that was a whole nother trial and tribulation. But we went through a number of teams, and which was part of the timeframe, but we finally settled on an awesome team of freelance developers are scattered around the country that eventually built product, one of which stayed on, actually, arguably a lot longer than I did at the company. And you know, I committed some code, but I’m definitely not going to go there. My my skills at that point, and still even worse, probably today, very rusty, not production quality. But, you know, going back to the market development thing, you know, we were talking for years about this thing that we were building for you like our friends or you know, artists and bakers. I’m sure there is some friends I think they were friends of Perry’s that we’re bakers and like side hustle bakers like apparently they’re they made awesome cupcakes. And they wanted to open a storefront in, in New York. And they were waiting and waiting and waiting until we launched. And finally, we launched and it turned out that the two of them broke up. So the business never actually happened. And that’s kind of part of this, you know, part of the story, which was, you know, a lot of projects and folks that we were talking to, just moved on. And, you know, when we launched, we were fortunate enough that there was there’s enough folks to trust what we have built. And by nature of what I would say is like, the inherent virality of the platform, which is to say creators are promoting their projects, right? So they’re going out emailing friends, talking, hanging out at bars talking to their friends, like, Hey, I’m running this Kickstarter campaign, what’s Kickstarter, it’s this thing. And, and so, you know, they had to talk about it that brought audience in. And that then led to, you know, other folks that were on their, in their own right, producing an album, doing an art project. And then, by virtue of that, oh, this Kickstarter thing is kind of dope. Like, I can use this too.
That melody must have been crazy, because I remember when it came out, I remember just the buzz around it.
Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s, it’s an interesting platform in that, yeah, the buzz was awesome. And, and that, you know, I would say that really hit probably, starting in September of ’09. And, you know, I think the reality is, once you like dig behind the curtain, it kind of actually speaks to this relationship between one creator to the series of creators that come by backing a project first. There’s sort of a sequencing I could, there’s a whole lineage, that I can almost like a family tree that I could speak to, if we want to play Chicago for half a minute, is a guy, very well respected designer named Scott Thomas, who is the design director for the Obama campaign, who at the time, wanted to publish a book, documenting the Obama campaign campaign. And he went on to run a Kickstarter campaign for that project raised $84,000, which was like, head and shoulders above anything we’d seen raised at that point. Right. And this was September of ’09, we launched in April of ’09, right, basically, May. So it was a pretty short period of time. And, gosh, probably about a year later, I think about a year later, another Chicago Scott. Scott Wilson, runs a Industrial Design Studio. Yeah. called minimal. Yeah. Well launched a launch campaign called Tick tock, which was a basically just a, an inert device that held the iPod Nano to turn it into what would eventually become an Apple Watch. Right? And that raised $948,000.
Oh, yeah. And so there’s this interest, like, there are these stairsteps that were really interesting as a year later, but they’re all connected, because Scott Thomas, was contracted by Scott Wilson couple years prior to do some graphic design work, right? There’s all these like hidden relationships sitting underneath them. And even it gets weird and that you start seeing cameos of creators from one project showing up in the video of some other project. I’m like, they know each other. Like that’s super weird. Creative.
So it kind of takes a life on its own. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m off on a tangent.
It’s awesome to hear you say that because last week, I was at recess in Chicago. It’s an outdoor, you know, spot and a meeting with like, one of the most creative founders I know in Chicago. I just love this guy. His name is Elliot. And like, every time I’m around him, like it’s just good discussion, good ideas. And he’s talking about how, you know, his, his wife is in clothing design, and she just did the outfit for chance to rapper on some magazine. And, I mean, the creative community in Chicago is just, if you find these true creators, they, they just know each other
100%, an argument that you know, I think that exists everywhere. And just to underpin going back to, you know, if you will, like, my fascination with the internet is, geography actually doesn’t even matter, right? Actually, arguably and this is actually something I talk quite often about is that the internet is also a place, which sounds really weird, but it’s true, right? It is a venue. And actually, I think that gets like quadruple underlined during the era of COVID. Because we can’t physically meet up right now, generally speaking, we then coalesce in communities online, right? Reddit is a place, Kickstarter is a place YouTube is a place.
Interesting. What mistakes Did you guys make? I’m sure there’s many, right, every every founder has some mistakes. But were there any, like, key points along the journey where you just went the wrong way? You think?
Yeah, I mean,how do I dissect that? That is an interesting one. Um, you know,I think this goes back to that point I made, which was fortunate, unfortunate fortunate in that, like, we found product market fit, like, immediately, right? The product that we built as the product that’s there today, and we really didn’t make any massive adjustments to it. And, and so by virtue of that, like, the mistakes were different, I will say that, you know, some of the mistakes that we’ve made is, you know, not experimenting, enough, not releasing enough, and this is probably more historical than today. I mean, mind you, I left the company at the end of 2013. So it’s a different place than it was then. So very close to the company, but I don’t have, you know, as intimate a view into what’s going on over there. But, you know, I think, as an example, like the the project page that’s existing today, that’s actually different than the original design, not dramatically, but it was a big effort took six months to redesign. And I think that’s fairly normal. Like when I go and talk to my peer group of other entrepreneurs, and designers, there’s this difficulty in letting go of the baby that you raised. Right, and handing it off. And I think we struggled kind of collectively with that. And, you know, to whatever extent that impacted the business, you know, I don’t really think it made much of a difference. But, you know, I think I think that would be one thing, I think, just the the building a culture to move more independently and quicker. I think it’s something that we didn’t really focus on early on. I wish we had focused on that.
When competition came in, yeah, try I mean, effectively trying to do just what you were doing just, you know, different domain different website. How did you guys react to that was that scary moment? Or did you feel like that head start that you had? And I don’t know, the brand you’d built was strong enough that it wouldn’t matter? I mean,
Yeah, I think, so that’s a good one. I think I should say one thing leading into that, or, you know, kind of popping assumption, which is that we weren’t the first, right, there are a couple of other folks that were playing in, in our space prior. So as we were building, and I think this is something that, frankly, any entrepreneur listening to thiscould. Hopefully you don’t start like freaking out and calling the therapist when I talk about this. But you know, I think as an entrepreneur, there’s this concept of the invisible race. And what I mean by that is you’re, you know, heads down with your co founders or with your team, building that vision that you have, right? And what you don’t know is, who else is building the same thing? Right. And so there is this race to market you’ve got to be the man we talked about this. The first which I think is a bunch of BS, frankly, but you know, you want to be first to market you want to dominate the market, or you want to be first market so you can better understand the market. So you can Tic Tac your way to product market fit. And along that path, because you don’t have control over the market. other competitors reveal themselves and sometimes their competitors and sometimes they’re not. So unpack that for a minute. There was a site called The Point another Chicago company. Do you familiar with The Point? I’m not know. Yeah, you shouldn’t be. Because it pivoted and turned into something called Groupon. I think, you know, Groupon,
Yeah. So I love that story. They were, you know, Andrew, who’s a founder of The Point and then Groupon was very much interested in kind of the same vibe, energy, whatever brand kind of category that we were interested in, took a very different approach from a product standpoint, couldn’t find product market fit. Andrew and their investors pivoted to Groupon, good for them. But they were out before we were out. And we’re like, WTF, shit. Code faster design faster. Go,Go. Right. And then there’s another thing that popped up called crowdfunder.com. Right. But it had, yeah, but it was a landing page. Like it was a one pager, they’re based in Colorado, I think. I don’t really know anything about them, other than they had this landing page. And it was another like, Oh, fuck, like,what are they doing?
There’s another one God, this is you’re you’re bringing up all these horrible memories. There are no, that’s right. There was another one that launched at at, at TED. Called cluster with a K. The idea was your clustering people to fund your project raise clever, but it arguably was a cluster and disappeared. But it was this moment, like, Oh, my God, like they launched it. Ted, like Who are these people? Yeah. And we’re dead. Like, we’re dead. And the design was lit like it was so tight. Frankly, what I what I learned in that period was if I own was, like, tease myself about my comment earlier about critiquing the logo, when I first met Perry, like that didn’t, that didn’t matter. I didn’t use any of those logos. I spent, I designed the logo, the original logo, which is not too far off from the existing logo. And I designed that in like, I don’t know, 15 minutes, something like that, like, that’s the amount of time that I probably should have spent on it. We probably spent way too much time talking about it. But going back to cluster, you know, I looked at that product. I was like, wow, you spent way too much time on aspects of the product that frankly didn’t matter. Right. And then there’s another competitor, which is still in existence called Indiegogo. And they launched before we did, right there was I didn’t know Yeah, yeah. And so there was a bunch of moments were like,god damn, right. And Indiegogo, when they launched, they were solely focused on independent film, I think it’s kind of some derivation, like where the name kind of comes from. But so they launch before we did, and, you know, again, this was this moment where we’re just like, Oh, my God, like, we got to get out, we got to get out. And, and so, you know, we launched and, and from day one, we were always very, we had a very interest, like, a deep interest in creativity. We always talked about creativity. And so it was kind of category agnostic. Right. Which is something else we can speak about the organic growth of Kickstarter in the categories that that came about. But the I mean, there was and and yeah, I guess you want to ask about like fear moments. You know, there was a there was a moment where one of those competitors, I won’t name them raised a bunch of money, way more than we had. And that was a shit moment. Yeah, we were still dominating like, out of the gate, like, we’re doing really, really well. And just based on what we were observing, happening, and all the different categories, all the different competitors, including ourselves, like, we’re well into the lead pretty pretty quickly.
Was it because you were creators yourselves? And you are so deeply connected?
That’s the billion dollar question.
That’s why I asked it.
Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I think there’s I’m not one for short answers. I think that that’s abundantly clear so far. And, you know, I, I believe where that comes from a Boy Scout. And so what that means is I spent a lot of time around fires and ghost stories, and so they’re, you know, generally like well into the night. So I’m fascinated with long winded stories. But I think the other piece is, I don’t think there’s shortcuts and I don’t think there’s short answers, right. And so, especially when you ask a question that is like, what was the thing right like YouTube, it was Is autoplay, like, yeah, there’s probably some part to that. But, you know, I think I mean, I think you are spot on and that I think there’s a there’s something very personal for the three of us about Kickstarter. And a lot of it was we innately felt and very deeply empathized with the plight of any creative person. And that came out in what I would argue is our attention to detail in terms of product in terms of language. I mean, one thing that as much as I was in consulting and you know, in some part advertising, which is to say copywriting, I found a new level of respect for the value of words in watching Perry obsess about language on Kickstarter. Wow. Yeah. I mean, I cannot mean, I remember, I, if I can talk about a tense moment. It’s very eerie, by the way, because we’re doing this. We’re doing this interview, we’re doing this conference, having this conversation, I’m literally in the same room, that that Perry and I would have these conversations. And so I was like, I was in Chicago, he was in New York, and we were on Skype. And there was this one particular conversation where, you know, as you can imagine, the intensity, the intensity of the relationship is pretty hot and heavy, and, you know, a lot of debate. And what I mean by that is arguing, and, and there was, you know, I mean, we would argue about words, like a word and hang up the phone, like, no, it’s, you know, whatever. And, by the way, we’re still friends. And it’s all cool.
Platform level messaging, or is this like specific campaigns?
Oh, no, no, this is, yeah, this is about the brand, like, like, what’s the word on the homepage? Like, and how big is the typeface? Like, we just got into it about everything. Right. And, you know, I think that’s synonymous. I’m sure, like, every competitor had some version of that, right. But we just obsess about these little details. So I think there’s, you know, one level like there’s an obsession about those little design, what I would say is communication details design being kind of a subset of communication, copy being another subset of communication. How are we articulating what it is that we’re building? And for who think the other obsession was just around user experience? Like, what? what do we expect people to go through? I mean, we had sketches and sketches, not of interface, but of just like roadmap, not sorry, not roadmap, like wireframes. And, you know, journey maps, I think, if any of this rings a bell, put your checkout feel like, and what is the experience post checkout? How, what’s the experience when somebody gets their thing, you know, gets the thing, the backer gets the thing in the mail, and like, we just obsessed about all of this stuff. And, you know, I think that obsession, plus the just innate personal connection to the community, like, yeah, that was probably our competitive advantage.
You can’t teach that. That attention to detail, and I think it’s caring. How much do you care?
Yeah, that caring led to a lot of arguments. But ya know, caring Yeah, that’s another way for to talk about tension. Yeah. 100%.
I mean, if you’ve got the wrong architecture or framework or the wrong experience, then you care about the wrong things and things are gonna break down.
Totally, I you know, there’s another as you were talking about that, there’s another moment that I think is important to talk about, which is the Hey, guys, what if we’re wrong moment. Right. And I think this gets into a bit of object trying to the best of our ability constantly to be objective about any decision that we’re making. Right. And as much as we wanted to hold those things very closely to our chest, which is ego. We were constantly being part of the debates was beating up some of those ideas to ensure that we’re being objective. One example of that was just the basic concept of all or nothing funding, which frankly, Perry brought up as a Hey, guys, this may not be the thing, right? And we need to be and this is literally right before we hit our own green button, which was our like, Lance deployed code to production to launch Kickstarter, right. Lance being our engineer. So this is
you have to reach a certain threshold of funding in order for the project tolaunch That’s right.
Yep. Yeah, so the concept behind Kickstarter different from say Indiegogo and some of our competitor other competitors is we’ve always stayed really To be true, thankfully. And it worked to this all or nothing funding, right? And so you as a creator, the artist, the entrepreneur, the designer, technologist, whatever, know what you want or need to build to satiate what you promise the people that are backing you, right? Next. Yeah, trust, it’s an expectation that you’ve set an expectation by saying you’re going to do X. And we expect that the math you’ve done in defining how much money you need to raise related to what the cost of reward is, equals that level, that measure of success, or that measure measure of expectation, anything less like it’s going to suck. Right, and everyone’s going to be sad, the crater is going to be sad, like, the film’s not going to have an ending, like What a bummer. Right? Couldn’t afford the final clip.Sorry, guy editor. Budget, cheap internet, people couldn’t, you know, and so like, you know, anyway, the going back to it the, we had this very honest conversation, which was, maybe that’s not the thing. And we, we we need to be observant of what’s what may or may not be working and not hold too closely to any of these things. Because at the end of the day, we want to succeed as a business. But we also, by virtue of succeeding as a business, want to make sure that everyone’s able to succeed with their campaign. And so I think that, you know, that’s just a little example, I think of something else that we were trying to be very cognizant of, which was not holding too dearly, to our darlings, which is kind of a, you know, a writing commentary, but I think that’s, I think that is important.
Did you have issues with the backers being disappointed with the results? And coming to you guys are?
Oh, yeah, that was often the case. I mean, it still creeps up, frankly. Which I think is a you know, I think this is a I’m curious to see in the future history of the internet. How much longer this kind of behavior goes on for, which is to say, you know, you go to Target, and you buy something, and you’re disappointed in it. Where do you return it to? You take it back to Target. Target is a store, they’re a retailer, you do that? With eBay, Etsy, Kickstarter, we’re marketplaces essentially in some capacity. Right? We’re a platform, right? The way I describe it, for folks is, we’re much more like the farmers market. But we’re actually the parking lot like we’re the people, the real estate, folks who own the parking lot, right. So Kickstarter is a parking lot. It’s the platform in which the stands for the dairy farmer for the person, you get your rhubarb, from whatever the fishmonger sets up their shop, when you have a product, like if you get bad fish, you go back to the fishmonger, you don’t go back to the person who owns the parking lot. And so that i think that that kind of metaphor, that analogy is, is still foreign. for, you know, what I would say is like the populace of folks on the internet. But that’s, you know, that’s basically, you know, that’s that that’s the model, that’s the structure, but yeah, there’s folks that come back to us predominantly, they go directly to creators first. And, you know, then eventually, they come to Kickstarter.
Yeah. I mean, there certainly as a backer, there’s some expectation that there’s vetting on behalf of the platform’s part and when you’re buying over the internet, you know, there’s less access right to the to the Creator. And so it makes it trickier. Yeah. Did Charles did things change when you guys took significant venture dollars? I think it was, was a Union Square that led your seed or your A?
Yeah, it was Union Square beta works was in there as well. A number of angels, you know, I should taper your comment, which is to say we didn’t take a significant amount of capital. And I think that was I frankly, take a lot of pride in that not so much. It’s not an anti VC statement, but more so in that like we were able to achieve it a lot with very little. And you know, I think that speaks to our scrappiness in our and being resourceful but we did I think was like two rounds of five. So a total of 10 10 million raised a lot of our competitors rated significantly more than that. And no, I don’t think much changed. Now, I mean, you know, I think there’s a lot of I don’t know, if you find yourself in the center of this, yourself, but you know, there’s clearly a lot of conversation back and forth pro and con about raising money bootstrapping versus VC backed and whatnot. And, you know, I, personally, I can’t speak for my co-founders. But I personally tend to take a very pragmatic approach. I think it was the right thing for us to do, we had this opportunity. And we wanted to what I would say is raise some money to ensure the long term viability of the company not knowing what how the markets we’re going to do, not knowing how the economy was going to do and so forth. Mind you. I think this is also important. is we launched in ’09 we started I’ll call it ’06 right? Oh, ’07. For me, it was kind of a shitty time. Yeah. In our economy, right, like, global global economic crisis started by yours truly the United States and the mortgage debacle. Yeah. And, and so, you know, I think part of the psychology for us was, I think twofold. One was, hey, we get access to folks that have seen this before. Right, like, so Fred has backed Etsy and Twitter, a number of other companies, obviously. And we wanted that kind of partnership, mentorship. perspective, right? That was helpful and access to that portfolio. Because Etsy before us, what did they learn? And how do we add a new in a new era of technology, get to benefit from those learnings, same Twitter and everything else? So there’s value in that perspective. And then there’s just the other part, which was like, I don’t know, is this whole thing going to, you know, bottom out at some point, meaning the economy, and this is really good rainy day money? And we’re doing really well. So, you know, I think that was, you know, part of the thinking there.
If, if you could go back, do you do anything different?
Huh? So, yeah, I think there’s a lot more that that company could do that product could do. And I think for me, personally, I ran up against a wall where we weren’t doing a lot of that. And what I mean by that is, you know, you are servicing a particular market. And I think the way that I tend to look at not only I guess, this is very much business commentary, but I just look at it as innate support for people. We had supported them in the capital race, right? And I’m talking about this from a from a product perspective, like we enable people to raise money from their community, and what more could we do what what more in that creative process in that creative journey is broken? And so when I left the company, I left basically to investigate a lot of that leads to, you know, this new thing that I’m working on, which is kind of exposed kind of hush, hush, whatever. But it’s, you know, it’s been this exploration in supporting creators along the journey. I think there’s many more massive businesses to build on that. And I think what was brilliant about what we were fortunate enough to build was one stone in that path. And I think we see a lot of other stones along that creative journey that could be built.
So what does that look like? Yeah, talk a bit about so is it lost arts live labs? Like what? What are you spending most of your time on now?
Yeah, it’s a Lost Arts. So I mean, you know, I think, you know, this, like, Lost Arts started as a project focused on community in the physical sense. It was a makerspace in Chicago, two versions of it. And those two versions were, they go back to kind of taking an agile approach to project development, right, kind of leading out of software development, as a very agile approach to testing out these ideas. And, you know, the idea there was an observation was that creative people Yes, we figured out the capital piece. But there’s another part that was a really inefficient, I think it’s still totally inefficient right now, which is access to equipment, access to space, and arguably Most importantly, access to a diverse community of other creative people that are hustling through this, what I would say is circuitous journey. In creating something, again, whether it’s a work of art, or physical good, whether it’s inert, or an IoT device, like I didn’t really care, I loved all that stuff. And so what Lost Arts started as is a physical space that gave people cheap access, equitable access to equipment thing, co working, right, but with tools, and the intention there was to build a network of spaces, right, so a global set of spaces. And then eventually, this gets me back into kind of software, Charles, is to how do we bridge that network and create a global community of creators? And so the space that I’m now focused on that kind of ditched the physical space, thank god COVID would have killed us.Right. Good. God, that would have been, I’ll tell you march was a hallelujah kind of monotony. It wasn’t a hallelujah kind of moment. But it was like a man, I’m very glad it didn’t raise money to go build a bunch of makerspaces. Because that would be horrible right now. Right. And so
Chicago founders that did, and there.
Yeah, I bet. Yeah, no, totally. It’s tough. And so you know, I think the unfortunate maybe again, which is to say, Now, what I’m focused on what loss starts is focused on is really that latter part, which is building a global community of creative people in both the earliest and earliest stages of their, of their projects. And I will say that the physical space thing, I think, is is actually a great asset, maybe I did things backwards, but we’ll probably if I can figure out the will say software component piece, which is this network of creatives. There’s great value, probably more from a community building and marketing standpoint, in the physical space, so the physical space becomes less of a business and more of a community development asset than the core business itself.
You, You talk a lot about the importance of community and collaboration. Yeah, even in your Kickstarter journey, like, the three of you together, you know, that was really important. And yeah, and now you’re doing Lost Arts as a solo.Yeah, why?
Yeah. Um, that is a great topic. So there is a lot of benefit to having co founders because there are a lot of moments where you’re like, burn this towel, right? Not throw this towel, like light that thing, pour kerosene on it, EFF this thing. I’m done. This is exhausting. Or, you know, I’m going to go cry into the towel because this is brutal. Been there? entrepreneurship sucks. But it’s super fun. And so, there were many times when I mean, I remember December of Oh, eight. I had my final straw and I called Perry I was like, I if we don’t launch soon, I’m done. Like, right, that was that was my kind of mandate. There were moments where Yancey was gonna bail. There are moments where Perry was going to bail, there were moments post launch, the Perry was going to bail and we talk to each other off the ledge, right? Like, no, no, we’re not done. Like you got to stay. And so it was what that speaks to, I think, is camaraderie. Like there’s some kind of weird family blood thing that happens, right?And so, you know, I don’t there was no like, explicit, like, EFF that. I don’t want to deal with co founders again, I’m going to go it alone. For me, I just not found the right person to build this with in that way. And it’s harder in some ways. It’s also easier and others, right? I don’t get no grief. You know, nobody’s hanging up the phone on me. So yeah, I don’t you know, again, I think this speaks to maybe a little bit of that, that comment made earlier, but there’s no like there’s no right way. There’s just like, the way you just need to go and pick up what you can and just keep keep going at it and sometimes you get to do it with other people and sometimes you do it alone.
Any any thoughts or advice for founders On, either, you know, the building process or even just making sure that their values and their cultural beliefs and what they really care about they, you know, that manifests and in the business they’re building.
Yeah. You know, so I think we were hugely appreciative of the time that other founders and frankly, other investors gave us. In a non transactional sense. What I mean by that is, investors who were not getting an ambassador, we weren’t even having an investor or conversation or investment conversation. But it was just around, you know, getting to know each other and getting advice. And, you know, those learnings from the kind of coincides with a lot of questions you’re asking, which is like, are the good things? What were the bad things? Right, what were the hard? The difference was, there’s no microphone and you’re not being recorded in perpetuity. But, you know, I said, only sharing so much.
But the PTSD session here, Charles,
Yes, right. Totally. Oh, my gosh. You know, so I think the one piece of advice is like, seek advice. Right. And I think going back to your maybe observation about community, the thing that is so brilliant, I think least about the startup community, whether it’s the bootstrappers, or the VC funded, you know, go bigger, go home narrative, I don’t really care. There is a lot of sharing and over sharing of perspective and experience that that is just deeply valuable. Sometimes that’s public, and sometimes that’s private. But don’t be afraid to reach out, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Because if you’re not vulnerable, I think it’s going to be a much harder, much more grieving journey. Because you will discover things about yourself, or things about yourself will reveal themselves in probably pretty terrible ways. If you’re not honest with at least a small subset of people.
On it’s hard to find those people that both are the wrong people interact with and the right ones, if you’re not vunerable.
For sure. You know, it’s it’s interesting, because my one my first reaction was going to be well, you got your family. But I would say, being vulnerable with my family, with what we were going through as founders was not helpful. They did not understand. No, and as a matter of fact, like many arguments with my father about, like, why would somebody random person on the internet give money to some other random person on the internet? It’s like, well, first of all, you’re doing that all the time. You just don’t realize it. And second of all, trust me, right? Mind you, my dad was clearly older than me from a very different generation didn’t understand the weirdness of the internet. But yeah, so you know, I think finding folks that understand what you’re going through, which is frankly, just, you know, other entrepreneurs, which I think, you know, the world, the world gets to benefit from this new era. Now, we have, you know, here in Chicago, things like 1871, and M hub, right? Where there are, like, literally physical communities for you to like, it’s where some quantity of entrepreneurs coalesce in Chicago, right. And, you know, you could argue in a much more casual organic way, in California, in San Francisco specifically, at least for me, I’ll think about sightglass coffee, right? Which is a coffee shop. In some super awesome, I miss going to San Francisco and sightglass. But like, anytime I’m in psych class, like there’s at least 10 people that I know, that are designers, entrepreneurs, investors, like, there’s places where people coalesce. And that I think, is is one way to start just hanging out with other people or hanging out talking about what they’re building.
Well, there’s your challenge, Charles, with Lost Arts. You got to bring it to the internet.
Good. Ooh.I like that. I’m gonna leave. I’m leaving with something. This is great. Thanks.
I feel like we had a similar conversation probably a year and a half ago.
Probably. So yeah, totally. No. 100% Well, this
Has been amazing, man. I really appreciate you spending the time and go along with us today.
It’s great. Any final Final thoughts for the folks out there?
You know, I think if you’re out there and thinking of starting a company because you have this perfect idea, stop thinking and start doing. It’s the one thing that I keep running into time and time again is as an advisor, or mentor is the apprehension. And life’s too short for that. Just go start somewhere.
Just go. There it is. The man is Charles Adler. The companies are Kickstarter, of course in Lost Arts. Charles, thanks again for spending the time with us today. This is great.
Yeah, Nick, thanks so much is awesome.