Interview: Charles Adler, co-founder, Kickstarter
Image credit: Nick Smith
One of the digital era’s most exciting innovators, social entrepreneur Charles Adler is best known as co-founder of Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that for a decade has changed the way new ideas are brought to market.
Watching Charles Adler present to a hall full of devotees is a bit like experiencing a mash-up of an Apple press conference and a U2 concert. He’s clad in the American tech guru’s uniform of boom mic and skinny black jeans. Using the whole stage, he prowls in front of a backdrop of revolving slogan projections reminding the audience that “rules are meant to be broken” and innovation “comes from the fringe”. He switches between evangelising directly to the audience and talking to himself, locked in a bubble of self-belief that is frightening in its intensity. One thing is certain, and that is you walk away from a Charles Adler presentation ‘on message’. You might not know what every word of his hyper-trendy ‘Wired-speak’ idiolect actually means, but you are left in absolutely no doubt that it’s important. This is the word of the man who kickstarted Kickstarter, the man whose next project is so ambitious and so veiled in secrecy that its success seems to be inevitable.
He’s giving his keynote address at this year’s 3D Experience World conference in the pleasantly old-time honky-tonk town of Nashville, Tennessee, where Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline are always on a jukebox somewhere and every other shop sells cowboy boots. The conference is at Music City Center, taken over for the week by, according to the event’s promoters, “a vibrant community of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and business leaders powering an Industry Renaissance that’s changing the way we think, work and live”.
Despite being just a few months ago, 3D Experience World 2020 now seems to belong to a prelapsarian utopia in which intercontinental business travel, face-to-face meetings and shaking hands with colleagues were taken for granted. Yet, while measures to contain Covid-19 have reframed the world as we know it, Adler’s stance on what he calls the “fuzzy future” of innovation and entrepreneurship seems, even in the face of the commercial uncertainty we face today, to be just as relevant.
“I make no apology for being an optimist,” he says. “I know it’s a little hard these days. But bear with me. The reason I’m excited about this moment in the future is that we are building into this moment. I believe that today innovators and creatives are more and more empowered by the tools we have in our pockets, our hands and our laptops. It’s a story about empowerment and community. The rules were always meant to be broken. We’re only breaking them faster.”
Still in his 40s, Adler is something of a cultural rebel. He’s always been fascinated by ‘nerdy little fringe sub-cultures’: skateboarding, punk rock, graffiti art. “You look at this stuff, and you might give it gentrified labels such as ‘street art’, but the real question is what’s going on here?” It’s this type of approach that has led him to react against the technology entrepreneur stereotype of “a rich dude with a Tesla”, preferring to be “a designer and technologist tinkering with code directed toward accelerating the creative work of others”.
In 2009 he launched Kickstarter with Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, since when the ‘public benefit company’ has helped to become the catalyst for Academy Award-winning films and National Design Award-winning products. Kickstarter has “brought art to the desert and launched a satellite”, while creating more than 300,000 jobs and distributing in excess of $4.5bn in funds to creators across every continent. “By now you’ve likely participated in a Kickstarter campaign as a backer and maybe even launched your own. It’s become the largest platform for creative projects globally.”
That, he says, is “pretty rad, and frankly, humbling”, especially given the landscape Kickstarter was created in. “We were three people, surrounded by technologists and artists who couldn’t get a leg up. That resonated deeply with us and the world that we were arguably trying to fight against was a world that dismissed those ideas.”
Although Kickstarter features as the headline on his CV, Adler is hardly a one-hit wonder, having also founded several other organisations in which the common factors have been creativity and innovation. Lost Arts was established to explore “the enablement of creators to engage with one another online and offline in service of aiding their ability to bring projects to market”, while Source ID was an independent design and technology studio based in New York and San Francisco. Subsystence I (and later Subsystence II) was a broadcast site “empowering a global network of underground DJs and electronic musicians”, later broadened to include photography, music, poetry and interactive art. He’s also acted as an advisor to the Designer Fund, Chicago Design Museum and has been a mentor on the Techstars Chicago scheme that brings guidance and leadership to young entrepreneurs.
Adler specialises in big-picture thinking and likes to point out the cyclical nature of what enterprise is going through. “It doesn’t really matter if you are a small organisation with nothing much more than a dream, or a huge corporation replete with money, you’re still going to get this turnover. Once there was Blockbuster and now there is Netflix.” Yet the key for Adler is that “in all this craziness, there is the opportunity for creativity. Take a project like Twitter. What’s interesting there is that you can start with a small amount of capital, put it out there and see if it has legs.” It’s the risk that’s important. “Anybody remember the Newton?” asks Adler rhetorically, referring to Apple’s 1990s PDA (personal digital assistant). We may well look back on the Newton as an example of a failed Apple product, but the inference is that without it, the pathway to the iPhone could have been more circuitous or missed altogether. “It was an experiment that led to something greater.”
‘Creativity is a matter of you having control over technology and not letting it have control over you’.
A theme Adler keeps returning to is that rules are meant to be broken. When pushed on what these rules are and how fledgling organisations can go about breaking them, he says it all comes down to identifying that something was wrong. “For example, if you want to reverse-engineer punk rock, we were so obsessed with perfection.” This idea, when applied to technology, offers the analogue that “we have become so obsessed with the industrialisation of everything”.
This is crucial to Adler who started his career as an engineer (“but I dropped out of engineering college, sorry...”) but went into design, a shift in emphasis that nonetheless brought with it the idea that “everything” was industrialised. “So here I am as a designer, effectively making something from nothing, and all I see is that the result of this industrialisation has been pretty bleak. Everything looks the same. Monoculture. Monotone.”
At this point Adler digresses into a parable about the ’80s movie franchise ‘Die Hard’, tracking its fall from being one of Empire magazine’s ‘best films of all time’ to its disintegration into self-parody and overwhelmingly negative reviews. “How many sequels were there? Maybe a hundred? I don’t know. There were a lot. There were too many.” There were, in fact, four sequels.
“If you look at the business model for this, originally somebody, some gatekeeper, made the executive decision to take a risk on this film. But then you get another and another. The same story.” It’s the same with the 007 James Bond movie franchise, says Adler. “We just get the same thing, decade after decade. There’s something missing here. I surrounded myself with musicians and artists and other creatives and we asked the question: ‘How do we get noticed?’ How do we get the opportunity to get our work out there and get noticed when there is a system out there fighting against us?”
What Adler is leading up to here is the conclusion that something needed to be done to create a new environment where genuine creativity could find a way of avoiding being crushed by the dinosaurs that dominated industry because of their size. “So I started Kickstarter. The story is quite interesting because when you hear people talking about how they started their company you always hear about multi-million-dollar campaigns. But with Kickstarter it was a bit more humble than that.”
At this point Adler goes right back to the first campaign to be funded on the Kickstarter platform in 2009, a project of startling simplicity and minuscule economic scale called Drawing for Dollars, on which the creator ‘darkpony’ (“I still have no idea who that is...”) crowdfunded from three backers to beat the original target of $20 and step into the world of commercial art. The original pitch is still on the internet, with darkpony wondering in the narrative: “is that how it works?” It turns out that it was. Darkpony ended up raising $35 and in doing so “blew the doors off the goal. That was super rad,” says Adler.
In the early months, he recalls, “pretty much everyone on the platform knew everyone else – maybe there was one or two degrees of separation and they were all begging, borrowing and stealing off each other to try to raise $1,500 for a project. $2,000 at the time was thought to be ‘crazy’.”
By 2015, Pebble Technology was crowdfunding a smartwatch called Pebble Time, eventually receiving $20.4m in backing from 78,741 backers (the first million dollars of which was raised in just 49 minutes). Pebble Time is, to date, the most funded Kickstarter project.
These two projects at opposite ends of the spectrum demonstrate the scalability of the opportunity for innovation, says Adler. The purpose of technology in this context is to provide “anything that enables people to disintermediate, that can connect an idea with an audience that supports that idea”.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Adler is all for changing the emphasis on how we look at it. Historically, he says, “we’ve always tended to concentrate on the big things that come out of the sausage factory, whether it is Kickstarter or any other ecosystem on the internet. Yet what fascinates me most is the fringe, anything that is super-early.” He likens this to being in an ‘invisible race’ in which there is pressure to release a product before anyone else. “Shining a light into those communities and giving them a helping hand, getting their voices heard, was literally the script for Kickstarter. It’s a question of getting earlier and earlier into the creative mind. How do you get closer to the idea and help people inch closer and closer to that hyper-curve? That’s what’s cool and rewarding. That’s what’s fascinating.”
Finding fringe opportunities isn’t always a matter of scanning the latest technologies. “I’m really optimistic about the future, for the potential to create a better world, but we need to look at what are the current-day issues. What and where are the gaps?
“A lot of the opportunities exist in technologies that have been around for decades, even centuries. When you look at the world of manufacturing, one of the things that you realise is that it is deeply slow, and it takes ages for anything to be done. There’s a necessity to loosen up and not be afraid to explore technology and the application of technology. Not to be afraid to fail, but to learn from the process. You need to look at the change life-cycle and you can see that for the most part manufacturing is changing, but it hasn’t changed.”
He comments that “the future of work is far more distributed, and technology is part of that narrative”. The benefit of distributed work is that “it allows us to live where we want to live and do more of what we want to do”. He wants to see social changes such as a four-day working week and a universal minimum wage, and he wants to see more creativity in general. “Technology both helps and hinders creativity. It’s a matter of you having control over technology and not letting it have control over you.”
Assuming you can get your technology-creativity balance in harmony, what advice would he give anyone wanting to release their next project onto the world? “I get asked this a lot. Where, when and how to launch. But the reality is that these are impossible questions to answer. Yet I will say that it revolves around a moment of tension and that moment is the most impactful on what’s going to happen with your idea. What I do know is that a collaborative communal mindset is important.”
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