Kickstarter. It’s a name that means innovation, community, and cool. But it’s also a brand with values—the social good—built into its foundation. Co-founder Yancey Strickler explains how, starting with little more than a dream, he built one of the world’s most exciting companies. And for entrepreneurs, associations, and major corporations alike, his story is more than inspiring. It’s changing the world.
Yancey Strickler is former CEO and original co-founder of Kickstarter, the world’s largest crowd-funding platform for creators and their works: a thriving community for art, technology, and new consumer products. It’s a sterling model for entrepreneurs and companies looking to build businesses that marry a social conscience with tremendous financial success. It’s also an example of how to re-think competition—a way to see competitors not as existential threats, but as like-minded groups sharing the same creative space.
“From the very beginning we all vowed never to sell the company, to never try to go public. To preserve this as a public trust: a space that can exist, and in a strong creative economy, a place where new ideas can happen.”— Yancey Strickler, The Guardian
And though Strickler has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People, and listed among Vanity Fair’s New Establishment and Fortune’s 40 Under 40, he has no formal business training. In fact, when the idea behind the company was hatched, he was a music critic. His co-founders were a designer and an artist. They weren’t out to change the world. But they realized that creative projects didn’t have to bankrupt creators. They knew that with the Internet, a dedicated community, and perseverance, there was an opportunity for creators to go directly to supporters, and generate funds from passionate audiences. It was a humble beginning, like many system-changing endeavors, but its small start would soon lead to enormous things.
Today, Kickstarter is enjoying its eighth-straight year of profits. Its cultural impact has meant that 14 million backers have pledged $3.4 billion to nearly 140,000 distinct projects: an awe-inspiring array of award-winning albums, video games, comics, magazines, films, apparel lines, crafts, restaurants, and cutting-edge technology, like 3D printing, apps, wearables, and robotics. As its CEO, Strickler tripled the dollar amount pledged to products, launched the platform in 16 countries, and built leadership teams at every level. And with Strickler at the helm, it’s jumped from three to 130 employees. It’s started nearly 9,000 new companies, resulting in 300,000 new full- and part-time jobs. And it’s had a $3.5 billion impact on our economy, making it a model for ambitious entrepreneurs and companies—both legacy and start-up—who want to work, and support, creative industries.
“Don’t sell out. Don’t sell out your values, don’t sell out your community, don’t sell out the long term for the short term. Be idealistic. Really be clear about the things that drive you.”— Yancey Strickler
Strickler always knew he would never sell the company, never work toward an IPO. But Kickstarter is also a Public Benefit Corporation: a new business classification, which means it is obligated, legally, to weigh the impacts of its decisions on society, and not just its shareholders. Stickler’s sense of purpose, his ethics, have ensured that this globally renowned organization has a code of conduct and transparency. It’s dedicated to meaningful forms of diversity and treats its employees well, with stock buy-backs and dividends. And, through purposeful giving, it’s fighting systemic inequality, donating 5% of its after-tax profit towards arts and music education and to organizations fighting to end prejudice against people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals.
Since stepping down from his role, Strickler has become a sought-after business speaker, sharing his optimistic vision with entrepreneurs, universities, associations, and not-for-profits who want to embrace a new model of success. He serves on the board of New Inc., the New Museum’s incubator for art, design, and technology. He co-founded The Creative Independent, an online publication featuring essays by and interviews with artists, and has also received a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award from the Tribeca Film Festival. Prior to Kickstarter, he worked as Editor-in-Chief of eMusic, and wrote for Pitchfork, among other publications.
Kickstarter’s Unique Business Model Making a Difference While Making a Profit
Kickstarter has not only changed the landscape—our very lexicon—around funding, patronage, and entrepreneurship, but it’s also remained as a steadfastly ethical company: an organization with a true moral compass that blends artistic vision with street-cred cool. In this keynote, entrepreneurship speaker Yancey Strickler reveals how three creative people came together to build a business that would define a generation: by being passionately idealistic, deeply generous, and never, ever selling out. Of course, as with any business talk, Strickler offers sage advice for entrepreneurs, start-ups, and industry giants—anyone, really—on executing on your own terms, hiring people with the same values, creating a vibrant and diverse corporate culture, and scaling growth while ensuring sustainability (that the bankbook doesn’t dry up). But he also shows why having a social conscious—doing good for the community, and your own employees—can also have enormous benefits. As a public benefit corporation, Kickstarter fights for diversity, equality, transparency and accountability, blazing an alternative path for other groups to follow, and showing why moral clarity is not only great for your image, but the right tonic to unrestrained capitalism—to “monopoly or bust,” as Strickler says. Meaningful public stances signal exactly what you’re about—they energize and empower your community. And they’re not a throwback or flash in the pan: they’re a way to shift the culture. This isn’t all about individuality and buzz. Strickler’s on a bigger mission: he’s hoping that with every success story following in his wake, being good will become the new norm.
Become Who You Really Are The Real Work of Life? It’s Figuring Out What Matters
Grads entering the workforce today know turbulence. They also know anxiety. The financial collapse still haunts the economy. Disruptive technologies—especially A.I. and robotics—threaten all jobs. Climate change and rising political unrest means there’s no promise of an easy life. So, as a young writer, Yancey Strickler also faced the great unknown. When the idea for Kickstarter was hatched, he had no business training (even buying a white board was a novelty!). He was of course wary. But his eventual success stands not as a freak stroke of fortune, but a testament to what can be achieved with passion, dedication, and a belief in making the world a better place.
In this inspiring talk—perfect for students launching careers, or anyone seeking the courage to begin the real work of their lives—creativity speaker Yancey Strickler tells his own story of entrepreneurship and achievement. It’s a story about making a leap of faith—even if it’s scary—to do what you’re meant to do, and to pursue the things that actually matter (“Nothing happens unless you do it,” he says. “If no one is pushing the rock up the hill, nothing will happen.”). But it’s also a nourishing reminder that art and community are essential, “no matter what the economy tells us,” he says. While quite new, Kickstarter is all about patronizing the arts: a very old practice indeed. It’s about artists, appealing to their peers, sharing their ideas, and asking for help—not from the super-rich, but through friends and family. Through fans. Ultimately, this emboldening talk helps us put the things that matter at the core of our being. To ask, and attempt an answer, to the hard questions of life. And to take comfort in Strickler’s evolution—remembering that even the most disruptive paths are often well worn.