Crowd Funding

I became aware of Kickstarter a few years ago when hacker historian Jason Scott of tried to raise $25,000 to fund “The Jason Scott Sabbatical“, a year off from work to be devoted to a documentary project that ended up being Get Lamp. For $50 I would get a DVD copy of the documentary after it was finished, if he finished it. This was a big If, but I had seen Jason’s excellent BBS documentary and that was enough to sell me on the project.

To me, it was clear: I wanted to see a documentary about text adventure games. Here was someone who’d probably find a way to do it anyway even if he couldn’t raise the money, but it might end up taking years longer for it to happen without funding. I’d never spent even $20 on a major DVD release from a big studio film that already existed before, but I was happy to give $50 to Jason in order to have a chance at seeing what he could do with it.

Then I waited. And waited. Meanwhile, Jason worked his ass off and made a kick-ass documentary, produced a DVD, and I got it. Along the way I got many updates from him describing what he was going through, sometimes a video clip. The whole time I felt completely confident that his project would succeed, barring a plane crash or heart attack or something. And successful it was. I was so happy when I received my copy in the mail. It seems like yesterday, but it’s been a couple years now. It retrospect it feels like it happened so quickly.

When Jason came around again saying he’d produce three more documentaries for $100k, I gladly put up $250 to get a copy of each of them. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be sad, but not for the $250. I’ll be sad because we won’t have our culture enriched by three amazing documentaries, and because it’ll mean that Jason’s been incapacitated somehow, and both of those things are worth being sad about.

Today, Kickstarter has become an increasingly popular way of raising money for various projects. It’s a beautiful thing, the internet making it possible for someone with an idea and drive to find a way to make a dream happen, for someone with vision to share that vision with people and find individuals willing to put their faith in it, and allow that person the means to work on achieving their vision without the undue compromise and loss of control that can accompany venture capital.

A few months ago, a major Kickstarter success created headlines when Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure project went viral, raising over $3.3 million, or about 8 times their original goal. Double Fine’s success came due to Schafer’s reputation and track record (Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle), and the fact that he wanted to do a game project in an underserved genre that once was really popular, and apparently still is after all, despite the so-called “triple-A” industry choosing to ignore it for many years.

One way of looking at Kickstarter, at least for certain projects, is as a way of dressing up “pre-sales” and getting good marketing for a product that would have existed anyway. I avoid anything that looks like this, which is why I didn’t put any money into the Double Fine Adventure project. If and when it comes out, if it looks good, I’ll just buy it. If it sucks, I won’t. I prefer to put my money into projects that may not happen without my $10 or $50. But a lot of people didn’t feel that way, or their love for Tim Schafer’s work was enough for them. I’m sure a lot of them simply got caught up in the excitement and wanted to see how high they could push the total, too, because people are like that.

So it’s a time of exuberance and good feeling for Kickstarter. A time of irrationality, as well. There’s a manic party atmosphere surrounding successful fundraising drives, jubilance and celebration.

But what we normally think of as success isn’t just the raising the money part. It’s the doing it part. This takes months and years. And it’s never guaranteed to be successful, or be everything that everyone hoped.

It seems inevitable that at some point, there will be a high profile failure. Imagine Duke Nukem Forever as a Kickstarter project. Imagine a Bernie Madoff Kickstarter. Oh noes! So I’ve begun to notice a few people have begun to express concerns and doubts about Kickstarter, a creeping negativity. A dose of realism is a good thing, but I still think Kickstarter is a great thing and I would rather see many projects attempted and a good number of them fail than no projects attempted.

It should be obvious, but with all the exuberance it’s good to remember that there’s always risk in life, and Kickstarter projects are no different. But the possibility of failure shouldn’t dissuade you from taking a risk. You should normally only take risks that you can survive if the risk pans out and there’s failure.

Most if not all Kickstarters have backing levels that allow you to support a project at a tiny amount of risk. How much you’re willing to donate is a personal choice, and if you’re comfortable with donating the amount money, it should be with the understanding that it’s possible the project could fail. Is it still worth it to you for the chance to see it succeed? Then go for it.

Another obvious point: It’s a good idea to evaluate the Kickstarter proposal to get a sense of how likely it is that the proposal will result in a successfully completed project. Do research on the people behind the project and find out what they’ve done. If they have a track record that suggests that they can do it, it’s probably a safer bet that they will.

But a big part of the beauty of Kickstarter is that it allows people who have no track record, but who do have a dream and some ability, to get a chance to try to realize that dream, instead of getting sucked into a low-level peon position and soulless corporate slavery. If the person has no track record, but still presents themselves well, and somehow demonstrates that they are prepared and understand what they’re getting into, and if the project idea means something to you, it’s worth taking a chance on, at least a small one.

Kickstarter doesn’t take just anyone’s proposal, and they do a number of things to make sure the ones they do take on have a better chance of success. Kickstarter doesn’t just allow people to market their fundraising efforts for worthy projects, they provide guidance. I believe Kickstarter understands that in order to remain successful at funding projects, they need to guard their reputation and ensure that as many of the projects that get funded through Kickstarter do end up being completed, and have a realistic chance of it from the beginning. Still, there’s always that risk… so, no one’s throwing money they need in order to live on Kickstarters, right? If you’re comfortable parting with the amount, and you think the project would make the world a better place, then take the risk, I say.

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