Back in 2012, I wrote a feature about Kickstarter–the site which kickstarted the crowdfunding phenomenon–for TIME. (Here the article is, lurking behind a paywall.)
One of the things I found fascinating as I reported the story was that Kickstarter’s founders–Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler–weren’t in love with the site’s public image, which at the time had a lot to do with the giant sums of money raised by gadget-y projects such as the Pebble smartwatch and Ouya game console.
For its founders, Kickstarter was about finding funding for creative endeavors–the more creative the better, and regardless of whether the endeavor in question required a lot of money or just a little. When they told me about its success stories they brought up small-time, deeply personal stuff like games and artisanal jam, not Pebble or Ouya. And they didn’t like people thinking of their creation as an online marketplace or a new-age form of venture capital for consumer electronics. (In fact, later that year, they tightened their rules to discourage some campaigns and announced the restrictions with a blog post titled “Kickstarter is Not a Store.”)
Fast forward to today. The site is announcing that it’s loosening up its guidelines for project creators, eliminating many of the restrictions on what a crowdfunding campaign can involve–though there are still bans on such items as weapons, medical products, pornography, hate speech, charity requests, and–go figure!–anything that’s illegal. Creators will also be able to launch campaigns without having them pre-approved by the site, a measure which will presumably help it ramp up the volume of projects. (For all of Kickstarter’s influence, it still operates on a relatively small scale by web standards–there have been a total of around 63,000 successfully funded campaigns in its first five years.)
Over at The Verge, Adrianne Jeffries has a good story on the changes. They still leave Kickstarter with a more narrowly-defined mission than its older archrival, Indiegogo; as far as I can tell, that site doesn’t explicitly ban medical products, porn, or charity campaigns, for instance. That has led to some odd undertakings over there, including a campaign for a wristband which can allegedly monitor your calorie intake, the subject of an excellent investigation by Pando Daily’s James Robinson.
Still, the new Kickstarter will embrace people beyond the “artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors [and] explorers” who it originally said it was designed to serve. And I confess to being a little nervous about the transition.
I came away from my time with the company’s creators impressed by the clarity of their vision, and their willingness to err on the side of preserving it. It was a very different story than you usually hear from the founders of venture-backed startups, who are usually under intense pressure to get as big as possible as fast as possible.
Then again, the logic of why some Kickstarter campaigns were kosher and others weren’t was always fuzzy. In the past, underwear was welcome but bath products were forbidden; social-networking software was fine but an actual social network was not. My guess is that the revised rules will simply allow a bunch of efforts which everybody (mistakenly) assumed were legit all along, and therefore won’t radically change the game.
Or so I hope. The best Kickstarter projects have always been quirky and creative–a fact which surely has something to do with the quirky, creative nature of the site itself. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it emerges from these changes still recognizable as its idiosyncratic, lovable self.
UPDATE: Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler responded to my fretting with an encouraging tweet:
@harrymccracken Don't worry! *Nothing* about our mission, focus, or weirdness has changed. This is us wanting to do those things smarter.
— Yancey Strickler (@ystrickler) June 3, 2014