Kickstarting Creativity In the Modern World

Charles Adler talks with us about creativity, risk, and the fear of the unknown.

When we called Charles Adler—a co-founder of Kickstarter —to talk about his thoughts on creativity, risk-taking, and beginnings, he was in the middle of setting up his latest idea. He calls it a pop-up workshop, for which he invites dozens of creative people from a range of disciplines to his space and they bring their ideas to life. For Adler, it’s about “the ability to transact those ideas into beautiful or interesting and compelling objects. Because everybody has ideas. It’s whether you can actually transact them or not.”

“This is an example,” he says, “of how you prototype something in the real world. You do it temporarily.”

He then broke his train of thought to interrupt. “Would it be totally rude to just call you back in five minutes? I’ve got a shipment of eight MakerBots that just showed up.” These would become the tools of the workshop that his invited creatives would use to turn their ideas into reality.

Once he signed the papers and dragged the boxes through the door, Adler called us back so we could continue the conversation.

Adler, along with Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, launched Kickstarter in 2009 after years of developing the idea. They made it easier than ever for someone with a creative idea to raise money. At first, people were raising no more than a few thousand dollars for a project. Now people raise millions.

Adler left Kickstarter in 2013, after seven years. In an interview at the time, he said he missed the fear of the unknown.

We began by asking him about that.

What was so enticing about the fear of the unknown?

It’s funny because as much as I say that and I do believe that and I’m very much in that moment right now, that interview was a while ago and so I’ve had some time to reflect. It’s less about fear, but there’s this tension with the unknown. We always want to know something. We always want to have an answer. And I think in our modern society, we’re always expected to have all the answers. And yet really there’s no ... Expertise is only temporary, right?

Would it be totally rude to just call you back in five minutes? I’ve got a shipment of eight MakerBots that just showed up.

But you know, I think a lot of that was more about the excitement of the unknown. And what I mean by that is I didn’t have a plan. There was no job that I was going to. I had this sort of earthly tension of: How am I going to put food on my table and pay for my daughter to be educated? And my wife wanted to go back to school, and pay a mortgage, and all that kind of stuff, without a set format of income.

I was excited about that, honestly.

I think it’s probably fair to say that most people would feel limited by that and would refuse to jump into the unknown, because how am I going to pay my mortgage, right? You have those concerns but you didn’t let it stop you either.

I mean, I’m starting something new now, and it’s stupid to do these things in this logical sense. But I think it’s also stupid not to do these things.

Years ago I was at a conference and it was in a small room—this is the Boy Scout firepit story—in a roundtable discussion. And one guy said, “So I’m working on this project and I have a day job and I can only work on it in my spare time.” When does it become not a side project? Like how do you make that leap, right? The leap we’re kind of talking about. And I was like, “Well, you know, you just have to fish or cut bait at some point. Like, you’re either going to turn this thing into a real thing or you’re never going to turn it into a real thing and it’s never really going to grow.” Things grow because you water them. If you only give them so much water, they’re only going to grow so much.

But how do you convince someone to say, Yeah, it’s worth it to take the risk?

That’s always a very personal question, and they’re asking a question that only they can answer. But I try to ask: How do you make it less scary? How do you de-risk it? Because I think what everyone’s afraid of is this fear of failure or risking their livelihood or whatever. A lot of it just comes down to your reputation or am I sullied because I couldn’t accomplish the thing that I was going to do.

This term innovation requires some level of risk and uncertainty and meandering, and it’s not a clean thing.

But what I try to do—and we did this for Kickstarter—is start really small and start really humble. It’s always hunting for what is the simplest form that an idea can take, as a baby step, as a first step.

There’s a scale to a beginning, right?

It’s a scale to a beginning. I get brought into these discussions and asked about this quite a bit. Corporations ask, How do we get more like a startup? What is innovation? Because we see a lot of that on Kickstarter and Kickstarter, in and of itself, proved to be innovative.

And, you know, there’s a scale to the organization that can’t quite comprehend the beginnings, because everybody that’s asking the question—predominantly, at least—they’re not founders or early employees. They have taken on the reins of the organization, could be a year, five years, twenty years, one hundred years after the formation of the thing.

And that completely changes your outlook, right, your experience.

Even going back to your point about taking risks, if they don’t know what it means to take a risk like that, how do they then attempt to do so in a genuine way? This term “innovation” requires some level of risk and uncertainty and meandering, and it’s not a clean thing.

There’s not a lot of fearlessness in large organizations. Maybe the organization breeds the fearlessness out of people, but it seems to be a critical factor. You need a certain level of fearlessness if you’re going to walk out and take a creative risk.

I think it’s comfort and, you know, I think comfort has a very dangerous connection to complacency. And I like comfort, but I also don’t like standing still for too long.

You once described the reaction people had to the idea of Kickstarter before it became a reality. You said a lot of people would respond with a blank stare. Anyone who’s had a creative idea knows what you mean when you refer to the blank stare. But is that a good sign when that happens?

I don’t think it’s anything, to be honest. You know, I think that signal is actually a part of Kickstarter’s viability. But it also proves something about the Internet at its core. I might be into some weird thing, but I’m stuck in Chicago and nobody knows about me and my weird thing. But there’s ten, twenty, one hundred, one thousand people around the world that are also into that weird thing—call it some genre of music. And we can then find our own little campfire on the Internet and celebrate that.

In terms of avoiding the blank stare, it’s good to have those moments, because those blank stares challenge your ability to more accurately articulate what it is that you’re doing. A blank stare could be two things. It could be, “I have no bloody clue what you’re talking about and you’re insane” or you’ve just not communicated it well.

Things grow because you water it. If you only give it so much water, it’s only going to grow so much.

You start by finding what they call your beachhead market. You start by finding the people that need, and want, and understand what it is that you’re doing, and those are the people you circle around. And eventually other people convert—the folks who just heard about Kickstarter last week, they needed that seven or eight years to, you know, kind of gestate and whatever.

And so I think there’s a direct correlation, if you will, to the atomizing the problem or simplifying the problem to its core. What is your thesis and what’s the simplest way to prove that thesis? And this idea of putting your idea in the hands of people who can comprehend it.

I want to return to the idea you’re exploring with your latest project, the pop-up workshop. You mentioned that it’s about the ability to transact an idea into something. In a way, that’s Kickstarter. It’s a way to help make your ideas happen. Whether it’s that or the Internet generally or something else, do you think there are more beginnings of creative projects these days than there were X number of years ago because there are more tools and the tools are better?

Hard question.

It’s hard to quantify that anyway.

Yeah. So I can’t answer it, of course.

But is there a sense that there are better tools now, or have the tools always been there but they’ve changed?

In many ways I think the tools have always been there, across any discipline, but they’ve definitely changed. They’ve become connected. One of the many flavours or terms du jour is “the democratization of X.” I say the democratization of everything because we are in that mode. Twitter is democratized journalism, so is Medium, so is WordPress. And WordPress was there before Twitter. But, you know, who was there before WordPress? Pen and paper. And a printer. I mean, look at zine culture. Zine culture is the predecessor to blog culture. Zine culture is: There’s a Kinko’s down the street or I have a photocopier at the school and I know how to write, so I’m going to make my own magazine on the cheap and get my own ideas out there.

Creativity is the act of self-expression, and creativity is what eventually leads to innovation.

And so it’s always been there, it’s just now we have far more visibility, far more reach, and the general public now has access to those ideas that were always buried under the surface.

Perry [Adler’s co-founder, who actually thought up the idea of Kickstarter] would talk about this quite a bit—it was like, Hey, there’s no more excuses. Now that you have a way to raise money, you have a way to promote your idea, your project. And then there’s other ways you can continue to write about it. So, yeah, we definitely saw Kickstarter as a way to help democratize the funding of ideas. We’re certainly getting into a realm where there’s a lot more ideas getting transacted and made.

Let me ask you about the nature of creative risk-taking, and how much is that about an individual effort or a group effort, and how much is it about the larger social community? You mentioned earlier the campfire of like-minded music enthusiasts as an example.

It goes back to the beachhead thing. Perry had this idea that stemmed from a problem that he was trying to solve. Let me go to the creativity question. Creativity is about the act of making. It’s about the act of creating something, right? And, you know, is there risk in that? I don’t know inherently. But genuinely creative—in the sense of ingenious or clever—ideas require a bit of risk. Is anyone interested in this?

The sequence of events in terms of how we three came together [to form Kickstarter] was Perry, Perry met Yancey, Perry met me. It was that sequence. I was the third co-founder. There were early developers who believed in what we were working on, and designers who believed what we were working on, and obviously funders of the platform. But it would be nothing if there wasn’t a community. Essentially Kickstarter is just a shell. I don’t always describe it in this sense: farmers’ markets.

What is a farmers’ market? It’s literally a parking lot. The day before, it’s a parking lot, and then the next morning it’s a farmers’ market. And the thing that makes it a farmers’ market are the farmers, meaning a community of people that want to sell their goods directly.

And the people that want to buy, too.

Right, exactly. And so, in that equation, Kickstarter is the parking lot. The farmers are the creators, and the community of people like me, who don’t farm but buy from the farmers’ market, are the people supporting projects. And so I think this whole ecosystem’s required, but those ecosystems start out really small. And some of them might stay really small.

At the same time, there’s this vitality to creativity that requires some risk-taking. And I think the other aspect to this is you need to believe in your idea enough to commit some form of risk. Whether it’s time, money, or effort, it’s something. And otherwise it’s, like, then you don’t believe in it enough.

Innovation is simply just a marketable invention, but in order to get to that marketable invention, you need to tinker, you need to fuck around, you need to make multiple inventions or iterations of that invention.

The idea isn’t enough. Everybody puts effort into the thing. Everyone works really hard, you know, in their thing. But I guess there’s a piece in here in terms of creativity and innovation that I don’t know—for whatever reason, I’m stuck on this as far as the dialogue goes—but to me, it’s always about self-expression. Creativity is the act of self-expression, and creativity is what eventually leads to innovation. Innovation is simply just a marketable invention, but in order to get to that marketable invention, you need to tinker, you need to fuck around, you need to make multiple inventions or iterations of that invention.

Many of which things, by definition, won’t work or will fail, right?

It’s about the necessity for the amateurs. I don’t really believe in experts because of the idea of an expert. The next step for that is complacency. The moment you believe you’re an expert you’re done, because the world changes constantly—it’s always done that. Whether it’s actually moving faster or not, I don’t know, but it’s just always going to move.

And so I think the heart of innovation is about creativity, and it is about risk-taking. If you look for the end, you always start from the wrong place. Because you’ve got to start from the beginning. And the beginning is that personal itch that you’re trying to scratch.