Kickstarter, the brilliant site that lets you fund strangers' brilliant ideas.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 27 2011 3:44 PM

Adopt a Genius

Kickstarter, the brilliant site that lets you fund strangers' brilliant ideas.

Kickstarter logo.
The company's logo

Last July, Dan Provost and his friend Tom Gerhardt, two designers who live in New York, came up with an idea for a tripod mount for the iPhone—a cleverly shaped accessory that lets you screw the phone into a standard camera tripod and doubles as a handy desk stand. As Provost explains in a blog post, the pair had never built or sold a product before, and they had no contacts in the retail or manufacturing businesses. In other words, they were in the same boat as a lot of us who have fantastic ideas for new inventions while we're in the shower—we don't have the money, time, or the first clue about how to build what we've dreamed of, so we forget about it.

In recent years, though, turning your great idea into something real has become a little bit easier. By taking advantage of a number of new technologies and services, Provost and Gerhardt were able to design and mass-produce their iPhone tripod stand—they call it the Glif, and it sells for $20—in just five months. First, they used off-the-shelf design software to create a 3-D model of their widget. Then they submitted the files to Shapeways, a company that uses expensive "3-D printers" to create pretty much any physical object you'd like. With the help of Shapeways, Provost and Gerhardt created several different prototypes of the Glif, refining their gadget until they'd perfected it. Using Google, they found lots of contract manufacturers who were willing to produce their widget; most were in China, but the pair settled on South Dakota's Premier Source. They also used Shopify to create a Web store, and Shipwire, an online shipping and handling company, to handle all the deliveries.

For all of their resolve and ingenuity, Provost and Gerhardt still needed one thing: money. To raise the funds for their iPhone accessory, they turned to Kickstarter, a fantastic Web site that facilitates connections between creators and potential donors. To get people interested in their idea, Provost and Gerhardt made a Wes-Anderson-y video pitch in which they showed off their prototype, explained why they needed the money, and offered potential donors a variety of rewards. (For a $20 pledge, you'd get a free Glif when the product got mass-produced; for $50, you'd also get a 3-D-printed version immediately; for $250, you'd get all of the above plus dinner with the two inventors.)

Provost and Gerhardt asked the online hordes for $10,000. To promote the project, they sent their Kickstarter link to John Gruber, who runs the popular Apple-following blog Daring Fireball; after Gruber talked up the Glif, they got $10,000 in pledges within an hour. CNET, Gizmodo, and other tech blogs picked it up, too, and over the course of a month their campaign brought in $137,417 from 5,273 donors. They began shipping the Glif in December.

Kickstarter has always seemed a bit dreamy to me. I doubted that many people would open up their wallets to fund strangers' ideas. But the site has proved me wrong: Over the last couple of years, it has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, and many others. The company says that "a little less than half" of the campaigns that get posted to the site make their fundraising goal; in 2010, there were nearly 4,000 successful campaigns. Among the success stories are five films that are being screened at Sundance this year. Another indie film that was partly funded by Kickstarter, Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill, has received rave reviews and will be released in theaters in February. And earlier this month, the New York Times profiled John Fraser, a New York chef who used Kickstarter to fund his new "pop-up" restaurant, which will only be open for a few months. (So far he's raised more than $21,000, and the campaign is open for another month.) Raising money online, Fraser explained, allowed him to do things his way rather than be beholden to "bigwig investors who might make big-time demands," as the Times put it.

There are a few reasons Kickstarter has done so well. First, it has a brilliant, no-risk model for donors and creators. When you post a project on Kickstarter, you tell the site the minimum amount you're looking to raise, and you give your campaign a deadline (from one to 90 days). People "pledge" money during that deadline, but nobody's on the hook until you raise your minimum amount. This is great for creators because it allows them to gauge an idea's potential—do people really want an iPhone tripod mount?—before making a huge investment. It's even better for donors, as it encourages people to take a chance on novel ideas even if many others haven't signed on yet. Your credit card is only going to get charged if lots of other people also agree to fund a project, so why not donate $10 or $20 to, say, that wacky NYU professor's book about "computerized simulations of natural processes"?

Kickstarter's other genius feature is its insistence that creators offer rewards for different pledge levels. This transforms Kickstarter from a charity (like the microfinancing site Kiva) into something more like a futurist online store, something akin to the Etsy of tomorrow's products. If you gave $20 to the Glif project, for instance, you could be reasonably sure you weren't throwing your money down the drain; unless the inventors totally bungled their execution, you would end up with an iPhone tripod stand in return for your pledge. (Of course, inventors can totally bungle the execution. Kickstarter doesn't have any way of forcing creators to give out the rewards they promise or even preventing them from running off to Vegas with the money, though the donors themselves may have some legal recourse if that happens.)

Finally, I'm a fan of how Kickstarter uses video. The best Kickstarter campaigns use direct, emotional, and beautifully crafted spots, and they're difficult to resist. Indeed, I keep coming back to the site just to browse through the collection of ideas on display. Though I only occasionally donate, clicking through the site's campaigns is a thrill, a rare way to renew your hope in the continued creativity and ingenuity of your fellow citizens. Kickstarter is especially attractive for tech and design nerds; many (though certainly not all) of the products offer novel ways to use gadgets and other technologies.

For example, watch this video by Scott Wilson, a former designer for Nike. Late last year, he pitched Kickstarter on two accessories to turn the iPod Nano into a multi-touch wristwatch.

Wilson's campaign blew up—he only asked for $15,000, but he raised $941,718 from more than 13,000 donors, making his the most successful project in Kickstarter's history.

Here's another campaign that I'm really excited about: The Hip-Hop Word Count, an effort by Tahir Hemphill to create a searchable index of the lyrics of more than 40,000 hip-hop songs. I'll let Hemphill explain:

I just pledged $10 to Hemphill. He's only got $5,600 so far, less than his goal of $7,500. There are 17 days left in his campaign. You know what to do.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.