On this Whole Kickstarter Thing

Posted: February 08, 2011 Comments(8)

If you haven’t heard of Frank Chimero yet there’s a good chance you will over the next few days. He just this month launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Shape of Design, a book that can only be summarized by the Kickstarter page itself. Frank went into amazing detail about a dream he’s got for a book. I don’t know Frank personally, but I do know that I’ve seen his name mentioned many times, I’ve read what he has to write, I’ve watched him present at a conference I deeply regret missing.

My initial impression of Frank’s Kickstarter project was extreme excitement. People went nuts on Twitter, many peers I follow began posting that they’ve backed the project and were equally enthralled. The design community seemed to be abuzz about the project as a whole. That is, until some didn’t.

By far the most elaborate response to the idea as a whole is an essay from Andy Rutledge titled Profit, Lies, Theft, and Idiocy in which he goes into great detail about why he feels Frank’s ideas, decisions, and actions are counter-productive to both economics and professionalism. I feel the need to be abundantly clear when I say that I’ve been learning from Andy for years. I’ve learned more from him in particular than I have from many of my peers and I have a great respect for what he produces. I’ve passed his name to just about everyone I’ve ever worked with, and referenced his articles many times. This, however, is the first time I’ve been on the other side of the fence.

I often take a lot of time to arrive at any sort of decision where a debate is involved. I read Andy’s article the day it was published and let things settle in since then. As time went on, I became more comfortable with my stance. My opinions here are completely personal, and not an attack on Andy’s article. As I said, I’ve respected Andy since before I became a professional, and I’ll continue to respect him. We may have a difference of opinion on this matter in particular, but it’s done nothing to change my opinion of him personally or professionally. My response is again, not directed to Andy’s article directly, but instead geared toward the situation as a whole. Here’s the way I see it:

Underlying “inspiration”

I think it’s a bit presumptuous to conclude that the major inspiration for a project (and campaign) such as this is primarily to profit. I realize that Frank said his original figure was to cover production costs, living costs, and other costs associated with writing a book. I believe he meant it. It’s not his fault that a community of over 1,200 people felt the same way and pushed him over the top two fold. He’ll be making profit now, but the product is also going to be that much better, right? Maybe. I think so.

I think that in this case, there’s more than profit as a goal. I’ve wanted to write a book for a long time now. I have no idea what I’d like the specific topic to be, but I know that writing a book would be a personal life achievement of mine that would have extreme personal value attached. While my ambition has me wanting to write a book, my financial obligations will not allow me to risk any sort of insecurity to take time away from my income-generating activities for the sake of fulfilling a dream I’ve got.

Here’s where my empathy for Frank’s project comes full circle. He’s doing what I hope to some day do. If that makes me a sellout, then I’m a sellout. I completely sympathize with the way Frank went about going forward with this book because although I have faith that a book I’ve written would be of interest to my peers, I can’t say for sure that enough people would be interested that sales would make up for the money (and income loss) it cost me to produce the book in its entirety. That’s a sticky situation in my opinion, and something I’ve gone over in my head on more than one occasion.

On the other hand, if I could gather up those that’d be interested in the book, and they told me they’re willing to contribute to the book itself, that would do nothing but facilitate me to actually go forward with it. The burden is then on me to produce something that meets everyone’s expectations.

It’s an investment

If you back a Kickstarter project, you’re an investor. If you don’t want to invest, stay away from Kickstarter. To me, it’s pretty much as cut-and-dried as that. Investment is not something to be taken lightly, regardless of how much you’re putting in. Taking Frank’s project into consideration, we’re looking at contributing anywhere from $5 to $3,000 or more. You can put in what you hope to get out of it.

I can equate Kickstarting a book (or anything for that matter) to the process of building a startup. You’ve got an idea, you think it’s a great idea. The world runs on money so you’re going to need some. You take your idea (and what you can show off) to investors, hoping that you’ll come up with a cash flow to make your idea a reality. Frank is doing the same thing in my opinion. Instead of going to investors that do nothing but contribute to a project in hopes of getting back more money, he went to his peers. He pitched his idea, he’s got his experience (his work, his writings, his keynotes) backing him, and he’s hoping for the best. I love it.

The materials presented in Frank’s Kickstarter project, combined with the (professional) bits I know about Frank convinced me that backing this project is something I want to do. I have a great interest in the end product and I’m convinced that I will enjoy what comes of it. Better yet, I’m happy to have made a minor contribution to something that has the potential of being a great thing.

Is it selfish?

Backing a project in this way is a selfless act by the contributors, but only partially. We’re still only doing it because we want something in return. It’s a completely optional participation opportunity that has the potential of having great impact on those involved, particularly the originator. I’m hearing mumblings of people feeling like they regret backing the project in the first place. Why?

What’s changed from the moment you backed the project until now? Is it because Frank’s goal was reached (in record time) and people kept contributing? Does it matter that he’s raised more than double what he hoped to get in the first place? Why?

I wonder: if Kickstarter hid the running count and merely posted whether or not the goal was reached, would people continue to be offended?

An issue for discussion here seems to stem in the expectation of the project, too. It seems as though some people are thinking “what if I’m not pleased with the book when it’s done?” To that I ask: why did you back it in the first place? I know I backed it because of Frank’s presentation and his background. If the book isn’t what I ‘expect’ then I made a poor investment and I’ll learn next time.

This is one of those cases

There are times when rules are broken and the results are extraordinary. Personally, I think this is one of those cases. Contrary to the recent opinions of some, I think Frank’s idea and execution was appropriate, and I’m really excited to read my copy of The Shape of Design. If you’re not an investor, I’d rest assured that you can check out the book when it comes out and make a purchase decision then.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but I’d like to reiterate one last time that I felt the need to write this article just as I felt the need to back Frank’s idea for a book. I believe in it.

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  1. Nice! I’m an advocate of doing what you believe in…and that’s exactly why I too backed Frank’s project. If the book is great, I’ll learn something. If the book isn’t great, I’ll still learn something…

    At least I can comment, unlike at Design View 😉

  2. Hey Jonathan, great follow up dude. I just wanted to chime in on the use of the word investment. Typically when you make an investment you get a share of the ownership, but like you noted, on Kickstarter you’re pledging money for a tangible reward. That’s one of the big differences between traditional investment and using Kickstarter, the creator retains full ownership and backers don’t have much influence over the project’s direction.

  3. To add to your point, Andrew, Kickstarter is more-or-less a zero (or quite low) risk “investment” channel. You _pledge_ your money, and if enough people pledge, your money is subsequently “invested”.

    Traditional investments are much higher risk, and involve no small amount of faith and/or research before you give money, because it may never come back.

    That being said, it’s interesting to see this new model, and what becomes of it. I’ll sit back and watch, and spend no dollars. Books are for stories.


  4. Nicely done! I enjoyed reading the article and it was easy for me to catch up on the controversy surrounding the situation.

    If you back a Kickstarter project, you’re an investor.

    That is not accurate and Kickstarter is very careful with their wording (due to legalities most likely). Investors usually desire a profit on their investment. While a person is giving money to fund a project, they do not receive financial compensation in any way. The FAQs are very specific in this regard. The money given is not a tax-deductible donation unless the project creator has 501c3 status. To be even more clear, Kickstarter states their site cannot be used to create a startup. Their site is used to start a project, not a business. All projects must offer rewards. The words I’m hearing around the web: investment, it’s like a startup, theft, etc. are wrong. There cannot be a profit until all the expenses have been incurred. The wording is important, especially for those not knowledgeable about business. It is easy to get the wrong idea on exactly what is going on when the wrong words are used to describe it.

    Speaking of rewards, I have not seen mention of the work (yes, work) Frank has to do to fulfill the rewards. The $5 pledge gives access to the digital edition of the book (note it is tiered pricing so you get everything in the prior level). $20 opens up more formats of the book. $40 gives access to the hard-cover edition. While pricey, these prices are about average and fair. $50 enables the person to receive a signed copy of the book. That’s 368 signatures (I hope they would be original signatures). $100 gives recognition in the back of the book and a special edition of the book. The tiers continue up through $3000 where Frank gives a presentation for a company, school, etc. That’s work. Most fall in the category of wanting the hardback and signed copy of the book.

    If a publishing house backed the project, they’d take a significant cut and he’d still have to promote the book. The people interested in the book would most likely purchase the book if a publisher was behind it. Also keep in mind that Frank will be ripped a new one if this book does not live up to the hype…that is an extreme amount of pressure most would cave under. People are focusing on the money but it “could” hurt his career.

    Hesitation in purchasing is an understandable concern. I did not see wording the book would only be available to those who donated, so it is understandable why people would consider waiting or find it foolish to fund a book they haven’t seen. However, IMO, that is not the only concern on purchasing. If the purchaser is in the same field as Frank, they are (for lack of another word) potential competitors. If the purchaser is still learning then he or she is not on the same scale as Frank and the book might be a way to gain knowledge. To some degree, and this happens in all fields, once you learn “how” to do something, it is time to figure out the “whys” on your own. That comes through experience…a book is only going to teach you so much. There is a very good chance those who pledged disagree or cannot implement the concepts that will be in the book. It is understandable that some will not pledge and do not support the idea. If Apple needs funds, what are the odds Microsoft will help them out…without wanting something big in return? It is the same principle. It is what it is and that is why many flounder in business…they cannot accept that principle.

    My advice: people should focus on their career and making themselves better designers…and think less about what others are doing and thinking. Does it matter (to your career) that [insert name here] regrets pledging? Nope. Does it matter (to your career) that Frank is writing a book? I hope not…I hope you’d be success whether the book is written or not. 🙂 Perhaps the money is better spent purchasing something that can help you right now, versus in the future. Is that wrong? Nope…that’s focusing on making yourself a better designer. Can the book help you? Truth? You won’t know until it is written. Does it matter Frank has $60K coming to him? Nope…and if it bothers you, seriously look into that because it shouldn’t.

    *And by “you” I mean whomever is reading my words.* 🙂

  5. This is an interesting discussion. From the way I see things, this project in particular and Kickstarter in general is a return to an ancient and honorable form: patronage.

    Some of the greatest works of art in the world were created by patrons. And artist, architect or designer could do their best work through the beneficence of a patron. Kickstarter let’s us cloud-source patronage, which I find very interesting.

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