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Communications of the ACM


What It Means to Be an Entrepreneur Today

What It Means to Be an Entrepreneur Today, illustration


I want to talk about some of the values behind Kickstarter and what I think it means to be an entrepreneur.

I wanted to start by talking about a series of works by a Chinese artist named Zhang Wei. These are obviously photographs of very famous, iconic people, except they are actually composite photographs of Chinese people whom Zhang takes portraits of; his thesis is that in this mass-media age, we are defined more by the media's heroes than we even are by ourselves, so each of these photos is a composite of 1,000 different faces, Chinese faces, and it just shows how that is a lot of what defines us (see the accompanying image on this page).

Now if we think about footballers or pop stars or teenagers, we think, "Sure, everyone has their idols that shape the way they think about things," but this is also true in technology. It is important to be aware of the ways we are influenced.

If you look at tech media and the way business is covered today, it is quite violent. It is extremely aggressive: Out for blood. Go to war. Own the world. Companies are judged not by how many jobs they create, but by how many jobs they end; those are the ones that are celebrated. It is very divisive.

At the core of this, of course, is money. By investing money in these companies, people try to make more money for themselves, and ultimately that is the end goal for all these things: infinite growth for the desire of infinite riches. Of course, when all of society works this way, the results are horrific. It is inequality. It is an incredibly imbalanced society, and it is one that is increasingly led by a money monoculture of people trying to optimize their money to make more money, and the rest of the world is just a portfolio for them to operate on. You see this across everything.

In music, Ticketmaster monopolizes the concert industry, a diverse ecosystem of labels is disappearing, and most pop songs are written by a handful of bald Scandinavian men. In Hollywood, most of what we see now is sequels or remakes of existing IP, all presented in IMAX and 3D. Every magazine cover has Taylor Swift on it. And all of these things happen because these are the safe bets. For someone looking to make money on their money, they want safe bets. This is the sort of culture that you get from that, and it is not just the cultural landscape that is shaped; it is even the physical landscape.

I live in New York City. Currently, in New York, in just Manhattan, there are 1,800 physical bank locations. That is up 60% from 10 years ago. You would think the ATM was never invented. The challenge with all these banks appearing on street cornersor chain restaurants, clothing stores, cellphone stores, whateveris that what had been there before were local businesses, small shops run by New Yorkers for their community. But commercial real estate has become the new easy way to make money, and so the rents get jacked up. The person that has been there for 30 years gets pushed out, and a Bank of America goes into its place. This is how a city dies. This is how a culture dies, and this is increasingly happening.

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Battling Moneyed Imperialism

This is the globalization that is appearing around the world. It is a moneyed imperialism that is changing local cultures. It is really hard to talk about, and it is really important to talk about at the same time. Berlin is feeling this. It seems like any city that has any kind of dynamic culture or where young people live starts to experience this, and it is unclear what to do about it. This is true for entrepreneurs, it is true for cities. This is the big battle of our age. So what can you do about it? I do not have a solution, but I have three places where I think it starts.

The first is, don't sell out.

Now I am 37 years old. I grew up with the Kurt Cobain, "corporate rock sucks," "selling out is the worst thing you could ever do" school of thought, and "selling out" means you have a great idea, and then you use it to personally enrich yourself, and who cares about what happens to it afterward?

The idea of selling out being badthat has gone out of style. Now, selling out is coolthat is to be celebrated. "Oh, they exited for how much money? Wow, they're super-awesome." It is very shortsighted. It creates a very bottom-line thinking that is not in the broader interest of society, that is just in the self-interest of those entrepreneurs, of those people who hold all that equity.

"Don't sell out" also means you don't sell out your values or your culture to hit a short-term gain; you have a clear set of values that you are operating with.

Taking a big VC (venture capital) funding round is another type of selling out because once you take a big check, you are not able to guide your mission on your own terms; you have to follow somebody else's. To not sell out, it is important that you are sustainable as a business, so you have a source of revenue that allows you to continue to operate and grow. This is an incredibly liberating thing. It lets you call the shots and do what you want to do.

For Kickstarter, we have operated in the black since our 14th month of business; June 2010, we were in the black for the first time, and we have stayed there. We operate within our means. Every dollar we spend, we are quite thoughtful of because this is not a big VC check; this is money that was earned through people having success with our service, so we think very carefully about how we spend that. If you are able to have your own source of revenue, you are able to sustain yourself. You do not have to sell out; you can continue to operate in whatever way you like.

That leads to the second point, which is that you should be idealistic.

When you start a company or any sort of project, you are compelled by some deep, burning thing in your heart; there is something you really want to change. There is something you really want to be different. Those things come from very idealistic places, but the challenge as something exists and is out there in the world is that every day, there are infinite opportunities to compromise on that vision. It could be that a competitor has done something that seems like it might be successful; it is not something you ever thought you would do, but "oh wait, do we have to do this now?" Is this the new term of engagement?

You have to be very careful about your beliefs. You do not want to sink into the morass of industry standards, because industry standards are lowering every single day by everyone trying to chase growth, chase revenue, and stay alive. It allows other people to do the same. You have to lock in your values and the ideals behind your project from the very beginning, at that nascent stage where it is all romance, and you are just dreaming how big, how powerful can this thing be. Think about the things that are important to you at that early moment, and lock them in. Make sure you always stay true to those things, that you act with integrity.

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Protecting New Ideas

We were very clear about this for Kickstarter from the very beginning; I and my co-founders Perry Chen and Charles Adler vowed from the beginning that we never wanted to sell Kickstarter, we never wanted to try to IPO. We thought about this as a sort of public trust. It made sense to us that in society, there should be a place reserved for new ideas, and that is a place that should be protected. It is not something that should be sullied by overt commercialization or advertising, or any of those sorts of corrupting forces; it should be kept as a place for ideas as pure as it can be.

We have always operated with that mentality. Last year, we took an additional step to legally formalize that, becoming a public benefit corporation. It is a very new thing in the U.S. This legally binds you to have a positive influence on society; you draft a charter to say on what basis that will happen. For us, it was about supporting artistic and creative works, especially those in less-commercial areas. It includes a pledge to not employ legal but esoteric tax avoidance strategies. It includes a pledge to engage with issues facing artists and creators beyond our walls. It includes pledging to donate 5% of our after-tax profits every year to organizations fighting to end systemic inequality, and organizations fighting to provide arts and music education in New York City.

These are the things that are important to us, and we have legally bound the company to follow those principles for as long as it exists. This is how those ideals that were so present in the creation of Kickstarter and are so present in the 120 of us who work there can be maintained throughout Kickstarter's entire life.

The third point is to be generous.

To be perfectly honest, acting out of integrity and values is a harder road in a lot of ways. It means you are not going to have that big check because that VC who asked you whether you would do anything if we give you this $40 million, right? You don't do those things. Instead, you are operating within your means. Every choice you have to make is a real choice. It is a slower road; you are not going for hockey-stick growth. You probably won't be huge overnight; it is a longer haul.

In more important ways, it is easier, because in those decisions where there is a moral question about what to do and balancing the needs of the business with what you believe to be right, there is more clarity. There is more freedom to act with conviction.

Being generous is important because it takes a lot to choose this path. It takes a lot of strength, a lot of fortitude, a lot of conviction. We have to support people who choose to do that. We have to support other artists, other creators. You have to support them directly.

People are willing to do this. Look at the statistics for Kickstarter to date; in seven years, $2.5 billion, 100,000 successfully funded projects, 11-million-plus backers. These are people supporting projects just because they think they are cool, because it is interesting, they like the idea of a world where that exists. This is not for financial self-interest. This is not the money monoculture. This is people just wanting to support someone else who is doing something cool.

There are lots of ways to do that. If you have been listening to someone's album on Spotify or SoundCloud, go to Bandcamp and buy their record. Make sure you give them money. Support independent businesses rather than chains. Choose to spend your money and put your energy toward people, toward artists, toward companies that are behaving in this way. If gravitational forces start to shift in that direction, it will shift culture. It really will.

The idea of selling out being badthat has gone out of style. Now, selling out is coolthat is celebrated.

Kickstarter's internal handbook, when new employees start, includes a lot of our philosophy and thinking about the world, and the final page states: "We champion and celebrate the creation of art and culture."

Our mission is around creative projects. The way we are trying to accomplish this is through encouraging art and creativity and a richer, more diverse culture that is less controlled by money, that is more controlled by individual voices and by audiences. There are lots of ways to do that; there are lots of ways to challenge the status quo.

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A Rare Opportunity

This is the reason I was really excited to come to Berlin. I think this is a very interesting moment in the life of this community. After what happened in the U.K. with Brexit, it seems likely that the gravitational force of technology will shift squarely to Berlin, and that is going to mean a lot of changes. It is probably going to mean a lot more money coming into this community. It is going to mean more people coming here to start things.

At a moment like this, there is a very rare opportunity for this community to define what it means to be a company from Berlin.

If you think about American companies, Silicon Valley companies, there is a lot of focus on hyper-growth, on disruption, things along those lines; a lot of power being amassed on platforms, and users having very little power. I would suggest that for Berlin, there is an opportunity to balance that, to build a code around building products or services or exploring creative projects that empower the individual, that are about decentralizing the Web, that are about giving everyone more power over their data, over what their experience is online, that are about paying creators and supporting people pursuing open source or pursuing projects that are not simply looking to make as much money as possible.

The Internet needs a force like this. It needs a counterbalance. It needs someone looking out for the rights of the individuals, because we are moving toward the future at a very fast rate. Just a few projects here can define a new way of thinking and a new future for the Web.

This is a moment where groups of people can make choices, can draft language, can think about what it means for this city to be producing schools of thought that are shaping the world in a more positive and diverse direction. This is the moment where you can define that, and I encourage you to take advantage of this moment.

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Yancey Strickler ( helped to launch the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform in 2009; today, he is its CEO.

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UF1Figure. Composite photo portraits of Steve Jobs and Angelina Jolie created by the Chinese artist Zhang Wei.

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