When Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen first had the idea for a website to fund creative projects in the early 2000s, he was living in New Orleans, composing electronic music. “I wasn’t really in the position, nor honestly very interested, in going and making a website and running a start-up,” he said. But if an idea is good enough, it tends to stick around, demanding your attention. Chen eventually teamed up with co-founders Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, and the three spent years trying, stumbling, and pushing forward to make Kickstarter a reality. Since its launch in 2009, the site has seen stratospheric success, funding 77,000 projects through $1.2 billion in pledges—the largest and most successful crowdfunding website to date. After establishing an ecosystem designed to help creative ideas succeed, Chen stepped down as CEO in December 2013 to focus on his own creative pursuits. In the past year, he helped launch Dollar a Day, a website to help people discover and support charitable organizations; served an artist residency with Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City; and exhibited his project Computers in Crisis, an archival investigation into the Y2K phenomenon, at the New Museum. We recently spoke with Chen about the idea of risk and failure as it relates to his career as an artist and an entrepreneur.
Defining Creative Failure
[Failure] is so tough to define. My definition of creative and artistic failure would be if you have a vision for something and it doesn’t come together as you thought it would. [It’s] not because you know people judged it a failure, or that it somehow succeeds or fails. The thing that would be most worrying to me is if you saw something in your head, you had a vision for something, it was clear to you, and then when you went out and worked on it, what you produced was off somehow. Your instincts or your ability to execute are off or mis-calibrated. Since I rely so much on that vision of something, and then work my way there over time, I think that would be most like a failure to me. Even with that, you know you’ll learn and you’ll get better and you’ll recalibrate why is it that you weren’t able to execute to get there.
Dealing with Risk
There is always the ego risk that you do something and people don’t like it. But I think when you’re starting out, your momentum and your idealism push you through when your ego is more fragile. As time goes by, you get older and you have more confidence because you have been able to do things and bring visions to life and get a good feedback loop. Hopefully when you get past your state of idealistic momentum, you’ve reached the point where your maturity and your confidence help push you through moments where you might feel the risks too easily becoming doubts.
Also, generally, I think we struggle to properly assess risk, and people are often too conservative because of the various possible consequences of pursuing something—financial consequences or ego consequences. I think about the consequences that people very commonly faced throughout human history. Small decisions were often life and death: I’m extremely hungry, but do I eat this berry, which may be poisonous? This is not to say feelings of anxiety about risks aren’t real, or the risks themselves aren’t real. But many types of risk are overblown by cultural conservatism and social fears that should hold less power.
What Failure Could Have Looked Like For Kickstarter
There were several years of working toward [Kickstarter] before we got it out there. I didn’t work on the web; I hadn’t even worked at a start-up before. So it was many years of figuring it out, visualizing it, and working toward that vision. I think as we got toward the launch, it was really all about pushing that button and it existing, and having made it through that journey of creating this thing. It wasn’t about what happened any day after that. It quickly did become that. But I think because of how long it took, and because of how challenging it was to get there, for me and for my co-founders, I think the worst thing that could happen is you work all those years and you don’t even get the thing to exist. And there are moments where that’s possible. You don’t have a lot of money. You’re working another job while you’re trying to do this. You’re trying to get people to help you. There were points in the year or so before launch where I was like, “If we could just get this thing out and it exists, that will be satisfying. That will be great.” The worst thing would be if you can’t even get it across the threshold. It is a classic thing with people who work in isolation, or in small teams doing creative work. It’s done without [the public] seeing things. People see things when they are released and when they come out and when they are exhibited. So if you are talking about this thing to your friends and your family for years and it never happens, that would have been the worst thing. That would have been a pretty good failure.
The Anxiety of Failing
I remember when I gave a talk at the ITP [Interactive Telecommunications Program] at NYU in early ’09. Maybe there were 15 people who showed up. I was terrified. Fast forward many years and I’ve done my share of speaking to much larger audiences, and it’s nothing like that. But I really remember that first time. The anticipation and the anxiety around possible failure or possible embarrassment, in my experience, has always been worse than the actual thing. It’s always good to remind yourself that. Even when I speak now, you do always get a little bit of jitters. Once you get onstage or once you start talking, that part of the brain shuts off and you’re just going into the flow. You’re saying what you’re going to say. It just all kind of fades away.
When you play music—I used to DJ—once you get the first record down and you get through your first mix, you’re like, “Okay. There’s no difference between being in my house and being here.” Anticipation seems to feed our fears, and mix with imagination to create and shape our own anxieties.
Improving through the Creative Process
As an artist you’re very demanding on yourself. You see all types of things that you think you could have done better, or that you want to challenge yourself to do. Setting high standards, high expectations—it’s a very self-critical life. You’re often your own hardest critic. You practice. It’s a journey. Through executing well and through executing poorly, you get better. You see things more clearly. You hone your instincts. It’s critical, and part of everybody’s journey when they’re working on any craft or any art, is to get better at it, and then also to appreciate it. I don’t know the person who everything they do is something that they’re thrilled with. So much of being able to work a thing really hard, and bring a vision to life, is the satisfaction you get because the process itself wasn’t always smooth. Your first attempts didn’t always pan out exactly how you wanted. It’s a cliché, but it’s not just about [the work] you lay out there. It’s also the practice and the journey to get there.