CNBC Disruptor 50

Kickstarter helped launch Peloton, Oculus and Allbirds, but what's next? A new CEO has some ideas

Key Points
  • Since Kickstarter's founding in 2009, backers on the platform have pledged close to $7 billion to more than 228,000 projects.
  • Some have become big consumer brands like Peloton and Allbirds, others raised a ton of money but failed as businesses, like the Coolest Cooler.
  • But its creative fundraising power remains: author Brandon Sanderson's campaign to self-publish four novels became the highest-funded project of all time, raising more than $41 million in March.
Everette Taylor, Kickstarter CEO and former top executive at online art marketplace Artsy, attends the Destinee Ross-Sutton x FREVO x Khari Turner exhibition on September 8, 2021 at Frevo in New York City.
Patrick Mcmullan | Patrick Mcmullan | Getty Images

In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list, 10 years later.

Kickstarter – the crowdfunding platform that served as a launchpad for brands like Peloton, Oculus and Allbirds – has a lot of work to do to continue to be a leader in the creative space, according to Everette Taylor, the company's newly appointed CEO.

"Kickstarter came and really created crowdfunding as we know it," Taylor said in a recent interview with CNBC. "And now it's like, what's the new frontier?"

With Kickstarter, creatives can advance their project ideas by finding backers to financially support them. The platform takes what they call an "all-or-nothing" approach to funding, meaning that creators must be fully funded by the deadline they set for their goal to receive any money.

Some of Kickstarter's most funded campaigns did not turn out to be ultimate success stories. That includes Pebble Watches, a smartwatch brand that raised more than $20 million on the platform but struggled as a business, and Coolest Cooler, a cooler company that garnered more than $13 million — but failed to follow through on its fundraising success.

But Kickstarter's core creative fundraising power remains intact today. Author Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter campaign to self-publish four novels made headlines in March for becoming the highest-funded project of all time, raising more than $41 million from more than 185,000 backers to date.

Since Kickstarter's founding in 2009, backers on the platform have pledged close to $7 billion to more than 228,000 projects. More than 21 million backers have supported projects, with a third of those backing two or more products. The company appeared on CNBC's inaugural Disruptor 50 list in 2013 and again in 2014.

Taylor, who served as CMO at online art marketplace Artsy before joining the company in September, said he is looking to take Kickstarter in a new, innovative direction, with a focus on allowing people from diverse backgrounds to find creative success.

"It's the duty of the market leader to continue to innovate and push the category and industry forward," Taylor said. "I think Kickstarter, being recognized as disruptive before, I think we have a larger duty now to really innovate the crowdfunding industry and grow the crowdfunding industry."

The company has also evolved from its startup roots in how it seeks to profit from the creative community. In 2015, Kickstarter became a public benefit corporation, joining companies such as Ben & Jerry's in the niche of for-profit companies that commit to having a positive impact on employees, the environment and society, in addition to shareholders. 

Yancey Strickler, co-founder and former Kickstarter CEO, said in an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" in 2019 that he didn't foresee the company ever going public. 

Kickstarter co-founder on why the crowdsourcing business model works
Kickstarter co-founder on why the crowdsourcing business model works

"A place like Kickstarter is important – a place where someone like the Peloton founders can put an idea and just have a shot," Strickler told CNBC. "It's so wide open, and that space needs to be preserved."

Taylor agrees, saying he wants to ensure Kickstarter stays aligned to its mission and community and that going public would pivot some focus to appeasing shareholders.

"One of the things that I think is beautiful about Kickstarter is that we have such a talented team that could be anywhere in the world, but they decide to be at Kickstarter because they understand the importance of our mission and the work that we're doing," Taylor said. "I never want to do anything that's going to conflict or damage or harm that mission."

In fact, the company's relationship with its employees became one of its biggest headlines in recent years. Employees at Kickstarter established a union, Kickstarter United, in February 2020, making it one of the first tech companies to unionize. The union came after a controversy over one of the company's campaigns –  a satirical comic book titled "Always Punch Nazis" –  made Kickstarter employees want to have more input into the company's decisions. The controversy surrounding the union sparked the attention of many creators and supporters using the platform, who began speaking out in support of labor organizing.

Aziz Hasan, CEO during the union drive, denied in a statement that any employee terminations were related to involvement in the union, but he pushed back against unionization.

"The union framework is inherently adversarial," Hasan said in a statement. "That dynamic doesn't reflect who we are as a company, how we interact, how we make decisions, or where we need to go. We believe that in many ways it would set us back, and that the us vs. them binary already has."

Kickstarter United won their first collective bargaining agreement in June 2022, which included salary benchmarking based on national averages, a guaranteed minimum 3% yearly salary increase to reflect cost of living and an annual pay equity review.

"This contract will improve our members' lives, make Kickstarter a more equitable workplace, and help raise standards across the tech industry," Kickstarter United said in a statement posted to its website shortly after ratifying the contract. "We fought hard for a contract that prioritizes security and wellness amidst rising inflation, uncertainty, and burnout."

Hasan left as CEO in March 2022 after the union missteps and the botched rollout of a decentralized, blockchain-based effort for the crowdfunding company.

In a change of tone from previous leadership, Taylor said he is supportive of Kickstarter United and the collective bargaining agreement and pulling back on the blockchain.

"I want to make sure that [employees] feel heard, that they feel seen and they feel like they have a just and caring workplace," Taylor said. "I am supportive of their desires and what they want, and I don't see [the union] as adversarial or something that is a place of conflict. I see it as a group of people having expectations for the workplace that they spend a good amount of their time in."

Backlash from users was intense after it announced in December 2021 it was exploring possibilities on the blockchain and decentralizing the platform could make it easier for creators to fundraise. Critics voiced concerns with the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies, which require significant amounts of electricity to function. In response, Kickstarter promised to not move its website onto the new platform before testing and said research would take place on Celo, a carbon-negative blockchain platform.

Taylor said the core company currently has no plans to move to the blockchain and is not currently invested in Web3.  "Blockchain and Web3 could potentially be helpful, and if they find solutions that we feel are actually going to be a large, positive contribution, then we may consider it," Taylor said. "That's still a long ways away. Right now, we're extremely focused on the core business of Kickstarter."

Though the platform saw a 35% drop in new projects at the beginning of the pandemic and lost about 39% of its workforce in 2020 from a combination of buyouts and layoffs, Taylor said the company immediately bounced back, seeing a 30% increase in business in the last two years, and 2020 and 2021 were the best business years in company history. It also began piloting a four-day work week in March and is working in a fully remote setting, which Taylor said has been successful in raising rates of productivity.

As the first Black CEO of Kickstarter, Taylor said he is putting an emphasis on reaching marginalized communities of creatives and eliminating barriers they may face. He cited initiatives such as Forward Funds, a Kickstarter program that connects creators with charitable organizations that have similar missions.

"I want people to go to Kickstarter and get to see someone that looks like them," Taylor said. "I want people to go on Kickstarter every day and see something that really interests them in whatever niche they're interested in. I want to make sure that we continue to grow this industry and be able to reflect the diversity that's out there in the world." 

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