The Kickstarter Economy

How crowdfunding is changing the way new businesses get their start

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Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Kickstarter co-founders Charles Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler.

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Strickler and his partners have never stopped being excited about these itty-bitty efforts. Their enthusiasm for their invention is infectious--Strickler has personally sponsored over 700 projects--and when I chat with them at the company's offices in a ramshackle walk-up building on New York City's Lower East Side, the projects they bring up are mostly small and deeply personal: music albums, a board game, artisanal jam.

Whether they involve film, fashion or food, the Kickstarter projects that flourish tend to have a lot in common. Their developers set realistic goals. They produce slick show-and-tell videos. They update their community of backers regularly with progress reports.

They also realize that their supporters' advice can be just as valuable as their cash. When Julie Uhrman, Ouya's CEO, put the console on Kickstarter, she already had a prototype. But it evolved further. Backers pointed out, for instance, that some of the buttons on its controller might be tough for color-blind users to distinguish. "It's really fascinating to design a product with your audience," she says.

None of this is a cakewalk. "It's a nice job, but it's a job," says Roman Mars, who was able to rustle up $170,477 to produce a season of 99% Invisible, his San Francisco public-radio program about design. "Luckily, in my case it was a job where people threw money at me."

Mars lavished attention on the gifts he offered to backers, from a $15 notebook to a $10,000 bundle that included underwriter messages on his show and an in-person presentation anywhere in the world. Worldly goods and other tangible incentives, however, are only so important. "Most people are happy to help you on your way. That's probably 99% of it," says Alison Klayman, who used Kickstarter to help finance Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, her award-winning documentary about the Chinese dissident.

In one way or another, many Kickstarter hits feel as if they serve a higher purpose. "The trick--and this is the trick to a lot of marketing--is that you don't want to sell people a product," says Jake Bronstein, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur who set out to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter and wound up with nearly 10 times that amount. "You want to sell them a dream."

Bronstein's dream involved underwear--premium men's underwear made in a 100-year-old Pennsylvania factory using California cotton and Florida elastic. He aimed to make pledging as little as $5 a stirring patriotic statement in an era in which nearly all undergarments are manufactured in far-off countries.

Anyone who pledged at least $15, which Bronstein says was his break-even price, was entitled to receive underwear. Once he found that he'd sold more than 18,000 items this way, "it meant a seismic shift in my thinking," he says. "When I put the video up, I planned on managing this myself. It took me five weeks to realize I was in over my head."

Bronstein, who had told backers to expect their underwear in June, was forced to pause his project while he hired folks with experience in the apparel industry. As of press time, he was planning to ship the first packages by the end of September.

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