Yancey Strickler stands in a darkened theatre on Toronto’s College Street, his frame illuminated by a big-screen projector behind him.
Energetically cracking a few self-deprecating jokes with the crowd filling the theatre, Strickler sounds modest when he starts talking about Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform he co-founded four years ago.
“Our first successful project was called ‘Drawing for Dollars,’ and it raised $35 of [its goal of] $20,” Strickler says. “We couldn’t have been more excited – we couldn’t believe it was working!”
Strickler stopped in Toronto as part of a tour of a few of Canada’s major cities. On Sunday, Strickler visited the city to give a workshop on Kickstarter, and the next day, the crowdfunding platform opened its doors to Canadians keen on firing up their own campaigns. In the past, starting projects was limited to the U.S. and more recently, to the U.K.
Many workshop attendees were very familiar with the Kickstarter brand. But what was less clear to them is what types of endeavours will be accepted on the platform, and what types won’t. On Sunday, Strickler fielded a question or two about whether software-as-a-service had any place on Kickstarter. The answer? Usually, it’s a no.
With tech startups increasingly turning to the crowdfunding space as a way to raise cash, you might think they’d be taking over the Kickstarter platform. But they’re not. In fact, the projects with the lowest approval rates on Kickstarter are categorized under tech, followed by design and food. While projects like Pebble’s smart watch attracted a lot of press for raising more than $10 million on Kickstarter, that is the exception, not the norm.
So the question is – what kinds of projects usually make the cut on Kickstarter?
Creative ones, says Sumit Mehta, founder of Toronto-based Speakgeo, a location-based service that provides user-generated comments, reviews, and online petitions of specific places.
While he’s not officially launching his campaign until Sept. 17, with a goal of $25,000, he said he began planning his project in as early as April.
“The challenge that I faced … was to find out, what are people doing to articulate and illustrate their software-based idea [on Kickstarter]? What they were doing is basically showing the product itself, like the Web site, or the solution they built,” says Mehta, who also works full-time at an insurance company. So far, he’s put $40,000 to $50,000 of his money into his startup.
For him, convincing Kickstarter’s approval team that his project was a good fit for the platform, despite being centred around software, was a huge confidence-booster.
“Hearing that made me very excited. I thought OK, so if that’s how they approach their approval process, and they still approve me, that means holy, I’m creative,” he says.
While promoting creativity is one of Kickstarter’s mantras, what’s also important is showcasing a “discrete project,” says Greg Goralski, creator of the Appseed project in Toronto. By discrete, he means it must have a beginning, middle, and end – largely barring companies with subscription models from the Kickstarter platform.
Goralski launched his campaign on Sept. 9, Kickstarter’s Canadian launch date. His project, Appseed, is a mobile app that turns sketches into functioning prototypes. It captures a design on paper, and then transforms into a demo that will run on a mobile device. Its goal is $30,000.
While Goralski considered hosting his project on Indiegogo, he opted for Kickstarter because he feels it is more established, has raised more money, and reaches more backers.
“I looked closely at what kind of campaigns they take,” he says, adding he also spoke with creators of past successful projects. “The concern Kickstarter has is around starting projects, not ongoing companies.”
Goralski may have a point. With Kickstarter, there are grey areas. While it doesn’t wholeheartedly support tech startups and companies, if its approval team sees a project that has creative merit, it may give it the green light.
For example, while Kickstarter doesn’t approve every project that involves app-building, it may approve an app that helps people draw or do designs, like Appseed. But if the app involves finding a dentist in users’ locations, that’s not particularly artistic or creative and probably won’t be granted a spot on the platform.
Every project must also fit into one of 13 categories, such as art, comics, dance, games, music, photography, or theatre. For example, Appseed is filed under ‘design,’ while Speakgeo is categorized as ‘tech.’
There are also rules around hardware and product design. Kickstarter says projects have to be clear about their state of development, and can’t be shown as preorders. Projects also need to show details like photos, videos, and sketches of their progress, and there must be a prototype attached. And upon shipping, projects have to come as one perk per pledge – otherwise, with multiple rewards, backers might get the idea there are lots of products, assembly-line style.
It also doesn’t appear as though Kickstarter is interested in equity-based crowdfunding, even though the JOBS Act in the U.S. has made it legal. According to Kickstarter, that’s because it wants to promote creative work, and is not about giving backers a return on investment for their pledges.
Traditional models of funding the arts or other creative endeavours, Kickstarter argues, are centred around eventually generating revenue. That means they need to have mass appeal. So to counteract that, Kickstarter says it wants to ensure its platform will allow creators to reach out directly to backers to fund more imaginative ideas, ones that aren’t pegged to making money.
For would-be project creators, the best way to check to see if a project fits Kickstarter is by just applying and going through the build process. The team can then work with individual creators to tweak projects until they meet all of its guidelines and requirements. Kickstarter says it does not curate any projects based on taste, even if the approval team does feel one project is more artistic than another. However, it does have a “staff picks” newsletter, where employees highlight their favourite projects.
And of course, campaigners looking to dive into crowdfunding can always try other platforms, if Kickstarter doesn’t pan out. Indiegogo is one of the biggest crowdfunding platforms out there, often presented as Kickstarter’s staunchest rival. Within Canada, Fundrazr is the largest platform, and is based out of B.C.
There is also a whole host of Canadian crowdfunding platforms in a database on the Web site of the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada, some geared towards generic campaigns and some targeted specifically towards the arts, technology, or even municipal projects.
Ultimately, project creators need to prepare themselves before they launch a campaign on any crowdfunding platform, Mehta says. He adds he first conceived the idea of Speakgeo over two years ago, and when he heard Kickstarter was coming to Canada, he started working on his plan right away.
“Honestly, I want to do it right,” he says. “I wanted people to believe in my idea … and by approving my project, Kickstarter could make it really valid.”