Once upon a time, products came largely from the top: from corner offices at Proctor and Gamble, GE, Black and Decker.
These are the products you want, executives told consumers. These are the vacuums, the razors, the blenders that you’ve been waiting for.
In 1909, Henry Ford said of his newly-created Model T: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” And though options—for Fords and just about everything else—multiplied in succeeding decades, those options almost always bore the CEO’s stamp of approval.
Now, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding tools have disrupted that corporation-to-consumer pipeline.
When designer Scott Wilson went to Apple a few years ago and told the $400 billion tech giant that he wanted to create a watch built around the iPod Nano, Apple brushed him off. And if the year had been 1995, rather than 2010, it might have been game over for Wilson. Instead, he decided put his creation – the TikTok – on Kickstarter, with a goal of raising $15,000 and manufacturing the watch himself.
What happened next probably floored executives at Apple. The TikTok quickly became so popular on Kickstarter that Wilson’s $15,000 request was met and surpassed. And in just a month, ordinary people gave Wilson $942,578 to manufacture the watch. (In fact, Apple now plans to launch its own line of watches.)
But Wilson is not alone. I’ve interviewed several creators of successful Kickstarter projects, such as the Gotham bicycle light, the Twine sensor, and The Icarus Deception (a book by bestselling author Seth Godin).
Each of those projects – like the TikTok – far surpassed its original goal (the bike light aimed for $18,000 and got $84,728; Twine tried for $35,000 and got $556,541, and The Icarus Deception needed $40,000 and got $287,342).
And each project earned something besides money, something that may prove even more important: a community. Now, thousands of people are invested in the success of Gotham’s bike light, the Twine sensor, and The Icarus Deception. After all, these community members got in on the ground floor – and discovered products that had not yet gone mainstream.
Many community members also ordered a Twine, a bike light, or a book, ensuring that the creators of these products would have legions of consumers to answer to.
Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School, has said that crowdfunding platforms essentially democratize the old patronage system. “My perspective is that these are the modern-day Medicis,” Lakhani explains. “So the Medici family in the Renaissance supported Michelangelo and da Vinci to do all this great art... I think many people are motivated by supporting creative acts.”
And, like the Medicis, the patrons of Kickstarter want frequent updates, high quality, and clear accountability. Ultimately, then, they serve as a long-term focus group, to the delight of inventors I’ve interviewed. Patrons offer feedback and encouragement, and, sometimes, the kind of clear-eyed skepticism you lack when you’ve created something and fallen in love with it.
Granted, Kickstarter and similar tools are not venture capital firms, nor are they the sort of incubators that have become increasingly common in tech-heavy cities and universities. They do not pretend to do much more than – as Kickstarter’s name indicates – kickstart your invention.
But, as it turns out, crowdfunding resources offer creators an essential community dimension. And cultivating and expanding that community may ultimately lead to great success or spectacular failure.
Kara Miller is the host of Innovation Hub on WGBH-FM. Weigh in on The Exchange: Let us know whether you think of crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter can offer startups long-term sustainabilityat firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at@HiveBoston. Read the rest of the debate here.