Exclusive: How Veronica Mars And Perry Chen Are Wresting Kickstarter From Gadget Geeks

Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler say projects by filmmakers, artists, and musicians can be bigger than any smart watch or iPhone dock on Kickstarter. Now a teen detective from the mid-2000s is proving it.

Yesterday, the creative team behind the critically beloved mid-aughts television drama Veronica Mars took to the New York crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to turn the show into a feature-length movie. "This is our shot," the show’s creator Rob Thomas wrote in his Kickstarter pitch, posting a video that featured actress Kristen Bell, along with several other cast members. "I suppose we could fail in spectacular fashion, but there's also the chance that we completely revolutionize how projects like ours can get made."

Within six hours, Thomas had raised $1 million—the fastest any Kickstarter project has reached that milestone—and by the end of the day, the Veronica Mars Movie Project had blown away Kickstarter’s funding record for a film. The project is currently closing in on $3 million, suggesting it could easily surpass the site-wide record of $10.3 million, currently held by the Pebble watch.

The Veronica Mars movie is big news in the film industry, but it’s also a watershed moment for Kickstarter, which has tried to cast itself less as a place to market offbeat gadgets like the Pebble and more as a haven for artists in search of small amounts of funding. Last fall, Kickstarter’s founders Charles Adler, Perry Chen, and Yancey Strickler began a controversial crackdown on creators of hardware projects—arguably the site’s most commercially successful cohort—declaring, "Kickstarter is Not a Store."

It looked strange at the time—why would a company make things tougher for some of its best customers? In an exclusive feature on Kickstarter coming in Fast Company’s April 2013 issue (and online March 18), cofounders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler open up for the first time about what they’re really trying to accomplish with the popular crowdfunding platform (a phrase that Chen himself never uses, by the way).

"We were scared," Strickler tells me when I ask him about the company’s standoffish stance towards gadget makers. "We didn’t want the company to be involved in a hype cycle. People were connecting Kickstarter with how startups get made, or comparing us to venture capital. But those are not our communities."

Kickstarter's greatest community concerns emanate from Chen, the company’s CEO, whose roots as a starving artist still inform his point of view about Kickstarter. In the early 2000s, he tried to carve out a career as an electronic musician but found the experience slow going and lonely. He had trouble making friends with fellow musicians, and the hope of a record deal, or even cutting an album, seemed depressingly remote. "I was really separated from the community," he told me. "I struggled." It was this environment—a quest not just for the means to make music, but also a community—in which Chen got his idea for a website to help working artists.

"The angle from which Perry approaches everything," says Strickler, his cofounder and longtime friend, "is backwards and 110 degrees from how anyone else would think about it."

Filmmakers, artists, and musicians have started the majority of the site’s projects, and they are whom the site wants to serve, not gadget creators. Even two days ago, it may have sounded crazy to push away high-profile, big-dollar tech hardware projects. The success of Thomas’s Veronica Mars project shows that art projects may be just as capable of driving millions of dollars to the site as the next cleverly designed iPhone dock.

In January, at the Sundance Film Festival—where roughly 10% of the films had raised some funding on Kickstarter—I asked Strickler why the film category on the site had yet to have a mega project. Would we eventually see a major Hollywood filmmaker take to the site? He smiled. "Definitely," he said. "It’s just a matter of time." That day was Wednesday.

[Photos by Larry Fink]

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