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How Harper Lee inspired Patreon’s CEO to give money to unknown creators

A gift let To Kill a Mockingbird’s author focus on her art. Now Jack Conte wants to do something similar for people with more talent than time.

How Harper Lee inspired Patreon’s CEO to give money to unknown creators
Pulitzer Prize winner and “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee [Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

In 1956, Nelle Harper Lee was an aspiring novelist who paid her bills by working as an airline reservation agent in New York City. That Christmas, her friends Michael and Joy Brown gave her a remarkable gift: enough money to quit her day job and write full time for one year. The subsidy changed her life—and, since it allowed her to dive into the work that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, it eventually changed the lives of the many people who have been inspired by the American classic, which has sold more than 40 million copies to date.

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Fast forward a few decades. When Jack Conte heard the tale of the Browns’ gift to Harper Lee–his friend, Reddit co-founder and chairman Alexis Ohanian told him about it–he found it tremendously inspiring. “It just got my wheels spinning,” says Conte. “Gosh, why doesn’t that happen more?”

That was an intriguing question. And as cofounder and CEO of Patreon—which lets fans pledge money to their favorite creators—Conte was in a place to do something about it.

His response is Super Patron, a 501(c) nonprofit he’s endowing with $1 million of his own Patreon stock. In its inaugural year, it will give $50,000 to a promising talent. The idea, as with Lee’s benefactors, is to allow a gifted someone to stop worrying about making a living for a year and focus on a creative pursuit, from music to web comics to dance. The effort is Conte’s own side project rather than a Patreon initiative, so that it’s neither a Patreon marketing spend nor perceived as such, he says.

Super Patron isn’t designed to reward anyone who’s already used Patreon to turn a passion into a profession, “where we pick somebody who’s killing it and we’d give them 50,000 extra bucks,” says Conte. In fact, being on Patreon isn’t even a requirement. Instead, he explains, the program will seek out “creators who demonstrate consistent, strong creativity; have a unique and clear artistic voice; and are getting low to medium traction, but have high potential.” The recipient will be chosen by a panel consisting of some of Conte’s favorite creators: motivational speaker/YouTuber Molly Burke, comedian/writer/producer Hannibal Buress, writer/cartoonist Danielle Corsetto, comedian/actress Grace Helbig, and podcasters Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle.

Creators can apply for the grant at SuperPatron.org through November 22; their entry can be in the form of video, text, music, comics, or anything else—as long as the judging panel can experience it in three minutes or less.

“This isn’t winning the lottery”

Conte acknowledges that quitting a job in return for a $50,000 grant will require a leap of faith and discipline. “This isn’t winning the lottery and it’s not the silver bullet,” he says. He also points out that even if things go well, giving yourself a year to devote to personal expression won’t ensure that anything magical will happen by the time December 31 rolls around.

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“You don’t hit it in a year or six months,” he says. “It takes tenacity and grit and creators who just love doing what they’re doing and are passionate about it. They just keep doing it. And so three years in, four years in, maybe something happens.” (That was the case for Lee, who didn’t finish To Kill a Mockingbird until almost three years after her friends paid for her first year as a full-time writer.)

Ultimately, Super Patron is a gamble: “I have no idea if we’re gonna get 200 applications or if we’re going to get 10,000 applications,” stresses Conte. But he already has ideas for expanding the program so it can benefit more than one lucky recipient a year. One possibility is allowing other people to donate money to fund additional creators. Another is providing education and data, which could support Super Patron’s overarching goal of helping creative people abandon the rat race for something more fulfilling.

“There’s so much I’ve learned in the last six years of building a business, and a lot of those lessons I’m applying now to Pomplamoose and Scary Pockets, which are my bands,” says Conte. Of course, by starting Patreon while making music on the side, he chose a path different from the one he envisions for his grant recipients. But with Super Patron, he’s putting a chunk of his founder’s bounty to work for the benefit of emerging creators—and it should be fun to see what they do with the freedom it buys.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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