Kickstarter Co-Founder Yancey Strickler on How Well-Defined Corporate Values Can Guide Hiring & Business Evolution
Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler joins the Founder’s Corner podcast to discuss the origin story of this game-changing crowdfunding company, the early mishaps that almost sank the startup, and difficult lessons in leadership. During his conversation with Omidyar Network partner Shripriya Mahesh, Yancey also shares the values the company created, which helps guide the way Kickstarter attracts and hires talent and constructs and operates its business. Read on for a few highlights from our interview and be sure to subscribe to Founder’s Corner for additional interviews with today’s premier founders.
How values shaped Kickstarter’s corporate structure
Today, Kickstarter is a public-benefit corporation (PBC) — a for-profit corporation intended to produce a public benefit and operate in a responsible and sustainable manner — but it didn’t start out that way. In 2014, about five years into Kickstarter’s journey, co-founder Perry Chen sent an email to Yancey that began to lay out what Kickstarter stands for and pave the way for the ultimate decision to shift the company’s corporate designation. Yancey explained, “It was an email called ‘Existential Kickstarter’ that explored what the existentially valid reasons for our continued existence are and what do we need to do to continue to have this be worth everyone’s life going into it.”
Among the ideas shared in this note was idealism, and how it plays into the core role and function of Kickstarter as a company. Yancey continued, “Idealism seemed like an opportunity for us. I don’t think our perspectives of the world are super unique, but they’re probably unique for people in our position. So why don’t we think about how to express that and how to influence through that.” From that lens, the seeds were planted to shift the organization into becoming a public-benefit corporation.
Yancey details the steps the company needed to take from there: “We started looking into it and found we needed to write a charter that says what we’re to be held legally responsible for, what you should expect of Kickstarter and what we expect for future generations of leaders at Kickstarter.”
The five points outlined in the charter define how Kickstarter believes it should behave. One of these points include supporting the creative community not only through the company’s direct services but also how the company would engage in issues affecting artists beyond its realm. The charter also defines how the company would observe a corporate code of conduct, such as not using tax avoidance strategies and not lobbying for any policies that would not be in the best interest of their community. The company also pledges to donate five percent of after-tax profits to arts education and organizations fighting systemic inequality. There’s also a provision allowing employees to take sabbaticals to work on projects and another provision to create a more equitable workforce in the company.
Yancey shares why this structure is so important to global business and more significantly, to society, noting that “the opportunity here is for a public-benefit corporation not to be a granola, hippy kind of structure but to be futuristic. And through the actions of companies like Kickstarter and Patagonia, the hope is that others will continue to find even more innovative ways to use the structure to create an expectation in society that companies are responsible for the public good in some form.”
Attracting talent with the right signals
There are benefits to setting forth these values both internally and at a structural business level and also in sending the right signals out into the world about the kind of talent you want to attract. Yancey explained how these values have affected Kickstarter’s hiring practices: “First, it’s a great filtering mechanism for who you might not want to add to your culture. We tell people right off the bat, ‘Hey, here’s how we’re wired. We’re not trying to make as much money as possible. If you’re looking to maximize your earning potential for the next four years, we may not be what you’re looking for.’”
The flip side to this is that these values clearly resonate with the people who share similar guiding principles and values. For those people, Yancey explains, Kickstarter helps “maximize the value of your time in that you know you are contributing something meaningful and valuable and that we’re all in this together — we’re all owners of this company and this vision and that we have an opportunity unlike any other.” He went on to say that Kickstarter has never lost a candidate it really wanted because of the company’s value-driven mindset. As Yancey points out, “I think these values are often what separates us from other organizations.”
It’s that combination of purpose and profit that can draw the best talent and more importantly, the right talent to your organization, especially if, like Kickstarter, you have a clear-cut vision for who you are and the impact you want to have on the world.
Lessons in Leadership
Yancey discusses the difficult leadership lessons he learned on the job, which were compounded by the fact that Kickstarter was building a brand new kind of business that was creating and leading the crowdfunding market. Yancey bluntly confesses to some unsteady early days at the company: “I had some leadership experience because I’d worked at other jobs before, but certainly for Perry, this was his first time ever working in an organization. He’s an artist and just very unfamiliar with the process. So the challenge was understanding what it means to lead and just how dramatically the context of leadership changes based on where you are and what people need or don’t need anymore.”
Looking back on some of his biggest challenges leading the company, Yancey talks about the difficulty of being a market leader and choosing where to invest energy based on the community you want to best serve and the values of the organization. He explains, “We invented a space. Other people had tried crowdfunding before, but no platform had ever come up with any sort of structure for it. Crowdfunding as you know it today was invented on April 28, 2009, when Kickstarter launched. There were other services before, but they just did not look or behave the same way. And we knew from the start that our focus was going to be on creative projects; it wasn’t going to be everything.”
Actively not pursuing every angle of crowdfunding felt right to Yancey and the team, but that didn’t make it easier. He said they considered and continue to consider these questions daily, but ultimately “understanding how the product should evolve” is the main consideration. Of course, it’s not easy to do, and Yancey notes that he “wished that Kickstarter had figured it out a couple of years earlier than it did. Although the company is experiencing very positive results now, there were a couple of years of us trying to search for what it is that Kickstarter needs to be.”
Kickstarter’s rise to not only create the crowdfunding market but also continually lead the pack is a unique experience for a company and for a founder like Yancey. The values that drove Kickstarter to becoming a public-benefit corporation continue to be a North Star for its corporate, product, and user interests to this day. And building an energized team, drawn to a mission that remains focused on executing against these principles is critical to the organization’s success and culture.
For more of our conversation with Yancey, listen to the latest episode of our Founder’s Corner podcast. You can follow Yancey on Twitter at @ystrickler and visit Kickstarter.com to back the next great creative project, gadget, or world-changing company.
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