Thu 28 Jun
Folks, today I’m kicking off a series of occasional interviews with designers-turned-entrepreneurs. The first installment features Charles Adler, who co-founded Kickstarter with Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler. Kickstarter, of course, is the crowdfunding phenomenon that has upended seed economics for new products and projects — the verb “to kickstart” has become practically synonymous with the wildly successful campaigns that the company hosts. To me, one of the many fascinating aspects of Kickstarter is how they’ve leveraged design on many levels to produce increasingly disruptive, real world results.
Charles and I have become friendly over the past year, being both New Yorkers and even neighbors in Brooklyn — we frequently run into one another at Ft. Greene Park when he’s walking his ten-year old mutt Buster and I’m walking my ten-year old mutt Mister President. In this email interview, he talks about the origins of his interests in design and entrepreneurship, and how the two have meshed together in his role at Kickstarter.
I’d like to start with a little background. How did you become a designer?
In some ways it was destined to happen, though it feels much more on accident. In high school I was fascinated with objects and architecture, both the result and the journey by which they came to be. The fact that both were “designed” for something functional — in the case of architecture to shelter us — but also provided so much more.
Fast forward to college, studying engineering, I started designing fliers for house parties, discovered the Web, and by 1995 I was dropping out of school to work as a designer and developer for a studio in Chicago, IL.
And was there an entrepreneurial streak that accompanied that all along, or did that come later when you, Perry and Yancey founded Kickstarter?
I recognize I have this deep-seated restlessness which I believe was instilled at a young age. Having the opportunity to travel around the world as a kid, which exposed me to so many cultures and aesthetics, built this strong curiosity in me.
Leaving school was for much the same reason. A restlessness for my current state and a curiosity for what was available. Mind you this was December 1995, and I’d spent the summer as an intern at a Web design studio in Chicago. So I had a taste for what it was like to design and build something. The immediacy was something that intrigued me.
This tone continued with my attitude toward work. I commonly sought out projects that were more technical in nature, larger in scale, were typically applications, and in many cases took me overseas, constantly working with new teams. This was atypical; most of my peers took the projects they were handed.
The year prior to meeting Perry I’d left the big agency world to start my own studio, with the motivation of keeping the size of the team small (I’ve since closed the studio for obvious reasons).
Kickstarter has certainly been the largest leap of faith, though still within character.
It sounds like even when you were in services you gravitated towards products. Were you looking to leave the design services industry, or do you still miss it?
In reflection I would say that’s accurate. I didn’t necessarily see it that clearly at the time, but those were the assignments I sought out.
Add to that the fact that the really fascinating work was being done natively on the Internet. By which I mean products being built solely as Web-based brands that took advantage of the internet and all its possibilities. Blogger, Meetup, WordPress, Twitter, etc.…
In parallel, I was continually frustrated by the limitations of the client services relationship. Simply put, as a service designer you never truly gained deep insight into the impact of your work, positive or negative. The work was judged by clients, not the people who ultimately used the things we made. This was disappointing. I was ultimately restless and wanted more.
Do you think you’re a better or worse designer for focusing on one project? Or just a different kind of designer?
I wouldn’t say that I’m a better designer or worse designer for making the switch. I would say that I am, in some ways, a different designer.
It’s important to understand that, as a co-founder, my involvement spans such a broad range of responsibilities, which constantly shift over time. The early concept, design and build phases, obviously. But also business planning, strategy, operations, human resources, recruiting, and so on.
I’ve always seen myself as a functionalist in terms of my work, and Kickstarter embodies that ethos in many ways. So there’s certainly a consistency there, but the evolution from when I met Perry and Yancey to where I am now has definitely affected my perspective, both personally and professionally. No doubt.
Ultimately I think I’m better for it. Whether I’m a better designer or not, I’m not quite sure how to answer that.
Has it been helpful to tackle those company building challenges — business planning, strategy, operations, human resources, recruiting — through a designer’s perspective? Or did it require a major adjustment?
For one, I have a hard time explicitly defining myself as a designer. I’ve long accepted myself as a generalist. I’ve done front-end development, interface and visual design, spent a great deal of time as an information architect and strategist, and went to school for mechanical engineering (I eventually dropped out). If anything, engineering school taught me the value of problem solving, which I parlay into my design work as well as all those decisions related to everything else necessary to build a business.
I would also offer that my desire to be, and ability as, a generalist has likely made me a better designer than the other way around.
You told me you had to put a lot of thought into that answer. Can you explain why?
This one took a lot out of me. A lot of introspection. It took me a long time because there’s been so much focus in the last few years on “the value of design,” and as much as I welcome this attention I’m also significantly concerned, disturbed and perplexed by this. So many designers I’ve worked with in my years out in the world (on products or at agencies) would not be interested in solving the business issues that arise when starting a company, or know where to turn. For example, recruiting a team in those early days of vaporware is a drastically different task than, say, three years after launching.
In many ways, I feel like this is an extremely dangerous question, because it puts design on too high a pedestal. Design is one component to the value of a product and the resulting user experience. Engineering, business strategy, operations… these are all crafts that factor into the end user experience.
There’s a pertinent quote by designer David Carson I happened across while responding to this thread and I thought it appropriate to include it here:
“Graphic design will save the world right after rock and roll does.”
— David Carson
It tidily sums up my perspective.
Would you say that design entrepreneurship is something only suitable for some designers, then? Or, if you have the persistence and patience, is it something that can be learned?
Admittedly I don’t think there’s a right answer to that question. Being an entrepreneur really has to do with an individual’s confidence in their ability to execute on an idea, and to have an idea worth betting your life on. I believe there’s a level of insanity that goes into being an entrepreneur because the cards are stacked against you in the most profound ways. There’s never enough time or money, the majority of those around you tell you that what you’re working on is illogical, and you never know enough at any given moment. At least in the early days, before a product gains traction or revenue. It’s a leap of extreme faith.
Persistence and patience are both incredibly valuable traits as an entrepreneur, but it’s not the only thing. Tenacity, ingenuity, a level head, and an ability to see clearly through a storm. But empathy is an often lost component and quite possibly the most critical. One’s ability to recognize how others are impacted and react. This plays critically into both team building and product design.
Designers can certainly carry these traits. And if they have a keen sense of direction, and a sensibility to transfer their process for decision making for design and apply that to everyday business challenges, that’s certainly viable.