“I’m just so optimistic about the future in technology being in service of society.”

He turned a radical idea into $5 billion. This is what he learned along the way

Charles Adler has made a career out of believing in the power and generosity of people to solve big problems. The co-founder of Kickstarter is coming to the Future of the Future conference next month and explains why he doesn’t think we have to worry about what is around the corner.

Charles Adler is an optimist. He has to be. After all, you wouldn’t help start a company that relies entirely on the big-heartedness of humanity without having a little faith in people.

A decade ago, he was looking around at his gifted friends who were struggling to turn their talent into something they could pursue full time. They were still serving coffees while making music or creating art or design projects.

“Our frustration was – ‘gosh there are so many incredibly talented people, but failing at what they are meant to do’,” Adler says from Chicago.  “They couldn’t get over the hill in front of them.”

He likes to compare this struggle to that of Sisyphus who was condemned to push a large rock up a steep hill only to have it roll back every time he neared the top. He wanted to help people get that rock a little further up the hill.

And so, in 2009, Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler created Kickstarter. It wasn’t a new idea. As Adler says, people have been contributing to “collective action” for a long time. But that movement was organic and undocumented. The Kickstarter concept was to make the movement structured, open and available to the online masses.

“There were huge moments of doubt whether or not it would work. But there were also moments of delusion, where you think you are going to change the world.”

At its base, the trio just wanted to create a company that would help fund the smart, talented, creative people they saw struggling to get their ideas off the ground.

“We thought this was a completely new way of funding creative projects, but we were truly doing it for the creative community around us. We believed there were other people that would benefit from that.”

Fast forward, and the platform has now funded US$4.5 billion worth of projects ranging from smartwatches and next-generation backpacks to 3D printers and virtual reality headsets. The largest campaign raised $20 million. Kickstarter has also been front and centre of a resurgence of board games where creators have, in some cases, raised millions to fund their vision.

Someone also recently did the maths and discovered that if Kickstarter was a publisher, rather than just a funder, the number of comics it has helped produce would fit somewhere between Marvel and DC.

(L-R) Kickstarter co-founders Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen, and Charles Adler in 2012 (Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

Adler’s optimism, it turns out, was well-founded. He has long moved on from the company, but that attitude still lingers.

“I’m just so optimistic about the future in technology being in service of society,” he says. “But we need people to take a stand around building companies that have a much stronger social construct to them.”

You don’t have to travel far to find pessimism about the role of technology in our lives. In our brave new world of big personal data, social isolation due to our increasingly digital lives, and the rise of artificial intelligence, it is unclear what the future holds. However, Adler says part of the problem is that companies that are operating in these spaces are grappling with a complexity of issues that have never existed before.

“I get the pessimism, and it’s healthy to live in a world where there is some level of tension. The use of those technologies is so dependent on who is making it. You can make something that saves the planet or completely annihilates it. We have seen that before and we are seeing it again.”

That tension is a pendulum, Adler says. It constantly swings back and forth. For example, the larger public’s concerns about a company like Facebook leaking personal data to third parties will eventually be solved by Mark Zuckerberg, or someone else will come in with a better alternative and take its place.

“That is the pendulum swinging back the other way.”

(Photo: Emiliano Cadler)

As a child, Adler wanted to be an architect. He wanted to design buildings. Then he studied engineering. He wanted to make things. Then he became an entrepreneur. He wanted to create things. As a designer and entrepreneur Adler says optimism is inherently built into those two disciplines.

“Innately, you are excited about the future and excited about making stuff,” he says.  “To me, the summation of that trend is the intersection of disciplines. I’ve always been interested in the fringe. Whether it was breakdancing in the early 1980s or the germination of hip hop and electronic dance and punk rock. At the fringe there are no real rules, there are people just making it up and finding connections and inspirations from all over the place and bringing it into a weird fervent, creative mess. It’s only later that we put labels on it. In the midst of creating all that, are people who don’t care what it’s called.”

For Adler, that same feeling permeates business. To start a business is a creative act, he says. But that doesn’t mean sending business school students to an art gallery to look at portraits and expect them to come back with any meaningful insights.

“You need to get people to understand the process and behaviour of thinking openly with constraints. That is an act of artistry. Every entrepreneur is innately creative in some way and I think a lot of that behaviour is synonymous with being an artist; challenging the status quo and wanting to disrupt that. They both come from the same place.”

An artist and entrepreneur are both laughed at until they make it, he says. Their ideas are mocked until they come to pass and are amalgamated into contemporary culture and society.

“In both scenarios, they are up against that Sisyphean battle,” he says.

Adler says that link between design and business is never more apparent when you start to consider some of the biggest tech companies of the last decade. The founder of Pinterest, Evan Sharp, studied history before studying architecture.

“That not a business degree, that is a creative pursuit.”

Sharp now refers to himself at the helm of that billion-dollar company as “chief design and creative officer”. The founders of Airbnb, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

“They were designers, not technologists, not business school grads. I don’t think that is an accident,” Adler says. “As long as you are scrappy and driven and understand the rudiments of business you have an opportunity to start.”

Several years ago, Adler had the opportunity to turn his thinking once more into something tangible. Lost Arts was a project that brought together 60 creatives from across Chicago into one space. The idea was to watch conversations evolve amid a diverse community.

“We set out to empower more people with access to more space, tools and a community of driven, clever creatives,” he says. “Our thesis has been that this loose equation built around transparency would lead to greater economic stability and greater economic potential for each participant.”

Now he is working on creating that space in the digital realm but is not sure when the next generation project might launch. But it will be soon, he says. Because, after all, he is an optimist.

Charles Adler’s five hopes for the future 

  1. Greater distribution of technology: “Beyond the central nerve of modern technology, silicon valley, access to and the creation of new technologies will be more evenly distributed.”
  2. Greater distribution of capital: “Beyond the usual cohorts of white, male entrepreneurs.”
  3. Greater freedoms for individuals: “As an outcome of the internet connecting people of like-mind and interest separated by geography.”
  4. Cryptocurrency goes mainstream: “The ground is incredibly fertile with no winners. As the internet has been changing society, Cryptocurrencies will have an even greater, unknown, impact.”
  5. Material Science: “The need for new materials that cause less harm (or greater benefit) to the environment is paramount, and a nearly untapped vertical for technologists and entrepreneurs.”

Charles Adler is one of six global thought leaders who will speak at The Future of The Future presented with Spark Lab to be hosted at Auckland’s Aotea Centre on August 15. To learn more, see www.futureofthefuture.co.nz

This content was created in paid partnership with the Future of the Future festival. Learn more about our partnerships here


The Future of the Future is a high-speed, high-impact business briefing series from leaders of some of the world’s most disruptive companies presented with Spark Lab. Get your tickets to the August 15 event here.

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