A window into how Kickstarter’s culture encouraged collective action.
Kickstarter is headquartered in a nondescript brick building in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Walking by, if you noticed it at all, you might think it’s a warehouse or an old factory. In fact, it was an old pencil factory before it was stripped down and redesigned, like quite a few buildings in Greenpoint. Every once in a while passersby stop, press their faces to the windows, and look down into the cavernous, hip, playful space lined with plants, laptops, and a handful of rollicking dogs.
Behind the rustic oversized wood doors is a team building one of the most impactful spaces for creative work on the web, a platform that connects artists, inventors, musicians, filmmakers, gamers - creatives of every stripe, to the community and funding needed to make something meaningful. This is the story of how this team built a union. Together we’re going to walk step by step, in the shoes of dozens of organizers, as we recount the collective actions, experiences, and solidarity that forged Kickstarter United.
Kickstarter United chorus.
I’m Clarissa, a former member of the Kickstarter United organizing committee and I’ve asked the people who taught me everything I know about organizing to walk through everything we can remember about the union drive. I… won’t be making intros for every speaker, simply because there are so damn many of us. So here’s a window into who’s contributing. A sample of the people who will voice the next ten episodes of the Kickstarter union’s oral history.
We’ll be hearing from Taylor, a long time former Kickstarter employee…
I was at Kickstarter for six and a half years. - Taylor
RV’s voice is woven in…
I was a trust and safety analyst at Kickstarter. - RV
We’ll chat with Patrick...
I was a Senior Software Engineer at Kickstarter. - Patrick
Then there’s Oriana...
My name is Oriana and I was the senior journalism outreach lead. - Oriana
I was a product manager, a Kickstarter on the Rewards & Fulfillment team. - Karlee
Dannel’s voice is here...
I am senior software engineer. - Dannel
And then there’s Trav of course...
Oh god, I had so many roles at Kickstarter. One of those which was also kind of being organization mascot. As I was told you know, one on one with my manager as we all remember. - Trav
Together our voices make up almost a third of the bargaining unit and every single person speaking throughout this oral history, and even voices you won’t hear, played a critical role in this collective effort.
For this first part of the oral history, we’re spending time getting to know the internal company culture at Kickstarter through the eyes of organizers. We’re diving into the major influences and systemic challenges that would later impact the union drive. The culture of Kickstarter feels unique and employees take pride in making space for counter culture and unfettered expression. For a small weekend gathering of creators and staff, Yancey Strickler, one of the co-founders of Kickstarter, gave an Ignite talk illustrating Kickstarter’s philosophy and the founders’ vision. He voices a perspective shared by staff, a concern for the health of culture as it is increasingly monetized, exploited, and flattened into something we would internally refer to as the monoculture.
And we feel like this is just the natural order of things, this is just what happens, but actually this is a strategy on behalf of money to turn the world into an investment portfolio upon which they can make more money. And when this plays out, you get graphs that are up and to the right for all the wrong reasons. So what do you do, do you opt in and try to be one of the lucky ones who gets rich but you give money away to charity but reinforce the same system, or do you opt out and try to think of another way to exist? I come from the Kurt Cobain corporate rock sucks world where the worst thing you can ever do is sell out. We’ve entered a time when that’s celebrated. You exited for how much? Awesome. Let’s get rid of that. If you love something then you do it for as long as you can and preserve it. You also preserve the ideals that motivated you to start that to begin with. You don’t lose sight of them, you bake them into everything that you do. You also support other people who choose this path, this is a less lucrative path. It is a longer road. So the people who have the courage to do it, you support them. You back their kickstarter. You subscribe to their Patreon, you buy their album on bandcamp. You support the people who choose this direction because when they do these people can be real, they can be honest about what they think. There’s not a moral conflict over speaking their mind. Here at Kickstarter, when a new employee joins, they get our mission and philosophy handbook, written by our founder Perry Chen, and the final page says this, we champion the creation of art and culture, fuck the monoculture.
Connecting creators to a community that believes in the work and the vision strongly enough to fund a project outright is a gorgeous idea and it attracts workers wanting to build more democracy and solidarity on the web. Like many tech companies brought up in the last few decades, Kickstarter participates in a heritage of attracting talented workers with a strong mission-driven brand. This is something we see across the industry. As companies compete for the best and the brightest, they position themselves as a place to pursue personal values and to make an impact.
People really believe strongly in the goal of the mission of Kickstarter, maybe more than any place that I've worked at before. - John
I just remember Thinking that. Oh, such a cool idea where people can just kind of pitch something and then say, hey, like I'm trying to make something and I never really thought of Kickstarter at the scale that it is currently today with like 2,000,010 million dollar projects. I always thought it was going to be like, hey, like I'm trying to put together a tour or I'm trying to like have a cool idea or record an album. And I just need $5,000, you know, because I want some of those amounts of money, even for someone who is as talented as a musician or as talented as a playwright. Are still like inaccessible amounts of money to a lot of people, so I thought it was such a really cool idea. So I was a very active user and I before, before I started, I, I had already backed something like 200 plus projects. - Dannel
Being able to shift my resources and try to marshal my energies and my brain power in my strategic thinking and my goodwill in order to help journalism like help inject a little bit of money into the journalism because system was incredibly inspiring. It did. I I was unsure. When I accepted the job, whether I really wanted to do it but it immediately became, you know, by far the most inspiring and rewarding job I've ever had. - Oriana
They needed a product manager for the rewards and fulfillment team. And so I Was really really excited about being able to take this sort of on the ground experience that I had working with creators and actually bring it to the company and hopefully be able to implement change and create products and features around this like Domain that where I had all this expertise and be able to, you know, implement them on a bigger scale instead of just helping one creator ship a campaign I can actually, you know, Make the tools better make it easier for everyone.
In our old office on Rivington street before we moved into the new sort of tech company office, you know, this is back when it was just a few floors that an old tenement building, I shared a desk with the finance team and the lawyers and the trust and safety, guys. And my job was to answer the front door and break down cardboard boxes and go buy ice at the Chinese fish market next door because we didn't have an ice machine and I bought people ice cream on their birthdays. And I saw that Kickstarter we had people going to talk to games developers in game publishers and writers. We saw people helping out hardware designers. We had people helping out people running their own fashion labels and making like clothes and textiles and stuff, but no one was talking to anyone doing any comedy. I just saw this, you know, this huge world of intelligent and creative prolific hardworking creators that nobody was talking to nobody was helping people in comedy try to fund their own work, or try to help them navigate the nightmare that was the comedy industry at the time. And so I saw that there was a huge need on both sides there. And so for years I debated and begged and convinced. And finally one day they said, Okay, you can do it. This is after I, you know, had already brought in several comedy creators and projects on to the site. Yeah, we're at the front desk until that happened. And then I was on the outreach team for comedy for part time and that eventually became full time, I was the head of comedy and podcasts. - Taylor
Was I not excited about. I started in Order when I was 22 Fresh out of undergrad, you know, graduating with a film degree from a college of communication and moving to New York. You know, I've been kind of doing the the whole classic thing. It's like, yeah, I mean, I think. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Kickstarter was that for someone who had come from what was effectively a soft skills background. It was great to find an organization that was not only, you know, welcoming of that but celebrated that I felt like I Was able to be my fullest self. Egg Kickstarter as, like, a young queer black person who didn't know how to code Kickstarter really showed me kind of the breath of opportunities that are available. If you told me on that day how this narrative is going to end literally almost five years to the day later, I would have said, Get out of here. I love it here. This is You know, I was born to walk into this building. - Trav
I saw a version of my life living and dying at this bank. There have been many people might suffer my boss has had been at the bank for 25 years it was a job. They got right out of college and then they just stayed and, you know, Made a lot of funny are able to have a family kids that are living that sort of very traditional what I had deemed and this is not the judges. This is maybe not the way I wanted to live my life, I think, a very sort of traditional structured white color life. I wanted something different. I wanted something challenging And I wanted something honestly a little ball. I thought to myself, I remember looking at my desk one day I'm looking at you know it's an open floor layout. On 42nd and Sixth Avenue. I can see both rivers from the office view and there were, what do you York just opened in front of me. Sorry, you're going to be subjected to a lot of visual storytelling, so I'm New York open in front of me Bryant Park. It's just at the foot of the building, Beautiful Manhattan opening up in front of me. And I remember looking at my desk that sort of like white matted Cast you know in this row after row of people in shirt ties dresses blouses, you know, always wearing sort of like blue, black Caray, maybe you see a pop of color from a tie or something and I just remember looking at my desk, looking at my bosses that thinking I could die here I could work my entire I could spend my entire career in this building and and have a very full and financially successful life and I don't want that. I don't want, I don't want to. I don't want to get my 25 year plate that says thank you for working at this day for 25 years I want to do that. - AnonB
In many ways, Kickstarter’s culture encourages collaboration and collective action but all of this is built on top of a pretty obvious foundation - the platform itself.
There's a very stick it to the man sort of mentality that just comes from the business model of the company. I mean, we are there to return power to the masses, having taken it away from centralized gatekeepers. I mean, that is fundamental to the work. So even if you're just an engineer who's just like refactoring the latest you know Ruby on Rails code base or whatever. I mean, there's an element of what you were doing that is inherently democratic. - Taylor
At its core, Kickstarter is a place for individuals to challenge the status quo by acting as a collective to create meaningful work. A campaign is a swell of support, it’s a welcome push, and every project takes dozens to thousands of backers to bring something to life. The office mailroom is overflowing with rewards from projects that employees back daily. Many of us have personally backed hundreds of projects, some thousands, and many of us have launched our own campaigns...
🎶Toy’s month trumpets
These are mouth trumpets by the way.
As creators ourselves, many of us felt the need for a home where independent creative work can thrive.
That people ought to have agency of their damn lives we shouldn't just hand everything over that we shouldn't give all the power agency that we deserve for ourselves to these, you know, in Kickstarter terms right VC at or entertainment executives or publishers those people shouldn't be the Lords of the damn land all the damn time. People ought to be able to find like minded folks band together and do something in the world that doesn't require the permission of these middlemen. And these people that have spent their entire lives accumulating power to themselves rather than distributing it to those around them as it should be. That's built into the company. I mean, literally, if you got that idea Kickstarter wouldn't make any money. - Taylor
And the people who work at Kickstarter build a belief in collective action into every aspect of the product. From working with creators to build niche communities to thinking critically about the experience of a backer and how the platform could encourage curiosity and a sense of mutual aid. Staff worked to foster the same philosophy we believed in the backer community that was funding creators.
The thing that they were backing did not exist in the world yet. It was something new, it was a new idea, it was just a spark and they were about to help make that spark become a flame in a way. And that kind of excitement is something I saw a lot. I think across Kickstarter you saw that a lot, where people wanted our uses to understand the platform that we were and not treat us just as a store. Kickstarter is not a store. - Toy
Public Benefit Corporation
The founders of Kickstarter had always vowed to never go public and never sell. They painted a picture of Kickstarter escaping the pressures of the traditional path where investors and shareholders are able to influence the direction of a company. A controlling stake would ensure the platform remained a haven for creative work, determined not to allow this place that we all loved to become a hollowed out funnel for capital and return.
In 2014, two of the co founders, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler get an email from one of the partners from Union Square Ventures, an investor in Kickstarter. He tells them that there was a new legal structure called a Public Benefit Corporation and that it’s perfect for the vision they have for Kickstarter. At first they are hesitant, thinking that this is too radical a suggestion. But then they start to think about what converting to a PBC could mean… for the brand… to the community… to staff… and for founder control.
What was so lovely to witness about the PVC or about, you know, the company transitioning to be a PVC was that it just felt like we were codifying all the existing values that we were working within every day. You know, to be able to say we want to be an organization that gives back. We want to be equitable and ethical, those were things that all of us felt in that building in those early years. But it was so nice to see you know a leadership team who really echo that sentiment and who Put the money where their mouth was effectively and said, Here is us declaring publicly to the world, the kind of company that we want to be in the kind of company. That through our example, we think and hope more companies would want to be so it was really exciting. I mean, not necessarily A huge impact to the day to day work that I was doing but I mean as far as just like you know the ecosystem and the ethos of the organization and the thrill of being there. It felt like A great step by step in a direction that only made this more of the kind of place that we all want it to be. - Trav
The transitioning to a PBC for Kickstarter happened completely off screen, let's say. That was a project for the legal teams and the communications teams and the senior management that that I mean no one else worked on it and it affected almost no one else in any way. I think the transition to PBC for Kickstarter was the result of two desires, one was good press. But also I think that there are some legal structures in that transition that protect Perry and protect the company from manipulation from market forces in some cases and shareholders and board members in the future. You know, it's much harder to do things like sell a company or go public with a PBC and I think a lot of it had to do with that. - Taylor
I kind of went down this internet rabbit hole but I started looking at some of the more like Specifics of these things like and I'd always thought of, I had always thought of. Kind of B Corp was like PVC light, you know, even though they are these sort of independent things. It was like, oh, if you're a PVC that's like More legit or it's like more hardcore like that have like a commitment, like, for whatever reason, this is like you know those sort of and I thought about it, and then kind of digging into some Teddy stuff taking in the bucket. Kind of digging into some more of the kind of nitty gritty of it right. It's like when you're a B Corp. You do have a third party that's like certifying this right they're coming in, they're looking at it. They're telling you. Oh, you're doing this. Well, you're not doing this well here's kind of our community standard For this you know aspect of your workplace or whatever. Right. So it's like, it isn't. It is just sort of a random nonprofit that runs the certification thing, but there is some sort of outside body. Then you're like accountable to To get this score. Yeah, exactly. And then, but with the PVC model. It's even less accountable than like a traditional company like because I'm, I'm very much an anti capitalist. I don't believe in kind of shareholders and stock value and things like this. But like in in the system that we're in right you If you are a company that's like incorporated and has shareholders. You are accountable to them for something, you know, it's like of course its profit. But it's not You know, if there is some site outside body that can like sort of check what you're doing and with the PVC model. There is literally nothing. It's like you write this Charter. And you put it out and you're like, this is what we want to do, but there is no accountability and there's no, like, no way to really say. I guess like I think there. I guess there is maybe a way which is like, I guess if you are a shareholder in a PVC, you can like Sue and say you're not With upholding your PVC charter. So I think that is a thing that can happen, but of course in Kickstarter case, the majority shareholder is the founder And so every other shareholder has just like let's say and power and influence, so he really has no one checking his authority. Not having an outside any sort of outside thing to check management's Actions even a profit motivated. One is what led to some of the chaotic nature of working a Kickstarter. There was just not there was just not that like directionality to like how management behaved, which just made it like a really kind of mentally exhausting place to to be an employee. - Amy
My understanding of the PBC charter is that the people who are holding the company accountable don't change it still before it of directors right ostensibly the shareholders but practically the board of directors. And it's not like that. That's a different group of people you know and and and and and and also I don't know. I mean, I kind of I pretty strongly believe that the way that any capitalist organization. So the capitalist organization, right, it's still, it's still owned by some people and worked by other people. And the people who own it extract that that surplus from from the workers and so it's still going to have the same problem, the organization. Is still going to be unfair to workers and it doesn't really matter to me that like the The people who own it are sort of doing something, I don't know, philanthropic with the surplus. They're extracting… It's still exploitative of the workers. - John
The original hesitation of the founders fades from the narrative and soon it becomes a story of an idealistic founder, Perry, re envisioning Kickstarter as a Public Benefit Corporation as a bold move to reinforce the company’s stated values. It’s viewed internally as a legal framework that preserves the company’s original mission and acts as a beacon for decision making. But it also does something else. Restructuring as a PBC blurs the line between personal and company values. Our founders would regularly describe the PBC as a structure that allows the company to operate more like a person, driven by more than just profit.
Joining Kickstarter, I was really excited by The fact that it was a PBC public benefit corporation right it was In theory, a company that was designed to prioritize it was designed to prioritize things other than money. Right, other than just like returns on investment for people who own the company. The charter is pretty good. It limited executive pay to an extent and said we would do a transparency report every year. And all of that was very good... - Patrick
It felt like a nice bonus like okay they're good people too, great. You know having, having mission be A metric that needed to be tracked and followed up first and profit also being, you know, it's sort of equal partner. How do you value our and its impact on people. In a way that is meaningful and not denoted by dollars and spend some time. - AnonB
Growth and Culture Change
The mission of Kickstarter and the passionate collection of workers building the platform, forged a tight knit group who pushed themselves and each other to come to work every day ready to serve the creator community. A few years in, the size of the company begins to grow and the culture begins to change.
Some of the changes anyone who has worked at a company long enough to see it go from medium sized to slightly larger medium sized, you know, they would find these changes recognizable. You see a lot more specialization among teams. You see communication between teams go down and people start to have less of an idea of what's going on at the company as a whole and more focused, you know, heads down on their own stuff their own team stuff. So the corporate culture kind of fractures. Also like the space had a bit like we we moved into that big fancy office in Greenpoint that was a big move culturally and physically and everything I just... You know, in the old days, people would be forced to have their meetings in public around the kitchen table. So we all, you know, when when Yancy was leading the communications team, which was a really important team to the early culture and voice and success of Kickstarter, extremely important. A lot of - it was sort of a laboratory for the identity of the company. Internally and externally. And they would have their meetings in public. And if you were just walking by to get coffee you could hear these extremely important ideas being discussed and debated and so everyone had a much greater sense of other people in the company and what other teams and people were doing, not just the superficial things but like the you know the like real culture like subconscious things, the way we act on each other and how people are feeling was much more visible and palpable. And then we moved into the new office and everyone starts having meetings and conversations in private rooms behind closed doors. Not because they're intentionally trying to be secretive. That was just literally the physical design of the building, but it had an enormous effect on the culture of the company. We start to, you know, that's where you see like a lot of the fracturing and specialization and sort of silo in pigeonholing of people in teams and also we were growing size wise and we were adding people at an incredible rate. Not as great as like these 300 hires that like a startup will go through when they move into a bigger space. We're hiring a bunch of people very, very quickly, which is very dangerous, hiring a lot of people very quickly is death to whatever culture was there before. Right. Like you, you could have culture after that you can have a great culture, you could be good people doing great group doing good stuff. But it’s just the way humans and human brains work, you're not going to have had the same culture as before. - Taylor
From the beginning, and through the changes, challenges, and growth, Kickstarter was founder led. First Perry Chen led the company as CEO with cofounder Yancey Strickler as Head of Community and Head of Communications for years. Then, in 2014, Perry stepped away from the CEO role so he could focus on his art practice and a high level vision for Kickstarter’s future. This is when Yancey steps into the CEO role and this is right at the time when Kickstarter naturally started to take off. The backer and creator community started to reach a critical mass, larger established creators began to trust this funding path a bit more and test it out, and there was an investment bubble happening in tech that flooded the Design and Tech categories with large projects. VCs and investors poured funding into promising hardware companies making smart watches, microcontrollers, 3D printers, and IoT devices that gave rise to massive hardware startup product launches on Kickstarter. Under Yancey’s leadership, the platform expanded into 16 additional countries and the amount of funding going to creative projects tripled. Yancey communicated to staff that, looking ahead at Kickstarter’s future, the platform would need strong leadership. So he openly set out to build a senior leadership team that could build Kickstarter with the values and direction the founders had envisioned. He started to fill the highest ranks of Kickstarter with notable leaders across tech and vocally brought experience and diversity to the forefront of the hiring objectives.
There was this promise that there was this amazing leader was coming to join the engineering team, and it was Erica Joy. Who is amazing. She actually wrote this online, I’m not just creating this in my mind. She said she actually met Yancey on the west coast and just loved his vision so much that I'm gonna quit my job and I'm gonna come work at Kickstarter. So ya, there was just like so many strong women at the top and Yancey seemed to be a side player and they were navigating the ship. So that was so cool for me to see. It felt like one of the only companies that seemed to live up to the idea that diverse teams make the best teams. And they make the best products if you bring a diverse group in. AnonD
In this time, Kickstarter looked at the influx of blockbuster projects raising millions of dollars on the site and tried to imagine what tools and structures would allow Kickstarter to continue to fund and welcome smaller creators. This is what led to the pursuit of a new funding model that would allow creators to collect weekly or monthly funding through subscriptions. This could make space for artists and creators looking for a sustainable funding source rather than one big campaign to fund a single project. This large project is named Drip and it will end up becoming a central catalyst for the union drive.
Let’s diversify product offerings that we have as a platform. You know, if it's truly our mission to Bring three other projects to life and support creator that you know any point of the creative pipeline than a subscription based funding platform just seemed like a shoo in for us. Something we're all really excited about specifically leadership to be honest upfront was kind of handed to us as this saved your product that was going to differentiate the brand and propel us into the next decade of being, you know, a service based kind of product. So yeah, I mean, we all were very excited about it. It just felt like it was going to open a lot of doors for members of our community, whose work was more serialized or whose work was You know, less based on physical products. - Trav
This is a model that increasingly is taking over almost all entertainment now. So looking back three or four years ago. You can see that building a platform like that to match the Kickstarter event as crowdfunding platform is a pretty big no brainer move that is obviously something that we should be considering and thinking about something that we had been asking for for a long time. A lot of creators I worked with really wanted something like this. We need something like this. Right now the thing that's most like this is Patreon but Patreon is owned by VC right Patreon is owned, they could do public they could have bought, they could collapse. But it is so important that people be able to have a platform like that where they can put out their work and receive compensation for it from their fans. Right. That is such a powerful way to democratize culture. What we wanted to build with something similar, but it would be under the Kickstarter umbrella. So it would be a PVC protected.Right, right. Due to the decisions that the founders may protected from the pressure to sell or the pressure to please something like vampiric the seaboard. Right on. Sand Hill Road like none of that stuff was are concerned. So to take this platform that would be so important for independent culture and to put it on to to build it under our umbrella was a huge opportunity- enormous. - Taylor
Systemic Issues Emerge
As the founders and staff tried to navigate the changing identity of Kickstarter and preserve a strong mission in this new chapter for the company, the size of the company brings with it familiar challenges. As special as Kickstarter was to the community and staff, it still operates in an industry that can be exploitative. Like most companies in the US, Kickstarter was not able to escape the industry and culture it is a part of. Some of us, if you worked there long enough, start to see some of the same challenges we’d experienced at other companies. No matter who was at the top, throughout the company’s history, employees came in the door with fervor and energy, but when we tried to exercise power and agency, what was often revealed was an empty promise.
So I actually went into the job search for the pretty skeptical view about jack. I was particularly it's ethical Tech companies that claimed to let's fix the world. So the world. It's like, yeah, we make bags but we're also seeing everyone. Yeah. And I would be really cynical about that. But then I was totally Totally won over by Kickstarter website or BBC reports the way their interviews or handle like I fully believe that they weren't Other tech companies and that they were really committed to this public benefit corporation thing and that they weren't going to be really different and they really meant it when they said bring your whole self to work. And that honeymoon period lasted a while but not anyone period lasted a month. - Alex
There's something about Kickstarter where Everyone joy and it's like honestly you join, you're like, who's the greatest place in the world, and then Then something happened and then you're like in the sort of like sorts crap you know the tail to Kickstarter and then something cracks. And something else happened when the cracks. Again, then something else happens the cracks again and then something else happens and then it keeps crashing until you're like oh It is like, you know, is a it is a fist. You know, it is still like what the system is made up of people, but it is it still it is not perfect, right. - AnonB
At the big crack, the thing that press it wide open for me was learning that I would say less than my colleagues. And again, it's That thing of setting yourself up for a greater fall Kickstarter had told me that there was no room to negotiate my salary. Is pretty low. Certainly protect certain bring yours, but they had told me there was no room to negotiate it because quote everybody coming into its condition gets paid the same regardless of whether the Google or not. So great. So I've never heard anybody to make that commitment for a lot of nonprofits and really impressed with us and probably benefiting from this. And, of course, that I know that was the case. And So being being confronted with that reality. And then when bring it up with my manager and being told this. Oh yeah, no, that's not a mistake and also we didn't misrepresent better at all. We paid we pay everyone the same for this position, starting with you. We had just lowered it And I found that to be So disingenuous and such a insulting my intelligence as that's really the thing that shattered my mind is shattered the glass, if you will. - Alex
You, you will be paid what you were able to negotiate when you joined the company. And then after that you have no say in how much you get paid at all. And so basically the, the amount that you join at is the track, you'll be on for the rest of your career at that company. I think it’s not uncommon, but also seems… Like on its face to be morally wrong to me. If someone is doing the same amount of work and they're, you know, contributing the same amount to this company that everyone else's. It seems to me that they should be paid the same amount, but that's really hard to it's really hard to make that change when you're acting alone. - Patrick
Yeah, I mean, my best guess at that kind of disorganization an inconsistency around compensation and workload. Is just a lack of documentation and, you know, consistent and clear messages from Leadership. I mean, if you don't kind of specify exactly what the rubric or framework looks like for a person who has been performing at or above a certain level. In addition to taking on responsibilities that aren't their own If there's no kind of rubric or metrics in place that say if X then Y with X being, you know, I'm doing eight jobs and why the fucking raise. We had about that kind of documentation, it's up to the interpretation of the current leaders of middlemen. It's meant to be able to Kind of noodle around on those decisions. I heard so many times we love the work that you're doing. We just kind of need to figure out Is what value it can bring to the organization or we want to see that you can successfully do this role, before we stop compensate compensate you for it which is Backwards. I mean, if I'm already having the work. Why do I have to wait to prove to you that I can do the work before you pay me for doing the work. I mean, it's ludicrous Sydney, something that all of us experience over and over again.... That's crazy. I mean it, you can always just so backwards and every iteration of this that I heard over my years at Kickstarter was basically the same narrative. I mean, there are nuances of course between You know, the way that message was relayed or specifically the timeline. Those Are all different, but the message was the Same which is we do not respect the work that you're doing enough to pay you for it. But we also need it done and recognize that it's a priority and know that we can kind of mind you for all that you have inside of you. Because what's your other option.... - Trav
One thing that surprised me pretty quickly though was that it in a lot of ways, seem to function. Sort of as like any other tech sort of tech startup would operate like Decisions made by the Board and the executives were extremely opaque people in charge seem to be people at the executive and VP level seem to be pretty disconnected from like day to day work. So there are a lot of them who like didn't you know seem to know how the company was running. - Patrick
You join Kickstarter and you think you'll be part of this place that's going to look out for you and one of my coworkers, she said something that proved to be so true. She said that the company is not there to protect you, HR is not there to protect you. HR is there to protect the company. They are essentially a legal team. I had an experience at Kickstarter where I was experiencing some harassment and it was from a mentor. I handled it myself and everything but I just felt really alone the entire time. I ended up telling someone I felt comfortable with on the People team and said, hey I'm just sharing this story because I felt really alone when this was happening and I didn't know what to do. And if I felt like this I can imagine someone else has felt like this at the company who was looking for resources and didn't know where to go. And that, ugh, gosh, I just feel so stupid... because me saying anything is definitely the reason why I left Kickstarter, ultimately. Everything flew out of my control. It's so hard not to blame yourself. It's so complicated because it's one thing to blame yourself for getting into that situation and it's another to blame yourself for creating such a mess out of it. Like I wish I had never said anything. I would find myself in that stupid meeting room with no windows, and I'd be in there with three older guys, who have never experienced being a young female in tech, they've never experienced anything relatable, coming from me. They would, ya, they would just sit there and watch me getting emotional and just sit there stoically and not do anything... like the director of my team, and the head of people, and our general council. All older men. And I felt like our general council had to like study into harassment law over the weekend because he didn't know what he was doing either, and I was like, oh great. And it became a huge deal that really hurt me. And the company hurt me more than that person ever did. I really hate that one of the lessons I learned is that it's probably better to say nothing at all but ya... AnonD
Mission Driven Manipulation
These issues are not unique to Kickstarter. Workers struggle with pay inequity, harassment, and systemic racism in every company. But Kickstarter had something that most companies don’t have. Kickstarter had a mission that acted as a veil and a salve for all of these issues, making it harder for workers to identify when they were being mistreated.
The mission driven aspect was hit so hard. It's like, and that really did feel distinct to me about Kickstarter than any other company is that it felt like In the interview process and in so many processes. It was so massively important to show to everyone around you that you are mission driven and that you're constantly being judged by that metric and that like It was the implication was that because you had commitment to the mission. You weren't just going to go work at Facebook, you weren't going to go work in another tech company. You were there for a reason. And that was a Positive quality and superior quality and it meant that you would change your yardstick and make personal sacrifices towards what you expected from the company was like in a word like emotional manipulation, no matter how sincere. It might have been from management or whatever. I think a sincerity actually doesn't matter because how it turned out, was that that ended up being a mechanism to, you know, like, take away people's rights in the workplace. It happens, inch by inch, inch by inch, you know, like you come in and like i don't i don't want it to sound like I was a coal miner. You know, like I wasn't, I hadn't fucking cushy job. I was paying $106,000 a year, you know, like that in those more than ever been paid. It was more Prestigious of the company and have a position and anything and like I there was so much that I was given, but, you know, they start with that. And then they take an inch away and an inch away and an inch away. - Karlee
Here’s the thing is, if you want to come and work at our company that saving the world then like, yeah, you're gonna make some persons have arrived, like you're gonna knock get paid as much. I'm like a just it's that sort of logic started out so early. - Karlee
Yeah, and I think a lot of companies are sort of like cults and like I think there are a lot of places you can work that Have caught like aspects in so far as your, you know, sort of asked to like believe in this larger goal that you actually have no control over and You're treated as sort of a disposable part of that goal. But yeah, it's, it was definitely something in the engineering department, like you, you were. I mean, in outreach or something like there's no there aren't a lot of comparable positions at other companies for like doing games outreach or you know, like that's very rare. But in engineering. It was like, you're definitely being paid less here than like you would at, you know, any other tech company in New York and they acknowledge that But yeah, the idea was always like, but we have all these other values and like, isn't it important that you work at a place that is, you know, like is money all you care about type. Thing and it's like, well no, of course not. But do you not value salary transparency. I mean, like, presumably, like, it seems fair to me that you know like women and black and brown people not be paid less than, you know, the white males who are working in engineering, but that was often the case. - Patrick
It’s not easy for folks to talk about these issues. In and out of tech, these are somewhat taboo things to bring up. Some of the contributors to this oral history don’t feel safe being identified in any way out of fear of retaliation across the industry.
Because we're like in this capitalist system that is limiting our imaginations like even companies that are PBC or that are nonprofits that say they are you know for bettering the world or for social justice, still have to kind of conform to the The what the capitalist system dictates. And I think it really because the bottom line is always money, it just really limits how people think and how people operate. And because money is always the bottom line it just poisons the water… - AnonA
You know everyone's like drinking the Kool Aid a little bit and everyone wants to believe that we're doing the right thing. So then when individual issues come up of, you know, sexual harassment or, you know, different abuses, it's It's like under played because everyone wants to believe that we're in a good place. No one wants to Kind of come to terms with the fact that certain people are being treated badly. So I think it's just much the the public image makes it so much easier for people to be manipulated like internally. - AnonA
Exploitation is possible across all workplaces that have an imbalance of power. When management has the bulk of the leverage it is easier for systemic issues to go unaddressed because the people who would bring these challenges to management’s attention have limited agency to push for change. Worker power was somewhat elusive at Kickstarter and was unevenly distributed across people, teams, and roles.
Did you feel like you had power in the workplace. I feel like I have power in the workplace. I feel like I felt like I had more power than I ever had had before, partially because of size and i didn't i knew i mean you know Store cogs in the wheel, you know, a cog in the machine. That's okay. I'm okay with that, you know, not here to hate on the machine but The fact that it was smaller and then I can know everybody. And then I could build better and truer relationships with folks. It just felt nice it it you know even, you know, I think like honeymoon period or not even today that I like find out. And I'm like, I can. There are people I can be really cumin with and that was nice. Whereas if the bank. I really divorced. I really divorced myself I was For many years, I lived a life being really two totally different people in here at Kickstarter. Not only was Not only was the was I welcomed with sort of like, Oh, you weren't you weren't you weren't a kickstart and you're all foreigners. Oh, cool. Me too. And the sort of the, the, the inherent understanding of that dynamic was just, it was just accepted. And in fact, it kind of felt like the norm. was so nice. So it, it was powerful. I don't know if it was so powerful in the workplace environment, but it definitely felt personally powerful to Feel like I can be my whole self here like really my old self here and I can talk about weird art stuff and then we can go talk about like The issue that's plaguing the site and that that that's just a seamless conversation. - AnonB
Well, okay, did I feel like I had power in the workplace. I think within a very small set of Dimensions like within my small within my job like engineering. I think I had a fair amount of freedom. But whenever anything around like the conditions of my employment came up. Like, for example, why am I being underpaid compared to these other people who have the same title as I do, and have less experience than I do, or why Why is this entire section of the company being like re you know shuffled off of this one project to another. Why are these massive restructurings happening. Why do. Why does the company seem to be sort of directionless, and why is it difficult for like anyone to give me a straight answer about any of this. In terms of any of those, like a larger questions or like any kind of structural questions about how the company runs at all. I think it was completely opaque. And in some ways. In some ways, you were like resented or thought of as like rocking the boat too much if you asked any of those types of questions. - Patrick
I think that there was a lot of lip service, you know, we want to amplify your voices and, you know, and We hear you but we won't react to what you're saying. You won't react to what we hear, and that does create a kind of a deep sense of powerlessness, even at the best of times. One form of power that I was able to really accrue over the years. At Kickstarter was kind of social capital, being able to show up and prove to my colleagues at the ground level, you know, across teams on my team anyone I was collaborating with That I was a person that you could trust that I was the person that was going to get the work done. You know, the, the kind of social capital, I was able to improve by just showing up for my colleagues. Personally, professionally, both in and outside of that building, you know, and that is the kind of power that That mattered to me if that if that really makes sense. And I think it kind of paid off long term for all of us. - Trav
I'm a goofball with a Southern accent. I'm not from New York. I don't have any fancy degrees. You know, I'm not very ambitious when it comes to money or when it comes to career that's just that's not where I derive a lot of value in my life. And so I am not a good fit for corporate power it be, you know, being given it or acquiring it so it's not like did I have power like official power in the company. Of course not. I think even when I transition to the outreach team I was the lowest person on the totem pole, right, possible. However, I did have cultural power. Just from having stayed just from having been there for a very very long time. I knew a lot of people I knew the history of the company. I knew what had happened before I knew when management was full of shit. I knew who you can trust, mostly, you know. Peers listened to me on matters of the company as a whole. Also, I think that I really approached the mission of Kickstarter as a zealot, and I still believe in the mission of Kickstarter, like we should democratize culture. We cannot allow culture to be Owned and operated fully by capital it we have to have democratized culture period, I believe that, then I believe that now. And that made me, you know, a very energetic disciple while I was there. I constantly would have managers, tell me, you know, well, we love your passion but we're not gonna listen to any of your ideas but we love your passion. Passionate like that. It makes you powerless for with managers, but the people who actually care about things get to listen to what you had to say. - Taylor
Leadership Change Foreshadowing
By the end of 2016, all of the systemic and structural challenges, like at most companies, were bubbling just under the surface… just below a layer of hope and optimism staff felt from notable leadership hires and platform expansion projects. As CEO, Yancey had spent the end of 2016 and first few months of 2017, encouraging a swell of pride and participation in the direction of the company. But through all of the positive platform growth and strategic experimentation, a change was on the horizon. Seemingly overnight, the original CEO and leading co-founder of Kickstarter, Perry Chen, would reclaim his role as head of the company and Yancey would be out.
He came back, he pushed out all that leadership, he pushed out all those people. Right, and then he began to sabotage every big project we were working on. Now it took a while for most people to see it, right, those of us that had been there for a long time, it was pretty clear from the get go, that things were getting bad and we're soon to get much worse. - Taylor
Next week, we’ll walk through the specific events and experiences that led to the first whispers of a union at Kickstarter and how the return of the company’s original visionary, poured gas on the flame.
There’s obviously been some turbulence. And some of you might get off the ride. I hope many of you will find that this is what you hoped you signed up for in the first place. The only reason I’m back here and not at my studio… although I admit I haven’t been at my studio… is because this place matters. You know, I’m not back here because I founded it. But in times like these, and what I means is by what’s happening in the country and in the world. I’m reminded and I’m sure we’re all reminded that progress does not happen just through inertia. I am here because Kickstarter needs to live up to the vast opportunity that is still in front of us. And so we’re gonna do that. Thank you. - Perry