Elana Jacobs on How Kickstarter Empowers Crowdfunding

Elana Jacobs on How Kickstarter Empowers Crowdfunding

Interview by Maja SkokleskaMaja Skokleska
Published: June 14, 2023

Who Is Elana Jacobs

Elana is an experienced product and design leader with a history of building teams for impact at fast-growing startups and high-performance non-profits. She is currently the VP of Product & Design at Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform that helps bring creative projects to life. Previously, she was the VP of Product & Design at Crisis Text Line where she drove innovation in the use of digital products to support mental health crises. Earlier in her career she held roles in strategy and operations across ed tech and global public health. 

You’ve come up with a fantastic idea and put together a business plan. However, you are struggling to find the capital to turn your idea into reality. Your savings are just not enough and bank loans are not even an option.

If this happened 10 years ago, many individuals or startup entrepreneurs would have been forced to abandon their dream businesses. The good news is, there is now an innovative way that can help hit your goal successfully.

Enter crowdfunding, the practice of raising money from a large number of people with the help of crowdfunding companies such as Kickstarter.

In this interview, we speak to Elana Jacobs, VP of Product & Design at Kickstarter. She shares insights into the company’s funding approach and provides advice on how creatives can launch a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Kickstarter logo

Spotlight: Research suggests that 36% of US consumers are unfamiliar with "crowdfunding". Can you please give a little background on what it means?  

Elana Jacobs: Crowdfunding – as the name suggests – is about tapping into a crowd (or community) of people to raise funds for a project, a cause, or a venture.

At its heart, crowdfunding is an acknowledgment that so many people cannot access traditional methods of raising funds, like bank loans or venture capital investments. Online platforms like Kickstarter help as an alternative method to help people achieve their goals.

Kickstarter is specifically focused on helping the creative community – from musicians and authors to filmmakers and comics creators – raise funds for their creative projects. We were the first platform focused on giving the broader creative community access to crowdfunding.

How has crowdfunding impacted the creative industry? In what ways has it enabled new forms of creative expression and innovation?  

We were the first platform focused on giving the broader creative community – creators across a range of industries – access to crowdfunding.

Since our start in 2009, more than 22 million people have pledged more than $7.3 billion to Kickstarter projects. More than 230,000 projects have been successfully funded through our platform.

These numbers are a testament to the way in which we’ve helped to lower the barrier for entry for creators who may not have the network or resources to bring their projects to life.

Because Kickstarter exists, Issa Rae was able to get funding for her Awkward Black Girl web-series, which ultimately was adapted into her HBO hit Insecure. Peloton was able to raise funds for the Peloton bike.

Six years before Phoebe Bridges won three Emmys for Fleabag, she and her theater company were able to get funding in order to present “Fleabag” as a one-woman stage show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

When you help people create things, innovation happens, culture shifts, jobs are created and both the creative community and the broader society are better for it.

Kickstarter is a popular platform for crowdfunding creative projects. Can you tell us more about how the company's funding approach works?  

When you crowdfund on Kickstarter, you get access to our beautiful and supportive community of backers to get the funds you need to bring your project to life.

Key to that experience is that creators always control how the work comes together and maintain 100% of their creative independence.

And when you back on a project on Kickstarter, you become part of the creation of these independent works. This is all part of what we think makes crowdfunding on Kickstarter special.

We also allow creators to offer rewards to their backers. The reward can be the actual finished project itself, a limited edition item, or a custom experience related to the project.

We have an all-or-nothing model for funding, which means that creators must meet their funding goal by the deadline in order to receive any of the funds that have been pledged by backers. No backers are charged for a pledge towards a project unless it reaches its funding goal.

Please tell us a bit more about the different categories of projects typically funded on Kickstarter.   

We have 15 creative categories on Kickstarter under which our projects fall. They are Art, Comics, Crafts, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film & Video, Food, Games, Journalism, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater.

How does the team ensure projects on Kickstarter are of good quality? Do you have any approval process or guidelines creators should follow?   

We review projects before they launch to make sure that they’re suitable for the Kickstarter community. We check to make sure that each project falls into one of our 15 creative categories and meets standards and rules to ensure that Kickstarter remains a community that’s all about supporting creative ideas. 

Kickstarter website
[Source: Kickstarter]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company experienced a drop in revenue resulting in laying off nearly 40% of its workforce. What went wrong and how difficult was it to overcome this challenge and recover?  

In 2020, the pandemic had an unprecedented impact on the world and we, like all other businesses, had to grapple with how the pandemic impacted spending behaviors and consequently, how it impacted our revenue.

We have really bounced back. 2021 marked the highest funding success rate in our history, with 54% of projects reaching their funding goal. In 2022, one of our projects set a new record when Brandon Sanderson came to Kickstarter to raise $1 million to fund his four latest books and closed his campaign having raised more than $41 million. It became our highest-funded Kickstarter ever and was a real testament to how – no matter the industry – Kickstarter can really help you collect funds.  

Given the challenge you faced, has your product strategy changed anyhow? Did you rethink some of your business growth plans?  

One thing that we saw globally and across industries during the pandemic was this rise in people being more vocal in how they engage with brands and holding businesses to account for what values they stand for and what progress they want to see.

During that time, we leaned into our community even more and really listened to their wants and needs both in terms of making improvements to the core crowdfunding experience and in how we support their other ongoing business needs. We have a responsibility to innovate and push the market forward and the feedback we’ve gotten, especially during that time, has certainly inspired how we’re building the product today.

Kickstarter has been in the crowdfunding industry for over 14 years and has funded over 236,000 projects. What do you think has been the secret to the platform's success and how do you plan to continue driving in more creators?  

One of the things that makes us special is that we have a very engaged community of creators and backers. Our teams have continuous dialogue with this engaged community so that we can understand their needs and build a platform that serves them.

I think it’s also worth noting that so many people who work at Kickstarter are creators themselves. Kickstarters are not just engineers and partner managers and marketing people, so many of us are musicians, artists, writers. We have so many people behind the scenes building our product and driving our business who understand intimately what it means to create something because they are creators themselves.

As we look ahead at how to continue building our business, we’re really interested in expanding on the ways we support creators in bringing their creative projects to life. We’ve launched two new services that support this focus: digital marketing services and pledge management services.

Our digital marketing services, which are available through our partnership with Jellop, help creators promote their projects to backers via digital ad campaigns. Our responsibility is to help creators be as successful as possible in reaching their funding goals and digital marketing gives us and our creators another lever to pull to get projects in front of backers outside of the Kickstarter platform during the critical project funding period.

We’ve also recently launched pledge management services with PledgeManager. This is for the post-campaign period after a project has been successfully funded. It helps creators efficiently communicate with backers, offer pledge upgrades and add-ons, and manage shipping and fulfillment all in one place.

As we find new ways to support creators during their funding period and after it, we hope to be a bigger part of their creative journey and ultimately become a home for more and more creators to bring their projects to life.

Finally, what advice would you give to creatives looking to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter? From your experience, what factors contribute to a campaign's success, such as funding goals and project quality?  

Have an idea that people can really connect with on a personal level. Be realistic in your goal setting and communicate with your backers consistently and openly. Kickstarter is not just about selling a product. In fact, it is explicitly not that. It is about bringing more creativity to the world with the support of an engaged community.

Thank you for your time, Elana Jacobs. Best of luck to you and Kickstarter!

Keep up with Kickstarter on Instagram and read about other successful businesses here.

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