An exchange with Don Ferris of Anvil bike fixtures on Facebook today has highlighted for me not only the fundamental flaws in the notions of success and/or failure, but also in the mechanisms at our disposal to turn ideas into reality.
“I have to take a crap and need money to buy toilet paper. Which crowdfunding site should I use to capitalize my shit project?” – Anvil Bikeworks
A quick peruse of the various Crowdfunding websites reveals a litany of ideas that clearly people believe are not worth funding, or the source of ridicule, or both. This also, apparently – according to someone on the same Facebook exchange called ‘Pocket Fiend’ – extends to 13 year old kids who just want to go on a trip to their capital to learn history –
The majority of online funding is this crap… What happened to learning, working, & earning things?? So yes, I think a go fund shit removing products from ones ass fits the description of online fundraising
Must be very convenient to not only attack someone you don’t know, whose circumstances you aren’t familiar with, by slandering them on Facebook and not even having the guts to do it on their own gofundme page. But that’s a separate discussion.
The one I’m more interest in is the larger discussion regarding how ideas are formed, expressed, and realised. One of the major paradigms of Design Anthropology is very simply that nothing happens in a bubble, and that design and the success of said design isn’t determined by one factor. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ as some sort of recipe for success has been quashed a million times over, not only by me on this blog but also but the vast majority of companies that never see it past three years. This is statistical fact, not conjecture. The reasons for success or failure are infinite and much better viewed in hindsight – when something works, it’s much easier to attribute it to some catchy phrase “Long nights and hard work were the key to my success!” or some pivotal decision which really could’ve gone either way but you chalk it up to good decision making.
Culture and notions of success
There’s also the cultural aspects of how success and failure are expressed, and how people attribute their political (and spiritual) beliefs as to why some venture was or was not a success. Mark Veno touches on this in well considered responses to the thread:
Mark Veno – “Why not? When a corporation does it it’s called getting investors. Why is that any different when an individual does it? If people want to donate to a cause it doesn’t matter if *you* think it’s legit. People spend their money on all kinds of superfluous crap that I have no use for, I don’t hold it against them if it makes them happy.”
Anvil Bikeworks – “Mark, what are you on about? What do the affluent, poor people, deadbeats, or otherwise have to do with this? It has nothing to do with your politics or mine.”
Mark Veno – “Just sounds like you’re passing judgment on people using crowdfunding, when that may very well be the only resource available to them, or the one that makes the most sense. Bottom line is that if you don’t want to invest/donate you don’t have to. I’ll make sure I don’t send you a link to my gofundme or kickstarter when the time comes. Just seems like there are different standards for people of different backgrounds is all. Most of the time it’s people that are successful looking down on those who aren’t, like being poor has something to do with character. Class differences have nothing to do with individual politics.”
I completely agree with this. Mark is not arguing about ‘class politics’, he’s arguing about the notion that there can be more than one route to the success of a venture or design and that limiting those potential avenues just simply because that’s not the way that you did it is not a valid argument. For me this is a bit of a paradox with the American zeitgeist. You have the Individualist notions of free market capitalism and success being the ultimate litmus test, but paradoxically if you get there using new or unconventional methods or technologies, then you are to be ridiculed.
Of course the other paradox about this very idea is that individualism and self determination is great up to a point – then it becomes fine to bring in outside investors, float your company on the stock exchange to generate working capital, etc. It would be curious to know what Don Ferris thinks about credit cards, or overdrafts or bank loans. At least with crowdfunding, pro-active individuals who believe in your idea are the ones backing you, not just the parasitic banking sector who exist only for profit.
Success and Collaboration
However the heart of the issue is the one I have the biggest issue with, and that is the very notion of collaboration. As a recovering Industrial Designer, going through design school 20+ years ago was a very individualistic experience. Part of being a designer we were told implicitly, was the nurturing of the ego, that somehow your ideas and your level of creativity was greater than everyone elses, and it was up to you to convince the world that your vision for it was better than everyone elses. As impressionable teenagers who looked up to those more senior than us and saw the success of the individualists in the industry (The owner of Decor famously rocking up in his Rolls-Royce before his guest-lecturer gig), we saw this as the way to make our mark on the world.
And then promptly spent the latter part of our careers realising how devoid of any real meaning the whole “Yuppies with Pens” industry was.
I believe modern design is not locked into the status quo or some conservative and naive reductionist idea that there is a set number of ways to do things, and that if you follow them success is sure to come. There are plenty of incredibly average ideas that are a roaring success just as there are a plethora of genius ideas that will never see the light of day. In the modern context we should not be limiting the potential avenues for ideas to come out of the shadows and into reality. I actually think this is a dangerous idea, because as a career design professional that has worked on inumerous projects, ideas, and start-ups, I know exactly how many factors need to come together for something to have even a vague possibility of success. Even then, the spectre of chance and timing come into play, so it’s not even the idea that’s the critical factor – it’s everything else in support of the idea and even those things not under your control that can make or break a project or idea. So many of the ideas my group of friends at University dreamed up back in 1993 are only just being accepted in the market. Things are complex, but limiting the possibilities is not one way to make things less complex – you limit the inputs, you limit the outputs, it’s as simple as that.
One of the big things that I love about Crowdfunding, is that it is very much rooted in the ideas of Lean Entrepreneurship. By that I mean the notion that ideas are there to be tested and that there are inbuilt efficiencies in the whole idea of having an idea, and then testing it’s viability with the minimum of resources, rinse and repeat. For testing viability, Crowdfunding seems to be very much in line with the principles of Lean Entrepreneurship, which I think is a great step forward.
There’s no doubt that just like society as a whole, the mechanism is not perfect. You’re going to have Crowdfunding projects posted that are ridiculous, little more than begging, and ill-conceived, but those projects will still succeed or fail based on their own merits, just as they would ‘in real life’. Crowdfunding is not an ‘easy way out’. I only quickly peruse Crowdfunding websites, but when I’m linked to a project, there’s almost always a heck of a lot of work done to get it to that point. You don’t just make something in your garage, stick it on Kickstarter and instantly you’re swamped with backers.
Many of the projects I’ve witnessed are production ready, so at that stage you have to find some capital. So what’s the difference if it’s money from your day job, the bank, or a group of backers ‘pre-ordering’ a pre-production project? If it’s your money, how do you know your idea is a good one, that it’s a viable business? If it’s not, you’ve just flushed your money down the proverbial. What if it’s a loan and your idea is not viable? Congratulations, you now have a sizable debt. Crowdfunding? You’ve not only connected with your market, but you’ve engaged with people who believe in your idea and are willing to buy it, and this has validated your idea. You’ve also spread the risk and haven’t wasted valuable resources persuing a non-viable idea.
Does this sound like something that’s value added to the world of ideas to you? Worth having to wade through the odd Kickstarter project that’s a bit ridiculous to get to those? I certainly think so. At the end of the day, all Crowdfunders are, are vested customers who believe in your idea or product. Best to know who they are and engage with them sooner rather than later, as far as I’m concerned.