The Kickstarter revolution: fuelling the quest for creative freedom

Escape from the corporate world is just a click away in the crowdfunding era. Nicola Kemp asks whether the industry is facing up to a creative exodus.

Chances are that you, or someone you know, owns a pair of jeans designed by Beau Lawrence. As a director of product development at Guess, Lawrence was at the heart of LA’s vibrant denim industry. Yet, when he was inspired to create a new brand and its first sweatshirt product, he turned to Kickstarter, rather than his boss or a rival brand, to bring the product to market.

It was a bold move; despite the considerable hype surrounding the Kickstarter platform, just 1% of fashion projects listed there achieve their funding targets. Ace Rivington, Lawrence’s brand, reached its initial $30,000 goal in just 24 days. He was confident that taking his dream to Kickstarter was worth the risk.

"I left the corporate world to make a change in my life, and to follow my dreams of doing it for myself," explains Lawrence. "The creative freedom of having my own brand is awesome, but being focused is the most important element."

Bringing dreams to life

There is no doubt that many designers and marketers harbour dreams of creative freedom, and the growth of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter is fuelling this fire. Just like the seemingly endless line of ad agency chief executives who believe they have a book in them, does every designer have a brand in them? "I think everyone, not just designers, has pieces to the puzzle. It might be an idea, accounting skills, sewing or marketing – the real trick behind a brand is building the team that can support the vision," says Lawrence.

He is just one of an emerging breed of talented entrepreneurs empowered by the web, driving a creative revolution that has dramatic implications for the marketing and creative industries. The economic climate may still be turbulent, but entrepreneurialism is in full swing and goes beyond any single crowdfunding platform.

One in seven workers in the UK is now self-employed. The Royal Bank of Scotland estimates that there are 4.2m self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.8m at the end of 2007. They account for 14.3% of those in employment, up from 13.1% at the end of 2007. This is the highest rate and number on record. Delving further, the information and communication sector comprises 15% of the self-employment market, a rise of 26% since 2007, according to ONS and RBS data.

This trend is likely to be supercharged by Generation Z, whose members do not aspire to the traditional trappings of success, such as a company car or a job title including the words "vice-president". Instead, building a business or brand yourself has become the ultimate status symbol.

Why give your best concepts to someone else when you can make a mint without losing ownership?

Alasdair Lennox, creative director, EMEA, at design consultancy Fitch, contends that brands should embrace this so-called "slash/slash generation". "This is a group of people who define themselves not by a single occupation, but by the diversity of their passions, networks and experiences," he says. "They can have a number of different pursuits in parallel, be it personal, creative and entrepreneurial projects, leading to a richer and more innovative working culture."

This new wave of entrepreneurs is busy shaping its own destiny instead of steadfastly climbing the corporate ladder.

This presents a headache to established firms. As Tom Langdon, senior creative at multichannel agency StartJG, says: "Why give your best concepts to someone else to earn money from when you can find out what people think, secure funding, charge on with development and make a mint without having to meet an investor or lose ownership? It’s already fuelling change in the design industry and there’s very little reason to assume it’ll slow down any time soon."

Creative exodus

The recession, which has brought with it often unattainable targets, slashed margins and, for many marketers, dismal working conditions, has helped spearhead this creative renaissance. According to research from the Resolution Foundation, 650,000 people in the UK have branched out with their own business since the start of the downturn. In short, in order to be truly creative, some of the world’s top designers and marketers have had to ditch the security – and politics – of the corporate world.

Catherine Salway is a former group brand director at Virgin, who has successfully launched her own alcohol-free bar brand, Redemption. As she explains: "The recession has made all the big companies batten down the hatches, which means that most marketers I know are forced to concentrate on the science of marketing rather than the art – for example, really tight cost per acquisition; lots of digital marketing; rational, logical campaigns – and that’s even in the so-called creative companies."

So, the world’s biggest organisations face the conundrum that much of the best creative innovation is happening outside their walls. There is no doubt that the creative industries need to do more to attract, retain and better reward top talent to drive greater innovation.

A Kickstarter away from disaster

For established companies the lesson is clear: failure to foster the right talent means their best innovation is in danger of walking out the door. The market is littered with cautionary tales; Facebook famously turned down WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton for a job in 2009, before going on to pay $19bn for his messaging app earlier this year; an expensive mistake, even by Silicon Valley standards.

So how can the world’s best brands avoid making similar errors?

Chris Jefford, founder and strategy director at ad agency Hometown London, believes it is key to create an environment that doesn’t make employees’ own ideas, inventions and passions feel like a dirty little secret to be kept from their employees.

Ambitious projects on Kickstarter follow a similar arc to other start-ups: that means an eventual buyout.

"Creative businesses such as Hometown strive to make the passions of its employees as much a part of the fabric of the agency as the work we do for our clients," he adds. "Knowing that everyone is [potentially] just a Kickstarter project away from striking out on their own should make every business owner even more conscious of embracing ideas from everywhere."

It’s not all bad news for established brands, however; entrepreneurs can burn out, and businesses need experience and financing to achieve scale.

Daniel Harvey, director of experience design at digital and creative design agency SapientNitro, says: "Ambitious projects on Kickstarter follow a similar arc to ambitious start-ups: that means an eventual buyout into the world’s biggest brands and companies. Think Nest and Google, and Oculus Rift and Facebook."

Even Apple, one of the world’s most innovative brands, is looking externally for innovation, having recently acquired Beats, the audio products brand founded by music producer Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop star Dr Dre, in a $3bn deal.

Economic reality

Innovation pipelines such as Kickstarter are exciting, but marketers must be wary of blindly buying in to the "cult of the entrepreneur". When a seemingly endless line of start-ups is itching to sell the family silver for five minutes on Dragons’ Den, it’s important to understand the risks and financial implications of going it alone.

Research published in May by the Resolution Foundation revealed that, while weekly wages for employees have fallen 6% since 2007, typical self-employed pay has tumbled by 20% in the same time. The average self-employed person is now paid 40% less than the average employee.

Mark Fiddes, founder of creative shop Ideas Motel, says: "There’s a kind of machismo today about being an entrepreneur. On Twitter, there seem to be more people dispensing advice about tech start-ups than actually doing anything. The rise in self-employment may have a different cause – a simple function of digital technology’s empowerment of the individual."

I’ve met many who manage to raise funds and get a business off the ground, but get disillusioned when they realise they have to relinquish any dreams they might have had in order to survive in the real world.

Kickstarter is littered with tales of failed projects, false starts, delayed products and destroyed dreams. The practicalities of running your own business and the financial pressures that accompany it should not be underestimated.

Andrew Humphries, co-founder of investment accelerator group The Bakery, warns that the reality of being a technology entrepreneur is hard, with little or no pay, constant rejection and long hours. "Being a successful entrepreneur can be even harder," he adds. "I’ve met many who manage to raise funds and get a business off the ground, but get disillusioned when they realise they have to relinquish any dreams they might have had in order to survive in the real world."

Yet this challenge is failing to deter those who genuinely believe they have a brand in them. "At moments of crisis I’ll catch up with old colleagues and friends who will remind me of the reality of that job," says Salway. "Then, when I take a step back and view what I’ve built, I get a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of realising my potential that I could never get from working on someone else’s brand."

For the truly creative entrepreneur, building something you love is one of life’s greatest adventures. While success is never assured, those who make it are almost guaranteed a raft of big-brand suitors itching to boost their innovation credentials through a timely acquisition. For those who don’t, there is the heartbreak of failure.

For, at its core, it is not technology but sheer human courage that is powering this Kickstarter revolution. The willingness of individuals to take risks at which established organisations would baulk is driving the innovation agenda forward and enriching our creative landscape.

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