Perry Chen Says He Wants To Revitalize Kickstarter. Employees Say He’s Doing the Opposite.

Founders of successful startups hold mythical status inside tech industry. although while myths are often inspirational, they are also frequently meant to serve as cautionary tales. Case in point: Kickstarter principal founder Perry Chen — who took over the company coming from cofounder Yancey Strickler in July of last year, then said in March which he had quietly become permanent CEO — will be alienating staff in addition to sowing chaos at the well-known crowdfunding platform, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Since Chen took over, about 50 out of 0 Kickstarter employees have left. Among the departed: seven of the eight members of Strickler’s executive team. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, 24 sources close to Kickstarter painted a picture of a company stumbling under the guidance of a returning founder who insists he alone will be the person to steer the idea in a definitive fresh direction.

Fifteen current in addition to former employees described Chen’s attitude since coming back as following the so-called visionary founder myth — the belief by some founders which they are uniquely imbued with the ability to envision their company’s future clearly in addition to overcome its worst crises. the idea’s an arc which the tech industry has largely embraced, coming from Steve Jobs’ legendary comeback to Apple inside late ’90s to today’s embattled Twitter searching for redemption under the guidance of founder Jack Dorsey.


Joel Barhamand for BuzzFeed News

“I always, in a way, wondered — would certainly I ever come back?” Chen told BuzzFeed News in an interview, during which he also confirmed for the very first time publicly which his once-interim role leading the company had been made permanent. “In truth, I think my desire was which I wouldn’t. although I came back because I think the company needed the idea.”

although founder worship culture has its flaws.

“You can’t alienate the workforce on the assumption which you’ll be able to replace them, or which the idea won’t cause fractures inside company.”

In interviews, employees said Chen strongly exerted his will on the company — doing sudden alterations to planned-out Kickstarter features, scrapping project timelines at the last minute, forcing out highly respected employees, in addition to trying to shake up office culture in ways which struck the rank in addition to file as simply bizarre. (inside fall, he brought in people dressed up as dinosaurs to wander the office for a week as performance art.) They said his top-down approach to leadership bred discontent — which, inside words of one, Chen “pretty clearly thinks the company will be his” in addition to not employees’, in addition to he always seemed “surprised” in addition to “defensive” when he got pushback. in addition to they asserted which after close to a decade spent growing up in addition to settling into a more mature corporate culture, Chen has thrown the organization into chaos in a rush to bring the idea back to startup-esque idealism.

“You could argue which his position will be ‘I’m going to make these alterations, in addition to people can come along. Or if they won’t, they can work somewhere else,’” said one former employee.

“although,” the ex-employee continued, “you can’t alienate a significant portion of the workforce on the assumption which you’ll be able to replace them, or which the idea won’t cause serious fractures inside sociodynamics of the company.”

A Kickstarter spokesperson disputed the characterization which Chen’s management style was overly autocratic, as did the CEO himself. “I care about doing the best decisions possible, in addition to I seek input in addition to collaboration,” he told BuzzFeed News. “which said, the idea will be important for a leader to make challenging decisions even without full buy-in or consensus.”


In 2001, Chen had the idea for an online platform through which crowds could pledge money for a project, risk free. Kickstarter launched in 2009 in addition to almost instantly saw meteoric growth. Within a year, Time magazine named Kickstarter one of the “Best Inventions of 2010.” Within two, the company was boasting which its $150 million in contributions outpaced the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2014, Chen stepped aside as CEO to become the company’s chair in addition to Strickler, another cofounder, took over. The next year, Kickstarter users pledged more than $0 million for nearly 80,000 projects, according to research firm ICO Partners. the idea was a rocket.


Lixia Guo / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Chen’s History With Kickstarter

What’s more, Kickstarter positioned itself as a fresh kind of company, which has a “creator-centric mission” which balanced profit with arts patronage in addition to attracted many of its early staff. After Strickler took over, employees said, he hired deliberately, in addition to personally pushed to make diversity a priority: Of the eight members of Kickstarter’s executive team under Strickler, only two were men. A former employee called the company’s culture at the time “mission-centric,” although with “an injection of practicality.”

In 2015, Kickstarter formalized This specific commitment to community, restructuring its business style to become a public benefit corporation (PBC) in addition to vowing to never go public or sell. Even as growth slowed, the company promoted itself as a cultural standard-bearer, a fresh in addition to admirable kind of startup. According to its first public benefit statement, released in March 2017, the company has engaged in various public policy issues. the idea also boasted which a majority of its staff were women in addition to which the idea paid its CEO far less than different companies relative to what an average employee earns.

Chen takes credit for restructuring Kickstarter into a PBC — an idea he dreamed up while on vacation, according to a recent Fast Company profile. He was in Florence when he spontaneously flipped open his laptop in addition to “began to type some of the thoughts swirling in his head.” The result was a 1,000-word email which Chen sent a month later to Strickler, then the company’s CEO, with the email subject line: “existential kickstarter.”

Restructuring into a PBC was “strongly supported internally,” according to one ex-employee. “the idea sounded like a collaborative thing in addition to everyone was on board.”

“Those,” the employee added, “were the not bad days.”

In retrospect, sources said, the move to PBC was a sign of how much Chen exerted his preferences on the company he founded, whether or not he was in charge of its day-to-day operations.

According to ex-employees, inside three years he ran the company, Strickler worked hard to mature the idea thoughtfully in addition to sustainably. Sources describe him as a great storyteller in addition to Kickstarter evangelist; one noted which he was “truly well-loved.” Under his leadership, employees said, they took their jobs very seriously in addition to enjoyed their work. Kickstarter was stable, if not growing at the rate the idea had in its infancy.

“the idea wasn’t like the company was going to close down or anything — we were still going to be profitable last year,” a former employee said of Strickler’s tenure. “although we weren’t necessarily seeing the blockbuster growth which we had always seen.” Meanwhile, the employee said, a company like Patreon — a newer subscriber-based funding platform which has racked up more headlines, in addition to more venture capital compared with Kickstarter inside past few months — was “seeing which blockbuster growth.”

in addition to at the same time, the company had began to wrestle with the fact which the creative projects the idea felt were core to its mission were not, ultimately, what brought people to Kickstarter. Games, design, in addition to technology projects have added up to more than three-fifths of the total dollars pledged to the platform since its inception, in addition to some employees worried which Kickstarter was becoming a catalog for gadgets like the Coolest Cooler in addition to the Pebble smartwatch — “a cooler type of SkyMall,” as one put the idea.

So Strickler brought on accomplished executives hired for their expertise to help move the company forward. Former employees described how for the very first time, the idea felt like there was an “adult” executive team in place — people who had years of experience at places like Etsy, Artsy, Adobe, Ideo, Google, in addition to Venmo; who understood how to lead teams; in addition to who created a roadmap in addition to a fresh strategy for the company. Together with Strickler, they came up which has a fresh digital strategy, hired a brand agency, in addition to devised a fresh product roadmap for Kickstarter, including the initiative which would certainly become Drip, designed as the company’s answer to Patreon.


Joel Barhamand for BuzzFeed News

The Kickstarter library includes a shelf displaying several board games which were launched on Kickstarter.

Strickler was out before Drip launched. He announced his resignation at a company all-hands in July 2017; afterward, Chen took the stage in addition to promised to help the board search for a fresh CEO, while continuing to support the executives Strickler had hired. although in March, Chen confirmed to BuzzFeed News which he had taken over as CEO of the company, though there has been no public announcement or written communication about the move. An early list of potential CEOs was put aside in addition to candidates were never interviewed, Chen told BuzzFeed News.

Several sources close to Strickler’s resignation said he did not want to step down as CEO, although was asked to leave by Chen in addition to the board, in addition to ultimately respected their decision. Since stepping down, Strickler has not held a strategic or advisory role at Kickstarter, though as a cofounder he will be still one of the largest shareholders of the company.


Central to Chen’s self-perception, employees said, will be the notion which he in addition to he alone can protect the company’s ideals.

“What I think was most disappointing,” a former employee said, “was which Chen failed to believe which we cared about Kickstarter’s mission as much as he did.”

“What I think was most disappointing was which Chen failed to believe which we cared about Kickstarter’s mission as much as he did.”

Sources said Chen was critical of the direction the company had gone in under Strickler. He wanted to make Kickstarter less corporate in addition to more freewheeling — much to the frustration of the employees who’d spent years inside trenches doing just the opposite, growing the idea coming from a scrappy startup to a mature company. “the idea’s structurally damaging the business style inside interest of returning to a different era,” said one former employee, “when the earth has already moved on.”

“Maybe when [Chen] had left, Kickstarter was less of a real professional tech company,” a different ex-employee said. “although the idea didn’t feel like he cared which there were over 100 people there working on their careers. the idea meant something to us. the idea wasn’t just a fun art project. the idea was like, ‘No, This specific will be paying my bills.’”

In his first few weeks at the helm, Chen scrapped the roadmaps which had been developed at Kickstarter in addition to by the agency the idea hired, in addition to insisted on smaller things like the name of Drip, even when employees pushed back on how the idea sounded. One source said Chen seemed to think his in addition to only his ideas were not bad — “not which an executive team will be a broad group of people to consult for their understanding in their domain.”

In an interview Chen argued which under Strickler, Kickstarter had become too bureaucratic. “Adding support in addition to systems for employees will be not bad in addition to necessary as a team grows,” he said. “although over the previous few years Kickstarter had began to adopt an approach which better fit 500-plus-person companies.”

He drew a comparison between Kickstarter in addition to some of its siblings inside fresh York startup scene, many of which have stumbled as they’ve aged. “We’ve always been here in fresh York, where there’s a cohort of startups — Etsy, Meetup, Foursquare, Tumblr,” he said. “I think those companies diverged coming from where they wanted to go.”

After Etsy went public, the idea faced intense pressure to start acting like a shareholder-focused company — then the idea abruptly fired its longtime CEO. Meetup has been acquired by the coworking startup WeWork. in addition to Foursquare in addition to Tumblr have floundered in their own ways.

“For us,” Chen continued, “if we had a period of time where we weren’t living up to our expectations in addition to our challenges, although right now we can correct for which, I think I would certainly take which, versus maybe where the different companies went.”


Joel Barhamand for BuzzFeed News

although his attempts at correction didn’t always land. There was the time which he in addition to his assistant took over the library — a quiet zone — in addition to played music. in addition to then there were the people dressed up as dinosaurs.

At first, employees thought the idea was not bad, dumb fun — although later inside week, sources said, the dinosaurs wandering around all day began to interfere with work. Finally, one afternoon, the dinosaurs came in which has a troupe of performers dressed in army garb playing saxophones in addition to stomping around. (A video of the mayhem was seen by BuzzFeed News.) A handful of employees walked out.

Many employees felt the incident epitomized Chen’s disconnect in wanting to “shake up” Kickstarter’s corporate culture although not knowing how. Soon afterward, Chen sent an apology email, explaining which he thought having performance art inside office would certainly be fun.

although nothing has roiled Kickstarter more thoroughly inside last several months than the constant turnover for which employees blame Chen.

Sources said which soon after he took over the company, Chen in addition to some members of the executive team realized they did not work well together. The executives were frustrated, two sources said, with what they saw as Chen doing unilateral company decisions on projects they had largely overseen.

Chen then began holding one-on-one or smaller-group meetings, sometimes on weekends, at the office in addition to his artist’s studio around the block coming from the Kickstarter office, two sources said, in addition to consulted a fresh circle of people, outside of the executive team, for strategic decisions on Kickstarter. This specific made some executives feel undermined, the sources said, in addition to compelled them to quit.

“When I arrived mid-year there were few open decisions to make, though I did make some material alterations to two of the larger projects underway,” Chen told BuzzFeed News. He denied meeting which has a “group of people outside of the company,” though he did not directly deny which he had began to consult a fresh circle of people more than Kickstarter’s own executive team.

Since Chen took over, eight executives have left Kickstarter: the head of HR; vice presidents of engineering, product, in addition to community operations; senior vice president of operations; chief financial officer; general counsel; in addition to general manager.

These were, said one ex-employee, “super competent, professional people which are well-respected above in addition to below them, in addition to inside industry, in addition to [Chen] just didn’t give a shit.”

“Kickstarter had hired kickass women which the industry loved. He burned those bridges — not just for Kickstarter although for all of us.”

“When I came in I worked in not bad faith with the existing executive team to put us on a better path,” Chen said in response to questions coming from BuzzFeed News. “There were some cases where I didn’t find the same willingness to work together, in addition to some cases where I, unfortunately, realized we’d be better served with fresh leadership. In both types of cases, there was a lot of care behind the scenes into those transitions.”

Meanwhile, Chen has surrounded himself with figures coming from Kickstarter’s early days, including Cassie Marketos, its first employee, as VP of community strategy, in addition to Andy Baio in addition to Fred Benenson as Kickstarter fellows. To fill the holes left by executive departures, Chen hired Sarah Hromack to be Kickstarter’s first “chief culture officer” in addition to Jamie Wilkinson as its chief product officer. (several months after she began, three sources confirmed, Hromack ended her tenure at Kickstarter. She did not comment just for This specific story.)

A BuzzFeed News analysis of alterations to Kickstarter’s staff page between July 8, 2017, in addition to April 3, 2018, showed which 47 of about 0 employees had left; a former employee said the idea will be “fair” to say “about 50” people have departed coming from Kickstarter inside last year or so. The former employee also told BuzzFeed News which people had been leaving before Chen returned, although the rate of people leaving had increased after he took back the reins. (Kickstarter, however, noted the idea was not downsizing; a spokesperson said the company has hired 36 people since September.)

Robert Siegel, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies strategy in addition to innovation, told BuzzFeed News he didn’t think the rate in addition to volume of employees leaving Kickstarter over the past few months was “normal.” “This specific could be a situation where a strong personality will be accelerating the decline, or the idea’s possible which This specific will be a company fixing itself. although the idea’s certainly not normal.”

Multiple former Kickstarter employees cited one incident in particular as their reason for quitting. Late in 2017, two women executives announced they were leaving the company at the same time. Chen called a company all-hands to ensure employees could ask questions, in addition to one woman asked Chen whether Kickstarter was still committed to women in leadership given which two leaders were exiting the company.


Joel Barhamand For BuzzFeed News

As several sources recalled, Chen responded by saying which in case the staff hadn’t noticed, he himself was a person of colour — although did not address how to support women in leadership. He gave a “wild” in addition to “rambling” answer which included how he was raised in fresh York City in government housing in addition to, the sources said, brought up his disadvantages in addition to lack of privilege in a way which struck them as self-centered in addition to defensive.

Kickstarter disputed the characterization of This specific response, saying which Chen meant to convey which Kickstarter’s commitments to fighting inequality in its PBC charter were initiated by him in addition to informed by his experiences.

“Issues of systemic inequality are issues which I care about deeply,” Chen said in response to questions about the meeting coming from BuzzFeed News. “although I do not, in addition to would certainly never, equate or conflate individuals’ experiences of race in addition to gender — reductive analogies are inherently divisive in addition to unhelpful. inside context of which conversation I understand how the idea came off, in addition to I own the idea.”

although still, one ex-employee said, the incident soured her on Chen — in addition to Kickstarter. “I thought to myself, What future do I have as a young woman at a company like which?” she said. “Kickstarter had hired kickass women, people I was excited to learn coming from in addition to which the industry loved. He burned those bridges — not just for Kickstarter although for all of us.”

Diversity statistics shared with BuzzFeed News show which Kickstarter’s male-female representation has been at near-parity inside past two years, although the proportion of female employees trended slightly downward coming from December 2016 to December 2017, while racial diversity remained more or less the same. Executive team composition went coming from six women in addition to two men, three of whom were people of colour, under Strickler to three men in addition to two women — only one a person of colour — under Chen.

“If the CEO leaves the company, you’re going to get a different CEO who will probably have different values in addition to a different mission.”

Shortly before Strickler left, he offered a job to Erica Baker, an engineer in addition to a visible advocate for diversity in tech, as the company’s first director of engineering. “To get to work which has a whole group of badass women, women at the top of the company running the organization? which was a big deal. I was so excited about the idea,” Baker told BuzzFeed News.

After Strickler stepped down, Baker changed her mind. “which’s the way the idea goes: If the CEO leaves the company, you’re going to get a different CEO who will probably have different values in addition to a different mission,” Baker said. “which shuffle reverberates throughout the whole organization.” She ended up taking a job at Patreon.

When asked about the challenges during the company transition, Chen told BuzzFeed News, “I think the idea was stressful for everybody.” Among Kickstarter’s staff of approximately 0 people, only 20 had been at Kickstarter when Chen left in 2013, he said, in addition to he was acclimating. “To me, there were a hundred-something fresh people all at once. They also didn’t know me,” Chen said.

“When I came in, my desire was not to make any major alterations,” he said. “in addition to in truth, I think I found which more change was needed than, I think, any of us thought.” Chen added which the alterations the company went through inside fall “weren’t personal” in addition to which Kickstarter would certainly “always be a place where great women can contribute, grow, in addition to thrive.”

Toward the end of 2017, some Kickstarter employees threw a party for all the employees who had recently left the company — a gathering to honor “old Kickstarter.” People got plastic trophies as a prize for weathering the past few months. A handful of former company executives showed up at the party, including Yancey Strickler. When attendees saw him, they all clapped.


Joel Barhamand for BuzzFeed News

As negative as the departing employees felt in their last few days, many said they still believe in Kickstarter in addition to its original mission: to help bring creative projects to life. Even though the idea didn’t work out for them, employees said, they’re still rooting for the company — in addition to what the idea stands for.

“I believe the company will be an important force inside earth right now,” said a current employee. “in addition to I still believe inside opportunity the idea has to be an even greater force for not bad.”

In an interview, VP of community strategy Marketos told BuzzFeed News which she “could tell people were having a rough time” during the transition, although emphasized which right now “the idea feels like things are falling into a truly not bad place.”

“Maybe you start to get a reputation inside industry as not the most stable place to work.”

Kickstarter investor in addition to board member Fred Wilson rejected the notion which the company chaos was anything although growing pains, which have been resolved. “Turnover will be pretty common when there will be a leadership change,” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “I am very supportive of the way Kickstarter chooses to manage its business in addition to make decisions in addition to I have great confidence in Perry’s ability to lead the idea down This specific path. Kickstarter will be an unusual company, which charts a different path, in addition to my role as an investor in addition to Board member will be quite different as a result.”

He’s right. Since the idea will be a PBC, Kickstarter doesn’t have investor, shareholder, or founder pressure to go public.

“For most companies, money will be a truly easy thing to orient toward,” a current employee told BuzzFeed News. “inside absence of which, how should a for-profit company which’s trying to be sustainable in addition to boost its impact move forward?”

although while the idea wrestles with the existential questions, Kickstarter still has to figure out how to mitigate for lost staff, in addition to rebuild what’s been broken.

There’s “a huge amount of institutional knowledge lost” in terms of what Kickstarter has tried in addition to what has not worked, a former employee told BuzzFeed News.

“On the whole, will be the idea better than the idea was inside fall?” another former employee asked. “I don’t know how the idea could have gotten worse. … although there are still some people at the company who say, ‘This specific isn’t what I signed up for.’” Three former employees brought up the idea which the turmoil the company has faced inside past few months was antithetical, even “hypocritical,” to Kickstarter’s mission.

in addition to then, as a former employee said, “maybe you start to get a reputation inside industry as not the most stable place to work.” ●


Joel Barhamand for BuzzFeed News

CORRECTION

There were eight people on Kickstarter’s executive team under former CEO Yancey Strickler, not including Strickler. An earlier type of This specific story misstated the number.

Davey Alba will be a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News in addition to will be based in fresh York.

Contact Davey Alba at davey.alba@buzzfeed.com.

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