Kickstarter has found itself in the news this past week for supposedly union-busting. And while I am all for unions to protect workers’ rights and freedoms, the fact that this is happening at a company that a lot of indie creators like myself rely on for funding is worrying for more than just ethical reasons. Read on to see the possible implications of this scenario and where that leaves us.
Now the most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, Kickstarter is a company. And like I explore in this other article, its primary goal is not to help indie creators like you or me, but to make money. And unions are bad for companies that put money above all else.
Employees at unionised companies tend to get better pay, better job security, and longer annual leave. All three of those things directly disrupt companies’ profit margins, which is why companies are very against them. When other large tech companies have broken up attempts to unionise in the past, we have just looked at it as Capitalism at its worst. But Kickstarter has tried to cultivate (for the most part successfully) of being a progressive and open company that genuinely wants to help people realise their dreams. So union-busting looks particularly out of character for Kickstarter. Which makes me ask, why did they want to unionise in the first place?
I’m pretty sure it stems back over the last few years where disaster CEO Perry Chen was at the helm. When Chen finally left the top role in January after a tumultuous two years in the job, I was relieved. Despite being a founder, his actions and decisions really set the company back compared to Kickstarter’s previous CEO Yancey Strickler. The general consensus was that Strickler was different, he actually cared and believed in the vision of helping others. Making money was important, but not at the expense of the creators. (Case and point, Strickler’s salary was just 2.33 times that of the average employee which at best would have been roughly $350,000 a year. Still an incredible wage. But when Chen took over, he immediately took a wage of somewhere between $5-10 million.)
I imagine that this talk of unionising was more to do with Chen’s leadership than it ever was with Strickler. So this is the first controversy under new CEO Aziz Hasan’s stewardship and it is not looking good for him. Hopes of returning the company to the “Strickler era” are looking less and less likely and Hasan looks more of an extension of Chen.
Back in May Hasan addressed this situation and said “I recognize the need for better communication, definition around roles and responsibilities, clarity around compensation, and processes that allow for perspectives to be shared and captured across the organization,” before commenting directly on the idea of a union by saying, “we are better setup to be successful without the framework of a union.”
Now examining the first part of that statement, it sounds very much like the workers under Chen’s regime were unhappy and given less support than they had been in the companies 7-year existence, something Hasan has to deal with. As a CEO he has to have the backing of his employees and do right by them first and foremost. But it is the latter statement that concerns me. The fact that he thinks a union will affect the company’s success just sounds like plain old capitalist talk to me. As stated earlier in this article, the benefits of a union hinder the host company’s profit margins. So Hasan saying things like this make it sound more like he is more concerned with money than people.
But while this is all happening at the core of the company, the impact is rippling out into the community of indie creators. The very public airing of dirty laundry has caused a lot of people to boycott the company (remember KS take a 5% cut of every successful project) so if no one supports the projects, KS won’t make any money. But in doing that, the creators who were raising money to make their projects a reality are the ones suffering. Projects may lose out on backers that are currently boycotting the site and that might make the difference between success and failure. The implications on the individual creator then span out even further from there.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, there are plenty of fundraising sites out there, most notably IndieGoGo. The problem with that though is two-fold. IndieGoGo is by far the inferior site in terms of visitors per month, money raised and successful projects. So already, you’re at a disadvantage. No disrespect, but if you want to succeed, being on the biggest stage is a no-brainer.
But what might be more unsettling for KS stalwarts is the more right-wing ideology that permeates IndieGoGo. Kickstarter has always been more socially conscious of its projects, refusing to let certain projects go live due to their hateful content (most notably in the comics world Richard C. Meyer’s Jawbreaker series due to his active criticism of women and POC in the comic book industry). IndieGoGo however, has no such filter and lets any project go live if it follows a few rules regarding the perks offered to backers.
This has given rise to a more alt-right community to grow on IndieGoGo which may make it more difficult for left-leaning or diversity driven comics that would be a hit on KS. These are of course very sweeping statements that paint both companies with very broad brush strokes, but from my experience, it has become a bit of an unwritten rule of thumb for creators. Many KS creators are feeling a bit displaced right now due to this. So what can be done?
- Continue to use Kickstarter
This controversy is not the first (and will likely not be the last) KS face, but the company has come through worse in recent years and this will likely be no different. We may need to ride the wave and postpone projects by another few months to allow the company to regain the trust of its employees and users. Hasan has only been in the job for a few months and should be given time to try and right this situation. The most recent update is that Hasan has stated that the company will recognise a union if the one hundred and sixty employees vote for it through an anonymous ballot carried out by a third party, ensuring no employees are under pressure by those organizing it from within. So perhaps a happy outcome will still be had and KS will still offer the best chance for indie creators.
- Rebalance IndieGoGo
More difficult, but possible. If every creator from KS flooded into IndieGoGo and brought the progressive, left-leaning fanbase that KS has cultivated, there is a good chance that the right-wing projects would become the minority (if we based it purely on visitors per month and active creators on each platform). This would alter the alignment of IndieGoGo completely and suddenly it would be a more left-leaning website. This might see a conflict between conflicting ideologies trying to coexist in the same space, but it is possible.
- Move to another funding model like Patreon
A final option would be to move to an entirely different model of funding, most notably Patreon, which has had its own problems in recent years but offers a fresh start and the potential for certain creators to go full time with their creations if the monthly subscription process was more successful. But a different funding model creates a very different set of challenges and there is no guarantee KS success would transfer over.
Personally, I feel that Kickstarter should have a union and if it doesn’t use this situation to screw over its employees another way (I’m looking at you Amazon) or bump up the percentage it takes from successful projects, then the company could spin this into a significant PR win. But that would also depend on the demands of the newly formed union.
What are your thoughts of this process, will it be another flash in the pan controversy or the start of something larger? If you think it will affect your upcoming project, let us know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading!