Fellows Friday with Perry Chen

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Perry Chen used to spend his time working on art and music, but now he helps others realize their creative dreams. His current inspired endeavor is Kickstarter, a platform that helps fund creativity through the power of crowdsourcing funding. Check out the new TED Fellows’ Curated Kickstarter page here!

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Perry asks:

If you aren’t satisfied by what you’re doing, why are you still doing it?

Click here to respond!

How did you get the idea for Kickstarter?

I wanted to put on a late night show during the 2002 Jazz Festival of New Orleans, but it was going to cost $20,000. Because of this, the show never happened; but the experience led me to start thinking about funding, which led to the initial idea for Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has been described as the Medici family for modern-day DaVincis.

The kind of system Kickstarter uses has been used for hundreds of years. Unlike Medici-style patronage, where the richest people in town give large amounts of money, Kickstarter’s system relies on the general public for funding projects, and rewards those backers. Beethoven, Mozart, Walt Whitman and other artists like them were known to use this technique for the production of first-run books and concertos. The supporters of these artists would receive rewards for their contributions like having their name in the first edition, or first access to the work. Kickstarter follows a similar formula where the backers get rewards from the creators.

What’s a recent cool project that has come out of Kickstarter?

There’s a really cool pop-up restaurant in downtown Manhattan called, “What Happens When.” For this project, the organizers took over a space and built a restaurant where every month backers are treated to a new dining experience: menu, décor, everything is changed over the course of one year.
And what’s a really cool reward you personally have signed up for?

There’s one project called “Girl Walk.” It’s a film where people are going to dance to the Girl Talk album. It’s going to be one very long take of people dancing in New York City: on the Staten Island Ferry, on subway cars, everywhere.

I chose the reward of going to the wrap party with the cast and crew. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Do backers ever try to influence the artists, and get in the way of the process?

Not really. I think people understand the boundaries between somebody who’s creative and has a vision, and the audience. For the most part, it’s not a place to crowdsource ideas. It’s really one person or group comes with a vision, and everyone else is coming there to support that vision.

How has the TED Fellowship influenced your work?

It’s the people. Kickstarter was already up and going when I got the Fellowship. Spending time with the other Fellows was about camaraderie, and I talked to a lot of amazing and creative people.  And then meeting all the other attendees, besides the Fellows, who are very successful and interesting. It’s been about the people.

How do you fund your staff of 22 full-time employees?

We take five percent of contributions. We’re a for-profit business.

Perry (center) with co-workers in the Kickstarter office.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

I don’t consider myself a social entrepreneur, but I’m thrilled to be doing good, if that’s what I’m doing.

My advice is: don’t stop. It’s better to make a mistake than to not take an action. If you make a mistake, likely you’ll have the opportunity to learn from it. Don’t give up. There are a million opportunities for you to quit, and I’m sure there will be a lot of good reasons. When you believe in something, you have to really buy in. For me at some point I kind of had all my chips down. Once you get involved in something, that’s where the momentum is. If you don’t have that, then you’re much more likely to quit.

For most of the people who have a lot of success, it’s because they were the ones who didn’t quit. It’s not necessarily because it was just laid out for them. It won’t apply to all cases, but I think it’s pretty good advice.

Do you consider yourself an artist?

My waking up in the morning and thinking about art, and my projects, has transformed over the last few years to thinking about Kickstarter. Kickstarter is my big project now. I’m lucky that with Kickstarter, there’s always this constant inspiration of other projects in the air. So it doesn’t wander too far from my connection to art and creativity.

A year ago, I collaborated with some friends and used Kickstarter to fund a project “New York Makes a Book.” It was an interactive art project: both a crowdsourced and crowd-funded book.

For a while, I also worked on computer and synthesizer-based music.  About 10 or 11 years ago I helped found SouthFirst art gallery. We had the main floor dedicated to showcase the more established art or emerging artists. Downstairs we had a project space where my co-founders and I would put together a couple of shows of our own. It was conceptual stuff: we had a giant stock chart made of neon lights. It was of this company that had been 100 dollars and now was down to a few pennies. That was in 2001 when the “New Economy” was becoming a joke.

We also showed the computer code of computer viruses, when people were so terrified of them. We thought about how nobody’s actually ever seen these, so we got the code of the viruses and hung them up in these light boxes.

Art definitely still calls to me. And I’ve got a long list of things I want to do when I either get the time or the energy to do those things.

A lot of TED Fellows deal with very serious issues. Why is enabling art projects important?

Art has the ability to change the way people think. It can be used to make a positive change in the world. On the other hand, sometimes it’s intentionally frivolous.

I think people who want to change the world for the better want to bring society to a place where we’re no longer worried about food, clothing and shelter, or about war and hate. I think they want to make the world better so we can get back to worrying about art and beauty and creation. But that doesn’t mean we should completely wait until all of those problems are solved to do these other things that we want to make happen. If we did that, we wouldn’t know what we were working towards.

What’s new with Kickstarter?

We’re constantly working to make Kickstarter better — make using the site more enjoyable, provide new tools. The big idea is already out there, we’re just working to make it a little better everyday.