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Commitment and Community

02/01/2011

Xin Xin 12 FAV asks a question about the best path to entrepreneurship

Launching a new enterprise – whether it’s an art and design project, an online startup or an entrepreneurial business venture – requires strong commitment and an even stronger community. That was the message from three entrepreneurs who came to campus during Wintersession to launch new online networks featuring work from RISD students and alumni, and to speak to RISD students on how to market their work online.

Over 100 students from a wide range of disciplines (design, film, fine arts and more) packed the room despite the swirling snow outside. They were there to hear from the leaders of Kickstarter, Etsy and Quirky on what it takes to launch a successful business. The answer? A combination of a focused vision and an expansive network.

“I see Kickstarter as a way around the bureaucracy of the ‘real world’ and a nod back to the days when patrons engaged with artists directly,” said Charles Adler, Kickstarter’s co-founder. The site allows anyone to post a creative project in any medium, and solicit micro-funding from hundreds or thousands of backers to make it a reality.

While Kickstarter helps fund the creative vision of one individual or team, Quirky uses the wisdom of the crowd to develop consumer products with broad appeal, often with hundreds of people contributing to the name, color and other aspects of a final product. RISD student Jake Zien 11 GD has recently had a bona fide hit with Quirky’s launch of Pivot Power, a flexible power strip that can bend and morph to adapt itself to chunky power adapters. While the idea originated with Zien, through Quirky, over 700 people have contributed to influence its final form, and will receive credit and even royalties for their contributions.

The most established of the three, Etsy, is a high-tech website focused on a low-tech product – handmade crafts. Half a million artisans from all over the world use the Etsy marketplace to sell unique, often one-of-a-kind items.

Though the platforms differ in their approaches, all three speakers agreed on the key ingredients of their success: an engaging narrative and a personal touch.

“All we have [to sell] is the story of a product and how it got made,” said Ben Kaufman, CEO of Quirky, noting that the packaging for each product Quirky brings to market features a picture of the inventor and credits for those who contributed ideas via the crowd-sourcing model  “We’re here to tell the stories of inventors and make invention accessible,” he said.

The speakers also emphasized the importance of presentation and craftsmanship as part of shaping a narrative. “Curating your own work and deciding what to leave out is as important as what to put in,” said Vanessa Bertozzi, Etsy’s director of Community and Education. 

And don’t underestimate the importance of good karma. “RISD students are part of a network of amazing artists and designers,” said Bertozzi. “The more that people participate, give back, critique and advise others, it creates more community, both literally [by increasing web links] and figuratively.” 

RISD student Leonore McCarthy 12 PH received funding via Kickstarter to explore issues of nationality through a photography expedition to her homeland of Estonia, and thanked each of her backers with photos and postcards from her journey. “Without RISD, my professors, my network, friends and the Providence community, I wouldn’t have gotten the project off the ground,” she said. 

“Entrepreneurship is about taking a look at the world and finding better, more meaningful ways to do things,” concluded Adler. “Our purpose is to help you establish a real, human connection with people who will support you.”

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tags: corporate, digital, entrepreneurship, innovation, students, wintersession

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.