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Employee #1: Kickstarter – AMA and Interview (blog.ycombinator.com)
124 points by craigcannon on Dec 3, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

Hi! This is Cassie. If you have questions/thoughts/recipes/doodles, I'm here to field all. (Pro-tip on the recipe front: peanut butter cookies are my #1, always seeking innovations.)

I guess i'll start. How did you end up getting hired by kickstarter?

Met one of the co-founders through a friend. We had a lot in common and, that first night we met, had a great conversation. A couple years later, he proposed to me the idea of working for a company he was trying to launch. (Aka: Kickstarter.)

>Things still felt very new then, like Christmas. The excitement and freshness was like that.

> I had hit a ceiling in terms of what I was learning and I got bored, to be totally honest.

I wish more companies understood how common this is.

I also liked how you didn't investigate the idea of Kickstarter that much. I've heard other people say this too about good work they've done, that they fell into things. It makes me wonder if we're paying attention to the right signs before making decisions.

Which signs do you pay attention to now?

I've said this before and I will say it again. A long time ago, a friend gave me a piece of advice, re: making career choices: "Don't think about what you want to do, think about how you want to feel."

So much about making the "right choice" is about understanding and being responsive to your emotional intuition -- not a category of feeling that you often hear celebrated in (speaking frankly) bro-heavy tech spaces.

I still pay attention to how an opportunity makes me feel: excited? afraid? leery?

Then I work backwards to: Why? (Sometimes, being a little afraid can be a good sign, haha -- it means something will challenge you.)

And I pay close attention to the people I would be working for: how do they communicate? who do they respect? how do they picture the future?

I also think about my own end goals. What am I looking for? Do I just need a paycheck? (That happens sometimes.) Is there a specific skill I'm trying to master? Will a role be a stepping stone toward a bigger picture, long term goal?

It's a confluence of factors, and there's no science on how to balance them against each other. Again: that emotional intuition will guide you. (Keep it well honed.)

Oof, long answer. Does that help at all? Feel like I might have gone off deep into left field with this one. :)

A friend linked just this comment to me, and as somebody amidst an existential crisis, this is such a great answer.

That emotional intuition - have you noticed or observed any ways in yourself, or in others, to really keep this sharp?

Glad to hear it was helpful!

Yes, definitely. You have to carve out time for yourself, very deliberately, and be conscious about minimizing the amount of stimulation and distractions you are letting in. Spend time alone, go for long walks with your phone off, let your mind wander. Devote mental time to the things that scare you and trouble you -- really, really lean into them. (Another friend once said to me: "Embrace the struggle." Also a helpful mantra.) Therapy, if it's an option, can be great self maintenance. So is daily meditation, even if just for ten minutes. (It helps you get into the habit of unplugging.)

The work of focusing on your "feelings" is interesting because, often, it's actually the opposite of "focus." It's more like letting yourself drift freely and, in doing so, mapping your interior sea. :)

(Not to get tooooo hippy BS about it. Ha.)

You've characterized what the act of honing emotional intuition needs, then what one would actually look like: block distractions, go for a long walk, generally think about the things you're uncomfortable about but let your mind wander. I think the hard part is, how much time do you need to devote before you get something back out of it? Best policy is probably just "always do it."

And in the last line, you elicited a reaction from me to say "This isn't hippy bs" and buy in to what you've said. Thanks for the deceptively good answer :D

Kickstarter was especially lucky to have you from the beginning. Because of the humble person you are you would never state this but I would attribute a decent amount of their success to your empathetic nature. Sustaining (note not growing) a community of creative makers is not about code and product, but of communication. Congrats on all your accomplishments and contributions. We need more people like you in tech!

Thank you so much! An exceedingly kind insight -- although, without any humility whatsoever, I have to insist that the success of Kickstarter was due to many factors and the work of many wonderful people (including the founders). :)

I enjoy the distinction you make between "sustaining" -- I like to say "nurturing" -- a community and growing one. It is important to think about that.

Thank you for reading!

This is the book Cassie & Craig recommend in the interview: https://www.amazon.com/Seeing-Forgetting-Name-Thing-Sees/dp/... Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Expanded Edition

Do you know if there's a French version of this? For a gift. I couldn't find in my web search.

Not to my knowledge, but I wish. Sounds like a great gift.

What strategies did Kickstarter use to gather data on users (and on potential demographic segments) in the beginning when there was a limited R&D budget?

Hi there! I was Kickstarter employee #2 and my unofficial (which briefly became my official title) was "R&D", so I think it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and for me, realizing that the most effective way I could be valuable for our small team was to dig into the data and do the research to answer all the questions popping up day to day. Sometimes that was writing queries for our Year in Review posts, other times it was figuring out the best ways to mitigate payments risk.

At first we were just using Google Analytics and SQL. A couple years into it I deployed Mixpanel, and eventually we built our entire analytics infrastructure from scratch and used Looker to expose it to the rest of the company.

Here's the 30,000 foot view of how that worked:


I was at the company for over 6 years and by the time I left, my data team had people working on data science, machine learning, traditional BI, and of course infrastructure.

I wrote about that experience here:


Spoiler alert: I'm now at Y Combinator working on data science with their admissions team, so things have come pretty full circle :)

Thank you! This is very insightful. I'll definitely check out the articles you mentioned. :)

I am particularly impressed with this interview. The level of self-awareness of cassie of her earlier self really helps the reader understand what it was like truly as a first employee of Kickstarter. I also really love how she managed explaining that although the founders are awesome, they were not perfect in a very balanced way. A lot of interviews I have read like this always tries to make the founders seem like people who have all the answers, but how she explains it, makes it feel like they were just any other company with a vision trying to figure shit out. Which is inspiring/encouraging.

Question: I get the feeling, Kickstarter feels like a different life for you now. Out of curiosity did your equity at Kickstarter completely vest before you left?

Thank you so much for the kind words! That's a very generous response and I appreciate you sharing.

Kickstarter does feel like a completely different life, but that's only because of how much I was able to grow while I was there. That's a good thing, I think!

My equity did not completely vest, no. Close, but no!

This interview was swell.

* Alright I'll add a question - what do you think was the spark whenever users fell in love with the product/community?

The endlessly-recycling-itself-positive feedback loop of receiving both actual money and spiritual/emotional validation from your community in order to pursue your creative ambitions. If you want to make a movie, and you've wanted to make this movie for your whole life, can you imagine then receiving a flood of money, love, and support from the people around you? Even if you don't make ultimately make your goal, that experience can be transformative.

Thank you I think this comment is rad!

We're a crowdfunding/community/love thing too. We have a person who is you for our community team, and reading the interview was like reading that person's last 2 years. I sent it to our you.

That's wonderful. Thank you. :)

Where do you see the future of crowdfunding, especially as crowdfunding spreads to outside of the western world?

Honestly, I think less about the future of crowdfunding, and more about the future of companies like Kickstarter (in context of their recent choice to become a public benefit corporation and other community-and-civic-minded choices they've made as a business). Setting that precedent, holding themselves accountable to their community, and enabling other communities to follow in their footsteps is VERY important, I think. That's what I'm thinking about lately.

Do you have any funny/remarkable stories of the things you guys had to do in the early days when you were still trying to get your first customers/users?

I always wish I had better stories for this, haha. Kickstarted picked up traction so surprisingly quickly, that we really just ended up being in the position of fielding all the incoming vs having to go out and convince folks. There was plenty of lovely zaniness in the early days -- many fond memories -- but I can't recall any stunts we pulled to try and attract new projects. :)

Hi Cassie. How do you believe a Kickstarter campaign can be a precursor to an Equity Crowdfunding campaign on platforms like VENTURE.co?

I'm not sure if I believe it should be!

Why so?

Hi Cassie. Did you feel like you had extra leverage to negotiate equity as employee number one? If so, and if I may ask, did you?

Very good question. Speaking honestly, I had no awareness of that at the time I started. I was super young and very naive about the idea of equity -- I accepted what they offered me without reading the fine print or exploring the implications at all. I am fortunate that the founders of Kickstarter are incredible upstanding men and really looked out for me, but (for the record) I do not recommend this tactic for any other first hires. :) It is incredibly important to do your research, dot your i's, cross your t's, etc.

How is your relationship with Charles Adler? It seems like you left kickstarter at similar times with similar motivations.

He's wonderful! He left awhile after me, and perhaps our motivations were similar, but we still talk occasionally and I think very highly of him. Genuinely great person.

Hey! :) What's the status on fondeadora?

Don't even know what that is!

Dancing on chairs is fun and all, but I'd love to see the video of this interview..

I'm afraid there isn't one!

Do the "Company culture" changes from seed stage to growing stages? If Yes, how?

Of course! Many things were much easier to manage in the early days, when there were just a few of us, and we functioned like a family: there was lots of time for conversations, Feelings, and talking things through. That naturally ebbs once a company begins to pick up steam. I will say, though, Kickstarter's core spirit was (and has been) remarkably consistent, and I think that's because of the consistency of vision from the top.

Do you suggest to enter in a startup at the beginning or in a later stage?

Totally depends on what type of person you are. Are you incredibly self-motivated and comfortable setting/pursuing your own goals? Do you have a wide skillset and/or if you don't know how to do something, are you willing and eager to figure it out? Then get in at the beginning, because that temperament will take you far. If you are more comfortable with structure, experienced management, and a clearly defined role -- enter at a later stage, when more administrative structure is likely to be in place. Just my two cents!

When did you realize kickstarter was getting huge?

The moment I didn't have to explain what we did anymore -- to anybody. Which happened remarkably fast. People would say "What do you do?" and I would say "Kickstarter!" and I would see their eyes just light up. It was very cool and exciting.

How long did it take from you joining Kickstarter to you realizing that you guys had picked up this kind of traction?

It was relatively fast! I remember it being a matter of months -- six maybe?

thanks for the answer, I can only imagine what that feels like :)


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