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Chapter 2: Catalyst

Episode Summary

Kickstarter Union Oral History Chapter 2: The specific events that led to the first utterance of “union.”

Episode Transcription

Episode 2 | Catalyst

So far in the oral history of Kickstarter’s union, we’ve heard from organizers about how Kickstarter’s internal culture set the stage for the union drive.  Now we’re going to zoom into the specific events that led to the first whispers of a union. Spring 2017, we’re eight years into the Kickstarter experiment and staff is about to see Yancey Strickler, one of Kickstarter’s co-founders and the current CEO suddenly leave the company. The structural changes that come with new leadership strain the culture and create a tinderbox within the walls of Kickstarter.

The six month period leading up to that change was a really hopeful and optimistic time for the company. And it was, yeah, it was a surprise. - Taylor 

Yeah, I feel like nobody talks much really about how Yancey was kind of forced out… - Alfie

It wasn’t exactly clear to staff why Yancey was pushed out.  Workers felt the company was in an upswing, a result of Yancey’s strategic leadership hires and product expansion projects like Drip. However, the general consensus is that this was, in fact, an ousting carried out by Kickstarter’s board and the person who would take his place as CEO, fellow cofounder Perry Chen. 

The narrative that that leadership gave to all of the rest of us. In the wake of Yancey leaving was that the product had stagnated and that yes, he was not a capable product mind who was going to be able to launch Drip. Do it appropriately and do it quickly and all it took was the mention of, you know, us falling behind the market or you know, missing opportunities for the board to react to that. And Perry, who is serving up the board on sir didn't have to try that hard to step in, as she to convince them to allow him to step in, as interim CEO.  You know, nobody is perfect. There's no such thing as a perfect leader... I think Yancy was a person that was easy to work with. He was a great communicator and also he referred to the folks on the ground who have more expertise in Product development and research. Then he did, which is the exact opposite approach that Perry took.  - Trav

Let’s dive into the day staff learns of this leadership change at a company AllHands. At one end of the Kickstarter office is a beautiful theater lined with reclaimed wood and row after row of classic theater seats with little wooden armrests.  Staff fills this theater as the lights dim and music plays softly in the background. 

Yancey's just like, Hey, uh, you know, the board met and they voted that I should leave. And I told them that he's so something along the lines of, like I told him that I wanted you t o hear it, not just from me, but from them that they want me out and yeah.  - Alfie

Perry takes the podium and looks over his laptop out into the darkened room. He tells the staff that Kickstarter hasn’t lived up to its potential and he’s stepping in as interim CEO to lead upcoming product launches and eventually find a new CEO capable of carrying out a larger vision.  

As you’ve seen in the last two months, there has been accountability for the CEO.  It’s not something that just applies to the greater team alone.  - Perry 

I believe that the path that we’ve been heading down has us head toward irrelevance.  Not this year, not the next year, maybe not in the next 5-10 years… but the way we’ve been going, operating, and executing - again, not in everything.  I’ll pull back from qualifying that everytime and ask you guys to kinda understand what I’m saying.  If we continue down the path, we’ll become a generic version of ourselves.  And another platform that’s trying to eat market share instead of doing forward looking work and innovative work.  - Perry 

He said, you know, if we don't do something Kickstarter is in danger of becoming irrelevant in three to four years and I always thought that that word irrelevant was so Halloween it because it wasn't like financially solvent. It wasn't Useful. It wasn't You know, it wasn't like what you would expect the metric for a company to be like it told me that he was primarily interested and what his like friends thought of Kickstarter and his friends are Like You know, artists, and people that work at foundations. I don't know whose friends but like that irrelevant like Relevance to culture. Was his like that was the thing he was after… the cred.  - Brain

Most of you, if not all of you, came to Kickstarter looking to do great things and make an impact.  But it may not have lived up to the potential you felt walking in the door. It probably hasn’t. - Perry

Pretty quickly, staff starts to feel the content of this AllHands is disconnected from the lived experience of the workers, especially the experience most had in the last six to nine months under Yancey when product development was in a promising upswing.  The vague focus on product was largely confusing. 

You know, it’s a commitment to impact and success through product first.  To do this we must be able to recognize what is truly good and valuable and be able to effectively build it.  I’ve heard so much about shipping over the past few years, but less and less talk and belief in shipping good stuff but it’s about let’s just ship.  Shipping mediocre stuff can be worse than shipping nothing at all. You know, I know how hard people work to get stuff out, that’s not what I’m trying to say. But when stuff falls flat, everyone becomes demoralized just as much as you would when something is not released. You know, we need to stay on our current path of bettering our ability to ship good stuff and never again take our eyes of the fact that product must lead this place.  You know, we are a movie studio, and product is our movie. - Perry

Then, Perry brings up two major projects the team had been working on under Yancey, Drip, the subscription funding model, and a site-wide redesign. Again he underlines that what Kickstarter lacked was ambitious product vision, implying that he was the one to bring that ingredient to the table. 

So for the refresh, what I’m reorienting us towards, is a larger project. I think what we were headed towards is a reskin.  And I think that that’s not how we want to meet the world.  We need to do a new home page, new project page, category page, navigation, and I think there are some emails in there too.  And that’s what we roll out.  That’s substantive.  That brings Kickstarter, the product, from 2013  to 2017.  And we want to do that and launch that mid November, along with Drip.  And then we’re putting something into the world, we’re putting a flag into the ground.  - Perry

In this moment, staff sees the scope of these projects dramatically widened and the timeline for shipping this new direction has just been set at two months from this AllHands.

All this stuff, in two months, and we can do it.  - Perry

There’s obviously been some turbulence.  And some of you might get off the ride.  - Perry

Then, he opens the floor to questions from staff.  There are questions about the vision he has for the company, there are some questions that are brimming with excitement at the promise of being a part of visionary work. But then come the more granular questions, the questions about how Perry plans to support this vision.  And the way these questions are answered, really sets the tone for this new chapter in Kickstarter’s history. 

Who’s on remote? -Perry

What is our strategy for focusing on… - Anon

No, I heard the question, who is it? These are anonymous questions? Ugh, alright… What is our strategy for shipping quality product and shipping it speedily?  - Perry 

On a quick timeline. - Anon

On a quick timeline… Um… the strategy is… you know.... I think… you… look at your bandwidth… you decide what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do.  You, you know you solve the problem at hand that you’re trying to solve um… and you do it well… and then you build it.  And that’s the strategy.  I mean, people do this all the time, like, six people do it in a room and spend two months and drop something amazing.  You know, a lot of the things here have been this suite of lack of vision, decision making, changing minds, processes that needed to be better, people checking out, all of these things.  I don’t think there’s a great mystery of how to run these processes.  You kind of just have to do it.  We also have to hold each other accountable. And we also have to be able to judge what is good work and what isn’t good work.  And uh… ya.  - Perry 


Essences Framework 

To support the new vision and direction he has for Kickstarter, Perry announces that he’s planning to bring a new structure to the company that would eventually be given the name Essences.  


And then he went in a room for like a year or two and then came out with Essences. Which was like this new way to organize the company that made little to no sense.  - Amy

This new structure required aggressive hiring and when staff would ask how leadership planned to support this massive staff expansion without a growth in revenue, management would say that Kickstarter needed to hire the team that could support the growth they wanted to see. Not only was this fiscally risky, but the way Essences structured the engineering teams in porous groups that were constantly shifting on and off projects undermined the value of this investment. 

It sounds so flippant now but like there, there really was a six month rule and those of us that had been around for a long time knew that something really bad happened every six months. And we would tell people this and people would laugh at us. But if you stayed there a couple of years. You saw that It was absolutely a pattern that management would fuck up something or initiate some new change that would inevitably fail about every six months.  - Taylor

Here’s an operating structure that doesn’t work and know one asked for but it’s mine so it’s the right thing to do. - Trav

As you know, an engineer for a long time. And then also as an engineering manager for a while. It's like, I can tell you, you, it takes a while to hire an engineer, and then it takes a couple of months to onboard the engineer before they can actually be You know, they can actually be bringing a lot of value into the company. And then you also need to be putting them together into teams that are functioning well and if you're always having people come in and out of teams and not having a stable team. You're also not getting the value that you could be out of that team. And so like that sort of thinking was like not accounted for at all where it's like, Okay, so you're going to have Like seven product teams and like half the engineers and all those teams are going to be brand new. Like it's going to take years to see that return on investment, not that I don't think people should invest in hiring engineers and growing them and bringing them into the organization, but it was just like the time scale. Of the return they were looking for. It was super unrealistic.  - Amy

Every single one of us was like, this makes no sense.  Not only was the division of teams sort of arbitrary but we didn’t have enough people to staff them.  And that, even before it was implemented, was feedback that we tried to give back.  But also, for someone like the product manager on the team, they had to manage and keep up to date with 8 teams of product planning and roadmaps and schedules and delivery dates.  And any time a spec would change, a feature would change, she would have to know.  It was so much work for this one individual.  And so she emotionally expressed that like hey this is impossible, like what you’re asking us to do is impossible.  And people in the room echoed her repeating what she said and said, you know from my vantage point, she’s absolutely right, this is impossible. And Perry was just so dismissive was just like, no, this is the way it’s gonna be. He didn’t even say I’m sorry or that’s too bad or like I hear you maybe we can figure something out like he was essentially like, no, you’re wrong, my Essence structure is perfect and you just need to do what you’re told essentially. And she literally teared up in there and he just moved on. - Robert

And You know they they had us Using okay ours. Objectives and key results to measure all of our like individual team efforts. But there was no and I had asked about this a few times and there was really no measurement of whether or not these sort of executive decisions were effective or not didn't seem to have any plan for measuring Them, you know, they were Their various isn't holding us accountable, but not so much themselves. - John


Leadership Flight 

Essences comes at the tail end of a wave of leadership flight. This is not necessarily abnormal when a CEO change is made but to staff, this was a symbol of a step backward, a loss of experience and progress that had been hard won over the last year of Yancey’s leadership.  One day, three of our highest ranking women leaders left at once, sending a strong message.  

I think pretty pretty early on the team and noticed that it was the women that were to party in More than the men from a leadership standpoint. I remember several conversations we were all working late as people departed the company. Our, our Kind of work extended because there's so much work to do. And after we would finish working around a we would go have a drink or a slice of pizza and we would talk about how disappointing. It was, um, I remember many nights like. - Sarah


Projects Falter 

Kickstarter wasn’t just losing senior leadership.  Turnover across every level of the company was affecting every aspect of the business.  This is when we start to see the large projects that staff had been rushing to ship, start to falter.  Drip, the most promising product expansion effort, starts to stumble as leadership starves the team of resources and support.  

The product was immediately neglected by Perry and his team as soon as he was able to kind of reclaim his throne at the organization. There were months and months that elapsed, where we had not seen or heard from him about product direction about roadmap questions. And this was starting to really impact both the team and the community of people who I personally basically had on boarded onto this platform, Ron, you know, we We couldn't make any moves. We couldn't launch anything we couldn't make any product improvements, because we were waiting for kind of the go ahead from a leadership team who had promised us that this was the most important initiative happening at the company at the time.   - Trav

You can find this story over and over again in Kickstarter history good hard work smart obvious ideas that we can definitely do no brainers make it all the way up to leadership and then die.   Time and time again Kickstarter is compared to Charlie Brown trying to kick the football before Lucy yanks it out of the way at the last minute, time and time and time again.  And most often the person moving the football out of the way, at the last second was Perry himself.  He stopped so much development. He stopped so much evolution. So much growth could have happened and time and time again Perry killed it, and then killed it again, and they would kill it again. This really beautiful thing that we need keeps trying to grow and adapt and persist and the very person who's most responsible for bringing into the world keeps pushing it back and pushing it down and hurting all the people that it could have helped hurting all the people that are working to make it better and keep it going.  It's just unbelievably tragic to me. - Taylor 

Perry Assumes CEO 

Through all of this turbulence, staff is under the impression that Perry and the board are working to find a new CEO with the experience Kickstarter needs to support this product-first vision.  

I remember him saying that he would be you know interim CEO. And so they were able to find someone who could fully commit to that role. And I remember asking at an all hands. For an update on the search for a more permanent CO and just Feeling like I had done something incredibly wrong like the number of visual slaps on the wrist that I was getting from the people I mean If looks could kill you know just how dare you. Follow up. I mean, if it's really felt like, How dare you follow up on a promise that we all made.  It was like, Listen, I'm just trying to follow up on something that that you told me was going to be temporary, are we still waiting for a CEO. Is this a permanent replacement, and if so, what are the metrics for that search. How is that search going because none of us. Have any access To that world. None of us feel like we can even ask questions safely in or outside of, you know, all team meetings to our CEO or are you know quote interim CEO at the time.  - Trav

But in spring 2018, we read in a public news article that Perry has quietly stopped the CEO search and decided to reclaim the role for himself.  Word spreads across the company that the list of CEO candidates that had been built while Perry was acting as interim CEO were never even interviewed.  

Morale & Trust Plummet 

And then… one day, a forwarded email thread sent to staff about something mundane includes a casual statement from Perry in the thread. He expresses how, in this moment of high stress and change, Kickstarter is meant to serve the creator community and that employees can always find a job somewhere else. Staff did not take this casual expression of expendability well.

Obviously there's, there's an element of truth to that, but like, who the fuck? Why would you say that? You know what I mean? Like everybody, if everybody can, can get a job elsewhere, but they choose to be here, then that's a good sign. You wouldn't, you want to like, support that rather than being like, Hey, if you don't like it, leave.  - Alfie 

Many employees, as Perry had predicted, decided to get off the ride. 

The turnover rate was embarrassing. And the institutional knowledge was literally walking out the door, and it was really hard to grow and ship products for months and months at a time. It was really tough. - Sarah

They stopped, allowing people to send a like farewell emails to all at Kickstarter, because there were so many and it was the morale like impacted morale. So the people team were like, You can't do that anymore. And so then people just started disappearing without you even knowing it. - Brian

It was honestly just traumatic that whole, like year of him were, uh, of him first coming on was just like, what the fuck is happening every week was like, four people will be on like I'm out.  - Alfie


Remember, during this mass exodus the teams were still trying to hit large project deadlines.  Drip’s beta needed to be built up to a full release and the deadline for the expansive site redesign was looming.  

That date will always, forever be like drilled into my head. It's like November 15 we have to get this done, you know.  - Amy

Just before the deadline, Perry decides that what the team needs to lift our spirits is a surprise… 

It was extremely starling. We had just experienced a mass shooting in Las Vegas. And it was a really it was a really hard week for some reason that mass shootings seem to resonate differently for a lot of folks. I'm not quite sure if it was the time honestly close that you could probably help me look that up. But I felt like one of the largest ones in a while and it wasn't at a school it was. I mean it was just horrible. I saw something bright out of the corner of my eye holding something in their hand. That was large and then people screaming from the other side of the building and in context of the mass shooting my literally first thought was, Oh my god, I'm on the second floor near glass. I don't know where my exit is like I thought for sure someone. It was the scariest day It was it was it was the scariest day that I've ever had in a professional job ever.  - Sarah

It was a whole conceptual plan over the course of a week. The first day there was one dinosaur. The next day, they're like two dinosaurs. It was like a Fibonacci sequence of dinosaurs over the course of like Of the week. And so the first day I was like this is Funny because there is a dinosaur sitting on a couch eating avocado toast. And I was like that to be that was like a funny send up of a tech company somehow by day five, when there were You know 15 dinosaurs and there is a troop of, you know, baritone saxophonist making loud grunts. - Brian

They're not really playing the instruments. They're just like making weird noises with insurance and literally The dinosaurs are like screeching and like yelling.  They came like around our desks and like up in our faces. And like there was all this noise and like it was just very disturbing and like it sort of sounds silly and at the time I remember saying like Kind of after it had like I feel like there's like someone who was like facilities person or an office managers like walking around being like, we're trying to shut it down, you know, that kind of thing. And, but it does get shut down and they leave and Um, Yeah, I remember sort of trying to sit back down at my desk. It was like 3:30 or something. So it's like leader afternoon but it's like not the end of the workday. And we have this deadline so I'm like, I tried to, like, take a deep breath and like, I'm an adult. It was just some dinosaurs, it's like not a big deal. Like, I can do this. I'm just going to work, and I just couldn't focus.  It was like come on, Perry, you can't give us a deadline and then distract us with this bullshit. - Amy

I remember looking at one coworker from across the room and she and I literally just shook our heads. We had never spoken before we just shook our heads when we realized that this was supposed to be a prank or whatever. And she and I left together.  - Sarah

It was just such a bizarre like jarring experience. And so then a bunch of us just like went around the corner to this wine bar and like just talked about how weird it was because there was just like nothing else we could do, because we were all just so in such a weird state. - Amy

Yeah, and I think that that was the first time I ever heard the word unionized or union in a discussion. Was after the dinosaurs. I yeah with I think with AB. We went to that bar up on on West Street, what's it called, everyone left the office and went to embark and gather and we're just like smoking cigarettes like 19 and i think i think i remember Aimee Mann, like I overheard Amy say unionized or something like that.  - Brian

Trust in leadership was at an all time low.  But so was leadership’s trust in workers.  Power in Perry’s newly assembled senior leadership team was hyper focused in just a few people and decision making was increasingly taken out of the hands of workers.  At one point, the Trust and Safety team tried to remove a user well known for hate speech in the Men’s Rights movement and the new VP of Community Strategy overturned that decision allowing the user to remain in the community.

… and I was really surprised the person is bad news, not the values that we stand for. Ultimately I disagreed with their decision. And I think it. It was definitely a gray area in our policy. And I was told by my manager at the time. So it kind of pick and choose my battles.  - Sarah


Always Punch Nazis 

On a sunny day in early August 2018, one of the defining catalysts for worker organizing at Kickstarter begins to take shape.  It starts as a slow burn within Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team as they encounter a pretty common occurrence.  A project was flagged by Kickstarter’s backer community and this triggered the need for the team to take a closer look at a small comic book.   

We were getting a lot of project reports that so essentially when people on the bottom of the kickstart on any project on Kickstarter scroll down you can report a project for a number of reasons. That can range from anything to being like, this is resale. And you know this. You can find this product on on Alibaba or Amazon and they're just whipping off to to saying this is racist or violent or this is whatever.  I remember being in meetings, especially since this was during the time that I was primarily like reviewing projects reviewing seeing looking at comments and then very much like living in the realm of like assessing The content that's being uploaded on the site because the moderation team of trust and safety and I see a couple of reports saying that like this project is that because it promotes violence. - AnonB

The Trust and Safety team then references a nuanced policy that several of these workers had helped write for Kickstarter.  This anti-violence policy allows violence, especially satirical violence, when it was directed upward at powerful and oppressive figures.  Art and cultural projects need to be able to punch up to criticize people in power. So the team takes a look, sees that the project, a comic book about a cartoon superhero punching Nazis, does not violate community guidelines, and they move on. Then, in the Trust and Safety weekly standup this comic book comes up again. 

So we hear from our legal and compliance team, we hear from our risk team, we hear from the general updates from our moderation team. And then we hit an agenda item, um, listed as APN or as, as we now know, always punched Nazis. Our team lead starts recapping the conversations that they've been having in, um, in con in conversation with, um, senior leadership specifically, um, our head of community and, um, and our legal team. - RV

And one of the updates that they shared was the decision that leadership had made to suspend always punch Nazis and I was surprised. - Sarah

It turned out that Brieghtbart had published an article, about this small comic book campaign, and in this article they called out Kickstarter for allowing a project to stay up even though it quote “insights violence.” The fact that this event was impacting leadership’s decision stokes a heated debate within the team. 

Coming from like a legal liability standpoint there there's there's an argument to be made that says Kickstarter this project called her violence and now violence is happening there for Kickstarter liable, that there's some convoluted way that could happen and the crux of this was that In the Kickstarter project itself. And I remember we went back and forth about this is was a pamphlet. So if you look at the project there is midway through the page and bright blue and kind of like that blueprint blueprint call it's so common, but it literally says how to punch a Nazi. And it shows like the smiling, man. And this is step one, finding any naughty, they have to make a fist. Step three. Attack step for admire work. Step five. Now keep punching So bear with that. With that, that itself that pamphlets became sort of the soul. The soul Crux piece of wide his projects became a firestorm.  - AnonB

The next day, the new Director of Trust and Safety announces that management plans to suspend the project.  It’s official.  And the team again asks the questions that had been brought up the previous day. 

… what policy is violating Why Are we choosing to action it this is in response to bright bar. This seems like extremely problematic, who's the decision maker, etc.  - Sarah

So these questions are coming and I want to be really clear that, um, our team, uh, the trust and safety team is the most diverse team at Kickstarter. Um, it has the most gender diversity with, um, like the most trans folks on it's team. Um, it, it has the most racial diversity, um, in terms of the percentage of the team that is non white. Um, and so these aren't just questions. Like I would S I think it's important to remember that Kickstarter as a whole is a very white, very SIS company. Um, and that's not, who's having this conversation. This conversation is being led by women of color it's being led by trans folks it's being led by Jews. It's being led by queer folks. Um, it's being led by folks with mental disability, all of us asking why is Kickstarter defending Nazis?  My teammates are experts on these policies and they had to watch their hard work, get, um, get totally blown by, um, because of, um, because of Breitbart and because Kickstarter was like, Oh, no, we don't want bad press from neo-Nazis.  - RV

And the Trust and Safety team disagrees so strongly with this decision from management, that they refuse to actually pull the trigger to cancel this project. 

Team mates were like, no, I refuse to partake in suspending this project.  Which I thought was extremely admirable. - Sarah

And I remember you know our manager and the director, leaving the room, and it was just the analysts. You know, it's just it was all of us testing this for being like, this is And I remember one number of things that we kind of talked about, like, this is in thing where, you know, there was a lot of are we really going to bend to Breitbart because because of this, etc. And so I remember we very easily, left, left room I to go join our, our, our, you know, our other co workers for what was done to be a pretty typical Thursday lunch.  - AnonB

I left that meeting, being very concerned about the direction that the company was heading specifically because will impress. We're so new to the company and to have such a Such a gross. Gross misunderstanding of how our policies are written and how our Violence policies and paint speech policies are written Was concerning so I left that meeting and I walked right over to Amy's desk, kind of in a daze Amy and I were very close friends at that point. And I was like, Amy, we need to go on a walk and she, I'm sure. I'm sure you saw the the leg look on my face of just pure shock and she immediately got up from her desk.  - Sarah

And Sarah goes like, hey, can you can you go on a coffee walk like right now. And I was like, sure. Okay, whatever. Be like, you know, I meet up at the front desk of her we go out the door and she goes, like Amy Oh my gosh, like this thing is happening and and tells me all about it. She's like, You know the trust and safety team greenlit this project. And now, like, you know, they're trying to go back on it and like CHRIS MITCHELL is doing this and like, you know, blah, blah. And we're sort of like we're like, we're really like freaking out. We're like, this is so bad because Right. It's like immediately. I'm like, okay, it's going to look like we're pro Nazi. This is going to be bad for the platform also like I am pro punching Nazis as a anti fascist anti capitalist who cares about human beings, so I'm like this is bad. So we're like, how do we basically it was like, okay, how do we pull this conversation into the open because that's what needs to be. It needs to be in in the open.  - Amy

She was like, we need a post something In slack to make people aware of this and I was like, we're I was nervous about doing that because as a trust and safety member I was definitely the lowest Ranked employee next customer service. I mean, there was no one lower than those two teams and it was a very felt hierarchy within the company. And Amy being an engineer, maybe an engineering manager at the time, and went to our other good friend, Robert, you know and love 

Amy and I were just like what the fuck and we look at the project and like this is ridiculous.  - Robert

And Amy was like like Robert and my will post something in Slack. And we'll see where this goes. And I was like, great. And it was an article The article that was chosen that we chose to post had just came out on stripe stripe is a payment processor that Kickstarter currently integrates with And they had been processing the payments of all right organizations and they got a lot of public bash backlash for choosing to do that. - Sarah

I go on Slack and I go in random and I post the article, and I say, Oh, I'm so glad that Kickstarter is better like so proud to work at a company that handles this sort of thing better than this other company right so Like totally like totally random total seemingly out of the blue, like really positive message, you know, I'm just so proud of Kickstarter for being better than this other company. And so then I start look that I start thinking about next steps. So I messaged Robert and I'm like, Hey, I just put this article in here. Um, you know, if you could just sort of like, I can't remember. At that point, if I told him about the details or if I was just like, Hey, like if you could sort of plus one this idea or like whatever he may remember The details there. But, um, so I yeah so then Robert GOES in and GOES LIKE. Yeah, totally, like, this is so great, you know, it gets like a few emoji reacts. And then there's like a heavy pause and I like I like and then just seeing it does exactly what we needed. You know, like it wasn't planned it wasn't coordinated and i mean i you know the consequences were were rough on her. Um, it was really brave of her, but she goes in and says, Oh, you know, I wouldn't be so sure about that… 

Well, leadership has decided to suspend this project. So I think, in fact, we do work for a company like that.  - Sarah

Like this situation is happening.  So that's so there it is. It's there. It's in the open. It's what we needed. We needed to pull this conversation into the open but that's also not where I personally stopped. So I am I just started DMA people and being like, did you see this.  So then it sort of kicks off this, you know, I think it was called a slack mob.  - Amy

And then the company then went into an uproar, and people suddenly started pinging the truck and safety channel asking for. Oh, what is this policy. Can you share the policy what's going on. This is crazy. And just the art. The conversations blew up in Slack about this project and everyone wanted to know what the hell is trust and safety doing what did play our have to do with it. But we're really going to bend to The to the to the republicans Jesus or the other going to offend to that the Nazis and Breitbart and and and the right wing yo and and how this is a piece of satire and The company was, you know, the workers broke up in arms about it.  - AnonB

Obviously, at the time, you know, in the political move in the political moment of America at the time any project that had anything to do with sort of the rise the alt right and all that stuff. We were all watching. We want our eyeballs on it.  So when one of them gets picked up for adjudication by the trust and safety team. Obviously we are going to, you know, be watching what happens. I mean, this is, it is important for everyone in the company and everyone interested in culture to see what these decisions that are being made are and how those decisions are made at all.  - Taylor 

A lot of these things like everyone had access to travel on board. All of these project notes if you have any admin abilities anywhere. At all, which everyone appreciate admin powers who works for Kickstarter, because that makes sense. Well, you can read everything, like, oh, this is, it is not confidential record right all the travel awards for trust and safety are available for people at the company.  - AnonB

So I looked up all of the outstanding reports against this project. And I think at the time, there were 50 or so, and every single one of them. Was clearly some like all caps. All right dude like and they were all in all caps. And And like every single one of them had been marked as a non issue by our trust and safety team. And that's because we have this guideline that says, For if a project is Punching up rather than punching down And that means like If, if you're describing violence or even the satirical way. Against the oppressor Then it's different than violence. Of the oppressor against the oppressed and And they had to enforce that guideline.  - Brian

That team had said that this project is fine.  It went through the normal routes, it went through the normal procedures and that team chose to let the project stay up. It wasn't until after Breitbart published their article that Kickstarter felt it was necessary to re examine that. - Patrick

A lot of people made their feelings known, me included, and then management announced they were having an emergency all hands meeting in the library and so we all went upstairs. - Taylor 

Library Meeting 

After slack became overwhelmed with questions and comments from staff, leadership calls an immediate AllHands. This meeting was positioned as a space for a discussion but immediately the room felt more like a courtroom with leadership sitting behind a giant heavy wood table that stretched the length of the room. The new General Council sat front and center beyond this table with the new VP of Community Strategy and the new Director of Trust and Safety on either side of him.

So I remember coming in and being like, alright, this is great, we’re gonna get this reversed.  Maybe we were wrong about these new people and they’re gonna reconsider their decision and this is how it’s gonna happen, right.  I sat down on the floor, there wasn’t much seating in the library.  Everyone was just kinda scattered along the floor facing the big wood tables.  And it felt like this big press conference and this big wooden table was dividing them and the angry crowd. - Robert

It was a clear divide so that it was very much like us focused on looking at them. - Sarah

Already this meeting is very interesting, the subject matter is interesting, management's made a bad decision and for some reason, they're all going to have a big meeting about it, which is great. It's good that we're talking about it. Right.  Also, the leadership team that's sitting up there at the table, this is their first big thing, right. These are the new leaders that Perry has brought in to replace all the people that he pushed out and that ran away after he came back.  Right, and they haven't really had like a big scandal yet. They haven't had a crisis. This is the first test of leadership for the new managers.  All three would later go on to be some of the most adamant union busters in the company.  Sitting up there they say…  did they even say it was a hard decision? I don't know, but they essentially said look we had decided to cancel this project. It does not meet our guidelines. It should not have been approved to launch in the first place. And now we will open it up to questions from the floor. They open it up to questions and then you know something really beautiful happened, which is that people who believed very strongly in the right things stood up and spoke to power. - Taylor 

It was just person after person, really eloquently telling these new senior leaders why their decision was wrong and not part of the ethos of Kickstarter.  - Robert. 

Here is audio from inside the library on that day when workers passionately push back on management’s decision. 

One thing that’s very concerning to me right now is the consistent use of the line, if you take out Nazis and change it to somebody else, then this is terrible. But could you please consider the fact that like, Nazis are actually an exception to that? They are exceptionally bad.  They exceptionally want to kill other people.  I’m concerned we’re treating Nazis like any other people.  Why that consistency, why are we treating nazis like anybody else? - Trin 

The way that the creator of this project describes Nazis, expand beyond the traditional context of Nazis to Nazi-like behavior, to the alt right, and other member of the conservative movement in which you can interpret that as far as you’d like to. - General Council 

But, it’s Nazis. - Trin

The General Council’s argument that depicting Nazis in present day clothing effectively expanded the definition of Nazi falls flat.  Nazis portrayed in comic books were punched by the likes of Captain America, Superman Batman, Green Hornet, Hellboy… and most of these nazis were drawn wearing the contemporary clothes of the time in which they were written. 

Artists are taking that moment and reflecting it in their work and Kickstarter is like, no you can’t do that.  And it’s like, what?  You’re supposed to support artists not police what they make. - AnonD

If you think about, like ok, if you think about it from a vacuum, ethically it’s wrong.  Because you’re not taking any historical context into account.  But you can’t look at cultural projects in a vacuum.  - Camilla. 

Kickstarter is filled with people that want to do good things in the world Kickstarter is filled with people that Want to see change in this world and wants to build a community together. I mean, so this this project. Was very personal for us, especially since we work for a public benefit Corporation, especially since we work for a company that says they are going to Be the change that the world needs. And this was just so counter to our mission to our values to our internal policies. It was all around upsetting with the additional Assault of it being because Breitbart wrote an article like Breitbart is so far from accredited news source, it's known to be a far right, new source is it was dangerous that we were even considering in responding to Breitbart in any kind of official fashion.  - Sarah

The people out in the world, creators and backers, they do - there’s not a consensus - but there is a feeling in general amongst those people that one of the major value propositions of these people is that we have a conscience.  We are a PBC, we took shareholder value and we moved it down from the top priority.  - Taylor 

I was what I know I shouldn't I shouldn't call myself brave, but I wasn't brave I was just so goddamn angry.  Everyone else is brave I was fucking mad. I just, I spoke up and I essentially said, look,the question of whether or not this project fits our guidelines is not the question we should be answering the question, we should be answering is what's the right thing to do.Now, even if this project goes against our guidelines and that's up for debate. Right. But you know the the trust and safety team will they're in charge of deciding if something goes against our guidelines. So, fine, whatever. But even if it does, we should not cow and bow down to a neo nazi PR stunt. Even if that means going against our own guidelines, because we have our guidelines and that's a Google Doc that lives in the cloud somewhere and if we vanished tomorrow, no one gives a shit right. Do we really want to be a group of people that when our time comes when it's our time to do even the little that we can to stand up against these fucking fascists.  Are we going to be the kind of people that just say, oh, well, we're just going to follow the rules and let the fascist do whatever they want, or are we going to say no it stops with us.  I think that as important as the websites guidelines are there is a larger set of guidelines called being a human being and probably on the maybe the bottom half. But definitely on page one, one of the rules is don't help Nazis.  Not helping the Nazis is more important than us following our website guidelines that was the argument made and they did not like it and you know this is the thing. They've got they've got that management mindset, you know, they think that you are a good person by following the rules, not you are a good person, because you do good for others. So even if the rules lead you to doing bad to other people they will still follow those rules. Because they believe value comes from following the rules. That's management mindset. And that's them in a nutshell. Right, like they're just they're there, they're hiding there there's cowards hiding behind this website guidelines and asking us all to go along and fucking aid and abet a Neo Nazi, fascist press kit. I mean, you gotta be fucking kidding me. Like you're in the wrong place, you know you you should go work at some bank or some dumb ass place like that. You know, do whatever. But like, not, not a Kickstarter.  And it's certainly not in any fucking room, I'm in. - Taylor 

We are a platform, and we have rules. If we were to put certain principles above our platform, depending on whether we agree with them or not.  What’s the point of having rules in the first place.  We have rules, we try to consistently enforce them.  To make an exception and say, well there’s this higher principle that I believe in so therefore this rule shouldn’t count, it kinda defeats the purpose of having a consistent rule set in which we can articulate to folks outside the site, this is how we do things.  - General Council 

Is this the hill to die on though?  We choose a lot of hills to die on at this company and I don’t think this should be one of them.  I’m a member of the Trust and Safety team and I hate that there is an implication that we agree with this decision. This has been framed as a discussion but it’s not.  There’s nothing like seeing someone post a slack message celebrating that Kickstarter is on the right side of history and then finding out that we’re not.  You know, we say we’re a PBC and we have all of these values but this kinda of thing just keeps happening.  - Lissette

They were new to the company three or four months in and They so missed the mark of our values and our policies for them to speak so confidently and inaccurately was an embarrassing reflection on our team.  - Sarah

We’re trying to be the good guys by arguing that no one should be attacked for their principles, no matter how misguided and lonely they are. - General Council 

But killing people? You don’t think people should be violent against people who are hurting other people? - Anon

I think if people are acting, they should be treated accordingly.  I think if someone has an idea, an idea is something that should be discussed.  - General Council

Jumble of disagreement from multiple workers.

This is not about my beliefs as an individual.  I’m trying to review this and do what’s best for Kickstarter.  I think it’s very easy to add our own personal beliefs into how we choose to interpret the rules.  - General Council

Management was just over their heads in a moral choice.  - Trin

Leadership has no answer for this clear display of frustration and disappointment.  And staff begins to feel demoralized.

This would have been such a blow to the community to the comics category.  I felt so defeated.  I felt like what am I gonna do? What am I going to say to my community? - Camilla  

This is when the Head of Comics outreach at Kickstarter stands up to ask a different kind of question.  A question that brings the ramifications of this discussion down to ground level.

Alright well it looks like you’ve already made this decision and we can’t do anything about it.  This would be a terrible time to kill the project because we’ve chosen to sponsor FlameCon and I’m going to be at this convention that is definitely anti Nazi, as it should be.  People perceive me to have all this power and influence over the company. Especially… like… this is a project in my domain… it would be a PR disaster.  Ok, yeah you’ve made the decision, we can’t influence it.  What are you going to do about protecting an employee who you’ve put in the line of fire?  What are you going to do to protect me? An employee’s digital and physical security is at risk because of this decision that you’re making.  - Camilla

If this is announced and we have to go into these spaces that day after day harassed and hurt by these right wing communities… to see Kickstarter give into that right wing extremism… people were worried that it would be so tarnishing for the brand that people would be angry at Kickstarter and take out their anger and rage at our representatives at these conferences. - Robert

The response to that was, like, Oh, well, maybe we should wait to system. The project till after the weekend, and that was one of the things that was like Just this most bizarre moment to me because it was like, oh, so we're fine betraying this community, but we don't want them to know until later, like, you know, it's like, it was very like it just didn't, it didn't, it didn't have a good moral grounding, to say the least.  - Amy

And I just I remember The lack of respect for that. And, you know, just being like, Oh, well, look into it you know that they that they didn't even Consider that You know, they didn't even think about how they might be putting their own employees in harm's way. Um, I didn't even think about that before they made that decision. - Brian

We had been told that it was a different type of tech company that we were here, not for profit, but for Building a creative community and helping creators thrive. And me, having been told and having come to Kickstarter because it's a different type of tech company you know, being told that my stock in Kickstarter is worthless, because it's a different type of tech company being told that my salary is reduced, because it's a different type of tech company and then seen it act like every other tech company. Yeah, that's what made me mad. It was like it was just the pure hypocrisy of it.  - Brian

And I remember you know, an engineer saying this is unconscionable. If we make this decision, I cannot see myself working here in the future.  - Taylor

You have to recognize that you doing this goes against the values that many of us came to Kickstarter for and many of us may consider quitting, myself included, because of this. - Brian

That takes so much guts.  To look your boss in the eye, you know, this big, hulking guy behind this enormous oaken table and I'm not exaggerating here, right. It's an intimidating setup and everybody else is sitting on the ground like children. And to stand up and look at that and say, what you're doing is wrong. I will not be a part of it to put your livelihood on the line like that, that takes so much guts and a dozen people spoke. - Taylor 


A lot of us spoke up at that meeting and nothing sort of happened. And so we left, and we just felt angry, you know, angry, but also kind of embolden, because we all saw each other, speak up about this. And we knew that we weren't alone. - Taylor

In that moment it was just so crystal clear that it would be unethical to let all the power in their organization remain in the hands of those few people. They were not responsible stewards of their power. - Taylor

So the thing that I was so after I walked out and I like, I think it was the end of the day, so I think I just went down to leave. And I was in the bike room. And that's when Taylor walked up to me. And screamed union.  - Brian

I walked out of that meeting, out of the emergency library all hands and I walked downstairs to the mailroom and I saw Brian in there, I saw one of my co workers and in the mail room that had also spoken up and I just leaned in and I said union. - Taylor 


Next in the oral history of Kickstarter’s union drive, staff experiences the aftermath of this collective action. Management cracks down on the most vocal dissenters and workers come together to support each other and build a union.  

It was abusive.  I'm like, trembling and even thinking about it because you threaten our jobs. It was So, clear and he's yelling at us while he's saying, so it was very clear that if you don't sit down and shut up and get in line, you get the fuck out.  - Sarah

To feel like he had the right to go into that room with the employees that were just doing their job and like… He didn't come do that to me, you know he didn't do that to me... You know, it needs to be said that the people on these team were, you know, mostly women, people of color trans, queer, you know, he felt that he had power over them in some way that he could yell at them like that. I don't think he would have felt comfortable going to a team, full of engineers and doing the same thing… And that's, yeah, it was, it wasn't fear it was infuriating. And I didn't. I wanted to do it. I couldn't make sure no one had to go through that again. - Brian