The Co-Founder of Kickstarter on Why He’s “Not Some Rich Tech Dude With a Tesla”
For Charles Adler, career happiness came when he learned to divorce work from the concept of money.
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Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our recurring series “Money Diaries,” where we ask interesting people to open up about the role money has played in their lives.
My parents split up when I was 10, and it felt like they were consumed with that drama for years. My sister and I ended up living with our dad, who’s an international marketing consultant. He’d always joke, “I don't really know what that means, but that's what I do.” Being the classic Midwestern midcentury stoic dude, he wanted to protect us from any financial stresses, but at times, we were close to tatters, times when my dad had lost his job and couldn’t make rent for his apartment. He could only hide it so much—some situation or another would make it very clear that we might be close to being totally screwed.
I always wanted to be an architect. In the library, I’d spend hours looking at Mies van der Rohe’s buildings but my dad would always tell me, there’s no money in architecture. So I went to Purdue for mechanical engineering, and in the midst of that I stumbled upon something that I really loved— doing design work for record labels, and designing their websites. It was just a creative outlet, tinkering. I realized that I could make a living doing the thing that felt like play to me. So I dropped out of Purdue to work as a Web designer and developer.
I usually convince myself not to buy things, and I've always been very wary of credit cards.
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My connection to money is fairly weak, to be honest. I inherited my father’s work ethic—workaholism—but the drive behind my work has never been purely about money.
People think that if you’re going to start a tech company, you’re going to become exorbitantly wealthy. The truth is most entrepreneurs don’t succeed. We were certainly part of the lucky few who came out with a massive success on our hands, but the goal was never about getting rich. It was about empowering people. That’s what drove us. That’s what fueled my work ethic. I think this becomes clear with our transition to become a public-benefit corporation. And I’d say this shift in the company is a great reflection of how I think about money and work: You need to be balanced.
So no, I’m not some rich tech dude with a Tesla. In fact, I usually convince myself not to buy things, and I've always been very wary of credit cards. Building Kickstarter was probably one of the hardest feats I’ve been through in my life. To make that point: In 2007, I was in Salt Lake City visiting part of our team. At midnight, in my hotel room, my heart started pounding, and my mouth went cold and dry. I thought I was having a heart attack. Thankfully it was only a panic attack, but it felt so real to me. The pressure was real: balancing zero income with the drive to see this thing through along with my cofounders.
Adding to this pressure, my daughter, Phoebe, was born in February 2009, two months and two days before we launched Kickstarter in April.
Two years ago, I left Kickstarter after seven years. I could have stayed but felt I had to explore new ideas.
Leaving Kickstarter was certainly scary. I’d never founded a company that was as successful or visible as Kickstarter, so I didn’t know what the other side of that was going to look like. But we had some savings to fall back on, plus I planned to consult, and my wife would return to work. This has allowed us to support ourselves while still making time as a family—even for little things, like dropping my daughter off at school and going to the park, which were admittedly things I’d not been able to effectively prioritize. Again, workaholism.
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Now my wife has more anxiety about money that I do. She came here from Korea when she was three, and her parents ran a little electronics store in Chicago. It was a very minimalist upbringing. We don’t fight about money, but we talk about it frequently, in terms of livelihood versus our life-lihood, how we can have the financial lifestyle we want but not work too much so that we can be more involved in our daughter's life.
Would I want to leave Phoebe a lot of money? Actually I think the answer to that would be no; I want to leave her independence. Which is not the same thing. And I think we could do something with money that has a greater impact than just leaving a trust fund for our daughter—arts philanthropy for instance. Right now I’m fascinated with the idea of B Corps—for-profit companies applying themselves to social impact, the intersection of mission and profit. I love the idea of being able to create another company based on the ideals we wove into Kickstarter: that you can create a profitable business that’s also creating a positive social impact, and the success of the platform means the success of the community. This is what’s important to me.
As told to Andrew Goldman exclusively for Wealthsimple. We make smart investing simple and affordable.
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