Kickstarting a New Business Idea

04/17/2012 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2012

The only thing scarier than showing something you're working on to your friends, the people who know everything about you and still love you, is to present your projects for scrutiny to complete strangers. This is especially true in New York City, the new mecca of art and technology, where everyone is at most one degree of separation away from people in the art world. This is even more true on the internet, where, you know, everyone who can see your website can tell you exactly what they think of your art.

Scared is what I was feeling a week ago when I pressed the large green button that would launch my first ever Kickstarter campaign. My project, which has been a year in the making (and about a week in the kickstarting), is an interactive pop-up book of New York City made from subway maps. The idea came to me while riding the train from NYU (where I study Interactive Telecommunications) to Greenpoint; it struck me that the lines and dots connecting all the subway lines resembled the layout of circuit boards. It also occurred to me that they serve sort of the same purpose: electrons travel along the connections, just as subway lines move millions of people every day, filling the city with its unique energy.

This metaphor of the map as a circuit board was the point of departure for a long journey exploring paper-based electronics, soft circuits, and small blinking lights. In my first experiments, I used copper tape to literally trace a parallel subway system behind the subway map. In place of the stations, I glued a magnifying glass to a pair of helping hands and spent hours soldering tiny surface-mount LEDs directly onto the paper. Slowly, as the weight of the circuits piled on, the paper and glue began to give away, and the copper subway lines lost their conductivity. It was clear that I would need more and better materials, but I had no way of funding such an expensive project on a student budget.

Still, I was sure that I was not the only person who found the lack of subway map art lacking, nor alone in my interest in the challenges of paper engineering. This is how I decided to launch my Kickstarter: to help me find those other people who are interested in what I want to make. In economic terms, Kickstarter is sort of a bartering system, facilitating the double coincidence of connecting those artists who want to make projects and those patrons who are interested in their ideas.

I have to admit it was a strange experience, writing a persuasive story about my project. Inevitable, you enter a rabbit-hole that can easily consume you... how much is your art worth when you're asking, you know, everybody?

I don't have an answer for that yet (my campaign is still going), but my hunch is that the length of the campaign and the reach of your social network are two determining factors in its success. The longer your campaign is open, the more time you have to promote it. Nevertheless, social networks are more dense than they are wide (as in, the people you know also know each other), so you have to work really, really hard if you want to break out of your network's outer limits. If I could start over, I would probably lengthen my campaign from a week to a month, and try to connect with the people in my network who have different friends and followers than me, to increase the probability of spreading the message to more new people. I know, I just know that there are other map and/or paper enthusiasts out there... I just need to find them!

I launched my campaign on Kickstarter with the hope that their platform would help me discover those people who are interested in what I have to offer: a highly whimsical paper sculpture with interactive, electronic components. Will this happen? I have no idea. I just know that I really want to make this pop-up book, and that I'm happy to live in a world (and in a city) where tools that help us overcome big social problems are being developed every day.