How bicycling helped Kickstarter’s co-founder build a great company: a story in 3 moments

March 19, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Charles Adler, right, with cofounders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler. Image: Getty.

Charles Adler might have been a million other 40-year-olds, trying to remember the moment of his adult life that brought him back to bicycling.

“Part of it might have been getting back in shape,” Adler recalled. “Part of it might have been that I was living right next to Prospect Park in Brooklyn.”

Whatever the reason, like a million other thirtysomethings, Adler decided to get a bicycle and take it for a ride. Over the next few years, as he tackled the biggest challenge of his professional life, he kept riding.

And as the company Adler was co-founding — Kickstarter — raised its billionth dollar of creative crowdfunding this month, we talked to Adler about three moments he does remember: three moments that show how biking, he says, helped him and his friends create the company of their dreams.

Moment one: Replenishment

Adler was dirt broke, living off his wife's salary in their apartment in Emeryville, Calif., while he worked around the clock with a little team who'd had an idea they thought could change the world.

“My co-founders were both in New York, and our developers were scattered across the country,” Adler said. “It's quite an epic act at some level — I don't mean that in the heroic sense, but in the 'it's really hard' sense — to start a company. There's no map on how to do these things. There's a lot of late nights and a lot of stress and a lot of coffee.”

But for Adler, who was the startup website's head of design, there was one key perk: the bike breaks.

“One can't help but ride when you're in California,” Adler said. “There's this thing with the West Coast where the weather is sort of teasing you to go out and play.”

So when the weather called, Adler would answer. He found two local guys who worked night jobs and could join him for midday rides.

“That was a very visceral, replenative act,” Adler said. “We rode around the reservoir and it was absolutely stunning. Cycling gave me that way to divorce myself from the troubles of the day. Which also gave me some much-needed clarity.”

Moment two: Exfoliation

Then their website launched. They called it Kickstarter, and the early press was good. Adler moved back to New York City to join the growing team at the company headquarters.

For a man who describes himself as an ambivert — half introvert, half extrovert — it was a new sort of trial.

“Creating a company's hard. Running a company's also hard,” Adler said. “I would commute to work, not every day but predominantly, by bike. It was an awesome way to start my day away from people. I didn't have to huddle up in the subway. Even better, perhaps, was this tension at the end of the day between taking all that pent-up energy from the office and dumping it onto the pavement on the ride home.”

He'd arrive home between 7 and 8 p.m., sweaty from his evening ride, to kiss his daughter good night.

As Kickstarter took off, Adler was living his goal — but it was the weekend rides that came to anchor him in the life and city he'd chosen.

“There's this typical weekend pilgrimage that goes on in New York,” he said. “That is the ride to Nyack, N.Y. 70-plus mile ride. I became fascinated with just the physiological impact and psychological impact that this ride would have on me.”

The day would begin in Manhattan, at the center of the world, and stretch up the island, across the Hudson and up the river's west bank into the countryside.

“You go to the middle of the island, and you're in like, this mega-urban environment, on some level fighting for your life to be on a bike in a city,” Adler said. “Probably like 10 miles in, there is this nonspecific point where all of that disappeared for me.”

It was a moment of liberation.

“You need to go through the rigor of Manhattan to really appreciate riding along the river,” he said. “My family would disappear, work would disappear, my neighborhood would disappear. I would describe it as the act of exfoliation."

Moment three: The Midnight Riders

Adler's third bike memory came less than a year ago, late on a long day at the office.

He felt like a bike ride.

“It was 11:30 at night,” Adler recalled. “I was like, you know, what, f--- it. Does anybody else want to go with me? So I emailed out to the whole company — 70 people, something like that — 'Do you want to go on a midnight bike ride with me?'”

Sure, a few people replied. It became, Adler said, “a thing.” Eventually about a third of Kickstarter's staff had joined the mailing list.

“We even had a hashtag: #midnightriderz,” Adler said. “We'd post on Instagram and tweet about it.”

Adler remembers one night the Kickstarter Midnight Riders rode to an old World's Fair site they'd discovered in Queens and split a six-pack of beer.

“It was like, literally two o clock in the morning,” he said. “We stopped by a little food truck and had some tacos — or actually no, it was Cuban food.”

For the tech entrepreneur, it was a New York moment to remember.

“You're hanging out with guys who just get off work — you know, the bell just blew,” Adler said. “The beautiful thing about it, both running and cycling, is that it connects you to the place that you live, whether it be Portland or New York or Duluth, whatever.”

Adler sees bikes as part of a bigger shift that he thinks the Internet is bringing to American working life.

“If I take a broad view and look at culture at large, I think it's more than cycling — I think it's reconnecting with the world around us,” he said. “Those of us who work on the web act very differently. And that is to say that we socialize together, and it's not all for the sake of business. It's about enjoying one another's company.

“I feel like it's all part of this new culture that's been bubbling for the last, like, 15 to 20 years: Wanting to create a future that breaks down the barriers of the past,” Adler said. “I mean, it's not about wearing suits and it's certainly not about some overly structured Casual Friday. It's about work and life, the lines being blurred between those two things. It's about hanging out at the office because you want to, or going for a bike ride because you actually like the people you work with.”


Adler's bike at his office. All photos except the first are courtesy Adler.

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