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A billion-dollar milestone for Kickstarter

FORTUNE — At 4:03 a.m. Monday, the billionth dollar was pledged on a Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunding company had ready a detailed infographic and web page to mark the occasion, noting that the sum is equivalent to 50 years of basketball star LeBron James’s contract for the National Basketball Association, where he is among the highest-paid players. It’s also just shy of the price Facebook paid for the mobile photo service Instagram.

The company now counts more than 5.7 million backers. Surprisingly, the average total amount pledged per capita is high — $175, according to the company’s own statistics. What may be the most surprising: Half of the billion dollars pledged since the company’s founding in April 2009 came in the last year.

Duncan McCloud Frazier and Steve McGuigan, the co-founders of Bitbanger Labs, have completed two oversubscribed campaigns on Kickstarter. Though the platform was already considered legitimate by the time they joined, it helped show them a different kind of future for manufacturing, they said. “You can have a company like us, which is two guys, create really worldwide products,” Frazier said. “It seems like a litmus of the maker movement evolving into more legitimate companies that are pushing out tangible goods.”

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The Brooklyn-based organization is built entirely on crowdfunding. Its first project, a sleeping mask called Remee, and its second, a tool for “painting” with light called The Pixelstick, both broke their goals by a half-millon dollars. Frazier and McGuigan said they wouldn’t have started the projects without crowdfunding, which makes it possible to pursue good projects for a narrow audience.

Angel investor Joshua Schachter invested in Kickstarter in December 2009. “Kickstarter is a sort of levering of the way humans like to be rewarded,” he said. “You get to donate to this thing, and you get to be a part of it. It changes the way people think about creative projects, how to build them, how to make them. It changes the way people think about the thing.”

It also lowers the bar for entry. For example, aspiring executive producers for movies can now involve themselves in several films at any level, Schachter said. Involvement serves as a sort of placeholder for aspiration, he added.

“It’s become part of the lexicon,” Schachter said of the company.

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One question that continues to dog the company is its liability for promises left unfulfilled. Officially, the company’s terms of use absolve it of any responsibility for unfulfilled rewards, but abuse of that position will hurt the company’s reputation over the long term. Is it a position that it can maintain forever?

A related concern is the troubling rise of “kicktrolling,” in which malicious backers who pledge large amounts to campaigns — large enough to put it over the top and into production — withdraw their pledge just before a campaign wraps, leaving the project in a lurch. Meanwhile, other scams involve backers who dispute the charges for rewards after they’ve been sent out.

Kickstarter, reticent enough to ask Union Square Ventures not to speak publicly about its investment for the first year, declined to comment for this story. But chief executive Yancey Strickler wrote the following in a blog post on Monday morning: “So what does it say that $1 billion has been pledged to Kickstarter projects? It says that we’re excited by new ideas. It says that we believe in each other. It says that there’s more art and culture in the world than ever before.”

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That last point may be the most interesting. There is much scuttlebutt about the death of the music and publishing industries, but on Kickstarter, they have been promised $104 million and $74 million, respectively. That’s nowhere near enough to replace those entrenched industries, but it’s enough to demonstrate how the Internet has facilitated both the means of their destruction and the way by which they are being reborn.

Which is why $1 billion pledged is just another brick in the company’s foundation, said Chris Kaskie, president of Pitchfork Media and a Kickstarter seed investor.

“It’s nice to see continued affirmation that carefully building a brand, a platform, a community, and something that stands for something — with a specific vision — can succeed in our world,” Kaskie said. “And can scale immensely and appropriately.”