It’d be more fun to light cigars

Kickstarter, the dominant player in the crowd-funding market, has seen rapid growth and adoption by a wide range of creative endeavors. Dollars committed have nearly quadrupled each year since launch.

With that growth, there’ve been an ever-increasing number of Kickstarter horror stories. Some, like Eyez by ZionEyez appear to have been outright fraud. Others, like Geode are well-intentioned projects that dramatically underestimate complexity and eventually give up. And for the vast majority, proposed timelines prove woefully ambitious.

I’ve been backing projects on Kickstarter for about a year, so it seemed like a good time to reflect on the ups and downs, and think about where it’s going from here. We covered some of this on episode 36 of Divergent Opinions but I want to dive a bit deeper. If you want an insider’s perspective on the Kickstarter process, I highly recommend It Will Be Exhilarating by Studio Neat.

I’ve personally backed 16 Kickstarter projects. Of those, 12 have been successful in achieving their funding goals. That’s a bit above the Kickstarter average of approximately 43% of projects meeting their goals. The total amount I’ve contributed is $604.

I treat Kickstarter primarily as a marketplace for interesting items. I’ll dig into different ways to think about Kickstarter in a bit. But my primarily motivation behind backing projects is because I want the item which is offered as a reward at a given funding level. To a lesser extent, I occasionally back projects for purely altruistic purposes. I suspect that I’m in a majority with this thought process.

Of the projects that have successfully been funded, 9 promised some sort of physical deliverable (books, gadgets, etc). Out of those 9, none have delivered, and 5 have missed their promised deadlines, in some cases by a substantial amount. Of the projects with digital deliverables (music, ebooks), 2 have delivered and none are behind schedule.

That simple statistic provides a pretty good insight into the ramp in complexity between creating a work (writing a book for example) and actually delivering physical copies of that work to people around the world.

So, of my successful projects, 16% have delivered on their promise, representing just 8% of the funds I’ve contributed. This doesn’t come across as a particularly solid investment.

But. I still fund things. Why is that?

Innovation is hard. Having a new idea and seeing it through to fruition is hard. Working out how to ship thousands of widgets around the world is hard. Hell, having boxes made to hold thousands of widgets is hard.

I fund projects because I want the things they’re promising. But more than that, I want the things they’re promising to exist in the world. And I want to support the people who feeling passionately about creating those things.

Let’s look at one project in particular, the ZPM Espresso Machine. Of the projects I’ve backed, this is the most severely behind schedule. The promise is a cafe-grade espresso machine for a reasonable amount of money. This is an incredibly ambitious project, involving not just manufacturing, but manufacturing an object that involves high pressure, heat, liquids and computer control.

At this point, I’d realistically guess that there’s substantially less than a 50% chance that this project will deliver a working, reliable machine to me. And yet, I’m not upset. Yes, I’d like to have that espresso machine, and I contributed funds to the project with the mindset of purchasing the object. More importantly, I want an object like this to exist. The creators saw a gap in the espresso machine market – cheap machines that produce slightly strong coffee are available starting at under $20, real espresso machines cost closer to $1000. While they may not succeed with this project, they’re pushing that market forward, making it clear that there’s a desire, and hopefully learning a lot so that next time, they can succeed.

Kickstarter is approximately three years old. Three years ago, it would have been laughable to think that a couple grad students without offices or factories could produce products that could sit on store shelves alongside products from Krups, Belkin, or Timex. It’s slightly less laughable now. And it’s getting more serious all the time.

I believe that we’re entering a new stage of Kickstarter-backed product development. There’s been enough time for a degree of expertise, specialization, and institutional knowledge to begin to be developed to support these projects. Kickstarter itself is beginning to get more savvy about filtering out projects that are unlikely to succeed. And projects themselves are beginning to appreciate the importance of bringing in outside experts early on.

While it may be too late for these projects, both the ZPM Espresso Machine and the Digital Bolex (of which I’m not a backer) have recently brought in outside project management and production professionals. This, to me, should be de rigueur for any serious hardware Kickstarter project.

Kickstarter, the company, needs projects to be successful. Not just successfully funded, but it needs them to successfully deliver on promises. They’re likely to face substantial legal challenges, in addition to a loss of credibility in the marketplace, if they don’t. And yet, they’ve always taken a hands-off approach to the projects that use their platform. Unlike Quirky, which shepherds projects through the process, Kickstarter is simply a website and a payment platform. I suspect they’ll need to reevaluate that if they want to survive.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to back projects that represent ideas which I believe will make the world a slightly more pleasurable place to be. I’ll continue to support people with big ideas. I know that, barring cases of outright fraud, the frustration I feel towards a project that fails to deliver is nothing compared to the frustration felt by the creators who’ve spent every waking moment trying to follow through on their commitments. In many cases, these projects represent years or decades of dreaming, prototyping, and sketching. While it may seem old-hat in Internet time, we’re still in the very early days of these sorts of projects, and I believe the future is bright.

3 thoughts on “It’d be more fun to light cigars

  1. Great post!

    It’s easy to forget how new crowdfunding/Kickstarter really is. It’s a legitimately game-changing innovation made possible by the wonders of teh internets, and unfortunately the “I treat Kickstarter primarily as a marketplace for interesting items” mindset you mention is super common.

    However it’s a fundamentally incorrect way to approach crowdfunding, and where a lot of problems are coming from. Kickstarter is not amazon. They posted to that effect here:, though my personal opinion is that they have not actually taken any real steps to fix that perception.

    While Kickstarter has always tried to be for art and creative type projects, I think a large part of their success as compared to other crowdfunding platforms is because of how store-like they are. My understanding is that they were as surprised and as caught off-guard by their success as anyone else. They didn’t expect their site to be as effective a tool for raising money for consumer-facing gadgets as it is, and have been rolling with the punches there.

    I think the view you settle on at the end of the article is the correct one. “I’ll continue to back projects that represent ideas”. The conceptualization of buying into a project, getting in at the beginning of a process and then watching it take shape step-by-step is what needs to be more heavily emphasized.

    My philosophy with crowdfunding has always been that it’s the same as a large group raid from an MMO. You and a bunch of other like minded people are pooling together to try and accomplish a goal bigger than yourself. With ZPM, we’ve always tried to be as transparent and informative as we can, and to involve our backers in what’s going on. The people who’ve backed us on Kickstarter have added significantly to the information and expertise available to us, and have helped us tremendously.

    I think the people that are upset with crowdfunding, and the projects that find themselves unsuccessful, or with a lot of bad PR, are exactly the ones that think of it as being the same type of interaction that you’d get at BestBuy or Costco.

    Crowdfunding represents an open-source gamification of investment and innovation support that is unprecedented in history, and that is experiencing some growing pangs. It’s still young and needs time to develop fully, but I think that with the proper education and mindset, it can be something truly amazing.

  2. Pingback: Crowdfunding: a buzz-worthy buzzword | Discrete Cosine

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