My Love-Hate Relationship With Kickstarter

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Kickstarter

Kickstarter is an amazing service. Yes, there are dozens more like it (and I’m a registered user of a few), but Kickstarter is the one that geeks (and everyone else) just seem to have flocked to when it comes to helping fund projects that interest us. Games, movies, books, music… these are just a few of the categories of projects that seem to pull in oodles of geek-funds. I think Kickstarter is like potato chips… most folks seems to be unable to fund just one. Me? I’ve funded 38 different projects — a few failed to raise sufficient funds, one or two were cancelled, and the rest have either delivered or have received funding and I’m just waiting for… the reward.

The reward. That’s what Kickstarter is all about. They don’t call it a consumer purchase. You’re not BUYING something. You are funding an idea, and what the organizations or individuals are providing to you is a reward. Call it what you like, but backers typically kick in funds in order to receive something in return. Give $25… get a DVD copy of a fan film. Donate $100… get a copy of a board game. Give $1… get your name on the website (and the ability to actually contribute to the Kickstarter project’s private comment screen rather than just read backer comments).

Backers. These are the folks who make Kickstarter projects a reality. Without backers, projects wouldn’t be able to raise the funds necessary to print game boards, manufacture video game controllers, and print books. Kickstarter is adamant that backers are not consumers. Again, backers are not BUYING something. They are contributing money in the hopes that the project takes flight. Any rewards that are provided to backers are merely a bonus… an agreement between The Project and The Backer. Kickstarter makes it clear in much of their Terms of Service that The Project should make every effort to fulfill the promise of the project and any rewards… but Kickstarter also washes its hands of any responsibilities should those rewards never appear in your mailbox (or inbox).

I don’t have any clear current statistics on how many projects that are successfully funded actually deliver their rewards. I imagine it’s a high percentage, however, or word would quickly spread that Kickstarter projects are just not a good idea for potential backers. I also imagine that the number of projects that successfully raise funds but fail to deliver their rewards is fairly small. I’m very fortunate that (so far) I’ve yet to back a project that didn’t deliver on a reward within a reasonable amount of time. I say “reasonable” because most of the rewards I’ve been scheduled to receive have been late — some a little late and others extremely late. I’ve also got a number of projects I’ve backed that have not yet reached their estimated deliverable date. Note the word “estimated.” It’s the wiggle room that many KS projects use when their backers begin to make some noise… more on that in a moment.

The title of this post is “My Love-Hate Relationship With Kickstarter,” and I’d like to explain that choice of words. This is not a rant. If you take it that way, fine… but my real intention is simply to share some of the things I like about Kickstarter… and some of the things I’ve disliked. For example…

Also Backed

LIKE: Kickstarter lets registered users view other backers’ project. Login to Kickstarter and click any project you are backing. Next, click on the Backers option and you’ll be given a list of all other backers of that project. Click on any name, and you’ll be shown an array of that backer’s other projects — past and present. It’s an outstanding way to find new projects that might be of interest. You’ve got to figure that if you’re backing Boardgame X along with John Smith, then clicking on John Smith’s other projects might reveal Boardgame Y that you somehow overlooked in your search. I’ve found a number of potential projects that I’ve chosen to back, simply from looking at what my fellow backers are funding. (The guy above — 482 projects backed!)

DISLIKE: Kickstarter lets you search for projects by keyword (using a Search box) as well as categories. But there are times it feels like looking for a needle in a haystack. You have to click on a result to actually open and read its details. It’s a slow-going process that really needs a better solution. I wish there were a way to tap on a project’s box to flag it. Then, after looking through all the various projects for 5 minutes or 5 hours, you should be able to filter out everything else but your flagged items. But right now, you’re limited to viewing either projects all from the same category or Staff Picks or Popular This Week items.

Ask Question

LIKE: Kickstarter lets you email a project directly with a question. It’s right there… before you ever back a project, you can click the big Ask a Question button at the end of most Kickstarter pitch pages (or the KS project’s main page) and usually get a fairly fast response given that the projects are anxious to convert you to a backer. I use this a lot — even if I’m already a paid backer. Sometimes I want clarification, but sometimes I also just want to ask a question without 100 or 1000 other commenters chiming in.

Lots of Backers

DISKLIKE: The comment section is broke. First, you can’t edit. Type up your comment or question and click Submit, and forget fixing a spelling error or adding clarification if you think of something else. Instead, you’ve got to add another comment. For especially popular projects where the commenters are in the 1000s (or, say, 26,238 and growing), your comment can immediately drop and drop and drop, disappearing off the page and getting lost in the 100s of other questions/comments being posted. And like email, your comment can often be misinterpreted as sarcasm… or ignorance (what, you didn’t see the answer to that question 50 pages back in the comments from six weeks ago?)… or outright hostility. The comments tool needs a Search feature… and a filter feature that can show your comments along with any responses. Most commenters use the standard @originalcommentername to post responses to specific comments, but not all. A nice reply button would clean up the comments section and keep things organized. Right now, it’s just a mess.

Stretch Goals

LIKE: Forget like… I love stretch goals. With early Kickstarter projects (ha… like two years ago — how’s that for early?), there was no such thing as stretch goals. Projects either raised $10,000 or $5000 or whatever… or they didn’t raise the funds. Now, projects provide incentives for backers to spread the word and for new backers to jump on board by providing stretch goals… extra rewards or benefits or promises that will be delivered in addition to the original rewards. I must point out the recent Dwarven Forge’s Game Tiles Kickstarter that was offering 3D dungeon tiles to backers. The project wanted to raise $50,000 and ended up raising almost $2 million. Yes, $2M. Backers at $120 were originally going to get 68 pieces, but as the funding kept increasing, so did the extra pieces. By the project’s end, that $120 backer got the original 68 pieces PLUS 80 additional free pieces!

DISLIKE: Kickstarter projects can change deliverables during fundraising. As I understand it, this doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time, you watch the video and read the project’s description and choose to back the project or not. But there have been instances of a deliverable being changed after the project starts raising funds. This has happened to me a couple of times — once I didn’t think anything about it and was actually wondering what all the fuss was from other backers. And then it happened to me. I backed a project based on the video and the photos of the project. Halfway through the 30 or so days it was raising funds, the project changed the overall appearance of the final reward. The new product appearance didn’t work for me. But other backers loved it. I now found myself in the shoes of that other project where I didn’t care about the change. That’s when it hit me… changing the project mid-funding is allowed. Projects frequently use the “artwork not final” disclaimer, but I am now firmly in the Do Not Approve camp. Small changes I can understand… but clear, easy-to-discern changes should not be allowed. At a minimum, a mechanism should be available for existing backers to vote or at least voice their dissatisfaction. (I should also note that commenters can be a nasty lot — the backers of this particular project who voiced dissent against the change as I did were frequently insulted or at least had to deal with accusations of being whiney children. All we were asking for was for the original product design to be made available to backers.)

Remind Me

LIKE: Take advantage of the 48 hour reminder. A lot of folks aren’t aware of this, but on every Kickstarter project page, there’s a small button that can be enabled that will send you a reminder message 48 hours before the project funding period ends — just tap the “Remind me” star below the project’s video. I use it a lot. Sometimes I just don’t have the funds for a project at the moment, but that 48 hour reminder could be weeks or even a month or more away. It’s nice to get one more look at projects I might still choose to back.

Early Backers

DISLIKE: Kickstarter allows Early Backer price breaks for identical items. This is one that people seem to either feel strongly about… or just don’t care. It works like this — Project X will give the first 50 backers $100 off Reward 1. Another backer level is then created, offering the next 50 backers $50 off Reward 1. Another backer level is added for everyone else, only they’ll be paying $100 more than the earliest 50 backers and $50 more than the next 50 backers. And everyone gets the exact same reward. What bothers me about this is that those early backers are sometimes friends and family members of people involved in the Kickstarter. They get the price break and everyone else pays a bit more. I’ve seen Kickstarters go live and sell out of 50 or 100 limited slots within minutes. Minutes. And then the backer level jumps $50, $100, or more. It’s not going to change, and projects are going to continue to do it. But I’ve drawn a line in the sand and I refuse to back projects that give exceptional price breaks to early backers. $5… maybe $15… I can deal with that kind of price break for those backers fast on the mouse. But anything higher… I’ll wait for retail or just miss out.

NOTE: I’ve received some direct emails from projects about this issue. One explained that manufacturing contracts will often allow for price savings as the quantity ordered goes higher. But the projects added that they cannot spread the cost savings across existing backer levels as the number of units goes higher because Kickstarter won’t let them modify the prices set for backer levels. That doesn’t really make sense. If you’re going to manufacture 50 units at a cost of $1000 per unit, for example, then an order of 500 units should net you a price of, say, $850 per unit. We all know that the more units you order, the lower your costs. So the price for later backers should come down, not go up. All you’re doing is increasing your profit margin by hitting later backers with a higher price. If you’re hitting in the 1000s of backers (as opposed to an original hope for 50 or 100) and the price drops drastically for orders of this magnitude, lower the overall backer level price by creating a new backer level and let those 50 or 100 early backers drop out and come in at the new LOWER price. Simple!

Not VC

LIKE: Refunds are a possibility. Now here’s the rub… Kickstarter doesn’t issue refunds. You’ve got to contact a project and request one and hope they will issue a refund. If they won’t, you may be out of luck unless your credit card on file with Amazon is friendly to customer complaints. Unhappy backers are nothing new. Most backers realize that “estimated” delivery times are just that… estimates. But when you’ve got a project going on two or more years with no deliverables, you’re going to have some unhappy backers. I’ve got one project I backed (fully funded in November 2010) where some of the backers have still not received their reward. That’s over two years! I’ve got another (full funding in July 2011) that’s coming up quick on two years with no deliverable. Thankfully, the amount I backed on those isn’t going to break the bank. But what about the two $10,000 backers of Code Hero (funded in Feb 2012) or the dozens of $1000+ backers? Haven’t heard about this one? By all means, take a visit and read through the 100s of comments of backers who have waited for over a year for a full version but are only now just getting an alpha version. (Thankfully I passed on this one after listening to the pitch at Maker Faire 2012 in California.) This project has run out of funds (that news is directly from the Code Hero creator), so what are backers to do?

DISLIKE: Refunds are possible, but Kickstarter washes its hands when it comes to your money and any type of accountability. Kickstarter (and Amazon) are happy to take their cut of the funds that are raised, but that pretty much is the end of their involvement. What bugs me so much about this arrangement is that Kickstarter equates funding to risk-taking, just as venture capitalists take risks when giving money to startups. Kickstarter matches startups to backers… plain and simple. That’s the service. But KS is not the same as VC. Venture capitalists believe in due diligence. You better believe when a VC firm is going to drop $2 million or $2 billion on a startup, they’re going to investigate the startup’s key players, their products, and their capabilities to deliver. KS has a project submission procedure that, while not extremely simple, is fairly fast to get through. Create a video, type up your pitch, prove you’ve got an Amazon account, and you’re gold. Backers do not have the assurances that VC firms have when it comes to due diligence. Now, to be fair, KS doesn’t promise those kinds of assurances. But then again, it’s not their money. They get a cut if a project succeeds in funding, but that money doesn’t go back should a project fail to deliver. And that’s a major concern (and gripe) of mine — for all practical purposes, a group of backers can pull together thousands or even millions of dollars and, in essence, equal a VC firm. But we lack the VC firm’s ability to investigate. We also lack a VC firm’s legal capabilities. (I’ve not yet heard of any successful class action lawsuits, but I know one  is being discussed in the Code Hero comment section.)

Wrap-Up

Let me return to my first statement — Kickstarter is an amazing service. I stand by that. I’ve backed 38 projects (so far) and I expect to back many more. Many of my decisions to back (or not) are simply from-the-hip decisions. I like this project. I don’t like the backer price of that project. Nice video. Horrible stretch goals. My friend is backing this one. A fellow GeekDad writer is warning me about that one.

For geeks, Kickstarter can put some outstanding geek-y rewards in your hands. You can keep your eyes on certain categories (such as Electronics or Games) and be guaranteed that you’ll find something that just screams for you to throw money at it. But here’s the thing — geeks are (typically) tech-savvy. We understand risks. We have our ways of kicking tires and finding answers to our questions. We share the good and the bad with our fellow geeks, warning them from some things while totally pushing them in the direction of other things. But Kickstarter isn’t just for geeks. Anyone and everyone can get on KS and back a project. It’s easy. And addictive.

And that’s why I continually fight with my Kickstarter habit. KS has so much to like… and so much to dislike. There really doesn’t seem to be any alternatives (similar crowd sourcing services seem to all have the same rules and terms of service), so for now… I will take the good with the bad.

I welcome your comments about Kickstarter, but let’s try and do what the Kickstarter comment page asks of its commenters, please — “Be respectful and considerate.”

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