Friday, January 20, 2012

A Love Letter to Kickstarter

[This is a discussion on the business of Kickstarter and Quirky and why I love/hate them. Lately I've been thinking that there is a lot of "this is cool" and not enough of "this if what I think" on here, so here's what I think, There are interesting points and maybe opinions you don't agree with. I'd love to know what you think about what I think. Go on, have a read! - Jennifer]

Kickstarter, I love you. I know it's taken me a long time to come out and say it, but I think you are truly a beautiful thing. I love that you bring people who make things and people who appreciate well made things together. I love that you let brilliant projects that would normally be shot down by large corporations be funded by the effort of thousands of everyday people. I love that I can fall in love with an idea and receive it months later, having the satisfaction of knowing that I had a hand in it.

But you know what? I think you're doing it wrong.

Surely everybody, not just me, have been fascinated by Kickstarter. It imbues one with a sense of pride and community -- a sense of "hey, maybe I can do it too!". I know I always dig out my sketchbook after a good Kickstarter browsing in search of that elusive "great" idea.

Having recently read this insightful article by Matt Haughey (this is mind opening and I would suggest reading the comments as well), I started really thinking about the business of Kickstarter and why we should be wary of it.

Let me just explain. Unlike buying things from a online retail store, you're not buying something from Kickstarter or any of the people who are behind the projects. Being a backer is being an investor, and with an investment there are certain risks to it. Buying from a retail store means that there are assurances to what you get and when you'll get it. If it isn't what you wanted, you get your money back. Investing on Kickstarter means just that -- there are no guarantees, there may be no return.

Kickstarter is like an ill-managed investment firm that doesn't properly inform the users what they are getting in to. There are two sides to this delusion. Project starters think of Kickstarter as a piggy bank: once they get the funding for the product, it'll be a short stretch to the finish line. Project backers think of Kickstarter as like they would of Amazon: I see something I like, I'll pre-order it.

But misinformation isn't what I think Kickstarter is doing wrong. I don't think Kickstarter is some kind of greedy money grabber (though they do take 10% of what is funded for a project). I think they are genuinely trying to connect designers with the end users of their product. What I do think they are lacking is a sense of where their users come from and what they need.

You see, many of the project starters are people just like us. (Really talented) people who want to make things, and want people to love the things that they make. We know how to make things for ourselves, for family and friends, but do we know how to make things for 5000+ people? No! And why should anybody expect us (or them) to? Even if you give us 250k to make a product come true, we would have little clue as to where to start. That's why we go to school, not just to learn how to sketch or model fancy things on computers, but to really understand how to make things, on a large scale.

I'll give some examples to better illustrate my point.

1. Pen Type-A. (I am a backer for this project!) Started by Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy, a 2 person design studio based in Brooklyn. Neither of them trained as product designers -- Che-Wei was trained as an architect and Taylor works mainly in multimedia. But they had a brilliant idea for a pen that everyone else loved.

Pen Type A was superfunded by 112%, from a wanted $2500 to a staggering $282,989. Imagine being them on August 15th when it was funded and getting almost 300k at one moment! The initial ship dates were set for mid-September of last year (about a month after being successfully funded.) I have yet to receive the pen 4 months after.

I can honestly say I've gotten my money's worth though. Their journey in getting these pens made has been an amazing one, from finding a manufacturer to ensuring quality to securing packaging. I'm glad that I've been taken along for a ride and cannot wait to finally get my pen. (Please please please read all the updates on Pen will gain so many new insights to manufacturing and this field in general.)

2. Lockpicks. Lockpicks is a set of lock picks designed to feel good while using and make learning the craft faster and more comfortable. From reading the comments of the backers though, most of them think this project was a scam. It was started by Shulyer Towne who describes himself as such:
"I'm a competitive lockpicker and graphic designer based out of Boston, MA. I am one of the fastest pickers in the country and compete internationally as well. I have been featured for my lockpicking on All Things Considered, the Boston Globe and even a show on the History Channel."
The lastest update indicates that he's out of a job and has spent the bulk of the Kickstarter money ($87,407 out of a wanted $6,000) supporting himself, and is planning on making hundreds of sets in his grandfather's garage as opposed to the original plan of mass manufacturing them. He's admitted that he screwed up the project.

3. i+Case for iPhone 4/4s. This is is well explained by Matt Haughey, so again, I direct to read the wonderfully written article.

I guess what I am getting at is that people need mentors, connections and experience to succeed in producing a product! None of these above designers have ventured into the the world of manufacturing prior to their Kickstarter project, no wonder none of them were able to deliver on schedule/deliver a perfectly working product. Kickstarter, as with any business, should provide these resources to help their users (and in turn itself) succeed.

This is where I want everyone to turn their attention to Quirky (recently, the Quirky Stem). Quirky brings great ideas together with experienced industry professionals to create a successful product (also, experienced designers!). I think this is what Quirky is doing right: it realizes the weaknesses behind these ingenius ideas and gives the designers mentors to smooth out the rough spots.

However, Quirky doesn't capture what I love about Kickstarter. Quirky is partnered with big retailers and doesn't allow consumers to "buy into" products and leaves the inventor less than 30% of profits. Projects are also funded by investment firms. In my opinion, Kickstarter has the spirit of crowdfunding and the idea that anyone can make it.  To me Kickstarter is selling an experience, of following people just like us on an adventure to make something they love. And I think Kickstarter should cherish that, but try to sell more positive experiences (like mine with Pen Type-A) then negative experiences (i.e. Lockpicks). And a way I think they can do that is provide mentors and give budding designers the help they need to make successful things for everyone.

It is really fascinating thinking (out loud) about two radically different approaches of making people's ideas into reality. If you've made it this far, I thank you for continuing to read my humble thoughts, and I would love to hear yours. I love a discussion and I think a lot of my peers do too!