Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced project funding platform, is now officially a thing. It’s being actively parodied by comedians all over the web with videos that mock the slick, yet warm and heartfelt-approach of its best pitches.
Those jokesters can make fun all they want. Many Kickstarter projects are laughing all the way to the bank.
Every day I read a story about a new Kickstarter project zooming to $1 million dollars. The Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter gobbled up $3.3 million and Pebble sought $100,000 and got $7 million. This is serious funding. It’s angel-investor level stuff, but without a venture capitalist in sight.
Kickstarter is, ostensibly, not about starting a business. Instead it promotes closed-loop projects. When someone has an idea — whether a movie or a new piece of technology — and cannot make it without some cash, it’s a way to solicit enough cash to make the idea a reality. If the project doesn’t reach its funding goal, it doesn’t get any money.
On the other hand, what’s the purpose of building one of these projects if you’re not intending to start a business? Surely Pebble wants to finish building the E Ink-based smart watch, sell a billion of them and use the profits to make more.
I have never funded a Kickstarter project. No, I’m not immune to the lure of a good pitch. I’ve watched videos for everything from the Galileo remote-controlled iOS robot to Versalette sustainable woman’s clothing and thought, “Wow, that’s cool.”
I’ve also wondered how some Kickstarter projects create such awesome videos. These pitches look like mini movies. Though, as parodies point out, they all use similar tricks: the defocus/focus, a project leader staring off into the distance, close-ups, clichés and aphorisms overlaying imagery, artsy shots of the team and where they work and a moving soundtrack. These videos make the project ideas and prototypes many times more compelling than they might be otherwise.
The more cynical side of me wonders if we aren’t all being played. I mean, who wouldn’t watch these videos and want to make these projects a reality? I wonder if venture capitalists watch the pitches and laugh. Before they back something, they get a good look — a really good look — at the people, the product/prototype/project and the market. They know so much before they decide to invest at any level. For them, it’s all about measuring risk.
Kickstarter investors get the satisfaction of knowing the project will get done and, if the project warrants it and the pledge covers the retail cost of the final project, a copy of the product. Not every project allows for that. Spencer Tunick’s Dead Sea Art Installation, for example, is pure satisfaction. He plans on filling the dead sea with naked people, and managed to surpass his goal of $60,000, by almost an additional $60,000.
The platform has its own fairly obvious charms. It’s proven effective. It’s public and, therefore, open to social sharing. And there are no VCs leaning over your shoulder, asking you tough questions about your project or trying to steer it in a, potentially, more market-friendly direction (“Hey, maybe we could just put some clothes on all those people in the Dead Sea.”).
I do wonder, though, if all of the buzz surrounding Kickstarter is now driving funds into projects that would otherwise never make it in the real world. There’s sort of an irrational exuberance around every new Kickstarter idea. Pebble is a good example. Smart watches, or watches that connect to your phone, are not a new idea. I reviewed one (WiMM One) earlier this year. Sony has one, too. But something about Pebble’s E Ink-based version captured the imagination and it zoomed well past its $1 million goal to $6.5 million.
This is not the company’s first smart watch. As the video notes, they started with one for BlackBerry (what company targets BlackBerry users first?). This is the follow-up, but they needed funding to complete it.
In other words, they didn’t make enough revenue to build and sell the Pebble. It’s also possible that a tiny company like this sees Kickstarter as a way to spread the risk. The company cannot afford to pour $100,000 into its own project, so it let fans do it (or at least the fans they expect to garner on Kickstarter with their awesome video).
Like I said, Kickstarter investors get satisfaction and, sometimes, a product. But if a product like Pebble is a failure, all they have is a really cool end-of-life gadget. Something that, as technology moves along, will be no more useful than the rock it’s named after.