On kickstarting projects

My experience with the crowd-funding platform

I'm not a person who likes to judge people. You will read some of my writing here and think I'm opinionated and harsh at times. Apps are only lines of code so I always try to see what went into making it, see why the people behind it chose to do a certain thing. And when I criticise, I always make sure I speak about the end result, the idea chosen rather than the developer. I completely get MacStories' Federico Viticci when he says "I write about technology, but it’s really more about the people".

Perhaps as a result of this interest in knowing what goes into creating a product, I've been following Kickstarter closely. In a nutshell, Kickstarter is a fundraising platform where random people pledge money to see a project become true. Unlike other systems attempting to do the same, Kickstarter allows everyone to participate with the promise that if the funding threshold isn't reached, you can keep your money. The deal is simple and the promise to be able to observe the development of a product is something unique.

Kickstarter not only allows you to build that relationship with the creator but also with likeminded individuals who pledge their money with similar enthusiasm. At times it feels like an overcrowded session of Dragon's Den, where everyone feels entitled to direct the project after giving a handful of dollars. You also get extremes, where backers feel like venture capitalists claiming a stake — at least a moral one — in the company. Most people just use it as a shop and eventually complain about delays in shipping. Not a big deal.

Why would this be? Because unlike actual shopping, pre-ordering an item in such a way sets really high expectations for products that nobody has tried yet. See the Marco Arment's experience with his Elevation dock.

Total amount pledged: $494

I wouldn't be writing without any emotional attachment to the platform. For the last two years I've been browsing the catalogue regularly looking for the next cool gadget, videogame or iPad accessory. I've backed a good amount as well. Now it's the first time that I'm looking at Kickstarter without waiting for any of the projects to be funded, products manufactured and shipping. I have nothing in the waiting list. Perhaps this is a good time to recap how my experience has been so far and an opportunity to see if other backers feel the same. This are the products I've received during this time.

PadPivot

A foldable tablet stand small enough to carry around. This was the first one and my gateway drug into Kickstarter. The creators Bernie Graham and Jim Young formed a delightful tandem making the development of the product almost work the pledge money along. The end result, the PadPivot, isn't very robust but it's become my default iPad stand.

PadPivot, lap and desk stand on Kickstarter

LetterMpress

An iOS app that replicates a letterpress to create your own designs. My first foray in mobile software funding was motivated by the desire to contribute to the preservation of original wood type. John Bonadies showed he was more than an enthusiast and used the money raised to purchase the always difficult to get hold of vintage types to make them accessible for everyone. Like many apps, this one got deleted quickly but the experience was worth it.

A beautiful collection of vintage wood type for your very own letterpress

Cosmonaut

A chunky stylus from the creators of the Glif. What promised to be a very quick project, in reality took ages. I believe the end result suffered, and although I still love the concept, the Cosmonaut isn't great. The tip felt too mushy for my taste and quickly moved on after discovering it was much easier to draw with my finger on the iPad.

Wide-Grip Stylus for Touchscreens

i+Case

A kick-ass aluminium iPhone bumper that turned out to be a death grip trap. A true disappointment with what I will call the Kickstarter trinity: late, useless and cocky attitude. Most of the one thousand backers probably didn't like the style or the price of the aluminum Elementcases, so went for this instead. The experience was truly awful, with the creator giving plenty of embarrassing passive aggressive replies to random backers. Shame he also denied the case didn't make the iPhone lose coverage. It did.

i+Case // iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 Bumper on Kickstarter

Juicies

Colourful charging cables for Apple devices made with recycled materials. Also another trinity of unfortunate delays, refunding and denial. Why wouldn't you want a pink cable to replace the one that came with your iPhone, now peeled and about to break? The difference with i+Case is that a simple cable sounds way easier to manufacture. The 22,000 backers had a year to say everything but pretty things to the creator. In his visit to China, Laurens Laudowicz could have asked why all the factories were now producing that thin head and not Apple's 30-pin connector anymore.

Juicies - colorful cables for iPod, iPhone & iPad

Thumbtiles

Ingenious square photo frames for your Instagram pictures. Building on the popularity of the photo sharing app, Steven Johnson created a clever solution to change the photos you display on your walls easily. I've yet have to hang the nine I got, as I'm still trying to find a local printer that fits the quality and budget I have in mind. With a substantial delay, the project was a pleasure to follow in great part for the amazing photographs accompanying the updates.

Thumbtiles - Frame your iPhone photos

Hidden Radio

A wireless speaker with unusual controls. I ordered two of these and they both felt really different. The one I kept for me doesn't twist as you would expect although the second unit I gifted was super smooth (although it arrived with the battery discharged). Despite the time waiting and the less than perfect finished product, the creators were very open to feedback. The updates also gave you a good idea of what goes on in a Chinese electronics factory, which I found very interesting.

Hidden Radio Review

As you can see the list is a mixed bag of awesome success histories and unexpected disappointments. Small stories like this have made the platform grow enough to host not only projects baked with one million dollars but well over that: the Pebble e-ink watch exceeded the ten million mark.

These kind of results attract more people and more entrepreneurs. In the last year I've noticed the nice conversations about how cool all this was have diluted into how lazy some businesses have become. I tend to get a lot of pitches from game developers and I can't be asked to get involved.

A new start

I'm seriously thinking how to approach Kickstarter. The gadgets and physical things I've backed haven't gone according to plan and I assume most projects end up compromising the original design.

My perception about software products is starting to change. Before I would consider desperate any developer asking me to check out their Kickstarter to fund their next title. In most businesses you take a financial risk borrowing or investing money in advance hoping to recoup once you start selling. However, seeing some of my favourite iOS developers such as One Man Left and RocketCat games struggling isn't fun. As a gamer, if I could help to minimise developing risks, I would like to contribute somehow. It's in my best interest these guys stay in business because I enjoy everything they produce.

So when I see the developer of the epic Galcon ask for some support while he develops a multiplayer free-to-play sequel, I cannot let him down. If Phil Hassey needs help and is willing to show the nitty gritty of developing a game like this, I'm willing to play the Dragons Den game again. He makes me break this self-imposed rule of no more kickstarters.

The main problem I have with this is that once you pop you can't stop. I've spent countless hours playing the original Galcon so the idea of helping a sequel happen is a no brainer. I liked so much the concept and posterior iterations of Hard Lines (read review) that the prospect of a heavy pixel art beat-em-up from Nicoll Hunt simply makes me want to click the "Back This Project" button without even ending watching the promotional video. Who wouldn't like to see Fist of Awesome on the App Store?

I don't know if this new adventure kickstarting small projects from game developers with proven track record will turn into a new addiction.

Remember to check out these two Kickstarter projects before the funding is completed.