Lessons for Kickstarter creators from the worst project I ever funded on Kickstarter


[update: I've had to change out the image above to my own after i+case project creators insisted I remove an image of the case displayed on their Kickstarter page. Also, if you'd like to see the entire conversation thread including the i+case creators, be sure to click the "show more comments" link just above the comment field]

This is the story of the worst project I've funded on Kickstarter. I am posting this not to single out the creators behind it, or bad mouth their business, but to go over my disappointment in the hopes that future Kickstarter project creators can learn from it. It's all about communication with your funders, setting up and delivering on expectations for funders, and doing the right thing when things go wrong.

My relationship with Kickstarter is a long one. I've funded 72 projects to date and I'm also a (very small) investor in it. All but a small handful of projects have delivered items/goods/works of art that met or exceeded my expectations, and most creators are doing a wonderful job. Sometimes, creators take time to make art, as at least two documentaries I've funded have gone over a year without delivering the final cuts, and I totally understand that as I'm currently late on my own small personal film project.

This is the story of the i+case for the iPhone. Like almost every iPhone/iPod/iPad project on Kickstarter, it went from launch to overfunded several times over in a short period of time. I liked the look of it since I'm not normally someone that uses a case with my iPhone, and I tend to drop my iPhone about 2-3 times a year (so far, no breakage has happened). I liked the old iPhone bumper Apple made, but the bottom cutout was never big enough for my chargers and car adapter. This i+case looked cool in anodized aluminum, and it looked like it solved a few design problems I had with the Apple bumper.

The creators started the project with CAD renderings of what it would look like but quickly followed up with real photos of built prototypes on actual phones, just days into the project. This is huge in that as a funder, seeing actual prototypes convinced me it would become a real thing and it appeared to look as good as the CAD renderings, and I threw money into the project at this point. Soon after however, some antenna issues popped up. The creators attempted to downplay it by describing the upcoming new iPhone 4S antenna design as well as showing their prototype only affecting signals by one bar. That update sent red flags, but I trusted the creators when they said "We hope this helps demonstrate our pursuit of not only making a case that looks good, but performs just as well". It is a cool looking, durable case and though it might affect my phone performance slightly, I get 3-5 bars everywhere so I figured I'd continue funding and looked forward to trying it out. I did notice a very specific comment (from Jaspreet Sidhu on the signal testing post) asking the creators to measure signal loss was ignored, even though a person went to the trouble of describing how to enter into a diagnostic mode and take accurate measurements. Another red flag, but still, I stuck with it with my hopes up.

The iPhone 4S was released before the project was funded so everyone backing it from the start was hoping it would work, and soon after the 4S launch the creators showed one working with a new 4S even though they couched the post with a few caveats. The following update sent up more red flags however. They described their problems with feedback, discounted much of it as "negative" and equated that with frivolous, and the core issue that sparked this was their prototype cases featured a prominent white logo etched into the case. In my opinion, it made the case look a little gaudy and ugly. What set off red flags was how the creators handled the feedback and I would characterize this one as "not well". Later they followed up and doubled down on their insistence that the logo stay and that no one would be happy so they will push forward. Funny enough, later that day they offered up a survey with the bright white logo vs. a subdued etched colorless logo and within 24hrs they shut the survey down showing that 85% did not want the white logo on the case. I do have to say the creators deserve some credit for going with the audience voting, as they never mentioned the white logo from the prototypes again after defending it so hard the previous week.

Miscommunication happened next. A couple days after the logo battle and just a day before the final funding completion date, the creators sent out a (now redacted) email that they miscalculated the shipping and were going to ask everyone to up their pledge and the use of bold is theirs:

All backers must add the cost of shipping to their pledge. Shipping in the US is $5, International is 9$. We will not ship if not paid in full. To do this just add the correct amount to your initial pledge. Sorry for the confusion.

Pretty crazy, and since the project said it would ship in December, I went ahead and upped my pledge by $5 in order to get the case before xmas. The post erupted in comments and it was the first time I saw others say they were pulling their support. I hadn't ever considered that option but being just before the final funding day I considered it, but stuck with them since I thought it was a nice looking thing. The next morning, the creators called the email demand a mistake from another project, and though they apologized they also said that international shipping would in fact increase the pledges and domestic US recipients could pay more "only if they wanted to".

The funding success message mentioned they might not ship everything by the intended window, though one week into December they showed off the first units to ship, but gave the good news/bad news that most would not ship until a month later. As a funder this was disappointing to hear, but good on them for explaining the delay and why it happened and resetting expectations of what was to come. They followed this up with a somewhat defensive post saying they were working on different prototypes with the goal of eliminating any signal loss.

The last couple updates are things I hope get taught in Business schools as what not to do when company owners communicate with potential customers. The epic update #24 starts by splitting hairs over the difference between "buying" something from Kickstarter versus "investing" in an idea on Kickstarter. They then go on to discount the entire project as a first attempt at making a prototype and that design flaws are inherent in research and development. As a funder myself, I saw those actual cases well before the end of funding and assumed those were the prototypes that needed the bugs worked out and the final product I would receive would be a working one, as most other Kickstarter projects around products work. They also talked about how they can't give refunds and then talked in patronizing terms about how the stock market works and how sometimes you just lose money in a speculative deal. This was hard to read when you consider they had their prototypes done months before for ample testing, and now with $85,000 in hand they were shrugging their shoulders to say in effect "we tried". Finally, they close with the idea that some of the people leaving critical comments on their project are competitors or out to get them so their comments can be discounted.

Their final update states that they consider the project complete since they have shipped out most every case, and though they couldn't alleviate all the signal losses, they might redesign a version 2 of it and backers would get a discount if they produce a new case. Most of this last update seems reasonable, but the creators telling everyone (including dozens of international backers that hadn't received their cases yet) that it was "over" felt like they are ignoring feedback and leaving current unfulfilled backers out in the cold by shutting things down as soon as they could.

To finish this story, I got my own cool red case last week and today I assembled it. My phone normally gets 4-5 bars of Verizon coverage and 3 bars of wifi in my house. After finagling all the pieces and tiny screws into place, I flipped my iPhone over to admire the slick new case around it. I tried out the side buttons to confirm they worked, and then I looked at my signal to see if I was one of the "few" backers with signal problems the creators had a hard time reproducing.

I had one tiny bar of phone coverage and one tiny WiFi blip. $70, down the drain as I disassembled the case, flipped my phone over to see it back to 5 bars plus 3 bars of WiFi a minute later.

Again, I mention this entire project not to single out the creators as bad people but instead to show any and all past/current/future Kickstarter backers what not to do. When you are designing a product for Kickstarter and you show prototypes, backers will assume you have worked all the bugs out first. When things start to go wrong, it doesn't help to discount the comments or question the motivation of backers giving critical feedback. When shipping deadlines are going to slip, be open and explain the hows and whys and reset expectations as soon as possible to prevent backers' plans from falling through. When confronted with a core design problem, explain possible fixes, or explore options for dissatisfied backers. When confronted with a large amount of criticism, acknowledge the flaws and don't patronize your backers or question their motivations. Overall, I think this project (as well as any future projects from any creators) could have gone well if the creators did a better job with communication, stayed attentive on comments, didn't talk down or talk back to backers so much, and helped set expectations accurately and early on to prevent the feeling of being ripped off at the end of a long project.

Crap I love: the Napoleon pocket

Love for the Napoleon jacket, originally uploaded by mathowie.

In the past few months, I’ve become the proud owner of two jackets with a new-to-me feature called the Napoleon pocket. Obviously, it’s named after the dude and his famous pose of having one hand halfway obscured into his clothing and it’s becoming more common on hiking and cycling jackets.

In traveling around I’ve quickly come to love my Napoleon pocket jackets to death mostly because it’s the perfect place to stash an iPhone/iPod for the following reasons:

  • If you stash one in the pocket and then wrap half of your headphone cord around your device, there’s a perfect amount of headphone cord sticking out, but not so much that it gets stuck in everything. You can put on and take off messenger bags, you can fall asleep in an airplane seat, and you can stand in a super crowded subway car without ever getting tangled up in a huge cord.
  • Stashing in a normal pant pocket risks scratches from change and keys, but up high it’s usually alone
  • The small chest pocket is a perfect size for an iPhone/iPod
  • With the iPhone button on the cord, you can just stash the phone into your pocket and forget about it, pausing and advancing music with the cord control

I’ve also found the pocket handy when getting to an airport or grabbing a rental car because it’s a great temporary pocket you won’t forget about and that you can quickly find again without having to dig through other stuff. I don’t know what I’m going to do this summer when it’s too warm to wear a jacket as I’m getting daily use out of this feature.

Paying for camouflage

macbookglossydisplay20060516.jpg Apple rules. If you take a look at the new MacBook order page, you’ll notice a black ibook/macbook will run you $150* over a white one with identical specs.

Apple is charging people if they want a laptop that looks like a windows PC.


* The black one is $200 more, but for $50 you can upgrade the middle-tier white one to a 80Gb hard drive, hence, the $150 price difference for two totally identical macbooks.

Oh shit, I just got Jobsed

From MacRumors Macworld Live Updates feed:

10:12 am First Mac with Intel processor today.
10:12 am The iMac – built in isight camera. front row. incredible reception.
10:13 am No other desktop PC can match it.
10:14 am Same sizes. 17″, 20″. Same design. Same features (isight, front row, apple remote), Same price. What’s different.
10:14 am Intel Processor. 2-3x faster than the iMac G5.
10:14 am Intel Core Duo. an amazing chip.
10:15 am Two cores. each one faster than the G5.

CrapDamnCrap. My 20″ G5 iMac is only two months old for chrissakes! And I bought it days after it was announced! Damn you Steve Jobs (*shakes fist*)!

Insanely Great

My experience with Apple products is pretty good, though not perfect. I’ve had a powerbook break latches before, hard drives die, and an iPod freak out. But after setting up a multi-location Airport Express network, I’m impressed.

After going through several Linksys and D-link wireless routers that lacked stability and features, I decided to go with an Apple AirPort Express, mostly due to positive reviews and the capability of sharing music and printer connections. After using it for a week I decided to get another one, so that I could stream music to my living room stereo.

The part that impressed me the most is the airport setup program. Using a wizard involving four or five steps, I set up a pretty sophisticated network that involves security across a mesh network of the base and extender, with music and printer sharing to boot. A few simple steps and now any computer running iTunes in the house can send audio to my living room stereo and any computer can print photos or documents on my inkjet printer via rendezvous. It all just worked and it’s working flawlessly. These days, it’s rare when products just plain work like they should.

Don’t call it a revolution

A few weeks ago I read through all of Business Week’s design innovations for 2005 and kept track of my favorites. One of them was a shower head that the article described as being not only nice looking and easy to use, but deeply researched before going to market and was currently the best selling shower head at Lowes.

I figured I needed a new one and design research plus design awards plus brisk sales would equal the best shower head in the world. But like Mike, I found it was fairly disappointing (my review is there as a comment).

Dear Apple…

Now that you’ll be running Apple hardware on x86 chips, please use this change to bring down the costs of your hardware significantly. The mac mini was a huge hit for one reason: price. Now that you’ll be saving hundreds of dollars on chips getting them from Intel instead of Motorola (and getting them at much faster speeds), please pass the savings onto us and you’ll watch your market share continue to rebound.

In other words, don’t let us get into the situation where $799 Apple 20″ cinema displays have the exact same hardware as Dell 20″ monitors that recently sold for $398.

Also, I figure it’s just a matter of hours after the first intel-mac rolls off the line before we realize exactly what keeps us from running OS X on any cheap PC. I suspect whatever hardware or software dongle limits this will be thwarted the same day.

Anyway, I think it’s great news, I just hope it means cheaper, faster macs.

Hit print again! Again!

While I didn’t get the obligatory video camera (yet), I did buy a modern day requirement for new parents with digital cameras. Everyone that sees my new daughter and photos I’ve taken asks “hey, can I have a print of that?” After spending years using Ofoto for the occasional print I finally broke down and bought a (fairly cheap, but fast and good) photo printer, the Canon Pixma iP5000.

Now that I’ve printed all my favorite shots from the last week and gone ahead and printed all my favorites from 2005 I realized I haven’t had this much fun printing since the first time my brother and I hooked a dot matrix one up to a Commodore 64. I should have gotten one years ago.

Best Monitor Ever.

When Dell announced they’d be releasing a 24″ widescreen LCD monitor for under $1200 early this year, I counted the days until it was available and bought one soon after their release. Thanks to an initial sales push, I got it for $120 off with free shipping, so $1079 total (no tax).

Since it runs at 1900×1200, you need a pretty good video card and I had to also pick up a $100 ATI card with DVI inputs, but now that I’ve had it running for about a month and a half, I have to say it’s my favorite monitor ever, surpassing the old SGI widescreen I loved back at UCLA. 1900 pixels is a lot to work with, I keep Homesite running constantly and a firefox window or two. I usually overlap them still, but when I need to read two documents at once, I can easily do that. Photshop is also a dream to work with, as I still have a good 600 free pixels off to the side while I work on comps and photos. The color, gamma, brightness are all great though you have to use your graphics card’s software controls as the monitor offers little in terms of adjustments. I no longer have any CRT on my desk, relying on the color reproduction of this monitor for graphics production. Here’s a full-sized capture of my desktop, and here it is on my desk.

Soon after I bought one, they pushed the price back up to $1199, but as I was searching for something tonight I see that they have taken $200 off, selling it for $999.

It’s now the same price as an Apple 20″ monitor, but bigger than Apple’s 23″ monitor, which sells for nearly double the price. Heck if you’ve got the extra money around, for $1998, you can buy two dells and have FOUR FEET of screen space, still a full thousand cheaper than Apple’s top flight 30″ display.

Anyway, I don’t get any kickback and Dell doesn’t have an affiliate program, I just love this monitor and now that it’s less than a thousand bucks, I can heartily recommend it to everyone. It’s a tax write-off for computer business work anyway, right?