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:

We will not ship if not paid in full.

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.