Don’t get me wrong. I have helped fund the production of a play by a former classmate who was pleased with the result – but some of this is ridiculous.
the Bad and the Crowdfunded
Kickstarter has empowered armchair inventors to make things we really needed—and some we could live without
By ERIK SOFGE
FOUR YEARS AGO, Kickstarter was adorable. The site—which allows designers, independent artists, philanthropists and any netizen with a dream to solicit funding for projects large and small—was a promising novelty act. Ideas and money poured in. Journalists championed it. Was crowdfunding just crazy enough to work?
In hindsight, the success of Kickstarter seems inevitable. The service, which takes a 5% cut of the funding that pours in, has exploded. Along with scores of modestly backed projects—from $100 for a puppet-show adaptation of “King Kong” to one woman’s $15,000 quest to develop a bionic eye for herself—piecemeal investment has yielded multi-million-dollar hits. This past July, Ouya, a proposed $99 videogame console, hit its $950,000 goal in eight hours. When funding closed a month later, it was at $8.5 million. Supply and demand, product development and marketing, basically everything we know about making and selling goods—Kickstarter has potentially upended all of it.
Blockbuster projects aside, much of Kickstarter can be shrill and desperate—modern-day panhandling by entitled go-getters. For every legitimately exciting pitch (such as the Synergy aircraft, whose box-shape wings could change the fundamentals of airplane design), there are dozens of musicians, filmmakers and designers pleading for funds to complete ill-conceived projects. And with tangible items faring consistently better than the calls for altruistic endowments that once defined the service, after more than 22,000 proposed projects and $200 million in raised funds, Kickstarter is becoming a driving force in product design. As the crowdfunding platform continues to gain traction, here’s a look at some of the best and worst techy Kickstarter products to date.
Kickstarter’s Winners (and a Few Losers)
By now, the quirky Kickstarter video plea (made to draw potential investors) has almost become a genre unto itself. These clips often star coyly self-deprecating post-college entrepreneurs, plus the occasional supportive industry celeb, all of them trying very hard to be cute. Which is why the video pitch for Timelapse+, a timer for triggering SLR cameras, is so refreshing. Unless you’re a serious photographer and already know what an intervalometer is (it controls the shutter of a camera to enable burst shooting, long exposures and other effects), the pitch amounts to five arcane minutes of eye-crossing complexity. But this is where Kickstarter shines: as a springboard for innovative, extremely niche products. Timelapse+ is one of the few intervalometers that should work with the next generation of smartphone cameras, but it never claims to be more than it is—a welcome, unassuming iteration of a classic photographer’s tool. $149, timelapseplus.com
Ogre Designer’s Edition
What’s shocking isn’t that this collector’s-edition re-release of a cult classic board game from the ’80s would meet its $20,000 goal. Kickstarter, after all, is where nerd nostalgia is monetized and long-dead franchises are resurrected. What’s shocking is that the Ogre Designer’s Edition, which costs $100, secured more than $923,000 in backing. Weirder still is the way the game’s creator, Steve Jackson, gamed the Kickstarter process, transforming it into a long-term market-research tool. As funding grew and his posted goals were reached, the product was improved incrementally: Plastic pieces replaced cardboard ones. The dice were upgraded. When the total hit $300,000, Mr. Jackson promised to make a videogame adaptation. At $550,000, he vowed to hire a full-time staffer dedicated to making new Ogre games. Mr. Jackson even allowed retailers to buy in bulk at a discount through the Kickstarter page (and threw in extra game pieces, for in-store displays), an end-run around traditional distribution channels. Though the product itself is as niche as they come, the project demonstrates what a savvy, established company can do with crowdfunding. $100, kickstarter.com (project closed)
This DIY lampshade, made from 30 pieces of cardstock that slot together to form an organic-looking sphere, is classic Kickstarter. The final product is customizable. You can paint certain pieces, hang the lamp from the ceiling or simply lay it on a desk. The Loomi is the kind of product you might see in the MoMA gift shop. This is crowdfunding success at its least manipulative, banking on raw visual appeal, as opposed to the noble causes and nostalgia-based projects that have come to define the service. While similar products can be found on designer-friendly sites like Etsy, Kickstarter provides a cushion for entry-level creators, letting them gauge customer interest before committing to mass production. $22 (without lamp cord), loomilight.com
Safecast Geiger Counter
This affordable (as these things go) Geiger counter had its roots in another Kickstarter-funded project, Safecast, which sought to crowdsource radiation levels in Japan following the Fukushima disaster and then publish the data online. This product is a $400 “limited-edition” version of the highly sensitive Geiger counter (it detects alpha and beta radiation as well as the standard gamma) that was provided to volunteers for that endeavor. The campaign was essentially a pre-order discount deal, a way to get half off a Geiger counter that’s expected to retail for $800 after it goes into mass production. Kickstarter is often just used to create pre-order shopping pages, but this project combines old-school sales techniques—Limited-edition! Half-price! Get it here first!—with an activist twist. $400, kickstarter.com (project closed)
Here’s another Kickstarter specialty: the iPhone-related impulse buy. The Twig is a stubby iOS cable with moldable legs. That’s it. There’s no cause to rally behind, no disruptive technology, just a cool thing that belongs next to the register in every Apple store. Because it’s shorter than the standard-issue cable (just 4 inches long), it won’t tangle, and its legs can be positioned to create a mini-tripod for shooting photos or making video calls. At $20, it’s a safe bet—the crowdfunding equivalent of a buzzed-about $1 smartphone app. $25, richardtracybrand.com
Kickstarter backers love ambitious gadgets, especially ones that are iPhone-compatible. So it’s not surprising that the Pebble “smart” watch is the most funded project in Kickstarter history. Unlike conventional digital watches, the Pebble has an e-ink display—the crisp, black-and-white screen found on many e-readers. But the Pebble’s real draw is that it connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth, turning the $150 watch (early backers got it for $99) into a display for incoming texts, emails and other data. Its features are open-ended and defined by the apps written for it—there will be a few ready at launch, and expect more to be developed by the community. Runners and bicyclists, for example, can use the Pebble to view their speed (derived from GPS info) and navigate through music playlists. Its makers plan to ship early next year. Whether supplies of Kickstarter’s biggest product can meet demand could be the service’s crucible. $150, getpebble.com
Access the balance of this article for the Worst Projects Funded