Crowdfunding Hits, Misses, and Lessons Learned

Back in November 2020, I wrote about some considerations and dramatics around crowdfunding campaigns. In this post, I’ll give you my top five and bottom five crowdfunding efforts, and maybe a lesson or two to take to the future.

This post has been sitting in my draft folder for a year now, but nothing has changed in it other than the recent time references, which I’ve left as they were in November 2020. I’ll come back with photos later, rather than putting this post off another year.

It was the best of times

My first crowdfunding campaign was the LunaTik and TikTok wrist cases for Apple’s 6th generation iPod Nano (the square one). MINIMAL Design came out with the first huge campaign in 2010, with over $942,000 in backers and a super high quality product that was delivered reasonably. My red LunaTik still sits on my desk, with a functional PRODUCT(RED) Nano in it, and a couple of years ago Scott Wilson, the founder of MINIMAL, mentioned that Apple had used his band/case as part of the prototype design and testing for the original Apple Watch. The watch has come a long way, but the product is still beautiful and functional ten years later. And they’ve come out with more products for the real Apple Watch since then.

Kano Computing is well known for educational products around the Raspberry Pi ecosystem. Today you can find some of their products in big box stores like Target, but back in 2013, they showed up on Kickstarter with a $119 “KANO KIT” which had a Raspberry Pi, case, speaker, keyboard, and more, ready to run their custom education-oriented operating system. They’ve had an impact on the world, and are still coming up with new products including a laptop with webcam. (I backed them at the download level, but later bought the Kano Kit for my niece directly from their website.)

Thanks to Ozma Records, I was able to give my niece a copy of the Voyager Golden Record without going into space or robbing a NASA museum. They worked with a number of historic figures including Ann Druyan (who was involved in the original version that went to space), as well as most of the rest of the staff who made the version that’s 13 billion miles away now.

I’ve backed a number of battery projects, from the ThinCharge iPhone battery cases for iPhone 6 and iPhone 7. to the OmniCharge AC/DC battery pack. Along the way I also backed a product called ChargeCard, which was a card-shaped fold-out USB charging cable for 30 pin iPhone and MicroUSB Android. Right after the campaign closed, Apple came out with the iPhone 5 and a new charging connector called Lightning. The Charge Card Project had to retool and redesign to take this into account, and they managed to do it in a couple of months. You might have trouble finding the Charge Card Project around these days, as they expanded to new products and the newest Apple accessories under the Nomad Goods brand, which you’ll find at Best Buy stores as well as on their own website. .

My fifth top choice will be a category of honorable mentions for artistic endeavors. In this category, I am including the Kelly McCarron “I’d Eat Them Both” album, Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton’s “Live at the Green Parrot” album, Cassie Jaye’s “The Red Pill” documentary film, and while I haven’t received it yet, the Michael Turner Creations hardcover graphic novel set is on its way as I write this. [Anachronistic update: The Michael Turner Creations set as well Fathom: The Core kickstarter have been delivered and are amazing, as is anything the late Michael Turner worked on.]

All that glitters isn’t gold

I’ve had a couple of projects that failed utterly and/or disappeared into the ether. Some were probably genuine efforts, and some seem like they may not have been so honorable.

I backed a magnetic charging cable in 2015, and their last update came in April 2016. About the time they went silent, I started getting suspicious emails from a different name, with a very similar product being crowdsourced on another campaign. Was it the same company trying to get a second dip into my wallet? I don’t know.

Resolution: I eventually found a quality product on Amazon, the NetDot cable set, and I use them today for my headphones among other devices.

In mid-2018 I backed a Mi PC that was supposed to provide a computer with display that would fit in your pocket. The maker changed the design and specs before the campaign ended, and from what I can tell, never delivered a thing despite raising $1.5 million. This was One of the first campaigns where eagle-eyed backers discovered the same or similar product on sale at Alibaba and other overseas outlets, suggesting that the maker might have intended to simply resell, but we may never know since Leo Cheung hasn’t been heard from since.

Resolution: My CHUWI LarkBox PC arrived this week. No built-in display, but newer specs and a manufacturer with a track record that stands upright are reasonable alternatives to that.

A French company, PKparis, offered a “pocket hard drive” in late 2014 that would include an emergency battery as well as up to 128GB of flash storage to connect to your phone’s charging port. Three years after the close of the campaign, they posted updates about shipping, but it’s unclear whether anything happened there. I still haven’t seen the drive I backed, although it was out of date by the time it allegedly shipped.

Resolution: The RAVPower AC750 travel router offers wireless storage and charging, and for wired-in expansion, I have some of the PNY lightning flash drives (also available with MicroUSB and USB-C). Newer USB-C devices can use an external SSD like the RAVPower Portable External SSD as well.

In the media category, I backed “Under The Smogberry Trees: The True Story of Dr Demento” in 2013. There were politics and legal conflicts, and while the situation was never fully clarified, it’s understood that the good Doctor himself took over and shut down the project in 2014. He apparently had a competing documentary that also never happened.

A second lost media effort was Travis Richey’s “The Inspector Chronicles” feature film in early 2014. Originally a Doctor Who parody in the TV series Community, “Inspector Spacetime” became a cult favorite that blossomed into an unofficial series which delivered a prequel episode on Kickstarter in 2014 before jumping to Indiegogo for a feature-length production with an impressive cast and a completed script. The last update there was 2014, and while I believe I have the ringtone somewhere, not much else came of it in the last six years. (Travis did note in the last year or so on a Youtube comment reply that they were still waiting for more funding, but no update on Indiegogo.)

Resolution: None. Still disappointed.

Lessons to take home

For sellers:

Communicate consistently. Daily updates aren’t needed, but you should update at least every two weeks during known slow periods, and maybe once a week if things are changing or if you’re getting close to fulfillment.

Be practical with your time frames. Some people will assume the worst (i.e. “Shipping in October” will mean to them that they should have the item October 1st) and others will be surprised that you’re expecting to have product manufactured in China during the February holiday shutdown. If things slip or change, update your backers promptly. And keep things like Apple product release time frames in mind.

Be a product company, not a self-promotion company. Some creators spend more time as a media entity producing podcasts and livestreams than making their product, or so it seems. It’s great to provide updates regularly, or I wouldn’t have the first lesson above, but I didn’t back your project to hear that meetings and conference calls suck and that you’re washing your hands more often.

For buyers:

Remember that it’s a pledge, not a purchase. If you want an item with a pretty firm shipping time, check Amazon or AliExpress or your local retail stores. If you find something intriguing that you want to back, crowdfunding is for you. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Remember that the creators are probably human too. They’re suffering during the pandemic, and are subject to cascading effects in the shipping ecosystem as well as the electronics supply chain. They have families and lives and health to keep in order. Just because you didn’t get an instant answer to your mad post online doesn’t mean they’re scamming you. And if Fortune 100 companies get tripped up by supply chain issues when they write checks with 2-3 commas, you can expect that smaller and newer companies will have even more potential issues.

Avoid “before it’s too late” offers. If you’re dealing with an established company you trust, then add-ons or special perks might be worth considering (I did this with the mSATA drive in my CHUWI LarkBox), but if it’s a company’s first project and they’re not following the guidelines above (or even if they are), don’t get tricked into FOMO and spend even more when you’re not sure about the original pledge being fulfilled (I’ll admit I did that with the magnetic cables above). Odds are pretty good that if the project works out, you’ll be able to get more add-ons later.

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