A Cautionary Tale
What do you do if you are a crowdfunding service and one of your high profile projects fails to deliver leaving roughly 12,000 backers high and dry?
Well our portfolio company Kickstarter (where I am on the board) decided to shine a light on the failure by hiring an investigative reporter and giving him freedom to research and then tell the story of what went wrong without any interference by Kickstarter.
The journalist, Mark Harris, published his findings a few days ago. You can read the entire story here.
The project in question was called Zano and the idea was to build and ship a small autonomous drone. I am not going to summarize the story here on AVC. Those of you who want to read it should go read the entire piece.
But I will say that the Zano story is a cautionary tale that anyone who backs projects on Kickstarer should read. Not every project works. In fact, it is shocking that something like 90% of projects funded on Kickstarter have eventually delivered although many are late.
Creative projects fail. Startups fail. Banks fail. Governments fail. Marriages fail. Failure is an important part of the human experience. I have personally failed more times than I want to remember.
And so I hope that Kickstarter figures out a way to continue to shine a bright light on the big failures. They should not be swept under a rug. They should analyzed, discussed, and understood by the Kickstarter community and beyond. That is a very healthy thing.
On a separate note I’ve had the idea in the past (but have not acted yet) of hiring freelance writers to investigate and write long articles about various things that I am interested in that I don’t have the time to do myself. I see things every day that upset me and feel that this would be a good way to deal with that frustration. (Wide range of topics but mainly non-tech and oriented toward lameness and mediocrity in society and the workforce..) Also op eds and policy pieces for publication in mainstream papers.
And so I hope that Kickstarter figures out a way to continue to shine a bright light on the big failures.”Bright light” means front and center with a link on the homepage. This would be interesting reading and would end up a net gain for many reasons (including good PR value).
Nice that they are transparent about this. I was talking to another person the other day that used to be a floor trader like me. They were amazed at the lack of ethics among people in the “real world”. I was surprised too. People assume that there were lots of scumbags on the floor. There were some, but I’d trust one of those scumbags more than most of the people I meet in the “real world”. Peer pressure always had ways of keeping them in line.Whenever old floor traders get together, this topic invariably comes up. It is amazing how far you get by just being honest, and transparent.
See my comment to LE and JoeK I have to disagree with you on transparent. This is one project that failed out of 10k, as much as it cost I don’t think it was a drop in the bucket of the $11mm in commissions Kickstarter received for those failed projects..
“The floor” is like “the street” not the street you think I mean but, say, Jewelers Row in Philly (Sansom street) and in other towns.Reason for ethics on “the floor” or “the street”?It boils down to a small community and being shunned or banned.Same reason people in small towns perhaps (I am guessing) are more honest or have to behave differently than they do in big cities. Screw someone in Brooklyn and there 1000’s of other marks out there. Screw someone in a small town and my guess is you will never do business again (or suffer a significant impact).Many old timers (like my parents) were raised in the days of “the small town”. Hence they are overly concerned with appearance and what others think. Which is actually not anywhere near as relevant today (even in small towns) as it was in the 30’s. Why? Social safety net. Good backstop to when you fuck up (or have a life changing event). Not as much need to depend on the neighbors as there was before the social backstop.
It is shocking 90% get done and it is not shocking that many are late. There are some really cool things on there. What does shock me is that you don’t have to prove where the money goes or have that audited if you don’t deliver. (unless a backer goes after you)I’m sure that most that fail end up spending all of the money, but there must be some where the creator simply takes the money comes up with a story and scams the backers. Sure not often, but it must happen.
What does shock me is that you don’t have to prove where the money goes or have that auditedThe reason? Both business friction and also would end up putting more liability on Kickstarter (not less).Let me illustrate. Several years ago I was in an office parking lot and there were security cameras. And next to the cameras were signs saying “cameras not monitored all of the time” (or something like that). I deduced that that was obviously something the lawyers insisted on. And in fact many years later in my own condo complex when I wanted security cameras installed other board members were worried that if we had cameras we would then have more liability not less. It is the pussyfying of America.
I’m not telling Kickstarter their business, and they are doing just fine. But it seems that if something didn’t work out they would use their 5% to investigate. If it was a small project, that wouldn’t be very much, if it was a big project like this one it would be a lot. Anyway advice worth what it cost.
I just scanned the article. Way to long (and the author addresses that at the end when it should have been summarized at the start).This doesn’t serve the purpose of transparency. Why? The gist of it is “something went wrong” but the article is so “long form” that most people won’t have the patience to get any of the details and meat. Hence they will go away feeling unsatisfied and only take away a negative and not (as much) positive.I would have chosen a different writer (sorry Mark Harris) or directed him in a different way than was done.Reading today is not like reading in the past. Or reading when you are on a 6 hour airplane flight or on the beach. Something to keep in mind.On the upside using long form like this is good if you don’t want people to get the full story (or at least a large number of people).
Agreed… I couldn’t tell if that was investigation journalism from the New Yorker, or an FAA report after a plane crash. Read like a bit of both.
Exactly. Would add the apparently Obamacare is 33,000 pages of regulations.https://www.washingtonpost….Even if that number is not correct it is certain that the number is so high as to keep away all but the most dedicated pains in the asses.
That is my favourite compliment so far!
TL; DR, they did a fantastic hype-filled video, to some degree misrepresenting how advanced they were, naively thought they could deliver, didn’t have the expertise to pull it offFrom the TL; DR at the bottom- “Torquing did mount a serious, well-intentioned attempt to develop, manufacture, and deliver an intelligent autonomous consumer drone along the lines of their promises in the Kickstarter campaign. A seemingly dedicated staff couldn’t, in any case, meet the over-ambitious deadlines and specifications.”- “Personally, I do not believe that the creators possessed the technical or commercial competencies necessary to deliver the Zano as specified in the original campaign.”- “Kickstarter, and other crowdfunding platforms, should reconsider the way that they deal with projects involving complex hardware, massive overfunding, or large sums of money. There should be better mechanisms to identify weak projects before they fund, as well as new processes to provide mentorship, support and expert advice to newly-funded projects.”
Length was my choice, and I wrote it that long because the primary audience was the backers. I felt they deserved the fullest possible picture. I did put in a TLDR at the end for people who weren’t interested enough in the subject to plough through the whole thing, and clearly signed that at the top. The feedback I’m getting from both backers and social media is that it was long but people generally appreciate it.Also, on Medium I can track read ratios. I was surprised to see that I’m getting exactly the same read ratio (low 30s%) that I do on stories around 2000-3000 words.
Thanks for commenting here Mark.I did put in a TLDR at the end for people who weren’t interested enough in the subject to plough through the whole thing, and clearly signed that at the top. It wasn’t clear for people with scanning eyes. My brain said “skip this paragraph” (I just saw it now of course). Only reason I scrolled to the bottom was because I was interesting in commenting here. Otherwise I would have never seen that. Human behavior.The summary was a good idea however I would suggest placing that at the start instead of the end as a way to draw people in to read the entire piece. If that doesn’t fit the style maybe a few bullet points even though I know you don’t want to do it that way. Another option would be a link to another medium post that is shorter the 3 paragraph version.I was surprised to see that I’m getting exactly the same read ratio (low 30s%) that I do on stories around 2000-3000 words.That is very surprising. The way they track that is probably by tracking as people scroll down the page. If I had time I’d post a story and try to reverse engineer that.
I wish Medium had more formatting options for sure. You’ve only got a limited palette to work with.
Job well done Mark. Good piece of investigative journalism.
A big part of the digital economy is based on forward trust. Could Kickstarter keep a % of proceeds in escrow, when a project reaches a large sum, say over 500K?
Per my other comment my off the cuff thought is that the closer they get to doing things like this the more liability they end up having (as well as friction).
I love this idea and I’d like to see it for all sized projects. We did a $75k indiegogo (kickstarter doesnt allow eyewear) and I was amazed how quickly the money came into our bank account with almost no accountability on our end.
The article discusses this.” … Strickler also rejects suggestions from backers for shipping fees and even Kickstarter’s 5% commission to be placed in an escrow fund and refunded to them if a project fails to deliver.“If someone pledged $300 and they got $15 after it failed, what has been solved there?” he wonders. “It’s decent PR but I don’t really know that that is helping to solve the issues. In reality…at a certain scale, it could put the world of crowdfunding at risk, period.” …”
That was the part I really didn’t like. That was the part when you hear somebody say it could put crowdfunding at risk…..Sorry bullshit, that is saying I don’t want to take a 10% revenue hit. Just say it. People are fawning about “transparency” Just say our business model doesn’t work if we take that hit. That is transparent.Don’t tell me that it can’t be better if you spent that commision on being “transparent” on what happened.Sure this was one case but the exception proves the rule.
That was my initial thought too, and I especially did not like the CEO’s claim that they stake their reputation. Nonsense.That said, I can’t help but think that offering refunds becomes very tricky.1. It makes backers less vigilant. 2. It probably makes projects more likely to fail (no moral burden on sellers to go the extra mile to keep projects up).3. It opens Kickstarter up to fraud (start project, order 1000 of your own items, and then shut project down), and 4. I don’t see how the economics works out for them, they’d be uninsurable.
Really good points.Otoh if there was a KS backstop could business be increased to the point where there is a net gain (even with the downsides you have mentioned).
Their transaction fees are 5%, and yet failure rates are 10%+. I doubt that scale cracks that conundrum.That said, you’ve been in business much longer than I have (as your posts suggest). So I’ll let you answer your own question for me.
This is actually where good lawyers make a difference. Nancy needs to get his legalese into English for folks to consume. He sounds vague and evasive from your responses (not this guy though – https://www.youtube.com/wat… )Its about roles and responsibilities. KS is, as I understand it, an agent or broker. They connect you to projects, take a cut and stand aside.If they begin, even at a minor level, to participate in guaranteeing the integrity of the transaction – not just the facilitation of it – they will be swallowed whole by the American legal system.In some weird small way, the lack of the ability for US courts to award costs to litigants who are the subject of frivolous or vexatious (all time favourite law school word that I never get to use anymore) lawsuits is a tax on innovation.If KS thought they could do the right thing here – without falling into the viper’s pit of US lawyers – I am sure they would.
Exactly. Which means it’s an opportunity for a third party to get involved and profit. (Like trip insurance you are offered but is underwritten by a third party..)Problem is this. If you give the option on backing of purchasing insurance it sends a negative signal. So the cost would have to be absorbed by KS and implemented by the third party who would be responsible for any investigation or vetting in order to keep their losses down (which is worms in itself..)
It’s unclear whether the 10% failure you are referring to is based on quantity of projects or dollar amount of projects.It’s like say x% of startups fail. x% of what size. Do you know what the 10% refers to?
Copy-pasted this from the Kickstarter website( kickstarter.com/fulfillment).
Of the 1 and 10 that fail, I bet:Only 1 in 10 didn’t give absolutely everything they could and more to succeed,And of those only 1 in 10 lied.But the whole thing about commission is that you usually only get it when things work out, but in this case it could go to figure out who the 1% of projects are that really need to be reimbursed, but as LE says too much liability.
If they agreed that they would not earn their commission unless the project was completed even if they just put it into an investigative fund not returned it, they would not earn the commission until the project was done and they would lose 10% due to failures.
Actually according to this page looks more like 8%:”8% of dollars pledged went to failed projects”https://www.kickstarter.com…
All I know for sure is revenue recognition. If you say we do not recognize shipping and commission until projects are completed that is a huge hit to immediate revenue recognition. I agree with the founder giving me 5% back really isn’t going to move the needle, but saying we are going to investigate it, and litigate in gross negligence does. The shipping really seems like actual fraud.But here is the transparent thing: That means you are going to defer a ton of revenue.
Scroll down on my comments, I was saying put the money towards reviewing the actual financials of the project and going after people if they just took the money.1. You don’t get any money back.2. If I knew I was going to have a CPA and Attorney up my ass that is motivation3. That would be dumb.4. You aren’t promising money back you are saying your commission is not earned until the project is done (and that is a big financial hit, which is the transparent reason why he doesn’t want to do it)
Lots of good points raised in previous comments but I’ll take the other side of the argument for the sake of debate: No on escrow, and no on anything but the most basic checks and balances currently in place. Kickstarter should be a marketplace of ideas, not a delivery platform. Amazon is already there for products that exist. The world needs more ways for dreamers to get traction for their ideas. Some of those dreams might actually be delusions. Caveat emptor. Let the market decide. Finally: Maybe i’m being too literal, but as a motorcyclist it seems obvious to me that Kickstarting something is a last ditch effort. Brilliant suggestion: Anyone considering crowd funding should first find an old motorbike and learn how to kickstart it… 😉
I think one thing that pushes up KS’s success rate is that many companies are using KS as essentially just a pre-order system and marketing channel. These companies are already successful and have a low failure rate.And then there are companies and campaigns that actually need the money to get the project off the ground. I bet these have a higher failure rate.Sounds like Zano blurred those distinctions.
A key benefit of doing a Kickstarter is for the creator to connect with the early supporters as a community.
You’re thinking Kor type things?
Transparency is the new currency, awesome.
Transparency is the most bullshit overused word of this generation. If you have to say you are being transparent it is like saying “in all honesty”
If transparency is used as a marketing ploy to try to establish one’s legitimacy, then I tend to agree with you; but if someone’s ethos is to be genuinely honest and transparent then that’s got to be a good thing, c’mon.And yet I agree there are times when you can’t put all your cards on the table, so some adjudication is required.
Transparency is finding the most abused Kickstarter project where people just took the money and putting the details on the front page.Look I don’t expect them to do that. But are we highlighting these?? http://www.consumerreports….No.I love Kickstarter. There is some really, really cool stuff on it.But it is not in their best interest to be transparent.
Time shall tell.
I’ve wondered before, since there is no real consequence for failing, how many wildly successful campaigns like this one give the entrepreneur a new idea – take the money and run. Zano’s original goal was a little less than $200,000. That’s a lot of money, but not ground-breaking. But then, the creator of the campaign lands on $3.5 million?! Suddenly, it’s a lot more tempting to sell failure to the backers and take the windfall.
As crowdfunding becomes more popular, do you believe that the government will soon become involved in the “consumer protection” aspect of it?
I hope not.It provably wont happen anyways.I hope it doesn’t happen because every time the government says they want to do x, they end up doing x,y and z with the excuse that doing x, requires doing y and z also.They provably won’t because they understand how kickstarter works.The government only tries to regulate things they do not understand or are afraid of.Often at greater cost to tax payer or at the cost of killing what is being regulated.Recreational drugs and bitcoin are two examples.
That 90% number was surprisingly high for me. I think it would be nice if they published how often each project category (Art, Technology, Crafts, etc) failed or shipped late. It would at least give the potential backer some idea of what kind of risk they are taking on.Kickstarter should have enough data, and they seem willing to be transparent.
is KS a registered money transfer agent?
FYI for those that might check out the article: It’s amazingly thorough, especially given the fact that the author only had 5 weeks to investigate. That said, it’s really long. There is a TLDR version at the bottom of the Medium article. Worth checking out.
Whether there was fraud was also part of the investigation and the company seems to be clear there.
Transparency is critical – especially from the project creators. Given the desire to raise as much as possible, it is so tempting to over promise! Creates the right environment for disappointment.
Whenever I invest in a Kickstarter campaign, I think of it as a donation to the project and an investment in entrepreneurship. When I actually get the product, it is a bonus.Someday, when I am an angel, I will be shrewder. For now, just putting a few hundred dollars where my mouth is.Without the risk of failure, it is not venture and without “venture” where would we be? But I don’t want to be lied to. That’s different.
What about compulsory insurance?
I hope they didn’t pay him by the word.
They did not!
Why? What difference does it make?
Just a joke
I wish they had, I could buy up all those cool unfinished Zanos
I wonder if Kickstarter should do something different for massively over-funded campaigns? If you set your GOAL to $120k but raise millions, that seems like an unexpected event you aren’t prepared for (and if your intention was to raise millions to begin with, you should have set your goal at that level). Kickstarter could not release the ADDITIONAL funds (over the goal) until everyone in the initial phase has their products fulfilled, for example.
With the risk of irritating people from the makers movement, I would propose Kickstarter to buy insurance in favor of the backers when the project funding goal is exceeded. Assigning a temporary CFO to manage the ‘excess capital’ could also help. After all, as the bartender often whispers while arranging the glasses – ‘too much money is the root of all evil’.
The Zano drone camera was probably the precursor to the Lily drone camera, but its story unfolds like the tale of Ouya. Innovation without project management and basing your controller on bluetooth leads to chaos. I wonder though if indiegogo’s failure rate is similar to kickstarter’s? I have seen way more speculative campaigns on indiegogo than kickstarter.
If ‘backing’ was presented / perceived / treated less like an investment, and more like a loan (with some personal guarantees/pledges), wouldn’t that help solve the problem?
Many crowdfunding projects could increase odds just by planning their post campaign logistics better. Where to buy resources and how to to ship them in a timely fashion. I wrote about the subject here https://medium.com/the-crow…
KS can’t be in the due diligence biz as they’ll drown in legal and liability expense. That said, they can’t turn a blind eye when there’s obvious fraud or blatant misrepresentation. Zano Is perhaps an outlier but the negative impact on KS’s reputation and credibility should not be underestimated. I don’t think funding should exceed a company’s ask, and if incremental funds are raised, they should be held in abeyance until the company fulfills its stated objectives. In fact, it’s quite likely the company is ill-prepared to allocate and manage a high raise over goal since it wasn’t baked into the company’s initial biz plans and expectations. The focus of the raise should be solely on fulfilling the company’s original, stated objectives. If the company fails, then any incremental funding should be returned proportionately back to all investors. If the company succeeds in its original goals, then and only then, should any funds raised over goal be released.
Excellent discussion to be had about this emerging aspect of the innovation economy. Thank you for sharing.
I would suggest that Kickstarter interview the project founders and create a framework that indicates a confidence level for which the project will succeed. Then publish a confidence of success on the projects page. If people really want to back something with a low chance of success then Kickstarter did its best to warn them.
The article doesn’t really get to the root cause of the failure ; I’d say thay Kano, given their South Wales location were unable (or unwilling) to attract engineers of an appropriate calibre for this project.
Reposting as my earlier comment never showed up (though it appears on my @disqus dashboard):A cautionary tale indeed. Kickstarter should consider implementing allowance for funding caps, gradual (instead of immediate) release of funds for projects that raised beyond a certain limit. Where applicable, it could also require sample from creators for verification of advertised features and background checks on key claims (e.g. company was described as having previous success making drones for the defence sector, which turned out to be false).Media slipperiness in hype creation didn’t help, either – Engadget’s defence of its endorsement/award to product without verification by explaining that its criteria meant “what are the device’s capabilities, not that we have seen it performing all these functions in person” was weak.I am a bit confused as to how creators’ spending on non-production items like director salaries and luxury cars is not viewed negatively by the investigator. Money was raised expressly for product (vs company) and backers expected usage as such.
Don’t let a bad apple spoil an otherwise good system.
90%. Beyond belief. Great news for every startup entrepreneur. Maybe both sides of the table and everyone else can learn wildly important and valuable lessons from that.Uh, what are some of the leading lessons?Mine: Pick an unsolved problem hundreds of millions, maybe billions of people want solved. Find the first good or a much better solution. For this, for an advantage, exploit as the crucial core some original research in applied math based on some advanced prerequisites. Along the way, get a proprietary solution, with trade secret protection, with corresponding software locked up inside a secure server farm, and a technological barrier to entry. Also get a barrier to entry from a growing collection of crucial input data, with exponential growth, that is, where more data means a faster growth rate in that data. Go live with just a Web site. Keep the Web site dirt simple and easy to use including on mobile devices. Have no mobile app. Monetize via ads.That’s a guess. In part I am borrowing from some of the history of technology projects, especially for US national security and from the general goal of much of applied math.With this guess, in Silicon Valley I’m at best a Lone Ranger, a laughing stock, or, usually, just ignored. So, my confidence has to be based on the history of technology and the fact that theorems and proofs yield by a wide margin the most solid information there is. Also, being a Lone Ranger is close to a necessary condition for being a big success but is also often nearly a sufficient condition for being a big failure. Or, no guts, no blue chips. Or, lots of people said it might not be easy.But, in what should be in the most important sense, it has been easy; all the work unique to the project has been fast, fun, and easy. All the difficulty, and there has been a lot, has been from unexpected sources, e.g., working through 5000+ Web pages of .NET documentation — nearly sank the project.But any lesson to be drawn from my approach as just above will necessarily apply only to people with a lot of math knowledge and ability, that is, to only a tiny fraction of the population, startup entrepreneurs, or Silicon Valley information technology startup entrepreneurs. More general lessons should be available. And some of those more general lessons should also apply to my startup — e.g., how the heck to get what need from .NET in a way that is also fast, fun, and easy.On with the lessons!
A scriptural account of this is quite illuminating – It underlines pretty much all Fred has said.(whether or not you are spiritual 🙂 Judeo-Christian traditions assume that failure is unavoidable for all of us.Ecclesiastes 7:20 “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”The recommendation is clear :OWN IT (without BS) 1 John 1:8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.CONFESS TO BE FORGIVEN 1 John 1:9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.NEVER DENY IT 1 John 1:10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.NOTE : If this offends you – Please feel free to add other wisdoms from other Scripture or even wise Humanist opinions there is no harm in benefitting from the whole truth
I quite agree it is terrific to see the openness by Kickstarter, and the fact that things do go wrong is no reason to criticize the service. That said, some form of project review and insight to funders could help everyone. It might be good to have proposals include some process background so all can see that they are organized and to some extent on track to deliver, late or not. I think the exceptions are not the rule, but still we find teams not prepared, with unrealistic cost and time estimates, etc. It should not be difficult for KS to find a group of experienced folks to review these projects as a form of stage gate participants. I would think the same “rewards” given funders would also attract these same folks to serve to further “open up” the development process and schedule. They could also avoid disappointment and money wasted. Some times killing a project is the best decision. I have reviewed some of the failed KS projects and in several cases found such poor or weak assumptions in place that really served to cause troubles from the start. An earlier helping hand would have eased the pain.
Call me cynical, but is there a polite way to bring up expectation management? The first question I always ask when considering a crowd campaign is “if this idea is so good why isn’t it being funded through traditional methods?” I have only a rudimentary understanding of hardware manufacturing but I remember watching the video and thinking “wow clearly this product doesn’t actually exist.” Also, is it not obvious that crowd funding has more RISK than other types of investments/purchases not LESS? Clearly you are funding someone else’s hopes and dreams. Maybe you will get a product but failure is definitely an option. And if risk bothers you, why not wait until the product is sold at retail?
but I haven’t because I’m not confident we would be able to complete itIn business there is definitely a correlation in some cases between the big win and the degree to which you care about other people (in the way that you do Charlie). You might not think that’s the case with me, but I am actually the same way. Way to worried about letting people down and disappointing them. Really has impacted business decisions that I have made where I see others who don’t give a shit making significant gains.Otoh my ex father in law would take on multiple jobs in one day (alarm installs) knowing upfront he could only complete 1 of them. And he had no problem sleeping at night. Would make promises that he knew he couldn’t keep on a regular basis.There is a line between selling the dream (where you believe in what you are selling) and merely selling it and not caring if you are wrong.
I think screening is a big part of the process. ks rejects about 30%.
same.I also realize I know some great people for it, and it would be a great business for them/me