Crowdfunding, it’s not me, it’s you.

I really wanted to like Crowdfunding. On the outside, it made a cute little appearance and was enticing to the internet eye. But the more I got to know it, the more I started to have questions as to whether we could truly have a prosperous relationship. The longer we flirted and occasionally dated, the more I started to realize that Crowdfunding, it’s not me, it’s you.

My first crowdfunded project was a good one and only in hindsight showed me that there are ways to do it right. It was (along with Ellen Susan and G.K. Darby)Rob Walker’s Signage Depicting Imaginary Building Uses In New Orleans in 2010. This project focus on hypothetical uses for neglected buildings in New Orleans and the art meets commentary concept was totally worth my $50. I like the idea of funding creative ideas that would usually not see the light of day and had no direct ‘product’ to come out of them. I was intrigued.

Since then I have funded a few more of these creative endeavors. throwing $50 or a $100 bucks against a creative concept that did not have a direct revenue source to pay for it felt like a great ‘pay it forward’ approach to creative thinking. I funded a few books, a few films, an ad or two to raise awareness of a advocacy group whose voice should be heard and even my friend’s 15 year old nephew who wanted to raise funds to bring his girlfriend on a family trip (though I deputed it on my cc bill when the processor for GoFundMe did not list the company nor the campaign on my bill, sorry Joseph!), all of these types of ideas were easy sells on me although it always bothered me that the companies were taking their fee on top of the payment processor but I guess it’s the price of admission and I was ok with it.

In 2014 I funded VidCode, which as a creative coding platform, ideally that would be self sustaining after launch to create simple tools to teach girls how to code. Having a young daughter myself, it was another simple investment that expected no financial return but more of an inspirational one and after attending an event of thiers a few months ago and seeing how well they are engaging their target audience, I felt good about helping them reach their goals.

And that’s where the good feelings ended.

Categories and volume of crowdfunded activity 2011–2013

With all of the good that those small, emotional donations created, the scales were heavily tipped in the negative when I started to fund actual product. I am sure I am not the only one to complain about a promise not realized on a crowdfunding platform, but I think I can speak about it from a specific perspective that perhaps can help others considering such.

For the last 8 years my company (first Supertouch, and recently merged with Guild) has been involved with making creative hardware and software. We have done it for small and large companies and have had the privilege and trust to do so for some of the most largest and most forward thinking companies in the world (Bell Laboratories, General Electric, AT&T, Showtime, Pfizer, NIKE, etc.) an if there is one thing I have learned, custom hardware and software is hard and it takes a lot of time. Having done this over the years with some of the smartest creative coders and hardware hackers out there, I have a true belief and faith in giving the opportunities for success to those in the field willing to take a shot. But something always stuck in the back of my mind, making a custom piece of technology for a few is easy compared to making one for everybody.

Once you have your idea and you start writing your code and soldering up your wires, getting to prototype can be a pretty quick process and can often expand your imagination to all of the places you think your new idea can go. You start to see multiple uses and varied customer segments and opportunities for corporate and private use and suddenly you think you will be the next Woz. I can’t even count the number of people who said to Alpay Kasal and myself that we were on the verge of being millionaires after seeing our Interactive Mirror. And while we did sell a few million dollars of them to various clients over the years, it turns out most of that money went back into refining the project and making it better as well as investing in additional technologies that we could also sell as we were building our business. But when it really came down to it, the projects that we created were great for the use that the client needed, but every time a new use came up, it would show us another area we had to work on. Getting a technology ready for everyone is a really hard thing to do, especially with a specific pricepoint in mind and with the promise of ease of use that Apple has set the bar on for all projects coming next.

When funding, I often remember saying to myself ‘why am I investing in product that nobody has used before?’ The way that I have sold creative technology over the years (and I have sold quite a bit of it) was through the power of promise of course, but also through the wonder of experience. Having a client come in to our lab and show them a working piece of technology and show them how with some additional code or sensors it can transform their office, trade show, event, etc. is the absolute best way for my business to succeed and very often the word of mouth from those who used it in the field yielded another project, another client. Yet here I was, throwing hundreds or thousands of dollars down because someone made a cool video, often with the help of AfterEffects, to showcase a hypothetical product that they had often not even built true working prototypes for. It was the wonder of the future and the knowledge it could be done along with supporting some creative thinkers that got me, but after a few hard years, it is time to break up with the idea.

This is not to say that there have not been a few breakout stars that have come out of the crowdfunded model. I have all versions of the Oculus Rift and I know people who swear by their Pebble watch. I have even seen some interesting uses for a 3D Doodler, but with over 190 different crowdfunding platforms in the U.S. alone, those hits are rare, very rare compared to all of the products that don’t make it or more importantly don’t live up to the promise of their marketing video.

Using Oculus Rift @sxsw

In the class that I teach about the history of Media and Propaganda at Hunter College, one of the first things I discuss with my students is about the power of storytelling. So of course what do I do when I see one of these excellent videos about a new product on a CF platform? I buy-in. Even though I know I am being sold, I buy in, because I want it to be real. NOW.

The fact that the thing most likely wont be ‘real’ for 18 months and most often it will not look like that video bears no meaning when after watching that beautiful 3 minute movie I am ready to plunk down my credit card. But I have cut myself off. I don’t even watch the videos anymore, because I know what will happen. You’re pretty, but you are not for me.

It happened with the Kreyos Smartwatch (complete failure, product could barely be called a watch). It also happened with the Ghost Drone, according to the user groups I am not the only one who not only could barely get the product to work, and often receive communication blackout from the company when support is needed (this did not stop the company from raising $10Mil and recently inking a partnership with Hobbico). It happened with the CST-01 Smartwatch as well (I guess I really like smart watches) which after burning through over a million dollars still could not produce a usable product. And there are a few others that I am assuming will meet a similar fate when they finally either ship an inferior product or never ship at all or worst case, when they finally get something of use, the industry has caught up and moved passed them. Of course I hope for a different outcome but I do not think I can continue expecting greatness out of such a broken model.

Southpark’s take on the benefits of crowdfunding

I know that I am focusing on a particular subset of the CF world and that it is a valuable tool for many creative and maker endeavors, but when it comes to consumer tech, I think it a fail.

What could be done to help solve this?

Well at first I thought something like the Quirky model may be a better one by understanding supply chain, but yeah that did not work. Could the Kickstarters/IndieGoGos of the world start to take responsibility for the project delivery and promise in exchange for the 5% they are skimming off the top? We are giving them no reason to, they collect their fees regardless and we just chalk it up to failed visionaries. Or do we just owe it to ourselves to go back to the old model of product development — creative people come up with stuff, prove it to others, and word of mouth validates it until we try and either share in the joy or advise the next group to be wary. For me, the answer will clearly be the latter, until a model is proven to work otherwise. It does not mean I will not throw some cash at some creative thinkers trying to make art or a kid who needs to have an amazing experience, but when it comes to the sexy, I will think with my head from now on, not with my … heart.