Crowdsourcing and SF Projects

A few years ago, a colleague and I had the cunning plan of supporting a new crowdfunded project every two weeks. We’d get cool stuff, it wouldn’t cost too much, and we could support creators – in particular, in my case, those involved in SF projects. I don’t know if she ended up continuing with the project, but looking back on my own activities it seems that I’ve managed to keep the desired average right where we’d planned, so that’s something.

The problem was that we knew nothing about crowdfunding – in particular, we knew nothing of the risks, although I’ve certainly learnt a lot more since then, some from personal experience and a lot through watching what others were going through. The plus side was that I have had a lot of fun — I may have been burnt a bit, but overall it has been a very good experience.

Kickstarter vs Indiegogo

The two most popular sites for backing crowdsourced projects are be Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There are others, but they are generally either less popular or use a different model (such as Patreon, on which backers offer to pay a monthly fee to support an artist in their endeavours; or GoFundMe, which is mostly for event fundraising and support). Both Kickstarter and Indiegogo seem similar, but there are some significant differences which may make one more appealing for backers than the other.

To start with, Kickstarter only offers one model – an “all or nothing” approach that means that projects are only funded if they reach their goal. Thus if a project is asking for $10,000 and you back it to the tune of $100, you won’t be charged unless they raise the full $10,000 from other backers. Indiegogo, on the other hand, has both “fixed funding” and “flexible funding”. While the former mirrors Kickstarter, the latter model guarantees that the project creator will get the funds raised even if they are substantially lower than the target. Therefore, if you back an Indiegogo project using flexible funding for $100, and they only raise $600 of their $10,000 goal, you will still be charged for the $100. Sometimes this isn’t an issue, however if the project needed $10,000 to finish their prototype and start manufacturing that $600 will more than likely be wasted. Finally, Indiegogo also offer “forever funding”, which allows projects to continue to raise money after the funding date has past. As a general rule, any exciting new technology that appears on Indiegogo using flexible funding should be ringing alarm bells.

The other main difference is how they handle prototypes. After some high profile failures, Kickstarter now insists that developers show them a working prototype of any technology-based project that is to be listed on their platform. How well this works is open to debate: there have been projects kicked off Kickstarter because the prototype failed to be sufficiently convincing (generally, those projects reappear on Indiegogo shortly after), but at other times I’ve witnessed projects with faked prototypes make it through Kickstarter and subsequently failed to deliver at the end.

The Process

The process is largely the same on both platforms. You identify a project that you like the look of, choose a funding level (and associated reward/perk), and agree to pay the required amount. Typically this can be as low as $1 – although that’s more of a “moral support” thing – but funding levels can range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars, depending on what is being offered. If you use the standard model, such as that offered by Kickstarter, you won’t be charged until the fundraising period is over. At that point you’ll be charged, and if it fails you will be given seven days to fix the payment.

Once you’ve paid the long wait begins. If you choose carefully, you might pick a project where it is due to ship not long after it closes – I’ve seen projects offer to ship the product within 2-3 weeks of the crowdfunding phase’s completion. That is rare, though – most projects have a shipping date from months to years after funding is complete. It is also suspicious when some projects have a rapid shipping date. Is it really possible for that new device to go from a prototype into full production in just one or two months? Or is it more likely that the creators are either going to sell you a product they picked up online for a huge markup, or just disappear not long after the fundraising period is over?

While you are waiting a good project will post regular updates, and some do. Others go silent for months at a time – one project I backed posted an update five months ago, in which they promised more regular updates in the future. Given that the update before that was eight months prior this remains a possibility, although it does stretch the “regular” part of the claim. In my experience of far too many Kickstarters, most updates dry up after a while, appearing sporadically or only when the products are almost ready to ship.

Shipping is sometimes included in the amount you provided, but sometimes they don’t calculate shipping until it is ready to go. In the latter case this can come as a surprise. I recently backed a project that did not include shipping in the initial costs to backers, and was very clear about this. However, now that the product is ready to ship, backers are complaining that the shipping costs are in some cases greater than the cost of the product. As someone who regularly needs to order parts from the US this does not come as a surprise and I was ok with that, but it can be a shock. Especially given that you have already paid for the product and thus may find backing out to be a problem (refunds are not guaranteed).

Prior to shipping you are often given an opportunity to update your address and – as is becoming increasingly frequent – purchase more “perks” from the project. Some use Kickstarter’s own survey tool for this, but many now use third party sites that specialise in supporting crowdsourced projects. My one suggestion is to reply promptly when these do the rounds.

The one big warning with this process comes after the items have shipped. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are there to put you in contact with people who have ideas, but they provide very little ongoing support. If the reward is broken, missing, or flawed, that is (as far as they are concerned) your problem. So don’t expect much in terms of support either from the platforms or the creators – if it is there, that’s terrific, but if the idea wasn’t good enough to go beyond the initial round of crowdsourcing, you may end up finding that there’s no support to be had.

What Goes Wrong

I probably shouldn’t cover this next, because what I want to say is that crowdfunding is great and you should seriously consider taking part. But you should be doing so with your eyes open, so I hope that you’ll bear with me – I’ll explain the negatives, but I’m going to return to positives as soon as I can.

I’ve had a really good run on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo – so far only four projects have failed completely. One was for a musical which did happen, but the promised recording never showed up – as far as I can tell the business was shut down after various problems, and it is never going to be sent. Another was for a game that was cancelled after many years of development. The third is for a tech product that I suspected was fake, but decided to take a punt on – they’re still promising it, so it might be real, but I strongly doubt that is the case. And the last project looked great, but the business went under before it was completed and were sold to a competitor, although they did manage to give all backers a full refund first. Otherwise I’ve backed a lot of projects that turned out to be very late, a couple of projects where not all of the promised products were provided (for example, I was sent a digital copy of an album, but not the CD; or rough cuts of a video arrived, but not the final version), and some which were technically sent, but which didn’t live up to expectations. Which isn’t too bad, all things considered.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a lot of projects come and go that I didn’t back and I’ve seen a lot of scams. Generally we’re looking at four types of scams/failures on Kickstarter and Indiegogo:

  • Fake projects that were never intended to be made.
  • Products that already exist and the organisers intend to resell via crowdfunding to make a profit.
  • Projects that the creators thought they could build, but were nothing but a concept that they couldn’t carry through.
  • Projects that were possible, and which the organizers intended to do, but which were simply never finished.

Video games often fall in the last two of these categories, while tech products often fall in the first and second. One of the many difficulties creators face is that ideas may seem great on paper, but moving from a great concept to a manufactured product can be much harder than people expect. For example, Ritot promised a watch that would project the time on to the back of your hand, and it looked great in the photoshopped product pictures they produced. However, making a projector that small with the lenses needed to correct the picture at such an extreme angle, while still producing it so they can make a profit, was well beyond the team. It raised well over $1 million US, but now, over 4 years later, they’ve yet to even produce a working prototype. Another popular project, Aido, is an attractive robot that – according to the slick video they produced – is able to roll around your house while balancing on one wheel. Yet after raising $800,000+ US, they are now over two years late and backers are still waiting on a fully functional prototype, much less a production-ready version. It is very likely that the creators really did intend to make the products, but it seems that they ended up overpromising and not being able to deliver.

More worrying are projects such as BioRing and Nanoplug. BioRing promised a small ring you could wear on your finger that would track your heart rate, sleep cycles and calorie consumption, and even showed photos of the ring sitting next to various types of machinery. It was eventually closed down as a scam, but it raised over $400,000 US first. Nanoplug promised to be the world’s smallest hearing aid, and they sold it to the tune of $250,000 US. Yet when it came time to deliver they pulled a “bait and switch”, claimed that technical issues meant that some of the features had to be changed and instead shipped a much larger, radically different, off the shelf $30 hearing aid that was nothing like what they promised. Years later backers are still requesting refunds. I admire their persistence, but I suspect that they are out of luck.

Personally, I’ve tended to follow a simple rule: I stay away from technology projects unless:

  • I’m absolutely convinced that it is possible with today’s technology.
  • The price is not too low given the features on offer.
  • The deadline is achievable.
  • I’ve seen enough of the prototype to believe it is real.
  • The goal is enough to manufacture the items.
  • The creators have had other successful crowdsourced projects in the past
  • It isn’t on Indiegogo.

You’ll still risk getting burned, but far less often.

What Goes Right

Actually, a lot goes right. The good projects – and there are an awful lot of them – may run into problems, but overall you’ll end up with that great combination of something to enjoy and a sense that you had a part in making it happen. What crowdfunding has allowed creators to do is to find people – in advance – who would like to see them succeed, put the two together, and give the creators an opportunity to make something cool and the backers the chance to be part of the process.

One project I was very excited to back was The Great Way novels by Harry Connolly. Connolly’s Twenty Palaces urban fantasy series was highly enjoyable, but ultimately were cancelled on a bit of a cliffhanger due to poor sales. The Great Way wasn’t my first choice of novels, as like so many I really wanted to see more Twenty Places novels, but I had a lot of faith in Connolly’s skill. Thus I was happy to (effectively) pay for a series of novels before the first was written. Not that this makes me special – 1205 other backers felt the same way. The books were great, but more importantly it shows how this may be a viable option for other authors to produce books with a solid fan backing but little commercial support.

Other books I really enjoyed backing include Baby’s First Mythos: Learning With Lovecraft by CJ Henderson and Erica Henderson (Erica Henderson later worked on the excellent The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). I had no hope of failing to back a beautifully illustrated book that could teach my children how to read using Cthulhu – I ended up with two copies, just so I could keep one to myself. Non-fiction works as well: She Changed Comics examined the women who helped change the comics industry. 

Similar to books, comics frequently appear. Often these are webcomics being collated into book form, but occasionally they are a new work searching for some support. Like the books, I tend to see these as both safe and relatively rewarding (noting that there’s always a risk of failure in anything through crowdfunding). Some are well known – I’ve had the opportunity to back publications such as Ava’s Demons by Michelle Czajkowski, Atomic Robo and the Temple of Od by Brian Clevinger and artist Scott Wegener, and Daniel Lieske’s Wormwood. However, what I’ve enjoyed the most is backing new works, especially local writers and artists, and I’ve been rewarded with some excellent reading.

For a while I thought that backing music would be a safe bet, but I’ve moved away from that a bit. Almost every album I’ve backed ended up being overdue, and in once case was sold for less than what backers were asked to put in when it was finally released. That said, the music has been great, and some of the SF themed music has been a lot of fun.

Theatrical works are more problematic. Generally they need a decent budget, and this can be difficult to raise, especially for new directors who have yet to produce anything. But again, you can have some luck. Back when I first got involved in this thing my wife spotted the Veronica Mars movie on Kickstarter, and she’s still happy that we were a very small part of it (it helps that it was great, of course). 

The Veronica Mars movie: we loved the TV series, so the opportunity to help see the movie made was hard to resist (the resulting film was great, too). Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm (filmed in “Ultramarionation”) was successful enough that not only did they make the promised pilot, but they were picked up for a full series. And my personal, ongoing favourite is still Kung Fury, a low budget short film about a Kung Fu master who goes back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, the “Kung Führer”. It became a cult hit, and when I say to friends that I was one of the original backers I gain a certain amount of respect. Not much, but something. Plus I loved the movie.

Conclusion

I’m more than a bit lost on where artists sit today. Has the internet opened up wider audiences, or are pirating and streaming making it difficult to earn a profit? Have eBooks and self publishing made it easier or harder for professional authors to make a living? I’m not sure where things are placed, even though I’ve heard arguments from many directions.

But in spite of the risks, crowdfunding allows consumers like me to support the development of the things we most want to see, while creators have the chance to get enough money that they can offset some or all of the risks. When it works it is a great win for both sides, but when it fails it is normally be backers who end up in trouble. I’ve found it to be worthwhile overall – I still have a bit of fear that I’ll fall for a scam, (and it is very likely I have already), but I can live with that.