Kickstarter: Always a Mixed Bag, Always a Thrill

I had something of a torrid love affair with Kickstarter last summer. Although we’ve cooled things off just a little bit, it remains one of the most-clicked links in my bookmarks bar.

The truth is, Kickstarter remains one of the most important websites out there today, providing a way for people with cool ideas to get them in front of the right eyes. The only thing you really need to keep in mind is that this isn’t a store, so don’t treat it like one. If you need a product tomorrow, I’d advise you to go straight to Amazon and buy it there. If, however, you’re looking for a new take on an existing product, or perhaps even a brand-new solution for a common problem, Kickstarter might be just the thing. You just need to know how to separate out the crap to get to the good stuff. And there’s a lot of crap.

Let me put it another way: there’s “startup culture,” and then there’s Kickstarter.

What you might be asking yourself at this point is: why would I want to get involved with the poorest of the poor that startup culture currently has to offer? Why couldn’t these people secure “real” investors? In answer, I’d say that you’re going about this all wrong: Kickstarter isn’t a last result for innovators and entrepreneurs. In fact, it can be quite the opposite: a first stop for people who have products and services that they want to bring directly to their potential customers, without financiers and other middle-men.

Unproven Tech, Unproven Track Records

Having said all that, getting involved with a project on Kickstarter is a bit of a risky proposition. No matter how slick their pitch video might be, or how professional they might come across, you still have just about no real way to verify that these people are who they say they are, or that they actually have the means to see their project through to completion.

Arguably the most risky type of pledge you can make on Kickstarter would be one in the Technology sector. While it’s clear that some really important and potentially game-changing tech has come out of Kickstarter, it’s also safe to say that backing a hyperbole-laden tech project carries a little more risk than, say, backing somebody’s dreams of going to ballet school.

Recent examples of world-class tech projects on Kickstarter include the Oculus Rift – a bold take on the long-stagnant idea of virtual reality – and the Pebble E-Paper Watch, which cornered the then-burgeoning “smart watch” industry and will likely continue to do so until Apple releases its own effort sometime this fall.

Mistakes to Watch out For

When it comes to succeeding on Kickstarter, there are a number of mistakes that creators and consumers alike can make. As I said above, Kickstarter is not a store. In fact, Kickstarter will frequently remind you that they have no real way to guarantee that a project’s creator will actually follow through on their promises. That said, I’ve actually witnessed Kickstarter staff shutting down projects at the 11th hour in the name of backer protection, but this doesn’t happen very often.

You’d also do well to remember that projects on Kickstarter may well lack a certain level of fit and finish. You’re likely dealing with an unproven device produced with an unproven manufacturing process. Keeping your expectations realistic can go a long way.

And to the creators out there: for the love of God, make sure you have a plan before you get started. While I’ve generally had pretty good luck backing a variety of products on Kickstarter, there have still been a number of experiences that left a bad taste in my mouth, such as a certain computer stylus/mouse that is now a full nine months behind its production schedule. If you’ve never done business with factories in China, you might want to start with a slightly less ambitious project.

A Risk of Addiction

Now that I’ve said all of that, I’ll add that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself addicted. I tend to check Kickstarter every night for about 5 minutes or so – long enough to take a quick look through that days’ new projects and see if anything looks promising.

If nothing else, Kickstarter is a glorious celebration of America’s indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a way for those with ambition and creativity to see their vision become a reality without compromising their ownership of the idea in question. And taking part in that process can be downright thrilling.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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