Confessions of a Kickstarter

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As an avid Kickstarter-er, I was both intrigued and disappointed by this campaign. This is either a very clever scam marketing ploy. Or a case of the internet gone wild. I’m not sure who is to blame – the campaigner or the supporters. It is pretty typical to see people get carried away sending funds to things like this, while more public goods like blood donations and legitimate charities struggle to get attention and money.

There has been much commentary about this online. (UPDATE: here’s what happened to the money). Yes, Brown should do whatever he wants with the money. He has not raised it under false pretences, and if people are silly enough to support money for basically nothing, then that’s their prerogative, too. However, if Brown had any decency, he’d put a stop to his campaign before he collects any money from anyone. Kickstarter is full of projects that fail, and backers should know that’s a risk.

The potato salad one is a sure-fire “success”, but that doesn’t make it right. Kickstarter itself has stopped projects before that have gone astray of their objective  and they’ve had controversy before when they didn’t act. The potato salad project could receive a similar review and judgement as the beef jerky one, if the Kickstarter folks were paying attention and had any scruples.

My own Kickstarter history began with Calvin & Hobbes. The first project that I backed was Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary that would include interviews with artists inspired by Bill Watterson and the irascible Calvin and that tiger. It was 3 years in the works, but the film was finished and, when I received my DVD in the mail, I set aside an evening to watch it through to the credits, so I could see my name in the “thanks to” section.

I’ve backed 11 other projects since then and I like to think about all of them as successes, but in fact only 3 others have completed so far (some DNA dolls, a very lovely pen, and a book about Olympic cities). All of these ended up as gifts to others, and it was very rewarding to have supported these successful initiatives and be able to deliver unique and special gifts to friends.

I do have confidence that most of the others will complete, and I look forward to the various books and pens and movies. I know that projects like these take a long time, especially the ones with technical development. And the Watterson documentary taught me that movies take a long time, too. But there is one that I’m sure will never come to fruition: Punk Mathematics.

I backed this one at a fairly low level without really knowing too much about it. It was the second project I backed, and I picked it mostly because I thought the book might make a good gift for a math teacher friend. The fund-raising was very successful, completing in 2010 and reaching 10X the original goal. But the project has foundered since, and may never be over.* There is much anger being directed at the project and the guy by several backers, but ultimately “you pays your money, you takes your chances”. No project is ever guaranteed success, especially art-type endeavours and even with significant funding. If people were mostly interested in getting a copy of the book, they should have waited till it was available for sale.

Overall, I’ve been very happy with my Kickstarter experience, but I think that’s because I maintain a realistic perspective on the potential for success and don’t “invest” more money than I can either afford or I think the project or product is worth. Every pledge comes with a reward – something that the project will give you as a thanks for supporting the work – so in a way your pledge isn’t just contributing to the project – it’s buying you something (albeit a long time in the future).

For the potato salad, people who are pledging $1 (there are more than 1,600 of them) only get a thank you. They know that from the start, so if the project goes ahead, they spend their $1, and get what they paid for. That’s how Kickstarter works. And it works well when used correctly and appropriately. Like anything, someone somewhere will try to exploit or appropriate it for evil or silly uses. Kickstarter has rules, and if no one is breaking them then there’s not much that can be done. Backers decide which projects will succeed, and the backers have decided that potato salad is worth up to $50. Like Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, sometimes people just have to know what a $5 shake tastes like.

* Update 2020: this project is still not completed, with no updates since 2017.

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