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Kickstarter valuable despite potentially out-of-control projects

Blair Hanley Frank

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I’m currently waiting for a package of hot sauce from a guy who owns a pizzeria in Brooklyn. His name is Youngmahn, and he wanted to raise a few hundred dollars to share his sauces with the world. I’m one of over 1,000 backers who pledged a total of more than $40,000 to his cause.

Kickstarter is designed to be a new form of patronage: Creators come to the site with a project in need of funding and start up a page that allows them to collect pledges from backers in exchange for predetermined rewards. If the pledges for a project meet the preset goal amount, the creators get all of the funding collected. If they don’t make their goal, the project isn’t funded.

I’ve been backing Kickstarter projects since 2010. My first pledge was $5––enough to get me access to exclusive updates from a woman who wanted to travel around the world tasting coffee and writing a book about it. Since then, I’ve backed 47 different projects including films, comics, lockpicks, museums and even my high school history teacher’s second hip-hop album.

All told, 44 of the 47 projects I’ve backed have come to a satisfying conclusion. And that seems to be a trend for the entire site.

Project creators are often building from whole cloth: Often, they need funding to do something they’ve never done before, or at least never done on a scale like that provided by Kickstarter. If a project goes viral beyond a creator’s wildest dreams, well, now they’re left doing something they’ve never done before and trying to provide it to thousands, if not tens of thousands of people.

Often, Kickstarter functions as a pre-order system for a product, whether that’s a DVD, a watch or a stylus for your smartphone. But that pre-order mentality can be dangerous. While saying you’re pre-ordering something may be true in the long run, the short term is a good deal more complicated.

The results can be difficult, if not disastrous, to deal with. Diaspora, which was touted as an open alternative to Facebook, finally handed over its code after two years of development. In an interview with The New York Times, one of the people behind the project called the massive influx of cash after their project became popular “crippling.”

My experience as a backer reveals its own cautionary tale: that of Schuyler Towne, whose “Open Locksport” project received over $87,000 in funding. I was one of over 1,000 backers to pledge. Towne, who had competed internationally in lockpicking tournaments (yes, they exist) wanted to bring the joys of locksport to the masses with a set of picks and introductory locks.

I got my locks last month. It’s unclear whether or not the picks will ever be made.

While Towne is a great lockpicker and a brilliant speaker, the past two years have revealed that he doesn’t have much of a head for large-scale manufacturing.

For the past two years, I watched as he struggled with suppliers and manufacturing methods, trying to perfect the picks he promised. Towne is now broke. The project is in the hands of a board of similarly-minded folks who are working feverishly to make sure it gets completed, or at least finished to some degree.

This is the unfortunate reality of Kickstarter. While it’s great to talk about new business models and supporting creators, the success of a project can often be a cost unto itself. So, if you’re thinking of getting started on Kickstarter, know this: Your pledge is not a guarantee, but either way you’ll probably be happy with the result.

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Kickstarter valuable despite potentially out-of-control projects