Why everything geeks think they know about Kickstarter is wrong

Are we art projects, or tech startups, or both?
Are we art projects, or tech startups, or both?
Image: Boddie smart watch
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Kickstarter has been described as the Home Shopping Network for geeks—picture an online version of the Sharper Image catalog and an investment platform for tech startups having a baby. But this is the wrong way to think about Kickstarter, because the site’s founders have actually shied away from tech to take Kickstarter back to its roots: a fundraising platform for all forms of creativity, but mostly in the arts.

A site synonymous with smart watches is now rejecting them

The evidence is everywhere, both on the site and in founders’ public statements. Case in point: the most-funded Kickstarter project ever is the Pebble smart watch, which raised more than $10 million. It touched off a revolution in thinking about wearable computing; Apple, Samsung and Google are all building their own smart watches.

You’d think that, given Pebble’s success, Kickstarter would welcome more smart watch enthusiasts. But here’s an Android-powered smartwatch, the Boddie, which the founders say Kickstarter recently rejected because of its new guidelines. Those guidelines state that gadget makers need to submit something more than photorealistic 3D renderings of their products to list on the site. (The Boddie eventually found a home on non-profit crowd funding site Indiegogo.)

Kickstarter doesn’t want any part of potentially risky gadget launches like this one.
Kickstarter doesn’t want any part of potentially risky gadget launches like this one.
Image: Boddie smart watch

Kickstarter wants less risk and more consistent fundraising success

The folks at Kickstarter declined to comment for this story, but the site’s new guidelines and the founders’ public comments offer some hints about the reasoning behind its anti-tech thinking. For example, Kickstarter’s new product guidelines require people with gadget submissions to “be clear about their state of development,” and “show details (photos, videos, sketches) of their progress so far, along with a prototype demonstrating the product’s current functionality.”

This is partly about due diligence. Some Kickstarter gadgets have taken people’s money in advance and then failed to materialize, leading to at least one lawsuit. Forcing creators to be transparent about the state of their project and their ability to deliver a finished product helps substantiate the site, for both creators and donors. Being more selective appears to have markedly increased the success rate for tech startups using the site.

On the other hand, Kickstarter doesn’t have much to lose by allowing anyone to fundraise; the site takes no responsibility for failed projects. If people want to back startups that might fail, who is Kickstarter to stop them? That’s the philosophy behind less restrictive sites, which is why the Boddie smart watch ended up on Indiegogo.

Kickstarter was never especially interested in technology

The category on Kickstarter with the highest rate of successful funding is, believe it or not, dance.
The category on Kickstarter with the highest rate of successful funding is, believe it or not, dance.
Image: Kickstarter

But then, Kickstarter has always envisioned its donors more as arts patrons than investors. Just take a gander at Kickstarter’s “staff picks” page: it’s filled with film, music, some video games, and the rare technological tchotchke. Yes, Kickstarter’s most-funded project ever was a smart watch. But in 2012 the site gave more money to the arts than the US National Endowment for the Arts. In a long interview to Fast Company, Kickstarter’s reclusive founders declared that they’re not really in it for the money; they’d rather fund arts projects they believe in than become a knick-knack store for high-net-worth geeks.

Without Kickstarter, where will technology startups find crowd funding?

Ok, so their thinking has some merit. After all, the tech sector is cash rich, and the arts are not. And yet, as we’ve seen, the tech world benefits enormously from crowdsourcing technology. With technology startups becoming leaner than ever, many only need a small dose of capital to get from an idea to an interesting project. But what about founders who don’t have access to angel investors, or who can’t afford to put their life savings into their startup? The sector needs an alternative.

Some have suggested the site Quirky, which is a truer version of that re-launched Sharper Image catalog we described above.  Projects funded by Quirky have made their way into big box retailers like Best Buy to Bed Bath & Beyond. But the site focuses on things you can buy but don’t need—and I mean you definitely don’t need them. So it may be too narrow for freewheeling technology projects.

More fitting is the recently launched site Crowd Supply. Unlike Kickstarter, Crowd Supply also acts as a store front. Developers have the option of transforming their fundraising page into a site for pre-orders or purchases. The challenge for any competitor will be scaling up fast enough to rival mammoth Kickstarter. For now, Indiegogo appears to be the go-to for projects that couldn’t make it onto Kickstarter, even though the site’s focus is non-profits, not tech. Perhaps this niche will be filled by a budding entrepreneur. But don’t expect Kickstarter to host the first round of funding.