3D Printers

Crowdfunding & The Low-Cost Desktop 3D Printer: A Suicidal Race To The Bottom? (Part 7)

Maybe Crowdfunding through Kickstarter — the dominant player — is a successful strategic mode for a reasonable percentage of the more or less 200 low-cost, desktop, 3D printer companies now in our 3DP marketplace. If so, it may be due more to the inherent quality of the projects that succeeded—and their gritty and resilient entrepreneurs. And, NOT the results of KS’ logical, rich and robust creator support-system. In fact, this system doesn’t exist.

You’ll recall that at the end of Part 6 of this series, that I enumerated the online instructions, tools and systems Kickstarter provides to creators to kickstart their projects within its ecosystem.

As a 3DP ‘journo’, I was hoping against hope that I would discover Kickstarter presenting a wealth of online 101s, How-Tos and Tutorials to foster, support and failure-proof its creators. My effort to understand what substantive assistance Kickstarter offers its entrepreneurs — in their startup launch to funding-goal success (and beyond, one wishes!) — was a vast disappointment. There isn’t much.

The “Creator Handbook” is the most promising title in the KS would-be-founder’s suite. Eight sections — each with little more than an online page or page plus — and no links to anything other. Woeful.

kickstarter creator handbook 3d printing

Maybe the KS Tumblr pages or Blog would be better? There was a lot of diverse input for DIY interpretation on Kickstarter’s Tumblr iteration. (“Inspiration, insight, and interesting projects handpicked by the Kickstarter team.”) Similarly — like a Web-modulated treasure hunt — the Kickstarter Blog begins with “Tips.” This section leans heavily on “listicles” — an article comprised of a numbered list — enumerating what you should do at random KS’ing stages via a random selection of disciplines.

There is no coherent path through—map or logic or digital wayfinding—linking these very-diverse self-help admonitions and tools. (If utilizing KS “instructionals” were an online game, it would be an exceeding frustrating and challenging one.)

Now, why should the KS Project Creator have to work at interpreting, rationalizing and integrating Kickstarter’s guidance? Resources wasted via work that’s needlessly hard — if not nigh on impossible. Especially for a first-time entrepreneur trying to make KS deliver for her or him! Let alone while struggling in parallel with the incredible effort to birth an appropriate “working” product for the daunting marketplace.

Spinning Kickstarter’s web-full of online, self-help straw and dross into golden skeins — to weave personal, creative and business project-success — is another grim(m) fairytale.

Kudos to all of those who have made the KS (semi-)support system work! Over the company’s five-year history, it welcomed more or less 170,000 prospective-project candidates into the Kickstarter ecosystem. About 42% (68,000) were successfully funded.

Which begs the question: with robust creator support systems, could this “success percentage” have been much, much higher? And the number of successful companies launched for corporate and community good vastly greater? Further, could the Kickstarter brand and KS-created goodwill have already been crushingly dominant in Crowdfunding? (Instead, Kickstarter is facing an atomizing competitive-field — think indiegogo and its ilk — of dangerous innovators…) And finally, of course, could KS revenue — paid at funding-goal achievement — have been magnificently increased. The answers to these questions are self-evident…except (apparently) to Kickstarter.

At the end of Part 6, I also suggested that KS should take competitive advantage of its vast community of past, present and prospective startup-companies. Here’s a ready-reference review of my observation and admonition:

“Kickstarter has now interacted closely with ‘Preneur teams working 168,230 projects over five years. As a result, the company is in possession of priceless business perspectives on startups — and their evolution — across a broad spectrum of creative disciplines.

Do your startup-world a favor, KS. Strengthen your emotional ROI with funders by assuring better results for more creators. Found an online “Preneurs Academy.” And — there — present what you’ve learned for the betterment of ALL founder/creators going forward. (Hey, Kickstarter, what better marketing tool could you possibly devise to build goodwill worldwide…?!?!)”

Forget the regrettable “Creator Handbook.” The “KS Preneurs Academy” should be an overarching, all-encompassing system to assure cradle-to-grave, proactive support of every entrepreneur with an idea — even those who do NOT end up using Kickstarter for their Crowdfunding. (Following KS’ own fee-structure, the “KS Academy” could charge non-KSer Crowdfunders a similar fee for reaching — with the effective help of an “Academy” higher-education in C’funding — their funding goals. Hey, KS could license the “white label” use of its “Academy” to all its competitors — further monetizing its original innovation in Crowdfunding and its brand-as-verb positioning.)

Now, the “KS ‘Preneurs Academy” would also be a great added value for Kickstarter funders. (This segment of the KS community — while fundamental to the company’s success equation — gets very little online or institutional support.) Of course, every backer wants to see her or his creator(s) succeed — at every stage of the process. NOT just to funding-goal realization — that’s only an interim step on the way to real success. (After all, “reward” delivery to funders is contingent on shipping an actual working product built to the specs advertised.) So, KS-Preneur “Academy” participation will assure that backers are funding startups with the maximum opportunity to succeed — for the benefit of every player in the KS Ecosystem…and beyond.

Further, let me suggest that Kickstarter sets up a “KS Ombudsman” department — for the specific purpose of mediating issues between funders and creators. As I’ve opined in this series already — more than once — one of the great sources of ill-will in the KS Ecosystem is the (often fraught) relationship between backers and creators. And, this nexus is often founded on plain old communication issues. (Assuredly, one of the courses at the “KS Academy” will be the creator’s care-and-feeding of funders — that education in social/commercial interaction will go a long way to improving on-going and effective exchange.)

The KS Ombudsman will have the ability — and responsibility — to maintain the comity and commercial leverage necessary to goodwill-building and advancement of successful projects among the communities of participants supporting individual KS creator projects.

Now, I’ve read the “Terms of Use” containing the specific contract Terms & Conditions that Kickstarter and its Project Creators enter into as part of the KS’ing process. (In keeping with its resolutely online commercial persona, Kickstarter Site and Service mere use — via KS’ online interface — constitutes a contractually binding agreement.) I am not an attorney. But, my educated reading of these “ToU” — and research around them via substantive reports by others — indicates that KS could easily create and enforce the power of a KS Ombudsman.

The ToU section entitled “Projects: Fund-Raising & Commerce” states these admonitions to Funders about a Creator’s key responsibility to delivery of Funder/Backer rewards (and possible subsequent refunds based on circumstances noted):

  • “The Estimated Delivery Date listed on each reward is not a promise to fulfill by that date, but is merely an estimate of when the Project Creator hopes to fulfill by.
  • Project Creators agree to make a good faith attempt to fulfill each reward by its Estimated Delivery Date.
  • Kickstarter does not offer refunds. A Project Creator is not required to grant a Backer’s request for a refund unless the Project Creator is unable or unwilling to fulfill the reward.
  • Project Creators are required to fulfill all rewards of their successful fundraising campaigns or refund any Backer whose reward they do not or cannot fulfill.”

In actual effect, what these Terms come down to are the primary controls Kickstarter exercises over the commercial behavior of its Creator’s and their Projects. The major points of rancor and fist-raising among disappointed Funders revolve mostly around reward delivery dates and/or delivered features and functions inherent in those rewards.

And, finally — failing all else — here’s what you might call KS’ “Universal Escape Clause”:

“Kickstarter is not liable for any damages or loss incurred related to rewards or any other use of the Service. Kickstarter is under no obligation to become involved in disputes between any Users, or between Users and any third party arising in connection with the use of the Service. This includes, but is not limited to, delivery of goods and services, and any other terms, conditions, warranties, or representations associated with campaigns on the Site. Kickstarter does not oversee the performance or punctuality of projects. The Company does not endorse any User Submissions. You release Kickstarter, its officers, employees, agents, and successors in rights from claims, damages, and demands of every kind, known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, disclosed or undisclosed, arising out of or in any way related to such disputes and the Service.”

This is Kickstarter’s version of the (in)famous “merchantability” clause of software user’s “contracts” — or, “Hey, you may have paid for software that ‘works,’ but if it doesn’t, you can’t hold us responsible for its failure in any way.”

And, if it needed them, KS can also fall back on the typical legal boilerplate. This contractual language has armored corporations for as long as contracts have been penned. They include such clauses as: Disclaimers, Indemnifications, Limitations of Liability and — in case of any missed risks — Miscellaneous.

As a matter of real-world commercial wisdom (and the business success that usually attends the effective application of such wisdom in the marketplace), KS should NEVER want to resort to its “Universal Escape Clause.” Because such a Clause should be subtitled “The Goodwill Destructor.”

Still, the company’s Terms of Use have not been amended since October 2012. That’s well over a “generation” (18 months) in the quicksilver Tech Biz. Or, forever — if you’re intent on responding appropriately to your commercial environment.

Clearly KS has NOT found it necessary to adjust its relationship parameters. During this same period the numbers of ‘Preneurs kickstarting low-cost, desktop 3D printers has mushroomed. As have the problems — with the attendant Funder/Backer agita delivered — many of those startups have experienced.

Kickstarter employs (or did as of July) 86 people. As of now, 8,633 Creator Projects are “live” in the KS Ecosystem. That’s almost exactly 100 in-process Projects per employee! Yowza — one could say that load capacity is a credit to the robustness of its online interface with its Creators (and Funders). Or, one could also surmise that a lot of folks in the KS Community are being underserved…!

Twenty more KSers employed to build and maintain the “KS Preneurs Academy” and to act as “KS Ombudsmen” would go a long way toward taking Kickstarter to the next level of excellence in their original role as Crowdfunding innovators.

So, this is the wrap-up for this article series. Having identified some of the many issues for all concerned in the crowdfunding space, my hope is it has provided visibility on the pitfalls and provided food for thought in terms of solutions.