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Kickstarter: Crowdfunding Platform Or Reality Show?

It's QVC for the web generation, the new Thunderdome, Off Track Betting for ideas addicts. Whatever you call it, Kickstarter's becoming less about funding widgets than pouring gas on creative sparks just to watch them ignite.

You've probably heard about the latest Kickstarter darling, OUYA: "a new kind of video game console" that connects to your HDTV like an XBox but allows anyone to publish games like the Android Marketplace. The company behind the device raised their $1 million target in eight hours, and have reached $5 million with more than three weeks left in their campaign. Proponents of Kickstarter's populist commercialism see OUYA as an unmitigated success.

The notion of "success" for a Kickstarter project has evolved. According to Kickstarter's stats, 44% of projects succeed—but "success" in this case refers to reaching their funding goals, not completing the proposed work or thriving in the marketplace. Only 25% of 471 projects in a sample taken from Kickstarter's technology and design categories were delivered on time, according to research conducted by website entrepreneur Jeanne Pi and Wharton professor Ethan Mollick. (Kickstarter doesn't yet track this statistic itself.) And even after an eight month delay only 75% of successful projects deliver at all according to the sample study. That's just delivery, never mind viability—a matter some industry critics have found unconvincing in the case of OUYA. As games industry critic Ben Kuchera put it, OUYA is "selling a dream, not a solution."

Kuchera is right, but for the wrong reasons. Kickstarters are dreams, and that's their strength rather than their weakness. People back projects on Kickstarter to fund the development of a new creative work or a consumer product that might never see the light of day via traditional financing. But what if Kickstarter is more about the experience of kickstarting than it is about the finished products? When you fund something like OUYA, you're not pre-ordering a new console that will be made and marketed, you're buying a ticket on the ride, reserving a front-row seat to the process and endorsing an idea. It's a Like button attached to your wallet.

The fact that OUYA raised so much money so fast speaks more to our fantasies than the market reality. Whether or not OUYA will disrupt the console business is beside the point—no one could predict such a thing anyhow—the pleasure we get from imagining that possibility is highly valuable.

Author Souris Hong-Porretta, who has backed 31 Kickstarter projects, told me she enjoys supporting friends and strangers who she believes deserve creative encouragement as much as (or more than) the financial support. "Moral support is always reason number one," says Hong-Porretta.

Entrepreneur Tod Kurt agrees. He's backed dozens of Kickstarter projects, and recently launched one for his company's programmable USB status light, blink(1), which more than doubled its goal of $29,000 in less than three days. Describing his "Kickstarter habit," Kurt backs projects he wants to see exist, "even if I don't get something physical in return." For Kurt, the unrealistic aims of most Kickstarter projects, be they films or consumer electronics, don't reduce his satisfaction, since the product was never the point anyway: "Sometimes the product being developed is too expensive for me, or I don't really need it (I have many gadgets already)."

That was also the case for me with the Pen Type-A, a slick stainless-steel enclosure for Japanese gel ink pens that I first saw on Kickstarter but pre-ordered shortly after their campaign raised more than 100 times its goal in August of last year. I finally received mine in May. It's five inches of machined metal with a pen in it. It's nice, I guess, but I'm still using a $2 roller-ball to sketch notes in my Moleskine. Yet the Pen Type-A is more than a $100 metal pen that never gets used, it's a memento of the excitement I felt after first seeing the product.

When faced with the reality of these products, disappointment is inevitable—not just because they're too little too late (if at all) but for even weirder reasons. We don't really want the stuff. We're paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It's QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

[Image mashup by: Joel Arbaje]

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  • Brian Jenjen

    "Just another form of entertainment" - all you needed to say (so i could know it was a waste reading what you wrote.) i guess you made the connection between qvc and crowdfunding because QVC markets new/creative products sometimes, and so that was just too clever to not contrive an entire article around. sigh

  • marianne doczi

    Crowdfunding sites are another form of democratising technology, which enable people to give 'voice' to their values, beliefs, dreams and desires. Crowdfunding enables people to be participants and actors rather than bystanders and receivers in the economy.  It also reflects the move to an experience economy, where people will 'invest' so they can share in something. Early days to be predicting where it will end up/evolve to but it meets a fundamental need of humans to exercise choice. 

  • richandcreamy

    Whoa, I've been trying to put words behind the feeling I had about certain crowdfunded projects and you got it. Now that you've put it in words I can start thinking about how to target the Kickstarter / crowdfunding junkie :P

  • Karl

    yes, more Chinese production so it can collect dust after maybe 2 months of shredding those sick games for it. still ripping that ATARI 2600, NES, SNES, Genesis, multiple PCs, etc, etc? probably not.

    i make baby pacifiers for western world adult-children. come crowd fund it.

  • Chris Bartell

    What we've found interesting is how few non-techie people understand Kickstarter.  Our kid-focussed food project (called Yummy Dough) has less than two weeks left and, though we've received lots of play on blogs and social media, our general consumer target market (parents) are not familiar with KS or how it works.  I'd love to see the stats on a per-category basis.

  • Felipe Budinich

    The OUYA hardware naysayers make me laugh. I could assemble that board on my kitchen table for well under the proposed price point.

    The fact that they have the guys behind Kindle, OLPC and Xbox behind seems to elude them.

    The fact that 1GB of ram is more than enough (considering that the Xbox 360 and PS3 have 512MB) seems to elude them too.

    Yes. It may be delayed. Yes it will be hard to get the ecosystem going (current Android games being ported wont cut it). Isn't it hard for any new  platform?

    PS: The author is *spot on*

  • Andres

    You (the author of this article) may not want the product, you may pay for the hypothetical sensation of the product and not the realized product! But don't act like everyone's you, some of us who don't have never ending purses, and live on budgets support projects cause we want the product! Some of us don't have the luxury of spending our money on sensation must be nice though to do that but don't act like everyone is

  • Felipe Budinich

    Yes that is true, but he is defining a behaviour that I've observed for quite a while. There are guys and gals that have backed *over 300 projects*.

    Yes, it's not for everyone. Retail is for everyone.

  • oolong2

    Only 44% are successful in their funding, only 25% deliver on time, only 75% of successful projects deliver at all...

    How is this any different than any non-Kickstarter start-up?  You don't need reality TV to understand that delays for new "untested" ideas happen all the time and most businesses fail...  

    This is a basic fact of life that has nothing to do with Kickstarter.

  • JaniceShokrian

    Kickstarter has a genuine platform that achieves so much more than funding. It can help determine the kinks prior to market, establish pre marketing buzz and provide a solid measurement of consumer testing (of opinions). It may have elements of QVC, but thankfully, the pitches are, by far, more interesting than the over sales pitchy hosts on QVC.

    Watch for Coastal Disturbances on kickstarter. We are funding for a tv pilot set on the Orgeon coast. Our actors have worked with Spielberg, Nora Ephron, Emmy nominees. It is a smart, funny, drama with unique characters.

  • Dave Bauer

    That's why entertainment projects on Kickstarter make the most sense to me. Music, movies, comic books etc. They are sort of pre-orders for a great thing so you get double entertainment.