My Problem With Kickstarter

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and other crowd-funding sites are serving a tremendously useful purpose by providing a funding venue for creator-owned properties that might not see publication otherwise. A great many niche products were produced using these vectors, and some have even discovered that they were perhaps less “niche” that they thought. Kickstarter is the best known of these funding clearinghouses, but by far not the only one.

The idea of a patronage model for artistic endeavors is nothing new — not by a long shot — and while these are, for the most part, highly worthwhile creations, I find a few things with the whole process that I don’t care for.

It’s been pointed out by people who are smarter than I am that Kickstarter and the other crowd-funding venues are not stores. You are not buying something, you are investing in something. As with any investment, there are significant risks. Chief among these is that your money will disappear and you’ll never again hear from the people behind the funding campaign. That has happened, and more than once.

There is also the strong possibility that the people managing the Kickstarter campaign won’t know what they’re doing. More than just a few funding campaigns had to fold because they overcomitted their resources. By resources, I don’t just mean their own time and skills; I also refer stretch goals. Stretch goals are additional perks awarded to some or all of the paid backers if certain funding levels are achieved. This is often where many campaigns run into trouble; they keep adding in perks to offer that will cost them money, time, and resources to produce. Usually, this means that they end up losing money on the Kickstarter because they promised more than they could deliver. The whole point of a crowd-funding campaign is to raise money to produce a thing or an event; when too much of the money is diverted to produce these ancillary objects, often the main project suffers for it.

Make no mistake: Managing a crowd-funding campaign is a full-time job. Even without the tons of email asking questions about this or that, ‘can I substitute something for something else as my stretch goal perk’, etc., there is a relatively constant flow of updates, promotional plugs and pleas for support that must happen to build — and to maintain — the project’s momentum and visibility. These take time to formulate and launch. It’s all a great deal more work than most of us see from the outside.

In many cases, I’ve not even bothered to follow up on the perks I should have received as a backer. It may have been pure laziness on my part, or it may have been that I was more interested in seeing the work out there and supporting my friends than in getting something for my money. There are also some projects I support precisely because I want the rewards; Reaper Minatures’ massive inaugural Kickstarter campaign comes to mind. They collected $3.4 million dollars on that campaign, and had well over 17,000 backers. I backed that at a fairly high level, and to their credit Reaper came through with the goods and in a timely fashion. The whole point of their Kickstarter was to provide them with financing to retool their operation so they could produce plastic miniatures as well as the metal ones for which they are well known. They were able, through their massive funding success to do just that.

I was surprised then when Reaper launched a second Kickstarter this past year with a similar goal; it turns out that making new molds for every miniature in their product line isn’t any easier or cheaper even when you have the right equipment to cast the miniatures. Being a complete goober for miniatures, of course I took a look, but I found too few miniatures in the offer that appealed to me to want to spend $100 to get the “good” package. I declined to support them this time, not because they aren’t good people, but because affording it then would be a stretch, and the payoff simply wasn’t strong enough to tempt me. As testament to their fan base they did perfectly well without my $100, and good for them, I say.

I guess my biggest problem with crowd-funding efforts has been its phenomenal success.

The gaming industry has been one of the early adopters of these sorts of programs, followed closely by small press publishing. Having many friends in both fields I have been inundated with requests from my friends to back their projects. At first it was easy, but eventually there were far too many for me on my no-name writer’s earnings to possibly afford. That has, surprisingly, cost me a few friendships. I still try to promote my friends’ campaigns whenever possible through boosting their signal using Twitter, Facebook, G+ and other social media venues, but these days I have to be extremely selective regarding which ones I will personally kick in money for. It is sometimes difficult to turn people away, but it’s easier than living on the street. I’ve even been asked a few times to write a project for a stretch goal if funding meets the requirement, and I can’t do every one of those, either, much as I’d like to.

Getting back to the most recent Reaper Kickstatrer, one thing that dawned on me was that they had learned some hard lessons after the first time. By the time I saw the newest Reaper Kickstarter only three days after it launched, the first several waves of product had already sold out. By shipping the product in waves they wouldn’t have to warehouse tons of minature A while they were casting up tons of miniature B; they could cast what they needed to fill each wave and not have to rent extra storage to do so. If I were to back them at that point, I would not get my miniatures for 15 months. At my income level that’s a long time to loan someone the use of my $100.

Now I’m betting that the folks at Reaper nearly killed themselves trying to get all those Kickstarter packages out the door in a timely fashion the first time, and I fully understand the need to change how they did things to maintain their health and sanity. Something about the way the second Kickstarter was set up left a sour taste in my mouth, though; combine that with an offering that (to me) wasn’t as strong, and I had far less enthusiasm to support them. This is not to pick on Reaper in any way; they did what was needed to adjust. My problem is absolutely not their problem in this case, nor should it be.

Crowd funding is a fantastic concept, one that has helped numerous artists and manufacturers find not only their voices but their audiences as well. Several friends have evaluated their own support, and found about a 50% rate of actually getting the products they backed, which is a better rate of return that an awful lot of investments, and certainly better odds than you’ll get in Las Vegas. I endorse the premise of crowdfunding wholeheartedly, but with this simple caveat; treat it like gambling. Never put in more than you can afford to lose.

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Over on my Facebook page there’s been some discussion of this post. I’d like to call your attention to an article written by someone who knows more about this than I do. He gives an excellent perspective on what is involved in a crowd-funded campaign. May I present Ian “Lizard” Harac on what he learned from his first Kickstarter:

mrlizard.com – Kickstarter Post-Mortem

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Fred Hicks also has a terrific breakdown of the Fate Core Kickstarter for Evil Hat Productions. It’s well worth a look and provides excellent perspective:

Fate Core Kickstarter Post Mortem

6 thoughts on “My Problem With Kickstarter

  1. Valid points all. My complaint with these sites is established companys who have been supported by brick and mortar stores use it to make money and then exclude oroffer pathetic (at best) opertunities for the stores to become involved.
    Both Reaper and Steve Jackson created campaigns for items thT had already sold through most retailers and re realesed them in order to profit but not introduce any “new” product to the market at all.
    Where I do see these sites being benificial to markets is allowing new ideas film, books, games etc. To reach a audience that might not even know they exist otherwise.

    • Point taken, Katz, but I must respectfully disagree. In MANY (not all) cases, the project being crowd-funded was one for which the retail/wholesale divisions had expressed little or no support. Many manufacturers have to come up with more creative ways to fund their projects, and I believe crowd-funding can be a viable one. With so many stores turning to a “it doesn’t sell fast enough so I won’t carry it” retail model, many manufacturers have no choice but to find a way around.
      I agree that crowd-funding works best when it supports artists who can’t find another way to deliver their product without losing control of it – if they can even get that far.

  2. Where I think things like Kickstarter really break down is when people start them with goals that are way too vague and misty, and then they can’t seem to convince anybody that they’ll make any steps toward it.

    I supported one campaign on the basis of having seen a few products from the artist’s portfolio. Their goal was in five figures. With the money they had a lonnnng list of purchases: a machine that does this, a transportation device, displays, etc. But then the campaign seemed to vanish into the ether. I did get a “perk” as a supporter eventually… but they didn’t get five figures. They got three. This makes me feel less like an investor and more like a donor. If this had been someone I knew well, that wouldn’t bother me, but as it was, I wondered if I should have just put the money in a donation to Second Harvest instead.

  3. Rather than an investment, I would say it’s a preorder. With an investment, you expect to get a cut of the profit. With a preorder, you’re paying now for an item that won’t be available for a while yet, with the understanding that it will be sent to you when it is. In both cases, you can lose your money (I have lost money on a pre-order before).

    And I promise that if I ever do a Kickstarter or other crowdfunding, I won’t stop being your friend if you don’t back it. In fact, I wouldn’t want someone to back it solely because he’s my friend – I’d want him to back it because the project interests him.

    • Fred Hicks made a similar remark on my Facebook page: that crowd funding IS more like a store, but it’s riskier than a store. So I’d have to agree that my original statement of crowd funding venues not being stores is flawed.

  4. Bill,

    Great article. You are correct about Kickstarter projects becoming a JOB! We successfully completed a campaign for The Morrow Project 4th Ed. There is lots of learning on the fly. What we did not count on was spending hours each day answering questions via kickstareter comments, facebook, twitter and email about aspects of the project. So much so that it often takes all available resources and leaves no time for working on the actual product.

    Then we had a series of life events happen that have set us back over 9 months. While we are meeting the commitments it is not on the original timeline. Most of the backers have been extremely understanding. However, there is that minority that are unhappy and VERY vocal about it.

    If we do another project we will be very careful about what we commit to and probably triple the time estimates.

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