Kickstarter made some interesting changes to the rules Project Creators must follow last week. What's really interesting about these rules, is that they mainly affect only Product Design and Hardware projects.
Let me take you through each rule change, tell you how I think they will effect Product Design projects, and then finish up with something I think Kickstarter should consider.
Change #1: Risks and Challenges section
Located at the bottom of a project's home page, this is a Creator written overview of the risks and challenges a project will/could face. It's now in effect for all Kickstarter projects.
This is a great idea. Backers should know upfront what needs to happen to make a project a reality and it reinforces the idea that Kickstarter is not a traditional store.
Ultimately, this rule will be more beneficial to Creators than Backers. The more you think through potential pitfalls, the better prepared you will be. Many of the Creators I see doing product design projects on Kickstarter are novices and don't think about this until it is way too late (crying to themselves at 2AM, ten months past their estimated delivery date).
I actually think Kickstarter should take this a couple steps further, with Backers receiving more background information on the Creators. Things such as the number of people on the project team, how far along in development they are, what their professional/educational background is, and how much manufacturing experience they have, should all be made available for Backers.
One thing I want to note: The projects I've seen use this new Risks & Challeneges section don't seem to have put enough thought into it. On one project I saw, the Creator wrote a three sentence description that boiled down to, "There are many steps to complete," with no explaination of those steps. Perhaps Kickstarter could give a basic outline that would help Creators fill this form out and make sure they answer important questions?
Verdict on Change #1: A good change that should go further.
Change #2: Product simulations and photorealistic renderings are prohibited. Pictures of prototypes in their current state, technical drawings, CAD designs, sketches, and other parts of the design process are allowed. This only effects Product Design and Hardware projects.
The problem Kickstarter is trying to address is the right one, but the way they're trying to solve it is wrong.
Here is what's currently happening: When Backers see a hot looking computer rendering, they (understandably) think what they are looking at already exists and support the project believing that the project will ship with no problem. This is bad.
The problem isn't renderings, it's that Backers don't know how to interpret renderings. Most of them probably don't even realize they're not photographs. However, you don't solve this communication problem by eliminating renderings, you just create new problems.
Kickstarter's solution is to only allow pictures of prototypes as they exist at the time of the project launch.
Prototypes are really important and should be required for all Product Design and Hardware Kickstarter projects. You learn more about how your design works and will be produced from making a physical mockup than you would from 100 renderings.
But here's the thing, prototypes can be just as misleading as renderings. It's easy to make a single prototype, just like it's easy to make a photorealistic rendering. The trick is actually mass producing that thing. I can't tell you the number of projects I've been on where we get what looks like a finished prototype back in a month but then it takes another year to get it through production.
Eliminating renderings does not make manufacturing easier, it just makes it harder to describe to Backers what you are trying to do.
Here's how I would solve the problem. Make prototypes required, but also allow renderings. The difference will be when Backers see images of those things, they need to be clearly labeled as to what they are with Kickstarter provided explanations of what a rendering is and what a prototype is. That way, Creators would still have the tools they need to tell their story and Backers would have an explanation of what they're looking at and a better understanding of the level of development that has gone into the project so far.
Verdict on Change #2: This rule doesn't solve the real issue: Backers need to be educated on what they are looking at.
My recommendation: Kickstarter should start requiring prototypes, but renderings and simulations should still be allowed. In either case, both must be clearly labeled as to help Backers understand what they are looking at.
Change #3: Offering multiple quantities of a reward is prohibited. This only effects Product Design and Hardware projects.
In the past, Creators were able to offer different quantities of a single product. Say my project is to develop a "widget". I could offer a reward tier that would allow you to purchase one "widget" and another reward tier where you could purchase five "widgets".
Kickstarter's hypothesis is that by limiting the quantity of "widgets" that are produced, it will help make life easier for Creators. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how to streamline manufacturing.
Producing large quantities of a single item actually helps Creators. It allows them to make larger purchases with their vendors, giving them more clout with that vendor, which keeps Vendors motivated to help the Creators. Smaller orders always get less priority, leading to delays. Larger orders can also mean more efficient use of a Vendor's equipment. Once a production line is up and running, the difference between producing 500 and 5,000 can be minimal.
For Creators, large quantities of a single item can lead to bulk discounts. If 1,000 "widgets" costs $1.00/unit to produce, 5,000 "widgets" might cost $0.50/unit to produce. This is hugely beneficial to Creators, especially when the unexpected happens. It's common on Kickstarter for shipping to end up costing more than estimated or a project turns out to need more development than anticipated. We shouldn't punish Creators for things that happen all of the time in even normal product development.
The problem isn't large quantities of one type of reward, it's multiple types of rewards. For example, I've seen tons of design projects offer not just a "widget" but also a "sprocket". Making two different things means the Creator has doubled their development work. Even something as small as offering a "widget" in multiple colors can add complexity to a project. In some extreme cases, I've seen Creators offer so many different things at so many levels, that their projects felt more like an eBay store than a Kickstarter project.
The goal of a Kickstarter project isn't to create an entire product line, it's to get your project made. Adding something else to make on top of that, multiplies your work and increases the chance for delays and possibly failure.
Kickstarter and Creators are both to blame for this. For Kickstarter's part, they actively encourage projects to have unique rewards to entice Backers. Instead of focusing on the point of the whole project, which is to produce the "widget," Creators get sidetracked doing things like making t-shirts or creating a book about the development of the project. They should just be focusing on the "widget."
On the Creator side, our natural inclination is to try too much right out of the gate. Take my own project as an example. My initial idea was to create a cap that turned a pen into a stylus. In the end, I offered three different types of Stylus Caps (one for Sharpie, one for Bic, and one for Fineliner), in two different materials (stainless steel and brass). I wasn't producing just one Stylus Cap, I was producing six different Stylus Caps. Essentially, I was doing six projects at the same time. I don't know how I survived 2011.
In retrospect, this was the single dumbest move I made over the course of my project. This was a first run production and I should have focused all of my efforts into doing just one version of a Stylus Cap in one material. I probably wouldn't have made as much money overall, but I'm positive I would have had a lot more Backer support centered around one Stylus Cap. It would have kept me focused, it would have kept my vendors focused, and it would have helped decrease my delay in shipping. If you look at other big design projects that have faced delays, it's almost always because they tried to do too much and didn't focus.
This is where I have to give a shout out to my cohorts over at Studio Neat. (You know them as The Glif and Cosmonaut guys.) I think one of the reasons they were able to run tidy projects even though they are a small team, is that they focused on making just one thing and doing it really well. This is a good model for the rest of us.
The other benefit to focusing on just one "widget" is it helps Creators make their projects more understandable to Backers. If you simplify the product offering, you simplify the messaging. This would be helpful both at the point of backing a project and while production is going on.
I would add an out clause to this focusing rule. Let's call it "The Scott Wilson Clause." The Scott Wilson Clause would allow "super" Creators who have a proven track record of high profile success either on Kickstarter or in their careers to petition Kickstarter for more flexibility in the way they structure their project. If someone like Scott, who has a powerhouse team at their disposal and wants to do something special with their project, no one should stand in their way.
One last point I want to make. Practically every Product Design project on Kickstarter has run into delays. In normal product development, products get delayed all of the time, however no one knows about it, so no one feels let down. Delays are an unfortunate, but normal part of the process for even large companies with unlimited resources which means small teams will almost certainly face this reality.
Those estimated delivery dates on every Kickstarter page are essentially promises waiting to be broken and piss off Backers. I'm not saying we should eliminate timelines or create projects with no end in sight. Creators must be held accountable. However it seems like we should think of a better way to keep accountability while preserving the Kickstarter spirit of the journey being part of the reward. That will go a long way towards reinforcing the idea that Kickstarter is not a store.
Verdict on Change #3: Eliminating multiple quantities doesn't make development easier, it can actually make life harder for Creators.
My recommendation: Allow multiple quantities of single items, but help Creators focus on just one "widget."
Let's get down to the larger issues.
The problem, as I see it, is threefold:
1) We need to adjust Backers' expectations of what Kickstarter is and provide them with better information.
2) Creators need to understand how to better plan for the differences in crowdfunded development as opposed to traditional development.
3) Kickstarter doesn't fully understand product development.
Number 1 can't be solved until number 2 is solved. Number 2 can't be solved until number 3 is solved.
I don't want that to come off as harsh, because I really, really love Kickstarter, but I think it's true. The lack of knowledge about the development process is it's Achilles heal right now.
I wrote Kickstarter a letter. (pulls out a folded note, written in Prismacolor on vellum, out of front jean pocket) I wrote it on behalf of the entire Industrial Design community, which was rather presumptuous of me, but felt right at the time.
Here it is.
We love you.
You have upended our industry. You have radically changed our time tested practices. You have changed the way things are made. You should feel really psyched about that.
These new rules are meant just for us, meaning you realize there is something different from our projects compared to all of the other projects on Kickstarter. This is a positive development because we agree. Manufacturing something for the first time carries a high degree of risk with the potential for failure always looming in the background. But these new rules are... let's say they feel a little off.
If we didn't know any better, we'd think you were a little weirded out by us. Which is understandable. We suppose from the outside, product design is one step away from product development, which is one step away from soul sucking corporations. You started Kickstarter to help creative projects you love, like mailing hand-written letters to an entire town, not to start the next mega corp. We like that about you.
Now here you are dealing with multi-million dollar projects, some of which are delayed, Backers are breathing down your necks, and the press is writing it's first bad articles about you. What the hell? Amiright?!
It makes sense you would take precautionary measures to protect Backers. These new rules though... while the spirit is right, they feel a little knee-jerk and actually are road blocks for us.
We want to protect Backers as much as you do. However, removing the ability for us to show renderings and order things in higher quantities, is like like cutting off one of our legs. Sure, we'll hobble around on crutches, but that's not the point. We don't want road blocks, we need guide rails.
That's where you come in. While most of us have only done one project, or none at all, you've witnessed thousands. You know where we fail and where we succeed better than we do. But these new rules, lead us to believe that while you have the data, but you don't know how to interpret it.
So here's what we suggest: As far as we can tell, you don't have any industrial designers or engineers on your team. This seems like a big problem. How can you give us guide rails if you've never manufactured anything?
There are several projects now on Kickstarter that we never would have approved because we can tell from the get-go that the Creators are in over their heads. We can take one look at those projects and think to ourselves, "That poor sap has no idea what they're doing. Good luck getting that thing made. Wait. They said they would deliver in 3 months??? Try two years if everything goes right."
Another crazy thing we've been seeing recently, projects get way overfunded, the Creator starts getting a little too chuffed, and then promises additional things to their Backers. (At $100k we all get flashlights! At $200k... LASERS!!!) It's not a coincidence that those projects are really late.
It might be time to share our dirty secret with you. Those estimated delivery dates you make us commit to? Yeah, we pulled that out of our butts. No seriously. They mean nothing!
Here's the thing: We genuinely believe them ourselves. They're based off of actual logic and at the beginning we feel confident we can hit them. But then, without fail, the shit hits the fan. We weren't lying or being malicious when we gave them to you, but neither were our vendors when they gave them to us. Vendors always, always, always, underestimate how long it takes to do something. Truthfully, so do we.
In real life, and by that we mean life where projects aren't crowdfunded, 90% of our projects are delayed in manufacturing. The only difference is, we didn't do something crazy like pre-announce our idea and sell it to 10,000 people before it's ready.
Because you changed our process, it means we need to change the way we think about the process. We haven't done that yet because we've been too busy fulfilling Kickstarter orders.
Look. Manufacturing is hard. No matter how smart or experienced you are, you run into the unexpected. Even Apple couldn't ship a white iPhone for a while. These new rules won't make manufacturing easier. No rule will.
But! We can do things on the front end, before a project launches, to help product design Creators figure out on their own what the heart of their idea is and focus on that.
This normally happens on our real world projects. We start with a big all-encompassing perfect gem of an idea, then figure out what we can accomplish with a reasonable amount of time and money. Your crowdfunding process made us forget this step. We have our crazy ideas, they get funded, and then we go, "Uh oh." If we figure this out together, we can prevent the "Uh ohs".
We're not asking you to change your spirit. For the love of God, please don't ever change that. But it might be time to think a little different about some of your strategies. That probably starts with bringing a few of our kind into your fold.
To paraphrase someone as equally crazy as the two of us, "There's no going back. You've changed things... forever." The crowdfunding genie is out of the bottle.
While you might be weirded out by spawning a mega corp, think how much better it would be if that mega corp was run by a designer who cared about all of the same things you do.
That's the biggest change you made. You put power in the hands of designers. For the first time, the people who are the most concerned with beauty, simplicity, sustainability, local manufacturing, but above of all making people's lives better, have the power to control our own destiny. This has the potential to remake great swaths of the economy. You may think this is hyperbole, but it isn't.
We just hope that you and us are destined to do this forever.