A brief guide to backing Kickstarter campaigns

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on November 21, 2013

Last week, a new startup called Coin began taking preorders for a product currently in development, a small device about the size and thickness of a credit card that stores the information from multiple credit cards, membership cards, gift cards, whatever. The clever bit is that from there the Coin device can itself be swiped on a cardreader – just like a credit card – with the owner able to select between stored cards prior to a purchase. It’s a neat idea (you can get in on the preorder at onlycoin.com), and not the topic of this week’s column, but it reminds me of a previous attention-garnering campaign for a similar device called the Geode.

The Geode, also a device that combined the convenience of a digital wallet with the usability of a swipeable card, was developed by a company called iCache and announced alongside a Kickstarter campaign in March of 2012. The campaign was a roaring success (with over seven times the $50,000 goal raised), but the final development and release of the Geode itself was a spectacular flop. Plagued by hardware problems, timing, and personnel issues, iCache delivered only a portion of the devices to campaign backers before disappearing entirely by the end of 2012. Considering the $159 price tag and no recourse for restitution, Kickstarter backers were livid, and many were turned off from Kickstarter altogether. That brings us to the subject of this week’s column.

Since starting in 2009, I’ve backed over 50 Kickstarter projects. Aside from one that nearly fell apart only to be rescued by a generous benefactor two years later, none of them have failed. A big part of the success has been luck, but I also research and watch a campaign closely before throwing in support. Over the last five years I’ve come across the following indicators (three weird tricks that drive Kickstarter leads crazy!), line items that when checked, more often than not lead to successful campaigns:

The project or product has a prototype. This applies equally to both hardware and software. Pitch documents, CAD diagrams, and witty intro videos are all well and good, but the single highest signifier (for me) is the existence of actual development. If it’s a game, does gameplay exist? If it’s hardware, is there a rough version of the widget that actually does what they say it’ll do? This shows that the creator believes in the project enough to progress when the money isn’t there. With luck, they’ll progress even faster once funding arrives.

The organizers update the campaign frequently. Come across a multiple-weeks-old Kickstarter project with only one or two updates? Don’t back it. As many a failed organizer has learned, running a Kickstarter is hard, and takes serious commitment and a lot of time. So does actually making a thing. If the organizer doesn’t have the dedication to keep new and prospective backers updated on the campaign as it progresses, chances are the organizer won’t have the dedication to follow through when the campaign’s over, either.

Don’t bank on nostalgia. Continuing from the staggering success of early game revival campaigns such as Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland II, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with a video game in the 1980s has appeared from the woodwork with a Kickstarter project of their own. Sure, the prospect of seeing thing-you-remember-as-a-kid revisited sounds like a lot of fun, but in this case especially, be diligent. How far along the development process is the project? Is it something that they’ve been actively working on, or is it a cash grab? Does the campaign pass the above guidelines? Why now? What the hell has the team been doing for the last 20 or 30 years, anyway?

One final tip. if you aren’t sure about backing, don’t; in most cases you’ll be able to simply buy whatever it is that’s being funding once it’s complete. If you want to back a project, but feel that you need more information, throw in $1. That dollar pledge will allow you to follow along, read backer-only updates, and then near the end, if you like what you see, you can raise your pledge accordingly.

There is always risk when backing a Kickstarter campaign. Pledges are not a preorder, backers are not investors, and there is no guarantee that the object or service or game that you’ve backed will ever exist, let along find itself packed neatly in a box on your doorstep. The road from concept to production can be a long one, and even the best-run Kickstarter campaigns can collapse in catastrophic failure once the time for fulfillment comes around.

And again, as a backer, sometimes you just have to be a bit lucky. Many seemingly well-managed campaigns have ended in disaster months after campaign completion, with little or no prior indication that the project had a chance of slipping from the rails. iCache’s Geode appeared well on its way to success. CLANG, a sword fighting game project led by author Neil Stephenson, met its $500,000 goal and seemed to be chugging along soundly until last month’s sudden announcement that the team had run out of money and that the project was being shelved.

Still, for every Geode or CLANG, there’s an Oculus Rift or Ouya, extremely successful projects that both surpassed expectations and shipped. And alongside all the while, thousands of other small-scale software and hardware projects that wouldn’t exist without the shared risk of crowdfunding.

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