Friday, June 25, 2010

Kickstarter Conundrum: Money Changes Everything... But What If It Doesn't Let You Change Enough?

Let me start out by saying that I'm a huge fan of what Kickstarter has put in place. They've more or less built up a simple and easy to use platform to allow all kinds of creative folks a way to "fan fund" a variety of projects (music, books, software, performance art, movies, etc...) by using a "tiered" support model. If you're not familiar with the site, it lets people setup a project with a funding "goal" and a deadline. Then, they can set up a series of tiers for how people can fund the project, with promises to get back certain things in response to those tiers. This is the model we've spoken about a few times in the past -- such as what Jill Sobule did a couple years ago to fund her album.

While I definitely believe this sort of model can make a lot of sense in certain areas, I don't think it's right for everyone, and it certainly can create some potential problems -- especially if the content creator doesn't live up to expectations. Kickstarter got a lot of publicity back in May when one of its projects, called Diaspora, for a "distributed" social network got covered in the NY Times at the same time as there was a lot of fuss about privacy concerns on Facebook. That resulted in the project -- which had only been seeking $10,000 to let four college kids work on this project over the summer -- raising over $100,000.

Now, many have looked at this as showing off the power of Kickstarter (though, others might argue it really showed off the power of the NY Times). However, Clay Shirky pointed us to a critique of the Diaspora/Kickstarter "success" that points out that it could actually end up being bad for both Kickstarter and Diaspora:

It is kinda alarming as this pressure to deliver something by the end of the summer something so complex is not necessarily going to help them. The open source community have been trying to develop peer to peer web solutions for ages. There are many reasons why we have not seen a strong distributed social web yet. Some of these reasons are technical, other are social, it's not impossible, but also not trivial.

It is not unlikely that Diaspora would fail to deliver on it's promised milestone by the end of the summer. This should not be a big deal for an Open Source project with developers scratching their own itch. But in this case, the Facebook users frustration, Diaspora's media attention and the actual $$$,$$$ make this an itch shared by many many more users and only 4 students are given the scratcher.

To some extent, I also wonder if the research Daniel Pink talks about in Drive can also come into play. By adding more money to the mix, it may actually make it more difficult for the developers to build something as good as they might have otherwise. Now they have so many more expectations and so much more attention that it makes it that much more difficult to live up to expectations, even if they actually can achieve what they initially set out to achieve.

The other thing that might make this tricky is the same point I've made a bunch of times about the difference between ideas and execution. One of the things you quickly learn at a startup is that the initial idea is meaningless. Once you get to work on executing, that idea will change daily (if not more often). You may have a general idea, but reality gets in the way, and you adjust and adjust and adjust. Often, what comes out in the end is entirely different than what you set out to do, but that might not be a problem. It's quite rare for a project to set out towards a specific point and end up at that point.

For most startups, there's flexibility there. As the execution happens, they can shift course along the way. But in a situation like this, where thousands of people have donated with specific expectations, changing course is difficult, if not impossible, even if it turns out to be the most important thing for the project itself. If they do change course along the way, for the good of the project, suddenly people may get upset about a sort of "bait-and-switch." This doesn't mean that I don't like the Kickstarter model in general. But I can see where it could cause trouble in certain situations. For things like an album, where the deliverables are clear and understandable, it can work fine. But for a software development project, it could be a lot more complex, and there can be some serious pitfalls. Combine that with having a project massively overfunded, and it could lead to trouble.
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