Back in the summer of last year we decided to take a more hands-on interest in Kickstarter projects by investing in a few, just to see exactly what the user experience was like and what potential backers could expect from their investment. Everyone and their dog was writing about the big crowdfunding projects from Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but few were commenting on the risks and real rewards. Nevertheless it was, and remains, an exciting field in every way.
We had actually invested back in Sept 2010, with a modest amount for the Musopen project on Kickstarter, but starting in June 2012 we backed three projects; MaKey MaKey, Sensordrone and Botiful, an innovative Skype chat robot, which aimed to add mobility to video calls.
Our first major project investment in June was for $45 for the MaKey MaKey kit, a children’s ‘invention kit’ for electronics and computing. Delivery was promised for August 2012 and in fact the product shipped with very little delay, although the limited documentation and sparse packaging surprised us a little.
But hey, it’s an educational toy, so that was OK right? In the event, we found the kit lacking in long term interest (unless you’re a programmer there’s very little you can do with a banana piano after 5 minutes) and it migrated to the top shelf fairly quickly.
Our second sponsorship was for an altogether more adventurous concept, the Sensordrone, $190 of keychain smartphone Bluetooth sensor, which would let us ‘run hundreds of previously impossible sensor apps‘. Well the project closed in July 2012, with delivery promised for October 2012. And we’re still waiting.
Finally we chose Botiful, a ‘social telepresence robot for Android‘ which let you turn your Skype video calls into a literally more mobile experience for $199 plus shipping. The project closed in August 2012, with delivery promised for Nov 2012, and we finally received the unit this week direct from the Taiwanese factory.
In contrast to the MaKey MaKey kit, Botiful is extremely well packaged. The box is sturdy, it contains all the bits you’ll need to charge and assemble your robot, and we were very impressed with the quality of the finish on the unit and accessories.
Once again, as with MaKey MaKey, we were faced with a single piece of card with minimal information and just a pointer to a Howto website. If we didn’t have Internet we would have been completely lost. Or maybe not, because on visiting said website…
The web documentation looks as though it took 50 minutes to complete. Literally. A few badly scanned images, some basic information on how to assemble the magnet, Bluetooth pairing and charging. No mention of how long to charge (in the event it’s a good four hours!), how to set up the phone on the unit, not even a mention of the app you need to download from the app store. And a ‘Coming Soon’ for the USB section.
Remember this is a $199 product (actually $214 when you include shipping), which has taken six months to deliver, was well overdue and raised over $90,000 for development. Not for the faint of heart indeed. If this is the type of experience you get from being a crowdfunding sponsor, we’ll definitely recommend against it in general, and we won’t be repeating the experience any time soon.
Well that might be enough for most people, but we’re made of sterner stuff. We decided to forgo any format user education and go-it-alone. We located the Botiful app on the Play store, installed it on as many devices as we could (it wasn’t available on one of the tablets we tried), powered up Skype on each handset (pure guesswork) and tried to connect Botiful to Skype. As you can see from the video, we failed. It refused and continues to refuse to connect. On multiple handsets.
Now just to be sure, this is Version 1.1 of the Botiful Android app, so we would expect there to have been some testing on the many previous versions right? And we tried mainstream phones like the Samsung S2 and Note, so it can’t be that surely?
Well anyway as of writing we now have a lovely looking 200 dollar door stop, which we’re going to try to enjoy as much as possible.
Crowdfunding is an amazing opportunity for small companies to get their ideas from drawing board to production, but it’s clear that backers need to know that they are literally acting as paying product and distribution process guinea pigs. When you think about it, early adopters who fund these projects, flush with the enthusiasm of seeing a pet product come alive, get the absolutely worse end of the stick.
From our experience, they receive the product 6 months after paying, often after a massive delay, with no guarantee that it will work, or there will be any form of user assistance at all, barring a scrap of paper and a single page website. We’re over-generalizing here, but this so far is our experience.
Not only that, but it’s absolutely guaranteed that if the startup overcomes all the early issues, that later products, which will probably be cheaper as production ramps up, will be better made, more robust and with fundamentally better user support and documentation. Is it worth being the early adopter? You decide.
For us, we’re going back to observer status. We’ll continue to report on exciting, socially important crowdfunded projects, and even cool products which have the innovative spark, but at the back of our mind we’ll remember the experience we’ve had as backers, and suggest you try and keep a cautious head on your shoulders too.