I was excited back in the beginning of September when I backed a cool little gadget on a Kickstarter project. To be honest, although I love backing Arizona startups, this one was less about support and more about getting the item they were offering, because it was pretty cool. At the time, the expected ship date was November or December. Having supported many Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects in the past few years, I knew that ship dates often go beyond estimates, and that was fine with me. This was just for fun, and nothing I needed by a particular date.
From the time I backed the project, it was clear the entrepreneurs/inventors who were leading the fledgling company were passionate, driven, and very communicative. They were sending updates every few days at first, excited that they had blown away their initial funding goal of $15,000. Did I say blown away? That’s a huge understatement. They obliterated it! By the time the project closed, in the middle of October, they had raised $6,465,690 from 154,926 backers! That’s 431 times their original goal. Clearly, they were onto something, and I can only imagine the elation they were feeling back then.
The Delays Begin
Throughout the rest of October, November, December, and now into January, they stayed in fairly close contact with backers, providing long, detailed updates of their progress every couple of weeks. One of the first things they did after the project closed was to hold a design contest where backers could submit the color combinations in which they thought the gadget should be available. Wait. . . didn’t they have that figured out already? From the FAQ on their Kickstarter campaign:
Where are you in the process?
After handfuls of prototypes, we’ve tweaked every last detail to arrive at the [product] you see today. We’ve got a number of working units, but in order to make enough for you to have one as well, we need to place a substantial minimum order for the first production run of [the product]. That’s why we’re offering [the product] to this awesome community before anyone else.
What does your timeline look like?
[The product] has been an idea we’ve been dying to bring to fruition since it was first conceived in 2012. The product you’re seeing in this project is the result of innumerable hours of iterating and reiterating. We’re perfectionists, and we wanted to make sure we got this one right.
We are insanely excited to get [the product] into your hands. So you can be sure that we’re going to continue to work day and night until the very last [product] has shipped.
Nothing about a design contest there. Looking back, there were some red flags in their timeline description. First, from the time they had the idea, it took over four years to produce a prototype that they felt was ready for the market. They also talked about being “perfectionists” and “innumerable” iterations and reiterations. Looking at this outline should have been a clear warning sign that these guys might be tweakers. No, not the kind who use meth. Rather, the kind who continually tweak a product or service before releasing it, causing “perfection paralysis.”
After the design contest, which had backers and the general public picking from a dizzying 450 submitted designs, they announced the winning designs, and things were looking good for finally getting this thing produced and shipped. But my naïve optimism was about to be dashed again. Update #19 came on December 21st, stating:
As you know, we had planned on having a large portion of shipments out by now, and you’re probably wondering why you haven’t received your tracking info yet.
We need to let you know that we discovered an issue that we had to make a tough call on. It’s an issue that many possibly wouldn’t have noticed, but it’s one that a person who uses their [product] often would probably notice over time and with heavy use. We had to make the difficult decision to briefly pause shipping in the name of quality.
As mentioned over and over again, we won’t sacrifice quality to ship [the product] faster. When we are talking about the number of backers that have high expectations for how their [product] should feel and function we have no other choice but to make sure every “box” is checked. This is a weight and responsibility that is not lost on our small startup.
Okay. Well, if there was a potential defect, I figured maybe they did the right thing. But after so many tweaks, some of which seemed incredibly minor, including a lot of time spent on packaging and color schemes, it was clear, even before this, that their perfectionism had gotten the best of them.
Good Guys, Bad Plan
At this point, it’s important to pause for a moment and acknowledge a couple of things. 1. Being obsessed with quality is not necessarily a negative. In fact, it’s a good long-term strategy. Everyone knows quality is important, and I’m not knocking these guys for being on top of it. 2. Things like packaging, color, and other seemingly minor details are also important. Large companies spend a ton of money and brain power on getting these things right. So, wanting to nail these elements is not a bad thing in and of itself.
Also, the two guys who are behind this product seem like awesome people, and their hearts are definitely in the right place. While I don’t agree with much of their process flow over the past several months, they have accomplished something pretty amazing, and that can’t be overlooked or taken away.
That said, this product could have shipped to their 150-thousand-plus backers on time. This was a Kickstarter project, and while people would be disappointed with a piece of junk being shipped, backers know it’s the first iteration of a product. We don’t expect perfection. And my guess is that it was darn close to perfect before all the tweaks anyway. And packaging? I’d rather have it come in October in a brown paper bag than get it months later in a pretty package. Especially considering these are already sold, so the packaging doesn’t have to do the job of selling, as it does in a retail environment.
Enter the Counterfeits
Thinking of their project in terms of shipping the very best they have right now, versus a perfect product, would have saved the company a lot of headaches and money. How would it have saved money? Well, this is the saddest part. If you do a search for the name of this product (left out of this article intentionally because of this), you will find hundreds of knock-offs for sale. I counted over 100 sellers on Amazon alone. The copycat products range in price from around $4 to $15, all well below the target retail price of $25 from the “real” company.
But the knock-offs aren’t as high quality as the real thing, right? Well, first of all, there is no “real thing” in my hands to compare, so I don’t know. Secondly, the reviews seem to indicate that they’re not bad. Most have 3+ stars. Oh, and there are plenty of colors available as well, and their customers didn’t have to weed through 450+ combinations to pick the best ones—they went with what they thought would sell, and it turned out okay.
To be clear, I do not advocate companies making knock-off products and trampling on the IP rights of hard-working entrepreneurs. In fact, seeing this happen ticks me off. If I were in the shoes of the original inventors, I’d likely do what they said they’ve done, as noted in Update #17:
We’re proud to announce that we’ve partnered with the world’s largest brand protection company…to combat these counterfeit products.
How much is that costing them? How many people are buying the counterfeits without even knowing the original company exists? More importantly, how much revenue have they lost as a result of people buying from all those counterfeiters—many of whom are likely untouchable foreign entities that will never have to pay up for their crimes? They apparently sold about 200,000 units of their product through Kickstarter. That, plus the fact that everyone and their brother is copying them, proves without a doubt that there’s a big market for their product. Just think of how much of that market they could have grabbed as first movers. Think about that—to not be the first mover on a product you invented! That sucks.
A Lesson for Us All
I’m not sure if, in hindsight, these guys would have done things differently. My guess is that they would, but perfectionists are often stubborn, so who knows. If nothing else, this tale serves as an example to entrepreneurs here in Arizona and everywhere. While I’m not a fan of the “ready, fire, aim” approach that has many startups going in a different direction every other week, there comes a time when you have to put whatever you’re working on out into the market. It might not be perfect. You might (and should) end up making changes as you learn more about your market and the needs of your customers. You might even discover a flaw that really should have been caught. But when the alternative is stalling from perfection paralysis and losing a ton of market share, it’s better to get the damned thing out there.