Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kickstarting Fireflies

If you aren't familiar with Kickstarter, it's a way to crowdsource funding for small-ish projects. For instance: a band wants to cut an album, but don't have the cash to get studio time. They put up a sampling of their music on Kickstarter and say "We need $X. If you pledge $Y towards our goal, we'll give you a band T-shirt. If you pledge $Z, we will give you a first-run CD when we finish it." Other kickstarter projects work along similar lines: soliciting pledges with various tiers of support.

Come to think of it, it's a lot like an NPR pledge drive. Like an NPR pledge drive, each project has a total dollar figure in mind ($X). Unlike NPR, if the goal isn't met within a specified time period (say, one month), no money changes hands and everyone walks away. Only if the pledge amount is met do credit cards get charged, and the entrepreneur gets their funding. Kickstarter takes a cut of a few percent.

Kickstarter is starting to make a splash. They've successfully funded some 20,000 projects to the tune of $200,000,000. They recently made a splash, covered in the new york times, when a project for a wireless watch shattered their initial goal of $100k by raising over $7 million. At the moment, with 10 days to go, that project has over $10 million committed.

There's no guarantee that you'll ever actually get your tchotchke, of course. This isn't venture capital, either - there are no ownership stakes involved. Some people just have bad business plans and fold before ever producing. Others drastically underestimate how much work there is in actually finishing something, and so instead of taking months it takes years. Some are just plain incompetent. A few might actually be scams. Caveat emptor.

As an engineer and occasional tinkerer, who happens to work with other engineers and tinkerers, and a follower of the maker movement, I've been following various projects on Kickstarter for a while. While the wireless watch seems neat, I'm not keen on dropping $115 on a watch I don't need, even if the project is really cool.

Instead, I've just made my first contribution to a more modest project: a circuit board with a solar cell that creates fireflies.

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