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The Kickstarter Chronicles

A few words to the wise
September 7, 2012

Each week, dozens of journalistic endeavors turn to Kickstarter for funding. Pitching media projects to this online community brings another meaning to the concept “public interest journalism”; success depends on how intrigued people are by the pitch. From the hugely popular to the barely noticed, CJR’s Kickstarter Chronicles is a look through some of these journalistic proposals.

Kickstarter’s gotten some press this week after Aarti Shahani for NPR’s “All Things Considered” did a report on what happens when a successfully funded Kickstarter project can’t deliver what it promised. Once a project meets its fundraising goal, the money pledged is charged to backers’ credit cards, Kickstarter takes its 5 percent fee from the funds raised, and the onus is on the project creator to use the money the way he or she promised and to deliver the rewards to backers. (In fact, Kickstarter never handles the money—it’s all done through Amazon Payments.) Kickstarter has nothing to do with making sure promises are kept or issuing refunds if they aren’t.

So what happens if the project creator doesn’t follow through? Kickstarter says in its FAQs (which were updated in the wake of NPR’s story, with Kickstarter’s three founders also posting on the company blog) that project creators are “expected” to keep backers updated if any delays or production issues arise and that the creators are required, via Kickstater’s Terms of Use, to fulfill the promised rewards. But Kickstarter itself doesn’t guarantee any of the projects it hosts (it also doesn’t say if it refunds any of the money it makes from the successful projects). Kickstarter has always been upfront about that hands-off approach, urging users to do their own research on projects and project creators before backing them.

TechCrunch has a good take on Kickstarter and accountability (be sure to read the comments—some from people who have backed projects and never received anything in return), as does PCMag. There’s also this article on The Next Web about the Pebble E-Paper Watch, which raised over $10 million earlier this year to produce customizable “smartwatches” that connected to iPhones and Androids via Bluetooth. The haul set all kinds of Kickstarter records, only for Pebble to announce in July that it would not be able to make its expected shipping date of this month. Pebble recently updated its Kickstarter page to say it does not yet have a firm shipping date. As Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky wrote in an earlier update: “planning and scheduling a major manufacturing project is complex.” This is especially true if you plan to raise just $100,000 to create 1,000 watches and end up with 10,266 percent of your funding goal and 85,000 watches to produce.

That’s not to say that all Kickstarter projects are failures. You can see several Kickstater success stories on a new site called that lists them along with links to where they can be purchased. Pebble is listed there, too, available for “pre-order” for $150. Kickstarter backers will get the same model for between $99 and $125, depending on when in the campaign they backed it and which color watch they chose. If, that is, the Pebble ever starts shipping.

To summarize: If you like one of the projects highlighted in this column and are thinking of backing it, know that there are no guarantees that your money will go towards what was promised. I make every effort to contact the people or organizations behind the projects I pick to write about, but my barometer on what’s “worthy” of the column is if it’s a project to which I would feel comfortable giving my own money (I have donated to Kickstarter projects in the past; I don’t give to any that I write about here).

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When it comes to Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, or any of the others), remember: buyer beware. The best way to do that is to believe in both the project you’re backing and its ability to deliver what it promises.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.