The appeal of crowdfunding for tech projects is obvious: the plucky visionary speaking straight to the masses, bringing magic to life without any interference from the venture-capital suits. In reality, of course, the record is mixed. But this year's Consumer Electronics Show proves that hasn't stopped inventors from turning to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites to back the projects they're passionate about.
"It's an environment where people are super-supportive of extremely strange ideas like we're doing," says Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, founder and inventor of Good Night Lamp, a family of Internet-connected lamps that bring a warm, sensory, high-design quality to social connectivity. "But also, they give us some amazing feedback, We've been on Kickstarter for two days now, and I've had huge amounts of feedback. It's really great."
Deschamps-Sonsino says investors weren't quite sure what to make of Good Night Lamp. "You have the big lamp and the little lamps," she says. "You give the little lamps away to anyone around the world, and when you turn the big lamp on, the little ones turn on. It's not a text message, it's not a Facebook post, it's really about 'Oh, they're home now.' Unless an investor has the personal experience of having family all over the world, it's hard for them to relate to."
She turned to Kickstarter "after having a lot of conversations with potential investors who liked the idea but thought this was a completely unknown marketplace, that they didn't really know where to position this. They themselves were like 'Why aren't you on Kickstarter? What kind of market are we talking about? How big is this thing?'"
Jacques Lepine is also hoping crowdfunding will make his vision, the HAPIfork, a reality. This electronic fork monitors your eating habits and reminds you to slow down if you're eating too fast.
Seeking traditional investors was never part of Lepine's plan. "No, we are not doing VC," he says. "I created a company called SlowControl. And instead of going to VC, a friend of ours told me about Fabrice Boutain and his HAPIlabs project." Boutain saw the HAPIfork as an irresistible crowdfunding magnet - a good call, given the massive buzz HAPIfork has stirred up at CES. HAPIlabs is preparing their campaign to launch within the next month.
Lepine says they're seeking more than just money from the campaign - they're also hoping to create a core of dedicated supporters. "Of course, the money is very important at the beginning," but crowdfunding is also a powerful way "to build up a first community. It's an excellent tool."
For every smashing Kickstarter success like FORM 1, there are dozens more that fail to deliver on their promises. A Wharton School study quoted by Business Week says 75% of tech and design projects do not finish on time.
The comment page for Twine, an Internet-connected sensor that raised $556,541 on its request for $35,000, is filled with funders complaining about not receiving their devices yet, or the devices not working as promised, a year after the campaign closed. It's an unfortunate turn for what had seemed like a model crowdfunding success story.
Deschamps-Sonsino isn't worried Good Night Lamp will fall prey to the same pitfalls. "I have experience fulfilling products in the past" with her former design studio, she says. "The whole process of shipping, fulfilling, and knowing how you do that at what kinds of costs, and knowing how to make something and what kind of timelines you're talking about, are things that I actually have experience of. It's incredibly boring work, but it's work where I have a good idea of what kinds of time it actually takes.
"We're not proposing to fulfill anywhere before September, which we think is a reasonable expectation."
And that gets to the heart of what makes a crowdfunded tech project work: reasonable expectations on the part of inventors and funders alike. With the immediacy and speed of crowdfunding, Lepine and Deschamps-Sonsino won't have long to wait to find out how reasonable theirs are.
Our CES 2013 coverage will soon return to its regularly scheduled snark.