So you’ve found this exciting 3D printing Kickstarter campaign… but is it too good to be true? Here are some tips on backing the right project without losing money.
So you’ve found a promising 3D printer on Kickstarter? Congratulations! An exciting new project is launched practically every week.
But it’s simply unrealistic to expect every project is going to be good enough to throw cash at it. In fact, every Kickstarter project carries a potential risk of failure.
Even if you’ve consistently backed the right people and the right projects, there are important factors you should consider before backing a 3D printing project.
1. A Kickstarter 3D Printer? Really? Why?
There are good reasons to buy your printer from an existing company instead of investing in a crowdfunding campaign.
First of all, existing companies have significant experience and a working product. Second, they can deliver the 3D printer right now — you don’t have to wait for years. Third, the company is liable if something goes wrong. On Kickstarter, all your money can be gone.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for something unique like a huge dual extrusion printer or an ultra-cheap DLP printer that uses your phone, then backing a 3D printer on Kickstarter might be the way to go.
Rule of Thumb: If you just want to buy a cheap 3D printer, don’t go to Kickstarter. If your budget is tight, we have better suggestions for you.
2. Do They Know their Stuff?
It’s easy to have an idea. It’s easy to make nice 3D renders and sketches. It’s easy to 3D print some nice design studies.
But for any electronics product, there has to be a working prototype, or at least a solid proof of concept on a smaller scale. So if you see a 3D printing Kickstarter project without a video of the printer in action, some scepticism should kick in.
Next thing you should check: Do the guys running the campaign have solid credentials in the 3D printing business? Have they presented evidence that their idea is viable and realistic? Great, then you can check this point off your list.
Rule of Thumb: If they have a great design but no working prototype, forget it. If you suspect someone hasn’t quite figured out how to turn their idea into reality, you shouldn’t back their project. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
3. Do They Have a Competent Team?
When a leader of a crowdfunding campaign states they are planning to do *everything* on their own – design, accounting, coding and distribution, etc – then alarm bells should be ringing.
That’s because one of the primary goals of every startup is to hire the right people for the company. It doesn’t have to be a massive team of 30 or more. Some capable FabLab/Hackerspace makers plus a design student can make up a competent team, too.
But if there isn’t a team in place yet, the campaigner has to be honest about it. Will they be hiring a team after the funding goals are met, or have they dramatically underestimated the amount of work involved?
Rule of Thumb: Building a 3D printer needs a lot of expertise, especially in hardware and software. If the team never have done this before and claim to do it all by themselves, forget the project.
4. Do They Sound Honest?
Crowdfunding is like investing in a company. You hand over some money in the expectation of promised incentives. But the only evidence you have for investment is a sales pitch. So you must judge the campaign on how honest their marketing materials appear.
Does the campaign provide full details, including contact and bio? Are they open about potential pitfalls? Do they react to comments and questions in a timely and courteous manner? Do they publish updates before funding is completed?
These are all good signs. Open channels of communication are a key indication of a campaign’s integrity.
If these communications suddenly stop, then it might be time to withdraw your backing.
Rule of Thumb: Most companies really want to build a 3D printer with your money. Some don’t, they want just the money. Before investing, check the facts not only on their Kickstarter page.
5. Do They have Lofty Ambitions?
Ambition is good. But guess what? The project you’re backing is probably not going to be the Apple of 3D printing.
And that’s okay. If the plan is sound, with reasonable aims, they might deliver a value-driven product with the same functionality as bigger competitors. And since they don’t have big overheads like marketing or research, they can probably afford to keep costs down.
But if the campaign claims to have an idea that’s so groundbreaking it will disrupt whole industries and overthrow corporate giants, then what are they doing on Kickstarter? They wouldn’t have had difficulty in finding investors under ordinary circumstances.
Rule of Thumb: The reality is that all these bold claims are only so much hot air. If a project is indulging in too much hyperbole, give it a wide berth.
6. Do They have Control of their Budget?
The Number One reason a Kickstarter runs into trouble after funding is completed: Getting the numbers wrong.
Makible, the company that tried to deliver a $200 3D printer, went from one financial issue to the next. They massively undersold the machines, tried to recover their losses by accepting pre-orders after that, and steadily ran aground.
Margins and overheads are going to be slim in every business endeavor. If contingency planning is not factored in a company budget, even a simple, solvable problem can derail the whole business.
So take a look at the numbers (if they are available). Is the budget tight, or is there room to solve unexpected problems and expenses?
Rule of Thumb: If a project tries to make the price point their main sales argument, you should proceed with caution.
7. Do They Have Proper Connections to Asia?
Many hardware startups on Kickstarter – not just those involved in 3D printing – rely on Asian manufacturers. That’s because they’re outsourcing their production to China, for example, where it’s significantly less costly.
In these instances, the campaigners will need to have someone based in the production country, who can supervise both the suppliers and the manufacturing process.
Whilst cheaper, this approach has disadvantages, too. If every product iteration and every prototype has to be shipped across the globe, the project team will spend a lot of time going back and forth between shipping and customs. Plus, the delivery of your backed printer will likely take ages.
If the campaigners plan to keep manufacturing in their home country, they can keep a closer eye on what’s happening. It saves time and maintains good communication… but those costs will likely be passed onto the end user.
Rule of Thumb: Check if the project has already established connections to the manufacturer… or if they have a dedicated expert in their team.
8. Do They Accept Failure?
Taking into account all the points above, there’s still plenty of room for failure. What happens when a ship carrying a finished products sinks in the ocean, or a factory burns down? What if the project leader becomes seriously ill? Or if someone steals money from the company?
Even established players with the right skill sets, professional help from specialists, good communication, realistic expectations, a reasonable budget, and someone overlooking the production have to confront the fact that their awesome crowdfunding project failed.
When a campaigner opens up about these difficulties, and clearly explains what went wrong (while also accepting their share of responsibility), it helps to soften the blow to the backers. Such humility may even restore confidence for subsequent crowdfunding campaigns by the same folks.
And, dear reader, if you regularly back crowdfunding projects, you will certainly experience such a case sooner rather than later.
Try to minimize the risk by learning as much as you can about the project and making an informed choice. And of course, only part with an amount of cash that you can afford to lose. Don’t bet the farm on the dreams of strangers, no matter how tempting it may seem.
Rule of Thumb: Does the team see the chances of failure realistically? Do they talk about it in the campaign? Then that‘s a good sign.
Have you experienced any crowdfunding disasters of your own? Any stories to share? Please let us know in the comments below.
License: The text of "8 Clues a 3D Printing Kickstarter Campaign is the Real Deal" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.