What I learned from this summer’s Kickstarters

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’m grateful to have incredible collaborators who took this journey with me– one advantage is that it helps me think of the Kickstarter less as “my failure” and more just “a failed experiment.” That said, I will admit that it’s been a challenging process– the intensity of bootstrapped R&D leading up to the Kickstarter, the transparency of the campaign itself (we love transparency except when we perceive it as encroaching on our own sense of privacy), and the mental challenge of de-programming myself so as not to attach any particular outcome to my sense of self-worth.

On the other hand, having been through the process, I do feel I can own something that I call “my Epic Kickstarter Failure.” Why epic? Well, like in the case of Brazil’s World Cup team last week, our project has a relatively high amount of pedigree, press, and preparation, and its attempt still had its fatal flaws. At the very least, I like to think of it as epic so as to satisfy the inner soap opera of my mind.

Regardless of whether the MindRider helmet campaign was an “epic failure” or a “failed experiment,” my team and I did learn a lot that we’ll apply going forward. First, foremost, and most obviously, our product and message need reconfiguring. The great thing about a crowdfund campaign how it helps clarify what needs to change, without the team taking on the additional risk of building and manufacturing a full product. A little bit of ego-battering is significantly better than a huge amount of loss in money and time.

Some of the other lessons we learned can be applied more generally to other kinds of projects. The first kind of lesson stems from our assumptions.

– Press doesn’t necessarily convert to backers… But it can convert to other things. MindRider has enjoyed some great press since it was first made at MIT a few years ago, in large part BECAUSE it was made at MIT. The press and inquiries have accelerated more than a year since I left MIT, and were what originally me that we should try to launch the project commercially. While it was a mistake to consider press as an indicator for customer conversion, the press and public’s continued interest was helped convert our flagging certainty to a more long-term persistence. And aside from the hard tasks of fundraising and product producing, doing press has just been fun.

– Even a social following doesn’t necessarily convert. Hundreds of followers on Facebook and Mailchimp, strong indicators from market and ergonomic studies through the e14 startup program– even after preparation and proxies, taking the plunge into funding was an entirely different endeavor. From this lesson, but with the infrastructure we’ve built from our months of slow preparation, we’re now taking a “fail fast” approach to crowdfunding, and plan to launch a smaller, faster series of campaigns to help more concretely steer our efforts.

The second kind of lesson stems from several ways in which MindRider is (or attempting to be) “new.”

– Crowd is tricky. We’re still getting the hang of this– trying to convert crowd views to crowd desire, and then to crowd funding. Many articles, books, and even meetups have spun out of the crowd’s attempt to understand the crowd. One thing we do understand, or at least are lucky to have been given through the crowd network, is collaboration– even without funding, our team has grown in the last few months. Hopefully the wisdom of our small “crowd” will help us eventually get the hang if the bigger crowd.

– Wearable is tricky. People are very particular about what they wear! As our fashion designer Josue points out, a product like the MindRider helmet, with its distinctive low-poly shell, may look great in an “editorial” way but not appeal “commercially.”

– Too many new things in one product is tricky. Fundamentally, our project is focused on geo-locating brain signals. This in and of itself is a challenging, perhaps not yet commercially viable proposition. We are cyclists and designers, so of course a cool-looking bike helmet would be our initial application, but it adds layers if explanation that perhaps at this point obscure rather than clarify the product’s use.

– “project” versus “product” is tricky. The crowdfund marketplace is confusing. Some campaigns are indeed projects created by one or a few people with little funding, others are finished products created by a funded, professional team. There is an inherent tension in crowdfund sites like Kickstarter– while their founding values are based on grassroots “projects,” they make millions of dollars on slick “products.” So it doesn’t look like the confusion will go away any time soon.

That said, now that MindRider has a small new campaign up, we’re getting the hang of things, and not taking things too seriously, the bizarre bazaar of Kickstarter is getting fun, too. It’s fun to see the Cinderella stories– the truly grassroots, rough-edged projects that do phenomenally well– as well as the Comeback Kid stories– the creators that relaunch a failed campaign and succeed on the second (or third) time. Maybe MindRider will be a comeback kid next year– in the meantime, all we can do is persevere!