Isaac Cambron


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Kickstarter is for suckers

Mar 26, 2014

There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about how all of the people who gave Occulus money feel a bit screwed by the acquisition. I think the article has some flaws, but it reminded me of a point I’ve been making recently. I posted a short writeup of that point on Hacker News, and I like how it turned out enough to post it here (with some minor edits):

I’ll just say it: Kickstarter is for suckers. When you give money to a project, you’re doing one of two things:

  1. Making a donation to a company.

  2. Preordering something that hasn’t been built yet.

Doing 1 is silly, since you don’t really get anything in return. “But it makes it more likely that this thing I want will happen!” In some tiny marginal way, sure, but mostly it’s going to happen because other people donate (or fails to happen because they don’t). Don’t be the fool who tries to personally take on the collective action problem. And stop trying to make other people rich out of the goodness of your heart.

Of course, as the WSJ fails to make clear, most of Oculus’s Kickstarter money wasn’t straight-up donations; it was preorders of the Rift. That’s obviously not a donation, but it’s not a good idea either. As the buyer, you bear the risk that it never ships at all. “But I’m compensated with a discount!” Essentially, you’re making an investment in which your returns come in the form of future discounts on a product. Forget that you like the Oculus Rift for a second; is this a wise investment structure? If someone set up a VC company that did that instead of buying parts of companies, would you think that was smart? Did you do any kind of analysis that suggests this is actually works out to be a good investment? Do the potential returns even justify that analysis? Do you think of other consumer products this way, or only shiny electronic things?

Will you even get a discount? Why would you?

Or to think about it a different way: imagine if someone set up a store that worked like this: you take your item to the counter, where they don’t actually let you buy the item. Instead what you can do is pay the price minus n% and then they roll this big roulette wheel to decide whether you get the product (m% success rate). If you win you get to keep the product and if you lose it goes back on the shelf and they keep your money. To spice things up, they don’t tell you what n and m are either, just the price to play and whether you get the item. Now, it’s possible—though unknown—that m and n work out that you’re EV positive here. But would you really shop at that store? Especially when there’s another store next door that just sells you the same stuff at a known price (i.e. just buy the Rift when it comes out).

The fact of the matter is that you’re aren’t pre-buying the Rift on a rational basis. You’ve been convinced by clever marketing to shoulder risk for a company because it seems cool and feels good. Total sucker move. That probably explains why it tastes bitter when the company whose capital requirements you fronted rolls that into a $2 billion dollar acquisition.

The original is here if you want to see the responses.