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Beware Crowdfunded Products

Mar282014

Beware Crowdfunded Products

 

lockitron_iphone-appCrowdfunding is the new way to get new products to the market.  Individuals pledge relatively small amounts of cash, but if you get enough of them you can raise millions of dollars to launch the latest greatest thing.  Tech journalists have gone wild over crowdfunded technology, creating a buzz about products that don't actually exist yet.  That gets people excited to click over to a crowdfunding site and pledge money so they will be the first to get the exciting new widget at a discounted price -- because they helped fund the project.

When it goes as planned crowdfunding is a great way to get your product on the market.  But it doesn't always go right.  Young inventors are optimistic about how long it will take to make molds, complete factory runs, debug software, fix hardware design issues...  It shouldn't be a surprise to investors when their super cool gadget doesn't arrive exactly when they hoped it would.  This is a story of how the launch of a reportedly fabulous product called a Lockitron has gone very, very wrong.

I love my children, but sometimes they can be idiots.  They frequently forget their house keys, which can happen to any of us.  But they get the secret key to let themselves in and then forget to replace it.  So the next time they forget their key there is no way to get into the house without breaking in.  That is exactly what I caught my daughter trying to do as I drove into the driveway one day.  She had one foot through the window she had pried open, which she sheepishly removed as I drove up.  I can't tell you how many calls I received from my son over the years to ask when I was getting home so I could let him in. 

lockitron-iphone-users200Set up as many guest accounts as you want and your guests can get in and out using their own smart phones. You set the dates they are given access for.So you may understand how excited I was about a product that would let me lock and unlock my front door from my phone anywhere I happened to have a cell or wifi signal.  For me that is the main attraction of the Lockitron.

Apigy, Inc. introduced the new Lockitron on October 2, 2012 in a crowdfunding effort.  I first read about the Lockitron in October of 2012.  Reviewers were effusive about this innovative remote control door lock.  The benefits were more than just being able to unlock the door over the Internet.  You could set it to automatically unlock when you get close to your door (assuming you have your phone on you), and you can give houseguests a special code so they can get in and out just during the times they are visiting you.  The device could notify you when your child comes home.  Instead of replacing your door lock you simply mount the Lockitron over your existing deadbolt, so you use the same key you have always used.  Even apartment dwellers can mount a Lockitron without changing or damaging their doors.


This video shows how you can control a Lockitron with all manner of things, including bananas. Who wouldn't want to open their front door lock remotely with a banana?  No, seriously, wouldn't you?

I made my pledge of $149.00 on October 5th, 2012.  My receipt read, 'You're reserving a Lockitron. Your card won't be charged until it's ready to ship in March.'

I was excited.  The folks at Lockitron sent pictures of the factory in China, and told all about their adventures in quality control.  They  sent friendly, enthusiastic emails from time to time, and even posted a Youtube video showing different ways you can unlock your door, including by controlling it from a headband by wiggling your eyebrows and even by touching a banana.  I'm gonna say that banana thing was a big selling point with me.

March came and went.  No Lockitron.  In May of 2013 the company announced it would begin shipping July 15th of that year.  A two month delay to insure the product would be reliable and well crafted.  That seemed reasonable.

More enthusiastic emails.  Now they promised they would ship to backers in early October.  Meanwhile they added more color choices, and made a deal with Schlage so they could offer a compatible deadbolt.  And backers got order dashboards where they could change and monitor their orders.  Mine told me my Lockitron would ship in October 2013.  It said that when I checked in October and November and December and in January of 2014, too.

lockitron-installationThe Lockitron installs over your existing deadbolt. Reviewers love the device. They are luckier than backers who still don't have one after more than a year.

All of this would be more understandable if the company hadn't already launched a simpler version of Lockitron in 2011.  They had been to the manufacturing rodeo before and it would be reasonable to expect that experience would make their shipping projections for the newer Lockitron closer to the target.  But it has been one thing after another.  I have no doubt that this is a great product.  But it is missing one key ingredient: itself.

Lockitron isn't the only crowdfunded product that has been outrageously slow to ship.  A few months before Lockitron started gathering pledges Instacube launched a Kickstarter campaign that looked like the golden example of what makes crowdfunding so great.  They raised more than $600,000, pre-selling Instacubes that were scheduled to arrive in backers’ mailboxes the following spring.  They are also still waiting.  Some angry backers have gone after the company's employees, attacking them personally online and publishing their personal information on social media.  Theoretically they will ship Instacubes around now.  Earlier this month my Lockitron shipping estimate changed to April 2014.

Yeah, I really believe that.  Un huh.

When the makers of Lockitron decided to crowdfund the product they hoped to get onto Kickstarter, the premier crowdfunding Web site.  When that site rejected them they decided to run their own campaign using Amazon Payments.  To their credit they did not charge backers' charge cards, saying they would be charged when the units shipped.  Then they offered backers a choice to 'pay now' and go closer to the front of the line for getting a Lockitron.  I chose not to do that because by this time my confidence that I would ever see a Lockitron was low.

Now when I get email from Lockitron I do not feel the buzz of excitement.  It's more like 'Oh no, not another one!'  I feel like I am going to be made more promises that are not kept and I am starting to wonder whether I am all that excited about getting my unit.  And competing products are out there.  You can go to the store and buy them now.

Around the end of last year I evaluated those products, determined to cancel my Lockitron pledge and just get a smart lock on my front door.  But none of them had the range of benefits that I really want that the Lockitron reportedly does.  I told myself that it would be worth waiting longer for to get something that I would really like and use.

lockitron-trinityA Lockitron Server (a little box) plugs into your router, providing an Internet connection. It talks to the Lockitron via a Bluetooth connection.

I am not optimistic about seeing my Lockitron next month, but as Cicero famously said more than 2000 years ago, 'Dum vita est spes est' (While there's life, there's hope).  To date I have received 40 chirpy, informative email messagess from the company.  I know all about their quality control issues.  I know all about their phone app updates and fixes.  I know what their factory looks like.  I know about bananas.  And I know how exciting they think the Lockitron is.  I genuinely am happy about their commitment to making the product better before they ship thousands of units.  And I take comfort that Cicero has been waiting a heck of a lot longer than I have.

Scenarios like this make it harder for every young turk who wants to use crowdfunding to launch their super-great widgets.  Or maybe not.  Have I learned my lesson?  Well... I am actually waiting for two other crowdfunded items to ship.  One is a device that will read data from and let me talk back to my car computer on my phone, estimated to ship to backers in August.  The second is a $14.99 thermometer called a Kinsa that will plug into my phone and, I hope, give me a more accurate reading than the wonky ear thermometer I have now.  It recently got FDA approval, and I am supposed to get my Kinsa in April.  So yeah, I like gadgets.  And yeah, I am an idiot.

I do hope that the Lockitron folks and anyone else who is planning a crowdfunding campaign will take a seminar or something that helps them estimate shipping dates more accurately for future products.  Because this is not a good way to launch a product.  Right now I have very little good to say about this company.  One of the benefits of crowdfunding your product is supposed to be that you get an instant cadre of people who are thrilled to have your product that will tell all their friends (or write an article in a small town newspaper).  Instead they've irritated thousands of people (at least one of whom wrote an article in a small town newspaper).

As of now the company says they have shipped a few hundred units.  They are working out incorporating low energy Bluetooth Low Energy to increase battery life on the door unit.  Theoretically those who ordered before me (and those who paid in advance) will get their Lockitrons before I do.  April, they are telling me.  But if they have only shipped a few hundred units so far and they are going in order I will probably have a heart attack and die if my Lockitron actually shows up in April.  I am 7435 in line.

As long as I am spouting Latin quotations, here's one: 'Caveat emptor, quia ignorare non debuit quod jus alienum emit,' (Let a purchaser beware, for he ought not to be ignorant of the nature of the property which he is buying from another party).  Buyer beware.  Especially crowdfunding investor.

More simply: Crowdfunditor Caveat Emptor Pfllt!  (Yeah, I really don't speak Latin.)

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