May 022017
Piggy Bank

This story originally appeared in Business Spectator in July 2015, with the recent crowdfunding stories I thought it was worth revisiting.

Last week home automation start-up Ninja Blocks announced it was closing down after three years, two successful Kickstarter campaigns and burning through $2.4 million of investor funding. This follows the winding up of smart lighting venture Moore’s Cloud late last year.

Both companies relied heavily on crowd-funding to raise their profile and attract capital for their projects. The two Ninja Blocks campaigns raised a total of $800,000 to fund their two products while Moore’s Cloud fell short of the target they set.

Former Moore’s Cloud CEO Mark Pesce was bitter about the company’s failure to meet its target, telling Technology Spectator last year he would rather eat bullets than go through a Kickstarter campaign again.

Not better, just different

“People say it’s a better way of getting investors, it’s not better it’s just different.” Pesce said in reflecting on a campaign that raised $350,000, only half the amount needed to get the product onto the market. “If you do a crowdfunding campaign you have to be customer-focused from Day One. You have to do a marketing campaign and customer support from the first day, you have to build the customer infrastructure first.”

Ninja Blocks’ former CEO Daniel Freedman agreed that ultimately crowd-funding is not the best place to raise capital for a new start-up, “Kickstarter is a great place to launch a product but I don’t think it’s a great place to launch a company,” Freedman also told Technology Spectator last year.

“I think there’s two different things there,” Freedman said. “Unless you get several million dollars like some of the larger Kickstarters have, you need to get external funding. If you were to price in everything you need to do to get a product worldwide shipping then you’d be selling a two hundred dollar product for six hundred dollars.”

Impeccable qualifications

Ninja Blocks boasted an impeccable pedigree for a start-up, being a 2012 graduate of the high profile Sydney Startmate program that included a $25,000 cash for a 7.5 per cent stake in the business. The company also received a million dollars in seed funding that year from a group of prominent Australian investors that included Atlassian founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes.

The company went on to raise another $800,000 through two Kickstarter campaigns and last year secured a further $700,000 from investors including Singtel’s Innov8, Blackbird Ventures, and the prestigious 500 Startups project to expand into the United States.

Despite the resources and high profile backers, Ninja Blocks still ran out money. Something that didn’t surprise 500 Startups’ founder Dave McClure who responded to the news on Twitter with “not all startups will be unicorns and making things is hard.”

Hardware is hard

Co-founder and director of Australian crowd-funding site Pozible, Rick Chen agrees with McClure’s views, “startups needs to realise building a hardware product is difficult, they need to understand how the hardware developing cycle works, get their hands dirty and do some actual work to make sure things are in control before crowd-funding.”

The complexities of running a hardware start-up were acknowledged by Freedman during his interview with Technology Spectator last year, “there are things you would never have thought about when you ship a product worldwide, things like certifications, recycling programs in Europe and foreign language manuals.”

However, Chen sees crowd-funding as having a role in funding hardware start-up projects, particularly in protecting the founders’ equity in the venture. “Crowdfunding offers a unique way to build and engage with an audience base for hardware companies, it is a fantastic tool if used well. The core value of a crowdfunding campaign versus investment funding is those supporters and early adopters of your product and of course not losing any percentage of the company.”

Crowdfunding lessons learned

For the investors in Moore’s Cloud and Ninja Blocks they may well now be thinking it would have been better to insist on that work being done earlier, however start-ups are a risky business and most will fail, something that Chen points out.

“Crowd-funding is not easy, it combines fundraising, product launching, marketing, PR and other things all in one package, it requires a lot of energy to plan and execute, and the result is unpredictable,” Chen states. “But I don’t think crowd-funding itself adds any extra dimension to the difficulties of creating a start-up, all the process is required with or without a crowd-funding campaign and the result is as always, unpredictable.”

While crowd-funding is still going to be attractive to capital starved entrepreneurs, many start-up founders and their investors will note the lessons of Moore’s Cloud and Ninja Blocks’ failure. Crowd-funding certainly isn’t the simple path to raising funds.

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