Here’s an intriguing move: crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has commissioned a freelance journalist to investigate — and ultimately (it hopes) explain — the collapse of a high profile drone project which was also the most funded European project to date.
The immediate audience for the article is the more than 12,000 very irate backers who collectively pledged more than £2.3 million in the hopes of being shipped an autonomous micro drone called Zano this summer.
But it will also be made publicly available so anyone can read the lessons contained therein.
The Zano drone was billed as “intelligent enough to fly all by itself” when it launched on Kickstarter in November 2014, with the team touting on-board sensors for obstacle detection and avoidance — which they claimed would also enable other advanced features such as the ability for multiple Zanos to fly together in a swarm. Given that micro drones have been in the market for years, the autonomous element was Zano’s primary differentiator.
The company was still claiming it was “on target” with its development schedule at the end of May. In an email to TechCrunch on May 31, Zano’s marketing and business development director Reece Crowther wrote: “The good news, we’re on target with our development schedule and expect to be in a position to supply production ZANOs by June-end/Early-July.”
Crowther also offered to “give a full demo” of the drone, and sent links to two videos apparently showing the Zano’s obstacle avoidance tech in action, and detailing how the latest stage of development was progressing (both videos are no longer available as the company’s YouTube account has been closed).
The problem was their tech claims never panned out and the drone never shipped. The hardware was still clearly far from ready when the BBC visited the firm in Wales to get a demo in August 2015. The news organization reported that it watched the drone fail to function outdoors and found it could only fly indoors for around five minutes before running out of battery.
“Nevertheless, the company is determined to start shipping the Zano to backers at the end of this week,” wrote the BBC‘s Rory Cellan-Jones at the end of August.
Zano did not ship the following week. And the CEO of the business resigned in November, citing “personal health issues and irreconcilable differences”. The company collapsed into voluntary liquidation shortly afterwards — leaving Kickstarter with a PR disaster on its hands.
If you’re in the storytelling business, as Kickstarter is by proxy — given it’s a platform for storytellers to sell their ideas — then figuring out a way to create satisfying narratives when things go wrong is a smart move. Although there still remains a risk that some critical analysis might end up being directed at Kickstarter itself. But if it’s seen to be trying to learn from its mistakes that’s at least a better look than silence and the perception of failures being swept under the carpet.
Explaining the commission in a Medium post, the journalist in question — Mark Harris — says Kickstarter is paying him for his services, and will be seeing the article before it’s published (likely in mid-January). However he claims the company won’t have any editorial control or input into the content of what he writes.
Looking into Kickstarter’s role in the project is a specific part of the commission, according to Harris.
Kickstarter has asked me to lay out the progress of the project, from start to finish; to discover what happened to the over £2m in funds pledged; and to answer the questions of whether Zano’s creators could have done anything differently, or made mistakes that future Kickstarter projects might avoid.
I will also be looking into Kickstarter’s role in the project, and whether it could have served Zano’s creators or backers better throughout. Crucially, although Kickstarter is paying me (up front) to research and write this story, and will be able to see it before it is sent to the backers or published, the company has no right to make any suggestions or changes to my copy. I have no other connection to the company, nor to anyone on the Zano team, and have no particular axe to grind.
While Kickstarter may have no legal right to make any suggestions or changes to Harris’ report, there are potentially some blurred lines here given it is funding the article. We’ve reached out to Harris with questions about the commission and will update this story with any response. Update: Harris has now responded to our queries, confirming that the article will be a one-off, and saying he has no intention of working for Kickstarter again.
“I accepted this commission only after considering it for some time, and because it aligned closely with my journalistic interest and experience (drones, robotics, innovation, crowdfunding). I have no intention of this becoming a regular gig, or even happening again, and Kickstarter did not suggest this at any point,” he tells TechCrunch.
Harris does have a contract with Kickstarter for the article but says the company’s legal team has advised him not to share the full contract, although he confirms there is an editorial freedom clause which states he can explore avenues of inquiry at his discretion — i.e. “above and beyond trying to find out what happened with the project and to the money raised, and what (if anything) the project creators could have done to avoid failure”.
Quoting directly from this contractual clause he says it states: “Writer shall present the Article to Kickstarter for review upon completion and prior to publication. Kickstarter shall have no right to make suggestions or request changes to the Article.”
Harris adds he will retain copyright for the article, including reproduction rights.
As for payment, he confirms the rate is “generous” although he characterizes it as “by no means excessive for a feature of this size and complexity”.
“It’s a flat fee so hard to compare to the word rate I generally get for my stories. But if I waffle on a bit, as I am likely to, it will be equivalent to (or possibly even less than) the word rate I receive from several traditional editorial clients,” he adds.
Harris is asking “any Zano backers, creators or employees” who’d like to get in touch as he researches the story to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The move by Kickstarter to commission an outsider to investigate a hardware failure comes hard on the heels of it launching a report on the proportion of projects that fail to ship on its platform — a report which claims that just nine per cent of Kickstarter projects fail to deliver rewards.
The so-called ‘Fulfillment Report‘ — well they weren’t going to call it the ‘Failure Report’ — is billed as an “independent analysis” of failure rates on the platform.
Another outsider, Professor Ethan Mollick, a scholar from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was involved in helping to compile this study (but not paid for his work). Although it appears that Kickstarter controlled the selection of “random” backer data the study is based on, and also co-developed the questions used to survey backers with Wharton, so Kickstarter’s input into this “independent” report actually looks pretty involved.
It will certainly be interesting to read what Harris’ investigation turns up in the Zano case. High profile failures are undoubtedly a huge headache for crowdfunding platforms as they call into question the sustainability of the entire category. So anything Kickstarter can do to reduce the perception of risk from using its platform — NB: there will always be actual risk when you pre-order a product that does not yet exist — will be money well spent.
Unlike, in this instance, the money spent on the Zano Kickstarter campaign. As ever with crowdfunding the advice remains: caveat emptor.
Update: In an email to TechCrunch, a Kickstarter spokesman said it decided to help backers get more information on why the Zano project failed after “many” expressed dissatisfaction about the amount of info they had been furnished with to explain what went wrong with the project.
“It’s up to the backers to determine whether the creator has handled this well. But in this case we heard from many backers who were not satisfied with the information they got about the project’s failure. So we decided to help the backers get more information,” he added.
As well as providing Zano backers with some closure, the spokesman said Kickstarter hopes Harris’ report will have additional utility “to us at Kickstarter, to backers and creators in our community, and to anyone who wants to know more about how projects like this can run into trouble”.