I admit it. I’m a sucker for crowdfunding.
I’ve funded ‘em all. Over 20 projects now, but as usual the first one holds a special place in the heart; the ‘PID-Controlled Espresso Machine‘ which didn’t even have a proper name when I first backed it via Kickstarter in late 2011.
What is it? Well, it’s an espresso machine with a CPU-controlled pressure/temperature feedback control which promises world-class coffee at a hitherto impossible price. I was taken by its timely arrival at the confluence of cheap Arduino-type control and an obsessive open-source enthusiasm.
It was subsequently christened the ZPM Nocturn and I was and remain super excited about it as a product, not least because I’m still waiting so see so much as a bolt, filter or button of it.
Yes, in a somewhat inevitable turn of events, this has turned out to be one of Kickstarter’s less successful projects.
For its time, the $369,569 it raised, over 18x the funding goal, meant this was one of the bigger early “success” stories on Kickstarter. In fact, it was so successful that the makers had to reassess their plan of casting the heating block themselves (Yes, really. How quaint!) and move to an altogether more commercial-scale approach to manufacturing.
Strange thing is, if they had stuck to their original plan after maybe only attracting 2-3x the funding goal, I might be looking at one in my kitchen right now. As it is, the updates were frenetic as the Kickstarter moved towards its end and new features and options were being proposed on an almost daily basis as the kitty swelled. The purchase of an industrial laser was mentioned. A frickin’ laser…
It’s fair to say the whole thing had gone right to their heads.
So, here we are nearly three years since the funding period started. Why write now? Well, although I’m a ridiculous optimist about most things, over the last few months I’ve grudgingly accepted that I may now never see my new coffee machine. It’s sad to say, but the complete lack of communication for about a year shows that the people behind ZPM have no real idea what they are doing (lasers, remember?) and have:
a) run out of funding,
b) designed a product that doesn’t work,
c) designed a product that can’t possibly be sold for anywhere near the Kickstarter price, or
d) some combination of the above.
I’ve seen project that have been run like clockwork with almost hourly comms despite a huge level of additional funding (see the Arduino project linked to at the top of this article for a prime example), but in the last year or so the ZPM project has basically stalled into a “We’re waiting on UL certification” and “The Kickstarter page or our forums(!) is not the place to discuss production plans and hold-ups, please send us an email(!!) and we’ll respond to you directly”.
Now, to me that just screams bullshit. The internet being the internet means we can see them hawking for funding elsewhere (pretty much confirming reason a, above) and the secretive and hyper-defensive tone of their communications suggests real problems with delivery, going far beyond the bureaucratic hoops that UL may or not be presenting.
For the benefit of the wider public and any backers who can’t be bothered emailing them, this is what they said to me:
I wanted to reply to your recent comment in more detail.
We fully understand the frustrations around updates and communication. Our preference has always been to be as detailed as we can when discussing the production process with backers – that’s part of what’s interesting for everyone. This has caused us problems in the past, and partnered companies have mentioned updates and backer comments as cause for concern/complication. For example, UL has mentioned discussion of open sourcing the code, and interest from backers, as cause to initiate extra rounds of review to ensure that appropriate failsafes are in place for this type of machine.
This doesn’t reflect an absence of internal updates and progress reports. In several cases our attempts to be detailed in our communication with backers has been at odds with the goal of actually getting machines out. At this point, we have to prioritize working with the companies who are helping us get this project done. We know this is a departure from everyone’s immediate preference, but we hope you’ll understand.
Currently the gating item is still UL, but we haven’t encountered any show-stopping issues – just a continuation of the review process. We’re using the extra time to improve code stability, confirm back-up suppliers, and make preparations for product support so that we’re able to provide long-term services once the machines to start shipping out.
Happy to answer any other questions you have! Thanks very much for your support and patience!
I may be daft, but to me that just says sweet fuck all about anything. I’ve written enough bullshit justifications in my time to know one when I see one.
The thing is, you should never underestimate the goodwill and patience of folk like me, folk that tend to do shit like Kickstarter, because it doesn’t take much to keep us happy. Just some honesty and detail about what you’re doing with our money is enough to sate us for a stupidly long time.
Don’t get me wrong, I really, really want them to pull this rabbit out of the hat and prove me wrong, but I’m pretty much resigned to losing my cash on it now.
I should say that I don’t believe there was ever an intent to have things work out this way. In the early days it really seemed like they were just getting to grips with things and, while a little bit ragged, were doing their best. However, as time went on it became more and more obvious that they were either out of their depth and/or had been shafted along the way themselves and were (are?) desperately trying to salvage the project.
So, chalk one up to experience. It’s only a couple of hundred bucks after all and at least I got a blog post out of it, right? Also, it’s not as if I haven’t done well out of almost every other project, from doubling my money on the (disappointing) Pebble by flogging it to
some other mug a discerning tech-head within hours of receiving one of the first units in the UK, to some lovely personalised books (thanks, Phil Kay).
I still use crowdfunding sites – I’m waiting for my Modern Toss coffee table opus and M3D printer (who wants a 3D-printed boaby?) to arrive in the next few weeks and months – and remain under no illusion that there is a risk attached to such things, but while my ZPM interest remains unrequited let’s just say I’m not the evangelist I perhaps once was.
Mocking comments accepted