Paul Colton contacted me on July 17th, a week before they went live with their first Kickstarter campaign. Always happy to support my fellow iOS developers I agreed that I would make Linguan available for a reward if they could make it work. Unfortunately Kickstarter’s rules prohibit offering of products that the project owners didn’t make themselves. So that tie-in never materialized.
Colton launched Pixate as a product that promises to allow you to use a CSS subset to style UIKit controls instead of doing that in code or Interface Builder. People who hear this tend to fall into two categories: “WTF? Keep that non-native HTML crap away from me!” and “Awesome, now I can design my UI in Safari”.
Their promise certainly is a polarizing one. I find it even more fascinating and unsettling what seems to be going on behind the scenes. The latest developments triggered my sense of fairness quite a bit and this prompted me to summarize what I feel deserves to be called a scandal.
Pixate went online with their first campaign on July 20th with a funding goal of $200,000. Ambitious by any standard. They did have to show off some basic functionality working but interest was only lukewarm as evidenced by Kicktraq.
You can see the almost horizontal development, only broken on July 30th when some angel tossed $10,000 into the pot. That might have been the Pixate guys (or a close friend of theirs) in a desperate hope to jump start the stuttering campaign.
Pixate was not the first business that Colton had set his mind to. According to the Appcelerator Development Blog:
Appcelerator is the first corporate sponsor of a worthy new Y combinator backed startup called Pixate. Pixate was recently founded by Paul Colton and Kevin Lindsey. Paul was the founder of Aptana, a company we bought 18 months ago and Kevin was one of the key developers on Aptana as well as Titanium Studio.
This statement was dated August 1st, awfully close the influx of the suspect $10K contribution mentioned above. Could this have been from Y combinator? I think I read somewhere that this is the initial seed fund amount for all the businesses they take under their wings. But apart from this there was no visible uptake of funding at that time which tells us that probably very few people like Appcelerator.
The Death of a Campaign
Besides the lofty goal and the polarizing project one of the main reasons for their failure might have been the fact that the rewards were not very attractive. The $5 level would only get people listed as contributors aka be a donation. At $35 you’d get a T-Shirt and in between access to some BETAs. Then at $40 they promised a Visualizer app (to be created?). If you read on it becomes clear at level $50 that all the BETA access is worth nothing long term because there people would get “early adopter pricing when we ship”.
Let me get this straight: you don’t get anything physical (except a T-Shirt), the BETA access is worthless and the final product is something that sounds like it might be better suited to be an Open Source project.
My opinion of the project is that Colton is desperate to have Pixate become his next big thing. $200k would allow him to be relaxed about money for a year or so with something to spare for additional developers, marketing, etc. It’s a “found a business” project thinly disguised as a digital product. According to Kickstarter’s project guidelines “starting a business does not qualify as a project”.
Colton was smart to circumnavigate the guidelines cliffs and formulate the endeavor as a project with a product as outcome. But does that serve the customers who are willing to jump on his bandwagon?
All of the advance marketing and communication did not help the flat trend of the first project. You might have peeked at the Kicktraq chart, come to the same conclusions as me and then relegated the project to oblivion. Funding was cancelled on August 14th when it was absolutely certain that there was literally no chance in hell that these two lines would ever cross. The total tally was $21,752 from 169 backers.
Apparently Mr. Colton is not one to settle for defeat. Somebody might have taken a hint and conclude that this is the wrong project for the wrong people with the wrong goal … and Kickstarter is the wrong place to get it funded.
What do we do if a campaign fails?
On the same day the first campaign got cancelled Colton create a new one but with a much lower funding goal. The first campaign had shown that their audience might cough up in the vicinity of $20,000. So in a sudden rush of boldness he set the new campaign’s target to $25,000.
This technique is similar to when you finished a role playing game and start it from the beginning keeping all your weapons and experience. The last update on the first project was only for backers asking them to immediately hop on the the new campaign.
And people worth approximately $18,000 immediately did re-pledge. Together with the existing marketing momentum the second campaign crossed the ridiculous funding threshold 4 days after campaign start with an overall trend towards upwards of $50,000.
Restarting a game from scratch with higher stats than normal players is what gamers usually would call “Cheating”. Setting an extremely easily attainable funding goal communicates: “we’ll take your money in any case, thanks”.
Good kickstarter projects have a believable explanation about what the creator needs the funding for. Colton put this to the very very bottom of the project description right after lenghty viability demonstrations of technology that Pixate had been developing in the meantime since campaign 1.
Building Pixate requires a lot of engineering effort. We’ve already spent a bunch of time getting to this prototype phase and we need your help to see it to completion. We’ll be using the money to get to a minimum viable product that we can ship before the end of the year. We’ll start with the iOS engine first, then the Visualizer then move on to Android. The more we raise, the more we can accelerate the product release schedule.
What he didn’t tell us is that he also started to invest big bucks into advertising. Colton purchased a sponsorship slot on Daring Fireball for the week of August 13th, to the tune of $7,500. This got him mention in John Gruber’s RSS feed as well as a tweet. What cracks me up is this statement by the honorable Mr. Gruber: “Sounds cool, and they’re really close to their funding goal.” LOL, yeah, with cheating and by sponsoring you with OPM (other people’s money).
Is that “using the money to get to a minimum viable product”? I thought this is called Ad-waste-izing.
Spending a third of the re-pledges Pixate was able to purchase some visible momentum. The casual observer would now see that the project “is winning” and this is making pledges even more likely, adding to the momentum.
Honestly I don’t have any opinion on the technical merits of Pixate. I have quite a bit of experience with CSS myself because I am supporting most of the text-formatting commands in DTCoreText. And I can tell you from my experience hat it takes quite a bit of work to get the parsing of CSS down, let alone translate the CSS into meaningful styling of UIKit components.
What troubles me is that Pixate is setting a bad example of what kind of project NOT to do on Kickstarter. Also it creates a precedent of how to cheat by resetting your campaign. Good projects that have a natural audience with a few dollars to spend if they feel they can help something get made that they would enjoy.
But if a campaign fails to be accepted of fails even though it was accepted then the creator should take a hint and turn elsewhere. Look at app.net for a successful example of how to fund a business outside of Kickstarter. They didn’t get accepted, so they copied the process and succeeded. Any tech company is able to pull this off on their own website. No need to muck up Kickstarter.