The Problem With Kickstarter Backpacks

The Lab,  
Patrick Healy

The title of this article makes it sound as I’m trying to takedown Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and similar crowdfunding sites. That couldn’t be farther from the case.

In fact, I think they have the potential to be a leveling force in the product world. When managed in an unbiased way (which they are not), these platforms can put makers, tinkerers, and innovators on an even playing field with titans of industry. 

These platforms have the potential to let concepts and execution speak more loudly than influence. There is the potential to faciliate community collaboration to solve problems, small and large, together with a united voice. The possibility exists to level out inequality and the undemocratic influence of massive multinational corporations. Crowdfunding platforms could acts as a source of good in the world.

They could… but, as it stands, they don’t. Unfortunately, it’s simply not in the short term financial interest of these platforms to operate as a truly unbiased arbiter, so they don’t.  

Personally, I owe much of my professional success to these platforms. My previous company was launched on Kickstarter and achieved a strong, but short period of sustained growth as a result. Fred, Tortuga’s CEO, actively followed my previous firm. When we decided to shut down, Fred reached out to me to see if we could collaborate. Two years later, we’re still working together. So, Kickstarter, literally, helped me get where I am today. For that, I am grateful.

The products that succeed on crowdfunding are just not the best option for most people, in my opinion. Crowdfunding is a laboratory for ideas that are not ready for the mass market. The system prioritizes novelty over value. The network encourages bombastic language over honesty.

If we treated crowdfunding projects as a high risk investment that is likely to fail, this would be fine. Because we treat crowdfunding as a store, it’s not.

A Laboratory for Ideas

At their best, Kickstarter and Indiegogo, etc. function as laboratories for ideas. People can explore, ideate, and innovate regardless of their resumes, bank accounts, or influence.

That is amazing!

In an ideal world, people would treat Kickstarter projects as experiments. But we don’t. We treat Kickstarter as a store. An opportunity to buy the latest, greatest ideas.

Unfortunately, many of Kickstarter’s creators are not well equipped to create and deliver products with the level of finish that you and I have come to expect. They do not know how to design for scale. They do not know how to work with manufacturers. They do not know how to manage product development.

As a result, we too often receive products that are delivered late, if ever, and don’t function as we expect.

If we treated these platforms as we should, as laboratories of ideas, this wouldn’t be a problem. We are taking a huge risk by supporting these projects. As with any investment, we should hope for the best, but expect to lose everything. Except we don’t. We expect crowdfunding platforms to operated like Amazon.

Frankly, that’s unfair to creators and the platforms. And, it’s detrimental to the democratizing potential of crowdfunding.

This puts crowdfunding platforms in an impossible situation. They could uphold their missions and  stick by the underdog, the unfunded, and the inexperienced. If they do this, the platforms must risk disappointing backers.

Alternatively, they could act as a marketing tool for the elite. This would likely result in better backer experiences, but it would mean sacrificing the mission and potential benefit of these platforms. Frankly, we don’t really need that as a society. Amazon already exists.

Simply put, many of the best ideas on crowdfunding platforms are simply not ready for the mass market. 

Novelty Over Value

The democratization of ideas is unbelievably valuable for humankind. The democratization of product development has the potential to be an incredible tool in the fight against inequality, both on the institutional and individual levels.

Unfortunately, it also results in a lot of noise. That noise makes it incredibly hard to find the product that is right for you. One of the easiest ways to overcome that noise is through novelty.

Novelty is simply being new and unusual. Novelty is not enough to reach crowdfunding greatness.

Pressure exists to be novel on as many different levels as possible. If having one novel feature on a jacket is good, fifteen must be better. If having one kickass feature on a cooler is good, twelve must be better. If having one revolutionary feature on a travel backpack is good, twenty five must be better. Right? Wrong.

Good design is not about throwing as many solutions at a problem as possible.

Good design is about knowing which features are most valuable and focusing your energy on making those features fantastic. Good design is making sure all of those features work in concert with one another and not against each other. Good design is making the smallest intervention possible that creates the most possible value for your users.

Apple, the easiest (and laziest) example of good design, has created the world’s most valuable company on this principle. Apple is rarely the first company to enter a category or a feature. When they do, they make the best product, or most refined feature, in the category. Brands that people fall in love with, from Toyota and Braun of the past, to Yeti and Allbirds of today, follow this simple formula. They do so because it provides the best possible user experience, allowing them to make products people can count on.

This race toward novelty and maximalism has another unintended consequence. It leads to the promise of a product that can’t be manufactured at scale.  While I applaud these creators for their dedication to upending the status quo, many of the products they create are simply not ready for the mass market.

The law of diffusion of innovation seeks to explain how ideas spread through society using a bell curve. At the left of this graph sit the innovators. In any given market, these are the people who adopt an innovation first. They are incredibly forgiving and willing to embrace new ideas even if they do work perfectly. As you move toward the right of the graph towards mass adoption of an idea, your customers become less and less willing to embrace a flawed product.

In the traditional model, businesses grow slowly and work together with the “innovators” in their market to refine and perfect their idea before they reach the mass market years, or decades, later. In the crowdfunding model, successful projects skip that process. This robs crowdfunding creators of the opportunity to learn, grow, and iterate before they reach the unforgiving masses.

As a rule, products cost twice as much and take twice as long to develop as one might expect. That means it is nearly impossible for novices in a field to deliver on a project in a manner that will satiate the mass market.

This is compounded by the cultural ethos of many Asian manufacturers. In my experience, you can get these manufacturers to do anything you want them to do (that is technically possible) if you pay them enough.

What they won’t tell you, however, is whether or not those products can be reliably produced at scale. From what I understand, for them to tell you your idea is bad goes against their hierarchical cultural structure. You are the customer so you are the boss.

Further, these factories rarely tell you they are unable to produce something. As far as I can tell, this goes against the “face-saving” nature of their cultures. Instead, they deliver beautiful, perfect prototypes that the factory is unable to produce at scale.   

Unfortunately, the end result is often a massively successful crowdfunding project that fails to deliver on its promises. The result is an unhappy creator and a legion of unhappy backers.

The Tortuga Approach

At Tortuga, we take a different approach. We work diligently to develop products that can be reliably produced at scale. When some, inevitably, fail, we rely on an infrastructure that can quickly repair and, or, replace our products. Instead of building in all of the features, we try to focus on solving real problems and creating the greatest possible value for our customers. We try to choose the right features and perfect them. We don’t always get it right, but we do our best.

Bobast Over Honesty

Take a look around at successful crowdfunding campaigns. Look at the promises these campaigns make to their backers. How many projects include words like “best,” “coolest,” or “revolutionary?” How many use phrases like “no compromises?”

Let’s first state the obvious: in the consumer product world, there is no way these claims can be true. There is no headphone, bag, or cooler that is perfect for everyone. It’s simply not possible. At best, these are dishonest claims that creators are not qualified to make. At worst, they are lies. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think most project creators are doing this to be malicious. They are doing so because they want to give their projects the best opportunity to succeed. 

Why do they do it? Because Kickstarter lets them, and it works. At least in the short term. People are incredibly susceptible to this kind of language. If you care about travel backpacks, don’t you want the best travel backpack? I know I do.

This hyperbolic language sets crowdfunding platforms, creators, and backers up for failure. Because these are not objective measures, most backers will inevitably be disappointed in the reward they receive.

The Tortuga Approach

At Tortuga, we take a different approach. Instead of overpromising and under delivering, we strive to under promise and over deliver. We try to clearly present our case and let you decide if what we offer is right for you. If not, we try to point you in the direction of a product that might be better for you. Though, I have to admit, if someone else bestows upon us the title of Best Carry On Travel Bag, we aren’t above sharing that with you.

The Setout Backpack

The Setout backpack is the latest example of our ethos at Tortuga. We’ve tested and refined our products and supply chain to create a backpack that we believe is the best maximum sized carry on backpack for most people. It doesn’t have all of the features possible, and it may not maximize it’s potential novelty, but seeks to deliver the most value and the best experience.

Setout is versatile, easy to pack, and provides just the right amount of organization. It’s comfortable and allows you to carry it in a way that works for you. Travel for two weeks or two years out of one backpack that you can depend on. It’s not too little. It’s not too much. It’s just right.

TL;DR

We believe in prioritizing value over novelty. We’re committed to communicating honestly, not bombastically. We experiment internally and only release a product or a feature when we feel we’ve perfected it. When we learn, inevitably, that we can make things better, we push ourselves to do so.  

We’ve been building carry on travel backpacks for almost 7 years. We virtually created the category. The Setout backpack might not be right for everyone, but for most people, it probably is.