When Kickstarter Projects Go Awry

by Hugh Brownstone5 Comments

Do a search for “Kickstarter” on planet5D and you’ll get 14 pages of results — we like entrepreneurs. But we recently received a letter from a planet5D reader who was upset about a Kickstarter campaign that went south, and he asked us to investigate.

The Letter

We received the letter from a planet5D reader a couple of weeks ago. It read:

“I noticed that your site posted this article on the Snapfocus Kickstarter campaign back in 2012.

Since then it has become obvious to everyone involved that Brandon took all of the money from this and ran…committing an unseemly act of fraud against young filmmakers…many of whom I'm sure read your blog. Since you promoted him as a the mastermind that he is, I was wondering if you might not take another look at this story and write the truth that has come to light involving this man and this project. Thanks.”

There are at least two sides to every story, aren’t there? I ‘d never heard  of the man nor the product — I wasn’t writing for planet5D back at that time. Still, to his credit planetMitch asked me to look into it.

I confess I was squeamish: what if I got it wrong and labeled someone unfairly? But it didn’t seem reasonable to walk away from our reader’s request, either.

Caveat Emptor

The whole story just sounded sad — big dreams dashed against the rocks of reality. It happens (see the post below from the NY Times )

One of my buds ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign, yet the dates slipped many times before I – and other backers — received the product. On the other hand, I’ve been following another campaign on Indiegogo since early 2013, and they too were often accused of insufficient communication and delays (fair on both counts). Still, they appear to be finally shipping – though the market has moved on them, their business model has evolved, and it’s unclear they will ever be successful.

As an entrepreneur myself, I’ll write simply that creating a new product is hard.

In fact, unless you know the people behind a crowdfunding campaign personally – or know someone who does, or see that the creators of the campaign you’re interested in have had successful campaigns before — the best advice we can give you is: don’t pledge anything you can’t afford to lose.

Seriously.

In the meantime, we didn’t know what the truth was about SnapFocus; the campaign’s creator, Brandon David Cole; nor Mr. Cole’s other business, Midas Mount.

So we went deeper.

We were hoping to find a delayed success or an honest failure.

Doing Our Own Digging

We began the way anyone might: first we read our own story. planet5D was pretty excited by this very different approach to solo camera operator focus-pulling – so excited, in fact, that we covered it on four separate occasions.

We weren’t alone. Several of the biggest blogging sites covered the SnapFocus with the same enthusiasm.

But with hindsight – and in the absence of information to the contrary – some of the press coming from Mr. Cole seems almost too good to be true. References in the press to big names like JJ Abrams, Jimmy Hayward and Philip Bloom “raving about” the SnapFocus appear to have originated from a single press release issued by Mr. Cole. Were they even real?

Could be – we didn't attempt to reach any of them for comment.

Next, we decided to go onto Kickstarter and the project page itself.

The Snapfocus Kickstarter Campaign

On first blush, the SnapFocus campaign of 2012 was a huge success: 272 backers pledged $110,957 against a $20,000 goal, created by Mr. Cole.

And with 211 comments in the project blog, it was clear people were engaged.

But engaged how? We started to read.

The Most Recent Update: January 21, 2015

The latest project update wasn’t very recent, and wasn’t related to the SnapFocus project at all. It was a “We need your vote” missive for Mr. Cole’s Midas Mount entry into the Microsoft Small Business Contest. Only backers could comment, and they weren’t having it (we've redacted the names):

XXXX on March 31 
XXXX, I've asked the same thing over the past couple years(hard to believe) and have yet to hear or see that anyone received one.

XXXX on March 31 
Hi other contributor, does anyone heard about trial or justice action? Obviously this guy didn't do his job, but about Kickstarter? they might be able to at least give back the amount they earn about this failure project?

cheers

XXXXX on March 4 
Question for everyone who contributed.
Has there been any record that ANYONE has even received their SnapFocus?

You would think there'd have to be at least 20 or 30 out there, right?

But I haven't heard anyone using this for their productions at all…

XXXX on February 20 
Guys…buy this..its just arrived..another commericals director recommended it to me…look at the price…it arrived 2 days later…its much better than the dodgy setup that Brandon blagged…wait until you see the emails about Brandon. Now that he wont give me my money back im handing them over to the blogs…he kept the money its all been a blag. Buy this instead: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00CRJX5GS…

XXXX on February 1 
Sorry can't support you Brandon. The idea has not aged well when compared to the other things available. You won't win the Microsoft completion, I bet 20 people from this kickstarteremailed them and told them all about what a failure this project has been… but you know that already.

You and other failed kickstarters have brought normalcy and accountability to the the whole crowdfunding world. 60% drop in crowdfunding in the last 2 years all do to guys just like you. Guys who promise the world and deliver nothing. Congrats!

Things have a way of working themselves out though. I lost several hundred dollars and learned a lesson. You have immortality on the internet as a Brandon David Cole the guy who stole a hundred thousand dollars from other filmmakers. You screwed over a pile of young, broke filmmakers, and you got away with it.

Fuck You…

XXXX on January 27 
It´s not that you built a spaceship. How can one ran out of money and such a mechanical device? It´s not that something unforeseen happeneds, your calculations were just plain wrong or you did something else with our money? I´d like to finally get what I paid for, but I did not vote, you just don´t deserve the money as you can´t guarantee us that we will eventually get what we backed for…

XXXX on January 21 
Yeah no thanks. If this works out, great, but even after a cursory look at the competing projects and with the experience I've had with Midas mount, I can't vote for this in good conscience…

XXXX on January 21 
I'd certainly vote and help out if you were better at updating us on the fact you were having troubles rather than telling us nothing and surprising us with “whoops the money ran out.” Then nothing again, then telling us you got your shit together, but clearly not since we got no updates again until now. None of us have anything to go on to believe what we paid for will be coming to us…

XXXX on January 21 
Amazing how active the update page gets when you need help getting money. Come on dude.

XXXX on January 21 
Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight. smh

XXXX on January 21 
Really looking forward to using the Snap Focus

XXXX on January 21 
Do not vote for this crook. He has taken too much money from the general public already.

These are not the kind of comments one would want to hear from one's own backers – clearly, more than one backer was disappointed and angry.

We went back a little further to a post dated January 20th, 2015: “Please help us complete fulfillment”

This was a private post, for backers only (which means the general public doesn’t have access to anything other than the subject line). All we can write is that this indicates that Mr. Cole was still having problems almost two and a half years after his original estimated ship date.

Sept 12, 2014: “Finally Got Our Shit Together.”

Continuing backward, this update at least indicated a refreshing and candid departure from what one usually reads, but again this was a full two years after the original estimated ship date – and for backers only.

July 24, 2014: “Long Overdue Update.”

The July 24, 2014 was public. It reads like a small business horror story, but it also reads like someone trying to navigate to a better place. The only problem is (as you can see from the above), nothing really happened afterward – as best we can tell.

“I first want to apologize for not giving an update in a while. So I will try to keep this short, as many of you are sick of hearing about all the issues that this Kickstarter campaign has caused me, and “just want my SnapFocus”.

Before doing the Kickstarter campaign I owned a small growing camera equipment company, Midas Mount and worked as a reality TV editor. My life was going great, I had a well paying job, a house and a pretty good savings account until I had this great idea for the SnapFocus. The Kickstarter campaign and some outside investors allowed me to create it. Unfortunately there was no way for me to predict all of the financial hardships this campaign would cause me. I want you all to know that this idea of mine has really turned my life upside down. Once all of the money from the campaign, my savings account and my outside investors was completely drained I began scrambling to figure out how to keep from going bankrupt and how to save my house from foreclosure and still fulfill all of the Kickstarter rewards to every last one of you.

At first, my idea was to keep Midas Mount going and take the profits from that to keep fulfilling rewards. As you all know, this didn't go as planned. My next idea was to go back to work in reality TV and take the money from that to keep fulfilling rewards. But my timing was bad and jobs were few and far between and I found it hard to find consistent work. I found myself broke and out of work for the first time in a long time. I failed. But I am going to make good on all of the long overdue rewards that I owe you and finally have a plan that will get you your rewards and me out of this huge financial grave that I dug for myself.

I have recently been directing tv spots and they are finally starting to bring in money. This has allowed me to bring one of the original Midas Mount equipment engineers as a project manager to get Kickstarter fulfillment back on track. He is organized, knows the products well and knows exactly how to spend my tv commercial income to complete fulfillment.

We have been working together along with Vanessa who is doing her best to handle the all of the emails that we get every day. We had lost her for the past few months but she is now back and committed to this project. So I will keep you in the loop and do a better job with giving you all updates. Within the next month we will be back on track and shipping out rewards. That's all for now. And again, I apologize that this has taken me so long to figure out.

Brandon

So: an almost 6-fold over-subscription to a promising, novel approach to focus pulling seems to die a lingering death.

Where to turn next?

The Current Midas Mount Web Site

We found Mr. Cole’s Midas Mount business – the one he references –  still on the web.

And there it is on one of their product pages, the SnapFocus, available for $449. But the site notes a delivery time of 4 weeks and that they are currently out of stock.

Perusing the rest of the site, we learned that there is no phone number (not a terrible omission nor all that unusual in and of itself – though clearly not a great sign of customer service), and the “Meet the Team” section only mentioned Mr. Cole.

Still – being a small business person is tough, and the web site in and of itself didn't tell us all that much except that Mr. Cole is still trying to sell the SnapFocus.

Facebook

We visited Facebook, and there they were: Midas Mount, with almost 4,000 likes; ads for SnapFocus; and a last entry dated January 20th, 2015, also requesting a vote for their entry into the Microsoft Small Business contest. The interesting thing about this entry is that the request is specifically to “Help us complete our Kickstarter fultillment by voting…”

The unfortunate thing is that a number of the comments on their Facebook page are also from disgruntled Kickstarter contributors.

Twitter

We found the Midas Mount Guys on Twitter, but Feburary 10th was their last entry. With only 127 tweets and 40 followers, there’s not much to see. We did learn, however, that they’re located in Culver City, CA.

YouTube

We found the Midas Mount channel on YouTube. With 119 subscribers and the last post dated December 26, 2014, it’s a little bit heartbreaking to see that the post is a video for the SnapFocus — but the vid finishes with a “coming 2013.”

Yelp

It wasn’t until Yelp that we got a phone number, but when we tried it we got a message indicating the mailbox was full and couldn’t accept new messages.

IMDB

We found a profile for Mr. Cole on IMDB. He was listed as an editor for Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School; My Fair Brady; Giuliana & Bill, and several others.

Linkedin

We couldn’t find Mr. Cole or Midas Mount on Linkedin.

The Better Business Bureau of California

We found three complaints against Midas Mount there, and we were able to read one complaint and Mr Cole’s response; we also found an address.

(www.bbb.org/losangelessiliconvalley/business-reviews/not-elsewhere-classified/midas-mount-in-culver-city-ca-1024176) – 4774 imlay ave., culver city, ca 90230

08/11/2014 Delivery Issues | Read Complaint Details

Complaint

Midas Mount has not honored their legal obligation to fulfill kickstarter rewards, and has ceased all communication with their customers.

In June of 2012, Midas Mount ran a kickstarter campaign to fund their SnapFocus camera focusing system. It had a goal of $20,000, and they raised over $100,000 to complete production of their product. I pledged $299 in order to receive the product.

We received periodic updates from the company via kickstarter. On August 5, 2013 I received the following email:

Hey ***,

We have begun fulfillment of rewards for our Kickstarter Backers. We know it took much longer than expected and appreciate your extended patience. We could not have brought this product to life without the support from all of you.

You pledged for The Early Bird SnapFocus.

Your Fulfillment Number is ***

Check Kickstarter later this week for updates on our progress with reward fulfillment.

In order to make the fulfillment process smoother, we ask that you send your current shipping address to ***************@midasmount.com.

We are still offering $150 off the HitchHiker Shoulder Support Rig to our Kickstarter Backers. To take advantage of the offer purchase the HitchHiker from our store (midasmount.com/store) and use the discount code: ‘KICKSTARTER'. Also, visit the Midas Mount store to purchase extra lens gears and other accessories for your SnapFocus.

Thanks for your support,
Bill White
Midas Mount Team Member

After not hearing from them for several more months, I sent an email to their customer service email asking for an update (in March of 2014). Within 48 hours I received the following email:

Hi ***. There are only about 10 people ahead of you at this time. I can honestly say that I will be able to ship you one in the next 2 weeks. Thank you for your support and patience in this process. My team was put in place to make sure that the Fulfillment process stays on track and I have been doing everything I can to get every reward fulfilled as soon as possible.

Can you please tell me what kind of rig you will be using your SnapFocus with and what type of lenses and camera you have? That way I can make sure that your SnapFocus will be ready to be used as soon as it arrives to you. And can you also please send me your address? I do not have one on file for you. Thank you! I look forward to hearing from you soon and getting you your reward!

-*******

I replied on March 26, April 12, April 16, and May 4 of 2014 with no responses. I also contacted them via their kickstarter page and have not received any response.

It appears clear to me that Midas Mount does not intend to fulfill their legal obligation to fulfill their customers orders. The following is a link to the agreement that Midas Mount entered into when starting their kickstarter campaign: ksr-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/creator-responsibility.png

Desired Settlement
I would like my money back.

Business Response
First off I would like to say that the person making this complaint never gave Midas Mount any money. He gave money to KickStarter as a pledge to help create and invent a camera operating system. This pledge was to help create this project and in return the backers (the complaint) would receive a reward. It is very clear on the KickStarter website that they cannot guarantee projects or investigate a creators ability to complete their project. With that being said the complainant should be making a complaint about KickStarter or to KickStarter itself. ******* **** launched the KickStarter Campagin , Midas Mount did not, so making a complaint through the bbb about Midas Mount is simply not a valid complaint. ******* **** is fulfilling all of his obligations to fulfill rewards through the KickStarter campagin and there is no time limit on how long it will take him to fulfill rewards. As long as he is making progress he is fulfilling all of his legal obligations to the bakers that pledged money to him in the hopes to receive a reward. The complaint pledged money as a hope to receive a reward through KickStarer. This has nothing to do with the business, Midas Mount. ******* **** has been communicating with these backers through the KickStarter website and I would like to irritrite the fact that these are in no shape or form customers of Midas Mount.

BBB did not receive a response from business (1 complaint)

04/27/2015
Problems with Product / Service
– See more at: www.bbb.org/losangelessiliconvalley/business-reviews/not-elsewhere-classified/midas-mount-in-culver-city-ca-1024176/complaints#sthash.QWV5AwbK.dpuf
– See more at: www.bbb.org/losangelessiliconvalley/business-reviews/not-elsewhere-classified/midas-mount-in-culver-city-ca-1024176/complaints#sthash.QWV5AwbK.dpuf

Where this Leaves Us

We tried one more time to contact Mr. Cole via the form on his web site and wrote:

Dear Mr. Cole,

I am a writer for planet5D (we covered SnapFocus back in 2012). A reader recently wrote to us complaining about your SnapFocus Kickstarter campaign.

We understand that not every Kickstarter campaign goes well; we also understand that product development is hard. With this being written, we'd like to speak with you to hear your side of the story and bring us up to date.

Sincerely,

We haven’t heard back.

There are too many unhappy people and too many unanswered questions to allow us to categorize this as a delayed success nor an honest failure.

At the very least, the SnapFocus Kickstarter campaign is a cautionary tale of product development failure; customer service failure; financial management failure; and PR failure. At worst, it is precisely as our reader asserts.

Call it somewhere between sad and really crappy, all the way around.

Yes, this story puts a chill into crowdfunding, but please don't let a cautionary tale undermine your faith in humanity.

Time to find some more success stories!

If any planet5D readers have Kickstarter or Indiegogo stories you'd like to share, please sound off below.  We'd really like to hear about them.

ZPM Espresso and the Rage of the Jilted Crowdfunder

ZPM Espresso and the Rage of the Jilted Crowdfunder

Via New York Times:

“Thank you all very much,” Update 57 concluded, by way of goodbye. “Working on this project was the most ambitious and meaningful undertaking any of us have ever attempted. Getting to know all of you, and working to create some seriously cool technology, was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done. We are deeply and truly sorry that despite our best efforts, we were not able to get this machine across the finish line. Love, Gleb, Igor and Janet, Team ZPM.”

It had been three long years of gradual disappointment since the 1,500 or so supporters of ZPM Espresso — otherwise known as the PID-Controlled Espresso Machine project on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter — each put a few hundred dollars, or some $370,000 in total, into the campaign, and eight months since the last communiqué from the project’s creators. Now, with Update 57 in January, ZPM Espresso announced that it was winding itself down. For the backers who expected a ZPM machine for their pledge, there would be neither fulfillment nor refunds. All accumulated moneys, the update said, were dispersed on the nonrecoverable engineering costs involved in ZPM’s failed attempt to manufacture an inexpensive commercial-grade espresso machine for the home market.

Ian Woodhouse, the 44-year-old director of operations for a Toronto real estate developer, was one of ZPM’s earliest and most ardent backers. Three years on, though, no new blow could surprise him. The update represented exactly what he had long come to expect from the creators. It was evasive and opaque. There was no clear explanation for the company’s insolvency. Woodhouse was especially nettled by that valediction: “love.” What he wanted, he told me later, was not another update “signed ‘love.’ They always signed their updates ‘love.’ ” He could see that it seemed like a peculiar fixation, but the word was so disingenuous and cloying, and it made him angry. “Notice,” he instructed me, “how I keep bringing up the ‘love’ thing.” It reminded him that what ought to have been a straightforward financial transaction had somehow left him feeling taken advantage of and betrayed.

Read full article at New York Times “ZPM Espresso and the Rage of the Jilted Crowdfunder”

(cover photo credit: snap from New York Times)


Additional Stories You Will Want To Read:

Comments

  1. billaylward

    Thanks for posting the SnapFocus story.  It’s spot on.  – Although, I believe you left out the lovely note Mr. Cole sent to his backers belligerently stating that if the backers weren’t happy with the way things were going (or not), they were welcome to a fist fight!  – A real class act…

  2. HughBrownstone

    billaylward It’s a tough story.  Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. Robert Bryant

    I supported the SnapFocus Kickstarter campaign, and was fortunate enough to (eventually) receive my SnapFocus. Unfortunately, the tool is all but useless, as it enables less than 90 degrees of focus ring adjustment. Brandon replied that this was the target, as ‘most DSLR lenses have that short throw,’ which is ridiculous. My mid-range Canon 50mm USM lens has more than 90 degrees focus throw. If there’s a more representative (DSLR) lens, please, someone tell me what they were aiming for.
    It was a great idea rendered pitiful in development and application.

    The whole SnapFocus campaign and debacle has made me much more wary of supporting Kickstarter campaigns. You sends your moneys, you takes your chance, it seems.

  4. HughBrownstone

    Robert Bryant Sorry to learn that even after receiving it, the product didn’t give you what you want. Yes, you do take chances with Kickstarter — and at least in this instance, people now have more information for future reference.

  5. radcraig

    Robert Bryant I also found the product to be useless. The difference in my story is that I waited until after the Kickstarter to order direct from the website. Months later I finally received my product and found the same issues you did, not to mention the shoddy springs keep slipping out of place (and the noise they make causes the rig to be useless in situations where you need good sound). When I tried to get in touch for support or even a return they never replied. He can try to weasel his way around saying that Kickstarter backers never officially ‘bought’ the product but I purchased it through direct commerce and no matter how you slice it he still scammed a paying customer out of their money.

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