The Perils of Crowdfunding Your Photo Project

The Perils of Crowdfunding Your Photo Project


I proudly ordered an Instacube in August 2012 amid significant press hype over a device that would display your Instagram feed with a large 6.5” screen. Finally, the digital picture frame that I actually wanted. The initial goal of $35,000 was quickly smashed, and the Kickstarter campaign ended up raising over $620,000.

At first glance, the project seemed pretty modest in scale. They had a working prototype, and what could be so hard about pulling a feed from the Instagram API into another device? The smartphone app ecosystem would seem to suggest that this was a weekend project; perhaps a few months to actually get an assembly line going.

But weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. The rate of updates slowed dramatically and backers turned angry – doxxing employees, leaving nasty comments, threatening lawsuits. Then finally in late Spring 2014, I received my Instacube, and promptly threw the unopened box on a shelf where it remains to this day.

Since the time that Instacube was announced, Instagram has increased image resolution from 600×600 to 1024×1024, added video and hyperlapse capability, added native non-square format capability, direct messaging and more. In short, the hardware-based Instacube was obsolete by the time it reached my door.

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Similarly, in April 2013, the 4×5 Wanderlust travel camera tickled the analog fancy of the Internet, raising over $128,000 dollars. A slick website with prototype images taken in Rio de Janeiro had me imagining that I was David Burnett on assignment, so I dropped $149 against my better judgement. Two years later, there is no product in sight despite a previous update about injection molds and helicals. Local pick-up began on August 28, and the product recently started shipping.

In July 2015, a state court in Washington ordered a Kickstarter campaign to pay restitution to its backers for failure to deliver. Entrepreneur Edward Polchlopek wasn’t selling cameras, but a hand-drawn deck of cards, which he still couldn’t deliver. Washington Attorney General delivered a stern warning through a press release, “Washington state will not tolerate crowdfunding theft. If you accept money from consumers, and don’t follow through on your obligations, my office will hold you accountable.”

There is a reason entrepreneurs raise millions of dollars for their ideas. It often costs that much to develop, test and deploy an idea. In the tech world, ideas are usually software based, which simplifies the project scope significantly. In the case of Instacube and Wanderlust, they clearly lacked the project experience to accurately forecast expenses and have contingencies in place.

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Contrast that to the New55 Film project by Bob Crowley, which has provided the most comprehensive project plan, financial modeling and updates of anything I’ve seen on Kickstarter. And still, the project has run into obstacles developing a coating machine for their new instant film.

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Even seemingly simple projects like book publishing have vexed veterans. Following the publication of his Kickstarter book project entitled “Common Ground,” Scott Strazzante told me, “I was naive about the world of book publishing when I started the Kickstarter campaign. I really had no idea what self-publishing meant or how much work was involved in producing a book. In hindsight, I should have done a lot more legwork before securing the funds.”

Crowdfunding photo projects can be seductive. But access to “easy money” doesn’t simplify the reality of delivering a product. Now with the Washington precedent, photographers should be wary of taking a cavalier approach to using crowdfunding for their future projects.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Lawrence Hudetz at 11:24 am

    Hey Allen, spell check please?

    First sentence: “I proudly ordered by Instacube in August 2012 …”

    “I proudly ordered my Instacube in August 2012 ……

    Paragraph 3:”…… and promptly through the unopened box on a shelf ….”

    …..”and promptly threw the unopened box on a shelf……

    I didn’t bother to finish the post.

    • brad at 11:30 pm

      Yeah, online articles show a need for proofing and editing…no doubt. But…jeez, I am not sure it is worth being so uptight and superior over. Get a grip and finish reading the article that actually had good content, good research, and over subject matter that was current and thought provoking.

  2. Mary at 7:36 am

    “…photographers should be weary of taking a cavalier…” You mean photographers should be “wary” or “leery”, same thing as cautious. “Weary” means tired.

  3. Andrew at 2:37 pm

    “Two years later, there is no product in sight despite a previous update about injection molds and helicals.”

    Do you not fact check before hitting send? Wanderlust began deliveries of the the Travelwide a couple of weeks ago. The camera is out in the wild and photographers are using it. Just because you fail to check in on a project you’ve backed doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:43 pm

      This may indeed be the case, but as a purchaser, I have received no update. The last Twitter update was in January. The Kickstarter update is only available for those who bought through Kickstarter. The website FAQ has no mention. The contact email is invalid.

      • Andrew at 2:52 pm

        One need only check the comments on the Kickstarter project page to confirm that shipments are about to begin. Comments on the main campaign page are viewable to backers and non-backers alike.

        • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:58 pm

          My larger point, which Wanderlust has acknowledged, is that their communication stream (like many crowdfunding projects) is horrendous. I didn’t buy on Kickstarter — I bought through their website. I have received no notifications whatsoever.

          So yes, you are correct (and I was wrong) that there is product shipping. But I had to rely on you, internet stranger, to find that out instead of hearing it from them directly.

          • Andrew at 3:05 pm

            And I get that, but maybe your should edit your article to reflect the corrected information? Continuing to include the Travelwide as a “failure” is a bit disingenuous and only serves to muddy the waters rather than to clarify. We need articles like this out there, but we also need to have honesty and clarity in the reportage as well.

  4. Thomas Pickard at 10:01 pm

    Spell checker aside, the other problem you take is risk in how good the quality of the product may / may not be.

    I was a backer for Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Hedwig, a photographer’s work I’ve always admired. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sovietbusstops/soviet-bus-stops-limited-edition-photo-book

    While his updates were spot on and time frames realistic, when I received the limited edition book it had a number of pages that were not cut correctly during the production process and which were stuck together on the corners. The book shouldn’t have been shipped to anyone.

    It’s a first world problem, for sure. I looked at it and thought ‘these imperfections make my limited edition book even more unique’.

    It isn’t a complaint, just an example of what may happen when you receive a product via funding a kick starter campaign.

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