The Dangers of Kickstarter

Kickstarter has become the go-to funding source for serious expeditions and boondoggles alike. And that has some benefactors wanting their cash back.

Outside Magazine, February 2013

Last May, Andrew Badenoch, a thirtysomething former Internet marketer in Oregon, set off on a 7,000-mile solo expedition from Bellingham, Washington, with a jumbo-tired fat bike and a pack raft. His goal was to travel to the Arctic Sea and back under his own power, all the while making a documentary about the trip. Backing him were 212 individuals who anted up a combined $10,437 via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. PBS even loaned Badenoch camera equipment and agreed to run his footage as an online series.

kickstarter-andrew-badenoch_feBy late summer, though, the expedition had fallen apart, and Badenoch, who had never before embarked on a human-powered expedition of this scale, had quietly returned to Oregon after bailing on the trip in Pink Mountain, British Columbia. He later blamed “14 weeks of delays” and told supporters the “weather window had closed.” Throughout the summer, a handful of backers had asked him via Twitter for updates on his status and location. Except for a handful of tweets, these largely went unanswered. Badenoch now says that he could have been better at communicating his plans. But he also maintains that “it was never my intent to explain everything as I went. That’s not part of the documentary.” As for the money, Badenoch has yet to offer a breakdown of his expenses, because, he says, he plans to complete the trip this spring and produce his documentary. “I have no comment on accounting specifics while the project remains in progress,” he wrote in an email last fall. “When adding layers of accounting, reporting day-to-day activities, and scrutinizing every word and detail during the creative process, the creative process is killed.”

To some of his backers, this all sounds pretty thin. “He should have told people if things had not gone according to plan,” says Hendrik Morkel, 31, a Finnish wilderness guide and author who donated $25 to Badenoch and has used Kickstarter to produce his own online series about ultralight gear. “Sometimes that’s how expeditions go.”

Explorers have been soliciting financial backing since Columbus first begged boats off of Queen Isabella. Companies like Eddie Bauer, the North Face, and Rolex have been the primary backers since the mid-20th century, but social media have provided an additional option: the public. With Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, adventurers can create a pitch with an embedded video, spread the word on Facebook, and watch the money roll (or, more often, trickle) in. The company has provided a funding platform for about 75 expeditions, though it’s important to note that the backers didn’t pay for those trips per se. When funders drop cash on an expedition, they’re funding what Kickstarter calls the “creative work” that will result—usually a film or book—and the best ideas with the most enthusiasm behind them usually win. But crowdfunding isn’t venture capitalism. Apart from rewards like getting your name in a documentary’s credits or, say, receiving artifacts collected during an expedition, there is no return on investment. Pitchmen have little responsibility to their funders, which opens the door for overpromising—or worse.

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