High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > Rejected by Kickstarter's secret rules

Rejected by Kickstarter's secret rules

Updated May 11, 2013: I now believe that our rejection was a mistake and that Kickstarter has made a number of changes designed to improve things. I am not longer angry at Kickstarter. If my wife and I were to try another crowd funded project, I would likely head to Kickstarter first, and I would do so with no reservations. My extended thoughts, including why my attitude has changed are below the original article.

(Originally written March 11, 2012.)

My wife Eva spent the winter developing a stuffed animal pattern. She started with nothing but a vision. She tapped into her training and years of experience as a costume designer and seamstress to do the development. She sketched out flat pieces, then assembled toy after toy, doing constant refinements to get exactly the look she wanted. Eva has high standards for her own work, leading to many frustrated nights when a nose didn't quite curve correctly, a leg didn't stand up just right, and more. When it was done, there were more hours of drafting instructions, creating diagrams, editing, soliciting and incorporating feedback, all to create a pattern for as many people as possible. We didn't track how long development took, but it was certainly more than 100 hours.

As the pattern got close to completion, Eva prepared to share it with the world. She wanted to sell physical patterns, ones that met her own high standards, something she could be proud of. This would necessitate some initial investment. This is the point at which I started assisting, doing budgeting, researching shipping, planning fulfillment. We wanted to take pre-orders, giving us the money for production in advance and allowing us to scale our initial production run to the number of interested people. With enough pre-orders, we could escape high cost print-on-demand for a more reasonable larger print run. This sounded like a perfect fit for Kickstarter.

We're not new to Kickstarter. We're both fans, each of having funded multiple projects. We carefully read and reread Kickstarter's guidelines. We considered similar projects, including other projects to publish patterns (Christine Haynes, Julia Sherman, Green Bee), and projects to create stuffed toys (geek, Puppycow, DNA). While we couldn't find a project funding a pattern for a stuffed animal, it seems like a perfect fit for Kickstarter.

Kickstarter disagreed. Worse, Kickstarter won't tell us why.

Kickstarter's rejection message:

Thank you for taking the time to share your idea. Unfortunately, this isn't the right fit for Kickstarter. We receive many project proposals daily and review them all with great care and appreciation. We see a wide variety of inspiring ideas, and while we value each one's uniqueness and creativity, Kickstarter is not the right platform for all of them. We wish you the best of luck as you continue to pursue your endeavor.

"This isn't the right fit for Kickstarter." Why isn't it? We have no idea. We think we're a perfect fit. What was wrong? Eva wrote back:

I'm sad to hear that my project is not a good fit for Kickstarter. Could you give me an idea of why so that if I submit another project at some point in the future I know what to avoid? (I read through the guidelines and I'm not sure what I did wrong.)

Kickstarter replied a few days later:

Thanks for reaching out. Appreciate you taking the time to share your idea. Kickstarter is primarily focused on creative arts projects -- look around the site and you'll see what I mean. I understand what you're looking to do here, but it isn't what we're focused on.

Thank you again for your interest, though!

I have to believe there was a failure of communication, because if this person "understood what [we]'re looking to do" and reviewed it "with great care and appreciation," then this is incredible insulting.

"Kickstarter is primarily focused on creative arts projects...." What can this mean besides, "Your project is not creative?" After all of Eva's work, going from nothing to something, this is a slap in the face. How could this be anything other than a creative art project?

"...look around the site and you'll see what I mean." Now we're accused of either being lazy, or already knowing why we aren't a good fit. Before submitting our proposal, we pored over the Kickstarter site like a job applicant searching a potential employer's site looking for clues as to how best tune their cover letter. We clearly do not see what the Kickstarter staff member means.

Eva sent in one more plea, that began like so:

I'm sorry if I'm misunderstanding you. I'm a long time Kickstarter user and I did quite a bit of searching before I submitted anything. I'm still at a loss as to what went wrong. I'm not questioning your decision. Obviously you know what kinds of projects are appropriate on Kickstarter and what kinds are not. I'm trying to understand what I did wrong so that if I have ideas in the future I won't waste your time and resources. :(

Is the problem that I'm producing a pattern rather than a book on how to sew plush toys or a set of plush toys mass-produced in China? Is the problem that you don't feel my project required artistic input or significant craftsmanship to design / draft / write / etc.? Should I have come to you earlier in the process so backers could follow as I worked on the pattern (my husband suggested that this might be a problem)?

This is what we're reduced to, taking wild guesses as to what unspoken rule we broke, what unposted border we accidentally crossed. Eva posted the above query more than a month ago. We've heard nothing since. Presumably Kickstarter has decided we're a waste of time, either actively malicious, or simply too stupid to bother with.

Maybe my wife's project isn't a good fit for Kickstarter. But we sincerely believed them when they said, they "help people (like you!) fund creative projects." We still think our project fit the letter and spirit of Kickstarter's guidelines. Apparently they don't really mean people like us, and we don't know why.

This entire endeavor has been frustrating and depressing. I had higher expectations of Kickstarter. I'm incredibly disappointed in Kickstarter. And I'm disappointed in myself. Like any other large, modern corporation, I shouldn't have relied on Kickstarter. No matter how carefully you research and ensure that you fit within the guidelines, you may be rejected. Given this, Eva and I are hesitant to go back to Kickstarter with future projects.

May 11, 2013 update

Over the last year I remained bitter at Kickstarter. This wasn't a wound time was healing. I think the problem is that I liked Kickstarter too much. When my internet provider, or my cell phone carrier, or an airline treat me poorly, well, I expected as much. But Kickstarter is supporting so much great stuff. When they say "We help people (like you!) fund creative projects," I took it to heart.

This probably was and remains foolish of me. It's the 21st century, and one should probably assume that every company you do business with will eventually abuse you. Make sure you get what you want out of each transaction, don't become bound to the company, and certainly don't become emotionally attached to a company.

So, I love Kickstarter. That made the rejection and the poor responses from the reviewer sting in a way that the general incompetence of, say AT&T doesn't. It meant every joke project stung, even if I liked the joke.

Another 21st century lesson is that if you feel ill used by company, complain loudly, and in public. There are a variety of good reasons to do so, but one is that you frequently have no other way to get a response. I certainly felt that our options with Kickstarter had been cut off. Kickstarter did wrong by us and I had no other way to encourage them to change. They seemed to me a typical 21st century internet company: useful, but utterly uninterested in customer service. So I wrote the above complaint.

So what did I want? We genuinely wanted to know why our project had been rejected. We're adults, we can handle rejection. But not knowing why we were rejected, and receiving vague implications that we should know why we were rejected, that stung. I didn't know if we'd crossed some rule we misunderstood, if we had just failed to clearly convey our intentions, if we happened to receive a reviewer who didn't appreciate the creative effort in creating a new sewing pattern, or something else.

So it's a bit more than a year later. Every month or so something would pop up that stoked my frustration and I'd post a link to this article. So I tweeted a link and a grumble at someone. This person suggested I contact Cindy Au, Kickstarter's Head of Community. Au preemptively reached out to contact me. We exchanged a few quick messages, then she sent me a long message. It's a good message, and with her kind permission here it is, slightly trimmed:

Hi Alan,

First of all I just want to apologize on behalf of everyone here for the poor experience your wife had when submitting her project to us. I found her project submission and really think it would have been a fantastic project. Her project is very much in the creative spirit of what we value at Kickstarter, and looking over the conversation I honestly think we made a mistake. The responses your wife received fell very short of the support we try to provide our community.

Reviewing projects is something we take very seriously as we know how much time and effort so many people put into bringing their ideas to us. It's a privilege for us to get to see so much creativity and it's crushing any time we make a mistake.

Our review process is something we've been working hard on improving, and one major change we've made in the time since your wife submitted to us is that you can now build your project page before submitting it. This helps us see much more clearly what a project's goals are, and gives creators more structure and guidance as they sculpt their ideas into a Kickstarter project.

We've also worked hard to build a new team of Project Specialists who come from within the various creative communities we support. A game designer reviews game projects, a filmmaker reviews film projects, a poet and writer reviews publishing projects, and so forth. Their role is to not only review projects, but to help our community understand our guidelines and provide guidance and support every step of the way.

I can't go back and undo the mistake we made, but please know that we're doing everything we can to prevent mistakes like this in the future. If there's anything I can ever do to help with future projects, please reach out any time.


(In another message, she noted "Something to keep in mind as well is that our Project Specialists and Support team can always be reached from the Help/Contact link on Kickstarter.")

This may be the single best moment in customer service I have ever experienced. Obviously I'm happy to be told that my wife's project was a good fit and the rejection was a mistake. But more important was hearing an admission that the responses my wife received weren't what they should have been. I like to think that if Au had explained in equally polite terms why our project was a poor fit for Kickstarter, I would have been as satisfied, but absent a parallel universe to test the theory on, I can't know.

I really appreciated the discussion of how they're working to improve the review process in a variety of ways. I've actually seen evidence of this when Luke Crane, an RPG developer I respect, was hired to be the Games Project Specialist. I don't know if building a project page in advance would have helped our case, but I like the thought. The old system asked questions that roughly, but not quite, mapped to elements on a project page. We did our best with it, but there certainly was a fear that we failed to convey our intent.

I believe Au's message to me is considered and sincere. I believe Kickstarter today is better than the Kickstarter of a year ago. So I no longer have anything against Kickstarter. If my wife or I decide to pursue crowdfunding for another project in the future, I'll prefer to use Kickstarter.

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