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June 30, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:35am

iFind’s lesson in how not to run a Kickstarter campaign

What we learned from the collapse of $550,000 crowdfunding.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Kickstarter is a place for optimists. The crowdfunding website relies on those with a "can do" attitude to stake their money on ideas ranging from the barmy to the brilliant. But the very nature of the website also makes it vulnerable to fraudsters looking to take the money from the credulous and run, and so the site’s creators have to remain vigilant in order to protect its reputation.

That in mind, the collapse of WeTag’s $550,000 campaign for their battery-less tracking system iFind makes for an interesting study in crowdfunding. On the morning of June 26 backers of the project were greeted with a message from Kickstarter suspending the campaign, assuring it would return all the money that had been donated to the prospective customers.

The crowdfunding site accused WeTag of pledging money to its own project, misleading potential backers in the product’s description, and providing inaccurate information to the site itself. "We only suspend projects when we find strong evidence that they are misrepresenting themselves or otherwise violating the letter or spirit of Kickstarter’s rules," Kickstarter said, refusing to comment on the subject further.

It is a decision that seemingly confirms the suspicions of an assembled online mob, alongside several tech sites that publicised allegations the project was a scam. These included ExtremeTech, who described it as "a slow-motion bank robbery". A Google document put together by the mob hailed the decision as "Science: 1, Scammers: 0", adding that everyone could now get back to the World Cup.

WeTag claimed their product would be "the world’s first Bluetooth item locator that requires no battery", instead drawing energy from a "power bank" charged through electromagnetic harvesting, drawing power from radio waves. Previous attempts to harvest ambient energy have met with some success, but only on products not requiring much power, such as radio sets from about a century ago.

When prompted for evidence that they could provide this sort of technology, the company posted a number of sketchy drafts, claiming that it could not be more forthcoming with the details due to fears of rivals pinching their ideas. No records could be found of patents said to be pending approval on either side of the Atlantic, adding to fears the project was illegitimate.

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According to the critics, the specs posted by WeTag were impossible, with the company taking further flack over an implausible demonstration video. The lack of independent verification was also raised as an issue, with some saying the firm should have obtained it before it started the fundraising. "In hindsight it would have been an excellent idea," said a spokesman for the firm. "But the testing has to be performed on pre-production parts to be certified."

WeTag claims that many of the tech specs associated with its product were misunderstood by the critics – though it is unlikely it would say otherwise. According to the firm many are confused about what frequency range the tag works on, as well as mistakenly believing the tag runs in "real time" on harvested energy – in reality it would run via the power bank mentioned earlier.

Much of this mess can be attributed to the hastily assembled briefs the company issued. "The tech briefs were prepared in a very short time and cannot be very comprehensive," the spokesman said. "It takes days to measure different scenarios, and we really cannot cover all interested cases to be measured one by one."

Most of the time the iFind tag would be in sleep mode, draining little power but still being primed for use. Energy stored in the power bank would "sustain the tag for weeks in a hypothetical environment with no radio energy to harvest". In places where there was radio energy to capture it would be converted into a current used to charge the bank, then "used to ‘simulate’ a battery".

What "simulate" means is not entirely clear. Nobody outside the company has been able to demonstrate the product will work, though they planned to get certification before entering the market. Had they been able to show off this prototype, even to an independent journalist, chances are the campaign would have been successful.

WeTag insists that its internal experiments verified the product can work, and has promised it will start selling the product at a later date. Kickstarter has managed to salvage its reputation by cutting off the project, but the negative coverage has done what may prove to be irreparable damage to WeTag’s image, perhaps unjustly.

Should the product ever resurface it will have a struggle on its hands – but maybe in time the cynics will be eating their words. But the story serves as a cautionary tale of what an irate group of internet dwellers can do to your product if you fail to meet their exacting standards of evidence. If you want to pitch your product, you had better provide proof it works.

 

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