Meet the Kickstarter crusader

Crowdfunding can be risky but backers like Martin Calsyn ask the tough questions
Meet the Kickstarter crusader

Martin Calsyn isn't a vigilante, he isn't Kickstarter police and he doesn't want to be responsible for other people's money or happiness.

That said, you'd probably thank him if he popped up in the comments of a wearable tech project you're thinking of backing. The senior software engineer, who works for Microsoft and splits his time between Barcelona and Romania, is a wearables and crowdfunding fan who joined Kickstarter in July 2011. He's backed ten projects and left 148 comments to date.

"There's two things I'm really passionate about right now," Calsyn told Wareable. "One is crowdfunding and the other is wearable technology. Both of them are very subject to reputational damage. So I care about the projects that are up there on Kickstarter and the quality of them because bad projects and non delivering projects hurt the whole crowdfunding scene.

"Here's the problem - Kickstarter is not a store. You don't go there to buy things and so the bar is a little different, the risk is a lot higher, you have to ask harder questions."

The Orsto Q2

On 9 June 2015 a company in the UK named Orsto launched its Q2 smartwatch on Kickstarter. The Q2 reward cost $100 for Very Early Bird backers, $128 for Early Birds, and came with a round display, gesture controls and a heart rate monitor. The campaign also referred to a selfie camera which was later confirmed, via an update, to be a £60,000 stretch goal. Wareable got the press release announcing the campaign and sent some questions to Orsto for clarification, intending to feature it.

Read this: Kickstarter hits six - does the platform still serve the little guy?

By 11 June, the Orsto Q2 campaign was cancelled despite having raised £10,654, over a third of its total goal of £30,000. Then details of an Orsto shop emerged and as we write, the Q2 is sold out in two of the three available colours. So what happened?

The short story is that a number of project backers publicly pointed out that the Q2 looked exactly like a smartwatch being made and sold in China for bargain prices, and that Orsto were promising an unrealistic 30 day timeframe for delivery of a smartwatch designed in the UK. Here's the long(ish) story.

"I read about Orsto on Google Plus," Calsyn told Wareable. "But having had previous experiences with overpromising wearables on Kickstarter, I initially backed it for £1. What £1 gets you is the ability to jump in on the comment stream, ask questions, talk to other backers and then you can always - before the campaign completes - raise that to one of the reward levels. So I hadn't decided whether this was the real deal."

Calsyn was curious about the technology and the low price so he simply stuck the processor name - Mediatek M2502 - into Google Search. He didn't only find what looked like the same spec'd smartwatch, he found the exact same images as on the Orsto Kickstarter campaign page, down to the time on the watchface.

"So I thought okay, there's still two reasonable possibilities here," he said. "One is the poor guy sent the stuff off to China and he's being ripped off, or he's buying an OEM watch. A couple of other people noticed the same thing so we asked Orsto how it compared."

What Calsyn means by an OEM watch is a device that is bought from the original equipment manufacturer (i.e. a budget smartwatch maker in China) and rebadged and resold in other markets. Orsto responded to these backer questions by initially pointing out that even the Apple Watch has sub-$50 copies made in China.

But after repeated pressing from Calsyn and other backers, Orsto included this explanation in a post: "However in the last couple of years we have seen so much copying that we changed tack and decided that we would concentrate on the functionality, usability and quality of products. What we do now is to use our experience of building prototypes from scratch, to source what we believe to possibly be attractive to the general public and what looks like a product that we could manipulate into an even better product.

"We then approach the real manufacturers of the casings, pcbs and other components, talk with them and discuss what we propose to do with their components to create what we consider to be the best device for the end user."

When a project isn't a project

There it was. That was all Calsyn had wanted to know about the manufacturing of the watch and he got his answer on the second day of the Kickstarter campaign. But the promise of a 30 day delivery for the modified smartwatch still bugged him.

"The campaign was due to end 24 July and watches were to be delivered in August," Calsyn told Wareable. "Unless you have a finished product in your hands and you've approved molds and all of the cuttings, you can barely even do the shipping and fulfilment in that much time.

"So there were these two claims - we're doing all these wonderful things which any construction of a critical-path to delivery wouldn't fit or we're reselling an OEM watch which is not legit, that's not what Kickstarter is for."

One of the options for reporting a project on Kickstarter is: not really being a project.

It didn't add up so he kept on asking questions. Things got a little heated and, at one point, Orsto advised the engineer to look at the creator's LinkedIn page as proof it could get the smartwatches out in time. Calsyn also upped his pledge to reward level after being criticised for being a £1 backer.

Kickstarter has its own strategies for minimising the number of non-genuine projects - for instance it doesn't allow 3D renders, creators must have images of real prototypes or products to share. It also allows users to report projects to Kickstarter's team. Eventually, Calsyn chose to report the Orsto Q2 smartwatch campaign to Kickstarter, the first time he had done so since joining in 2011.

"I reported the project to Kickstarter, not because I wanted to do something bad to the project but because Kickstarter has a much more effective process for determining whether someone is reselling or not reselling. I figured they would be a fair arbiter of whether this fit the rules or not. Basically one of the options for reporting a project on Kickstarter is: not really being a project. It's not a creative endeavour, it's not sufficiently adding something, it's not a creative project. And that's what I filed it under and I said - I think this is just a resale effort."

Orsto cancelled the campaign later that day and within the week was selling its smartwatches on its online shop with discount codes for Kickstarter backers. Calsyn might even buy one.

"I posted a final note up there saying congratulations," he said. "More power to them, I wish them all the luck. I think this is a much better fit than a Kickstarter-type project. And in the end I might actually buy from them. Because the funny thing is if you compare the price they're selling the core at to what everybody else is and you factor in the inevitable import and customs fees, they're very competitive."

We asked Orsto for its version of events and Gary Bunn, an external PR exec representing the company sent us a summary. "Orsto have in the past been the target of online 'trolling' from a particular individual and not too long after launching the campaign the same person appeared true to form," he said. "There was quite a lot of direct targeting of backers unfortunately, which Orsto have been collecting details of.

"However that's only part of the decision to pull the campaign," he continued. "On the main problem, they needed to show renders on the Kickstarter campaign as the design mods were the main reason for the campaign in the first place. Kickstarter refused to allow this as renders are prohibited. When this was known, the contribution to cancellation ratio had hit 1:1 and looked more likely to start going backwards.

"That would have been terrible for the brand and the product so they pulled the campaign rather than fuel rumours of the campaign being a scam or anything as damaging."

As it turned out, sales appear to doing well for Orsto outside of Kickstarter. We don't know if Orsto is referring to Martin Calsyn or another vocal backer here in terms of the 'trolling' but the backer said he was subject to "ad hominem" attacks from the project creators. The whole exchange is still out in the open and available to read in the comments section of the cancelled project.

Orsto was right about one thing, though; it wasn't Calsyn's first encounter with a problematic wearable tech Kickstarter.

The Epic Watch

"I've yet to have a success story with a wearable, with a watch," said Calsyn, laughing. "I know there are some, I didn't jump in on Pebble. They just don't coincide with the ones I've backed."

Calsyn backed the Epic Watch project for $1 in 2014 because he thought it would be a "neat product" but had similar concerns to the Orsto Q2 - whether this was really a new smartwatch build and how to make sense of an unrealistic timeline. The campaign was ultimately cancelled in October after a number of red flags were raised by a very small number of backers - the low $300 target, a simultaneous campaign on Indiegogo, confusion over the OS the smartwatch would run.

Read this: The worst Kickstarter campaign ever just came to an end

Calsyn posted ideas and comments to help improve both the campaign and the actual device - from suggesting the creators post more specs to advising that they hire a graphic designer to look at the UI and fonts. Team Epic responded by thanking Martin and other backers and asking more questions. According to an update, the team regrouped, joined an IBM scheme and were working towards launching another campaign that has yet to materialise.

"That one I think was doomed. I really think that project never probably would have delivered, as much as I would have wanted it to," said Calsyn. "My personal opinion was that it was a clumsy campaign. The difficulty was I think it was basically an OEM watch. You could search for images of the watch using Google Image Search, I believe for that one we were able to spot other watches.

"That combined with some over promise in the campaign and some technical handwaving that we could never nail down - when I say 'we' I mean the backers as a community - eventually they cancelled the project."

Wareable contacted Kickstarter to ask the crowdfunding site for its thoughts on projects like Orsto, Epic Watch and Agent and backers reporting rogue creators. "Our Integrity team looks at all the reports we receive from our community," David Gallagher, a Kickstarter spokesperson told us. "These reports are incredibly important and help us make sure Kickstarter is the safest, most effective platform around. We're privileged to have a community that cares so much about keeping the system healthy."

Agent: The world's smartest watch

The first wearable tech Kickstarter that Martin Calsyn ever backed was the Agent watch. It was his reason for getting involved with Kickstarter, the project creator Chris Walker had worked with his friends in the past, ran online stores and already proven he could create and ship tech. It seemed like a prudent investment.

"Never underestimate the ability of somebody to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Calsyn said. "The comment stream is really awful, the project's in a bad state."

The Agent smartwatch, by Secret Labs and House of Horology, is not the best advert for crowdfunding. The original shipping date was set for December 2013 after the campaign raised over $1 million and, two years later, 5,685 backers are still empty handed. There are over 10,300 comments on the campaign page - many, as Calsyn says, "with the pitchforks out" and complaining that a version 2 of the watch has been promised before they've received version 1.

"Instead of walking away from those guys," said Calsyn. "I actually doubled down and offered to help out - I'm a software engineer and a project manager by trade.

"I got involved in some of the conference calls and so forth between the designer and the guy who was running the project. The problems were much deeper than technical issues. My personal opinion was that the problems were all centred around project management. I don't think the creator ever set out to cheat anybody. If he was overpromising, he didn't realise it. That falls into one category of well meaning folks who just couldn't close escrow and deliver."

It's not Dragon's Den

Is Martin Calsyn an informed investor? A troublemaker? A jinx? First and foremost, he asks the hard questions to protect his past and future and investments. He wants to see the Kickstarter platform succeed.

"It's not Dragon's Den," he said. "There are not people there who know how to evaluate projects. But there's going to be a few like me that when there's a loose thread somewhere, we want to pull on it a little bit and see - is this a safe place to put my money? If somebody goes and searches for a processor or a Google image and they become a better informed backer, that's a great thing."

There's a few people like me who when we see a loose thread, we want to pull it.

Even Kickstarter's biggest success stories have trouble navigating big business and doing right by the little people who made them on crowdfunding sites. We reported this week that the Pebble Time is going on sale in Best Buy in the US and online in the rest of the world and some backers have let us know in the comments that they are still waiting for a shipment update. Risk reduction could be the key to crowdfunding's ultimate success - Calsyn suggests some sort of stamp of approval or assurance from third party companies that evaluate creators' claims, supply chains and backgrounds.

Martin Calsyn has had his fair share of grief on Kickstarter - the attacks from creators who don't like where his line of questioning is going, the removal of three of his comments by Kickstarter as he didn't realise he was breaking rules on posting creators' contact information. But as a wearable tech fan, he knows there's just as much chance of killer breakthroughs on crowdfunding sites as anywhere else.

"I think the world has not figured out what wearables are for or what socially constitutes a liveable wearable," he said. "I come to Kickstarter to try to find innovations in those spaces. Short of another iPhone-like breakthrough at Apple in terms of user experience, it's a pretty level playing field.

"I really do wish these guys well and I really do want them to succeed because somebody's got to figure out what this stuff is for."

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