How one of the most successful campaigns in Kickstarter’s history left its backers high and dry
Disclaimer: I’m not usually one to publicly put companies on blast, but it felt like there were some worthwhile learnings here. Plus, I was pretty annoyed.
I still have my iPod Photo. Doesn’t ring a bell? It was the first iPod with a color display, and one of the first with a click wheel. It had no camera. Instead, Apple hoped we would find the postage-stamp-sized screen suitable for showing off our vacation slides. All that aside, this device was from an era when Apple packed in all sorts of accessories with their products. This one came with two cases (yes, two), cable and charger, and most importantly, a dock.
I loved the dock. Something about propping the thing up at a dignified angle while it played tunes and gently sucked electricity offered a decadently luxe experience.
The Great Aluminum Hope
When Elevation Dock made the Kickstarter scene, I backed it immediately. It was perfect. It’s heavy, aluminum chassis and “low-friction” connector promised smooth “one handed” undocking. It’s unibody machining and glass bead finish matched Apple’s aesthetic perfectly. The “Dock+” model (a $26 step up from the standard dock) even had direct audio line-out, which promised higher quality audio than was available through the phone’s headphone jack.
I bought two.
The Cupertino Switch-Up
Kickstarting a thing is not like buying a thing. One must be prepared to wait, and age, and wait, and become frustrated, and wait, and realize they’re probably doing their best, and wait, and become frustrated again, and there’s always the chance that the product (or the maker) could be a dud. Kickstarter recently addressed this (see: Kickstarter Is Not A Store) by outlining “new hardware and product design project guidelines” requiring hardware creators to speak plainly about “risks and challenges” associated with their venture.
Months passed, and when my Dock+’s finally arrived, it was only a short time before Apple announced that their new iGadgets would drop the 30-pin Dock Connector cable format in favor of a sleeker, smaller Lightning Cable.
There was a panic on the Elevation Kickstarter page. We’d paid so much and waited so long, what would happen to our docks? Were they about to become $80 unibody paperweights? Elevation Labs assured us they were way out ahead of the problem and that we’d be taken care of.
And so we waited.
Wait.. This Is Your Big Plan?
Months later, the details finally emerged: In order to use your Elevation Dock with an iPhone 5, you’d need to remove all of the electronics and replace it’s built-in “low friction” dock connector with a metal bracket designed to hold the tip of a regular Apple Lightning cable in place — you supply the cable.
The bracket would cost $15 (plus $5 shipping) from Elevation Labs.
Lightning Cables go for $19 from Apple. If you’re keeping score, that means I was paying $65 extra per dock to end up without either the low friction connector or the audio line out.
Elevation Labs was careful never to mention what their plan meant to the product’s initial promises: specifically that they weren’t being kept. The fundamental and beautifully simple core value proposition of the product was kaput.
If you’re keeping score, that means I was paying $65 extra per dock to end up without either the low friction connector or the audio line out.
Yes, we all understand that backing a small business on Kickstarter is a gamble. The companies are young and the products are (usually) preproduction. Plenty can go wrong, and when things do go pear-shaped, there’s an opportunity for everyone involved to learn a few things.
Here’s How It Should Have Ended
I won’t be shy here: It should have gone differently. While I don’t have any direct insight into Elevation’s finances or into the costs and challenges associated with the ideas I’m about to outline, it’s hard to not armchair quarterback this one. Maybe my own financial investment (I did, after all, pay double without ever getting what I was promised) has earned me that right.
Elevation Labs were deliberately vague about the “solution” they were working on. This vagueness only added to the panic, and to the feeling that the buck was being passed on to us, the backers. Many felt as good as lied to. Omitting the more unpleasant truths of the Lightning bracket plan just felt disrespectful.
Fix It For Free
I’m sure anyone at Elevation Labs would tell you they’d have loved to be able to do this, but it was just a financial impossibility. Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps this extraordinary situation called for extraordinary financial finagling. We’re living in an age of consumer optimism and a debacle like this can cost a company everything. Doing great things for your customers is one way to build a lasting relationship.
Perhaps all free everything isn’t a very feasible suggestion. But, especially screwed were purchasers of the pricier “Dock+” model who paid an additional $26 for the audio line out feature. At the very least, those backers should have gotten free Lightning brackets (bear in mind they’d still need to purchase Lightning Cables). That didn’t happen though, and I really think it could have.
Work With Apple
Apple now requires a company to be licensed to manufacture connectors. This is likely part of the reason Elevation didn’t make new connectors themselves. But how hard is it to get licensed? Plenty of companies have pulled it off, even those making docks on Kickstarter. This strategy may have saved the “low-friction” feature, the audio line out feature, and maybe even the swappable cable feature (although there may be wattage issues), but it’s not the path Elevation took.
$5 to ship that tiny adapter? There isn’t a chance in hell that’s what the shipping actually cost, so this can be seen as a tiny little scheme to eek a few extra pennies from an already screwed-over customer base. Elevation should have paid for shipping, instead they overcharged.
Elevation Labs were put in a terrible situation. I’m sure they had a few really scary weeks because of it. This isn’t meant to be a diatribe about what terrible dudes they are (I didn’t even mention that both of my docks arrived defective and I had to be sent replacement cables and circuit boards on two different occasions). Nonetheless, the handling of this situation left so much to be desired I felt the need to complain in a public way. It’s a shame. The thing is still beautiful.