Kickstarter talks to us about product 'pre-orders,' won't force refunds when creators flake

Kickstarter has proven an incredibly effective venue for connecting project creators with monetary support -- inventors pitch directly to consumers, indie filmmakers meet indie producers and food trucks get the financial push necessary to take their restaurants to the road. With the latter two, backers don't necessarily expect goods in return, save for an overvalued t-shirt, bumper sticker or film credit. When it comes to electronics, however, funders are often promised a first-off-the-line gadget -- one that may never arrive at their door.

One oft-overlooked, yet critical detail should help curb expectations, while also serving to filter out pledges that are motivated by the pre-order promise, from those that offer financial support without a guaranteed return. Like it or not, all transactions fall into that second category. Pre-order offers may go unfulfilled, and some pledges may be reduced to donations, if a project creator ends up unable to deliver an item as intended. And such situations may not prompt a refund, souring the experience for an increasing number of hopeful device owners. Join us past the break for an explanation from the Kickstarter team, and a closer look at some recent examples.

Some projects are a booming success. Take for example the Olloclip three-in-one lens for the iPhone 4/4S. This competitively priced optic boosts the iPhone camera's versatility, enabling creative effects with a pocketable accessory. The project received funding in excess of four times its $15,000 goal, went to the assembly line and made its way into our hands in a matter of weeks. Now, it's a major hit, eventually landing at the Apple Store. At the other end, there's projects like Mythic, a video game project quickly labeled as a scam and cancelled. The creators were forced to close up shop far shy of their $80,000 goal, helping to save face for the hosting site.

In the middle of the road, there's Eyez (formerly ZionEyez). This is the product (or eternal prototype, really) of a team that grossly underestimated production costs, then turned to venture capitalists for the final push. In this case, the creator, while legitimate, doesn't have the funds to issue refunds, and continues to charge forward with the now-educated goal of shipping its polished camera. We remain hopeful that Eyez will eventually arrive at consumers' doorsteps, though impatient backers are crying foul at every turn, demanding refunds that simply don't exist. Here's Kickstarter's fairly generic take, explaining the company's position and involvement when a self-proclaimed "pre-order" misses a deadline, and communication becomes spotty at best:

Most Kickstarter projects are funding something that doesn't exist yet, and rewards have to be made before they can be delivered. Creators list an estimated delivery date as their best guess for when that will happen. If delivery dates slip, creators are expected to keep backers in the loop through updates. Backers are generally understanding about setbacks if the creator is open about it.

If a creator isn't posting updates, backers should contact them, either by posting a public comment or sending a private message. In most cases, creators do respond to backers' inquiries. When we hear about a project that's stopped responding to backers we'll email the creator to try and wake them up. Beyond that, it's in the backers' hands to exert collective pressure. It's a creator's job to complete their project, satisfy backers, or refund backers' pledges.

In our three-year history, there have been more than 20,000 successfully funded projects supported by nearly two million people. The vast majority of backers and creators have had a great experience. But Kickstarter is a marketplace, and not every project will go smoothly.

Kickstarter doesn't issue refunds since transactions are between backers and creators, but we're prepared to work with backers as well as law enforcement in the prosecution of any fraudulent activity. Scammers are bad news for everyone, and we'll defend the goodwill of our community.

In summary, Kickstarter won't be taking responsibility for unsuccessful projects, whether that means forcing a creator to issue refunds, or even to respond to backers. You may label the hands-off approach as disappointing, or irresponsible, but despite the company's 5-percent cut (of successful projects), there's relatively little involvement beyond forcing out scammers and cutting checks. Customer service remains the responsibility of project creators -- and you may want to take that into account the next time you're tempted to blindly click the green pledge button on a microfunding project page.