The highest-earning Kickstarter campaign of all time, the Pebble e-ink smartwatch, landed an exclusive deal last week with Best Buy to get the device to new consumers starting July 7. Upon hearing the news, I promptly cancelled my order.
I pre-ordered a Pebble in June of 2012 shortly after its Kickstarter had netted the tiny team over $10 million, primarily because I felt it would be more ethical as someone who might eventually write about the Pebble to refrain from backing the project. I waited a year for the moment when the company said my device would ship (May 2013), and then when it still didn't two months later, the Best Buy news was a punch in the gut. So much so that I decided the company had lost my business, no matter how much time and money had since become sunk costs to me.
To make matters worse, not even all of the original backers of the Kickstarter have received their Pebbles, reportedly due to manufacturing issues depending on the color of the selected model. The only solution to get the elusive smartwatch on time: cancel your order and funnel the refund money to Best Buy.
That was until the watches, which were available for purchase via bestbuy.com during a five-day pre-order period following the announcement, sold out.
Leaving Backers Behind
Pebble's move was aimed at getting the watches out in the wild, Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky told The Consumerist last week. Migicovsky also said that only black Pebbles are available at Best Buy and that all Kickstarter backers had already received their units if they selected black as their preferred color.
However, that appears to be false, and some angry backers are voicing their concerns on the Kickstarter page to prove it. But despite Migicovsky's explanation and what is likely a small slice of backers that may have fallen through the cracks, Pebble drew a line in the sand over its intentions as a company with the Best Buy deal, basically saying, "We don't care who we have to spurn on our path to becoming a legitimate business."
It's a move that raises concerns of the future of Kickstarter hardware projects that are being similiarly echoed amid the missteps of other successful hardware campaigns like the Ouya, the $99 Android gaming console that ranks as number two on the highest-earning campaign to date on the crowdfunding site.
Both the Ouya and Pebble are fantastic ideas that blew up beyond imagination only to be marred by an inability to scale. And when it came down to the moment when both the teams behind the Ouya and the Pebble realized they were way off schedule, both companies decided to dive into retail anyway, furious Kickstarter backers be damned.
The actions on display here raise an interesting question about the most ethical way to use Kickstarter. Are these campaigns a way to build something collectively? Or in the case of hardware, where so many complicated facets of the business must be built from the ground up, is Kickstarter just a way to ensure demand and whip up interest before a project can make the jump to full-fledged startup?
For Pebble, it's clear that it's the latter, and no amount of backer dedication could keep it from leaving its Kickstarter shell in the dust.
The Pebble Timeline: A Lesson In Patience
I pre-ordered my Pebble, in white, on June 6, 2012. Then I waited … for six months. On January 9, 2013, I was told to confirm my payment of $150, which I did.
I assumed this was because the small company, now practically living out of Taipei to scale its production up to meet the 85,000-unit demand it generated through Kickstarter, was preparing to finally announce a long-awaited ship date. I was right.
On January 9, Migicovsky announced that the device would begin shipping to Kickstarter backers on January 23. For those of us who pre-ordered, it was projected that we would get our Pebbles sometime in May.
That seemed reasonable, and so I continued to wait. When May rolled around and I didn't receive an update, I begin investigating and learned that the Kickstarter shipments, as well as the manufacturing hurdles involved with producing the wide array of colors the company was now promising, had extended the wait time for pre-order customers and especially so for those who selected white.
Late May came and went. Then June came and went.
On July 2, without ever having received an update on my white Pebble or the online shipping timeline I had hopelessly checked throughout the previous two months (it still said late May), the company announced its Best Buy deal.
Why I Cancelled My Order
Why didn't I simply jump at the opportunity to pre-order a Pebble through Best Buy and get it as soon as this week? After all, color wasn't a huge issue (from white to black in my case), and it would still mean that I was getting the first fully realized smartwatch before any real competitors hit the market.
Simply put, I ordered a Pebble from the manufacturer directly because I believed in the product, and that belief was shattered. The decision to let Best Buy begin selling directly to anyone and everyone not only split open the already fraying relationship Pebble had with its tens of thousands of customers, it defeated the entire purpose of being an early adopter of its smartwatch.
True, I wasn't one of the Kickstarter backers. I don't have anywhere near thereason to be as angry as the project's still watchless backers following a wait of more than a year. Still, I felt betrayed. The feeling is one being shared by many in the comments section of the Kickstarter page.
"I'm writing once again to ask for a full refund on my pledge," wrote backer Sally Crispo last week. "I, like many others, have been extremely patient with your process and I just my money back now. It's also insult to injury that Pebble is going on sale at Best Buy this weekend."
"I am gutted that not only has my white still not arrived—I had almost forgotten about it—now you are boasting of your deal with Best Buy," wrote Graham Bishop.
For those who have waited months for their Pebble, it almost makes more sense now to simply get your money back (if you're not stuck as a Kickstarter backer) and wait for competitors' offerings to do a full comparison. After all, Apple and a slew of other companies will be delivering on the smartwatch rumors soon enough.
While Pebble rose to fame by being one of the first and best-looking of this new breed of hardware, it completely dropped the ball when it came to delivering, and rubbed salt in the wound by spurning its backers for a Best Buy deal.
Furthermore, anyone who had a developed a unique relationship with the product by pledging and seeing it grow has reason to feel exploited. No amount of cool features or new colors can erase that.