OUYA's millions: Kickstarter and the lure of the rumor-mill

It may not be Pebble's $10m, but with OUYA's $8m Kickstarter has its newest standard-bearer, and around sixty thousand sets of eyes turn to the mailbox for the promised early-2013 deliveries. It's a surprising degree of patience – however ill-suffered – considering the short-shrift we give most products, software updates or even just the regular postal service if they dare to make us wait. Immediate gratification is arguably at odds with today's trends, but there's another angle that makes Kickstarter so appealing: it's the rumor-mill we can buy into.

Kickstarter isn't a regular store: you're not "pre-ordering" products, you're backing a project in the hope it will succeed and, since those behind the project itself would like to encourage and thank you, you usually get a free whatever-you-backed if it makes it to production. That's a differentiator many have forgotten amid the hype, the countdown of limited backer positions, and the glossy renders. Unfortunately, unlike a failed Amazon order, there's no refund should your Kickstarter project of choice slump before the production lines start churning.

But even with all those risks, Kickstarter remains popular. The handful of backers putting up low-figure pledges with no real freebie in return implies some cohort of people made up in part by those with altruistic "support the little guy" motivations, but for many it seems the allure of getting in at not just ground level but when a project is still practically underground proves irresistible.

Over the past years there's been a growing appetite for rumors and leaks, to the point where hearing about a product or service before those responsible for it would like you to know is considered arguably more interesting than post-unveil. Magnitude of speculation has become the new metric for defining company success: rather than just raw sales, which we probably won't hear about in detail until months after launch, it's a sign of mental stickiness among consumers and early-adopters. Samsung had therefore "made it" when the hype building up to the Galaxy S III began to resemble that in advance of a new iPhone.

[aquote]It's like Tim Cook invited you into the Apple backroom and asked for your feedback[/aquote]

Kickstarter plays on that anticipation, and even allows you to buy into it – rather than having to wait for Apple, or Samsung, or whichever mainstream company puts its products onto store shelves. For the cost of a pledge you're an early-adopter, and you even get a say in the development of the product. It's like Tim Cook and Jony Ive invited you into the Cupertino backroom and asked for your feedback on the latest iOS gadget; you can't give Apple a hundred bucks if you like the sound of an iPhone nano and want them to make it, but you can feel that degree of control with a credit card and Kickstarter.

Of course, many Kickstarter projects fail – even if they're fully funded – often because they're too ambitious or too naive. Traditional product development filters through dozens of risk-assessments, mangers, and customer research teams, the rough edges (and some of the ingenuous charm) buffed away in the process. On Kickstarter, however, it's easy to over-promise, either intentionally or accidentally, and under-deliver, especially when outside-the-box thinking is what's likely to get attention for your project in the first place.

OUYA has $8m and it wanted less than $1m; humble project beginnings gave way to hype and Android enthusiasm. It also has a huge list of people counting on it to be The Next Big Thing in gaming, and 7-8 months to deliver all it promised. Whether it will achieve that is yet to be seen; what's certain is that the glossy launch has now given way to the mundanities of bringing a product to a fast-paced and difficult marketplace, one where aftersales support and product stability are key. The appeal of the start-up only lasts as long as the Kickstarter pledge payment leaves your account.