How NOT to win friends and influence people on Kickstarter

As a newly minted small business owner that got his start on Kickstarter, every so often I look through Kickstarter to find worthy projects to back as a means to give back to the community. So, imagine my surprise and disgust when I came across this project, which hits just a bit too close to home:

Tangibot is a Makerbot knockoff, started by a Matthew Bailey Strong from Pleasant Grove, Utah. Matt is asking for a cool half million dollars (about 1.5x the value of the house he's living in *), to copy, nut for nut, bolt for bolt, the industry leading 3D Printer, a Makerbot Replicator, in China.

Matt should be honored, because, this is the first time I've made a (refundable) pledge to a project just so I can leave some comments. Actually, judging from the comments, others,  including MakeZine's Phillip Torrone, is doing so as well.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about not being a capitalist trying to make things for the lowest cost and not getting Open Source Hardware - let me get this out of the way. I understand that what Matt is doing is legal, within the scope of an OSS license. I am wondering out loud if he will get sued for trademark violation, as the names Makerbot and Replicator are trademarked, and he's using these terms quite heavily to peddle his knockoff.

I also, in no uncertain terms, think what he's doing is a complete douchebag move.

When I launched OpenBeam 5 months ago (my God, it's only been 5 months?) Rachel and I sat down and had a very long discussion about OSHW, and my decision to Open Source OpenBeam. I realized that even with a traditional business model of patents and patenting the design of the beam, it would be trivial for a kid in China with an optical comparator and an afternoon of his time to copy it.  And even with the best patents and lawyers, trying to enforce an infringement case is a lose-lose proposition.  So I made the project Open Source to speed the adaptation, and in doing so, committed myself to doing the best I can with the project; this project will reflect the best of my abilities, and I shall create something unique and useful, and add value to the open source ecosystem.  I've also committed myself to charge a fair price for the product, and to treat my dealers fairly.  When a piece of OpenBeam is sold, my dealers make about as much money as I do.

I also recognized that I will be entering a market competing with others, and I reached out (although never got an answer) to the Makerbeam folks, and in the case of MicroRAX, I sat down with the son of one of the MicroRAX principles and showed him what I was doing, before launching the kickstarter.  I didn't have to do it, but I recognize that MicroRAX is a small family business, and I wanted to do the honorable thing by reaching out and announcing my intentions.  And whenever possible, I've made sure my brackets are MicroRAX compartible.

Will OpenBeam be copied?  Maybe.  A good chunk of my time now is spent trying to figure out ways to ship to other continents cheaper.  I am in the process of getting quotes in China for a second extrusion die to support my European and Australian / New Zealand distributors - but I also understand that shipping costs and such might make spinning up a die on each continent more attractive.  And when that happens - when we are at a point where I cannot provide OpenBeam to these continents inexpensively enough, I will gladly support those who will pick up the torch and carry the project forward.  After all, they are serving a community that I cannot adequately serve.  All I ask is that they come talk to me and we work together as best as we can to make sure product quality isn't compromised.

These are the risks that I knew about and assumed when I decided to open source OpenBeam.  My hope is that when the time comes,  my competitor will be honorable and that we compete on merit and technical skills, so that we can all add value to the ecosystem instead of trying to go for downward race to the bottom on price.  The problem with a downward race to the bottom is that no value is really created - we just end up undercutting each other, and pretty soon we have to make unethical decisions to keep racing.   Environmental protection gets ignored, labor laws gets violated, etc.

In closing, this is why I think knocking off Makerbot on Kickstarter is a douchebag move:

1)  Kickstarter is about "funding creativity".  As many have pointed out, copying something nut for nut is not *creative*.  I don't know who was asleep at the wheel and let this one through the Kickstarter approval process, when plenty of worthy projects get rejected.

2)  Copying and offering the product for a reduced price by moving the production overseas is not generating value.  As a design engineer, I care about the people who build my product.   As an open source company, I care about giving back to the ecosystem.   And believe it or not, as an honorable (and maybe bad) business person in a niche market like ours, I care about my competitors well being.  Moving production overseas, presumably pocketing the difference in cost, and at the same time waging a price war against the industry leader in a niche industry - who had done so much for the industry and bringing it to the masses, is just a purely douche move.  And asking the world to chip in half a million dollars for you to do this just makes you that much more of a douche.

3)  For the insanely large sum of money - so much so that someone even speculated that he didn't want to see the project succeed, there is NO transparency at all.  I mean, let's look at it this way:  A top of the line Epilog laser cutter is about $30k.  Matt here has no qualms shipping jobs overseas, so the injection molder is likely Chinese.  All the tools for the plastic pieces on a Makerbot Replicator can't be more than $10k, 15k tops.  Rough back of my head educated guess for a Makerbot's BOM cost is $500.00 per unit - and that's being fairly generous.  A Chinese shop can easily pump out parts cheaper than that.

$500 per unit x 400 units to get the magical price break + $30k for a nice Epilog + 15k for tools = $245k.  So, where does the extra quarter million dollars go towards?  I mean, that's a lot of money.

4)  Good manufacturing comes from good design.  In the industry, we call this "Design for Manufacturing".  Makerbots are a decent machine, but let's be frank, a well tuned raprap can beat it fairly handily.   There is only so much you *can* do with lasercut parts to eek out the part's accuracy.  You want to impress me with a good design?  Start CNC routing the wood, for one.  Or, don't use wood, which can contract and expand depending on temperature and humidity.  (And, hey, while you are at it, I know a guy that came up with a pretty decent aluminium extrusion system.  At least it's more dimensionally stable...).   The point is, by copying the design bit by bit, he is fundamentally limited by the design limitations set forth by the original Makerbot designers.  NO amount of process control or quality control can fix that.

Judging from the comments on the project, he is unlikely to get any decent press on this, and at the current rate he's trending towards $100k at best.  One thing for sure, a lot of people will be watching this one with great interest.



*  It's been pointed out to me in the comments below that comparing the dollars asked for to the value of Mr. Strong's house is a bit of a douche move on my part.  Okay, I'll give you that.  I apologize.

Let me rephrase the comparison in the following way:  He is asking for about 5-6x the annual salary of a mid to high level design engineer. To implement the suggestions listed here, or on his comment page, will take a competant design engineer maybe 3-4 days at most.