Kickstarting An Open-Source Project

Take note of Matt Heins’ Rockit 8-bit Synth Kit, an open hardware project aiming to make it easy for hackers and musicians to construct a relatively inexpensive synthesizer. There’s no shortage of open hardware synth kits available for enthusiasts to tinker with; the Meeblip, a very similar product, launched last year to much enthusiasm. What makes the Rockit special is that, in the spirit of open source, the project funding is being crowdsourced through Kickstarter.

If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s more or less a way to fund passion projects without selling your soul (or the rights to your project) while still allowing the capitalist nature of the internet to shine through. Proposals are posted with a funding goal and a list of possible rewards for backers, users pledge money at different reward levels, and no money changes hands unless the project reaches the funding goal. It’s a win/win scenario: cool projects get funded and the people fronting the cash get interesting rewards for helping out. It’s important to note that Kickstarter isn’t for getting your dot com dream venture off the ground or opening up the world’s first combination Taco Bell franchise and crematorium … Kickstarter explicitly states in their guidelines that proposal submissions require some semblance of artistic expression. This is a service for creative people who want to make inspired stuff.

The reason I’m mentioning this in such detail is because Kickstarter has evolved into a haven for cool people who like innovative tech ideas. Just search for the phrase “open source” and you’ll get dozens of interesting projects, from a DIY CNC mill to a 21st century version of the Nintendo Powerglove. In fact, there are hobbyists (such as myself!) who actively seek out the open source projects on Kickstarter and ignore the rest. Because, let’s be honest: that’s the stuff that’s going to make a difference ten years from now. Most other things in my life will not. The idea of throwing twenty dollars at an open project that’s going to steamroll and possibly end up making a difference in the world, actually enabling others to make wonderful things, is thrillingto me. I’m preaching to the choir here, I’m sure. But it’s a good use of money that I probably would have just blown on something like Jabba the Hutt beanbag chairs (totally an investment, by the way).

If you’re considering trying to get a project funded, I thought I’d share a few tips. I’ve seen some great ideas that never came to fruition just due to poor planning. Following these small pointers can make a world of difference.

  • Specify what license your documents or software will be released under. It’s important to spell this out so that people know exactly what to expect, and the more info you can provide the better. Brushing this component off with “uh, it’s Creative Commons or whatever” will just going to make it seem like the “open source” aspect of the project was an afterthought instead of allowing your hacker passion to show through.
  • Providing source code only to backers who pledge a certain amount of money is not open source. I’ve seen too many projects attempt to do this and they never reach their funding goals. Giving away early code is a cool incentive for a reward, but if you do this make it clear that it’s unfinished beta code, and that the final product will be open sourced once it’s ready.
  • Try to offer a fully functional version of the end product as one of the backer rewards. If you’re selling a kit, or schematics, or really anything that needs assembly, offer an assembled version as a reward. There are bound to be enthusiasts really interested in the project idea itself who couldn’t solder to save a life. Those people would be useless if humanity were enslaved by robots, FYI, but they might pledge quite a bit of money given the chance to own something.
  • Be sure that your funding goal will actually be enough to fund the project. This seems obvious, but you need to account for not just all the materials and other costs of finalizing the project, but the rewards you’re offering as well.  Your Kickstarter campaign would be less than successful if the funding goal was reached but ended up going bankrupt trying to send out all the rewards promised to backers.
  • Make a video explaining your project instead of hoping all potential backers will wade through blocks of text.  This is more general marketing advice than anything specific to open-source projects, but it’s worth mentioning. People with eyeballs, on average, respond better to video content. Just firing up your webcam and giving an introductory speech about what you’re trying to accomplish is better than nothing (and a lot more engaging than those tedious words). Oh, and give your video a chiptune soundtrack! There’s no empirical evidence about this part playing a role in the success of your campaign, but it’s just sort of the thing to do for an open-source project, right?
Have you got any other pointers for using Kickstarter to fund an open source project?  Drop a line in the comments!
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