Facebook announced yesterday that it intends to acquire the Oculus virtual reality startup for $2 billion in cash and stock, making Oculus the first Kickstarter-backed company with a billion-dollar exit, so long as Facebook’s stock maintains its current value. (The company has a history of attracting headlines with large acquisition prices and then paying less than promised once its stock price fell.) The deal will be good for Oculus’ investors, good for Facebook, and supposedly good for Oculus. But the nascent virtual reality market might have the life squeezed from it before it ever truly begins, and the people who donated $2.4 million to the Oculus Rift headset on Kickstarter will receive nothing.
This deal highlights the problem with funding technologies that might eventually be acquired by large companies like Facebook. Traditional investors are overjoyed by the deal, which will reportedly offer a 20-times return on investment. But the people who backed the company’s Kickstarter project are dismayed by the deal, partly because their money went to a company that eventually sold for $2 billion and partly because they backed a technology they wanted to see thrive, not a company they wanted to see sold.
It might seem hypocritical for me to condemn Oculus’ sale to Facebook when I wrote just over a year ago that Pebble, another company that found life on Kickstarter, should sell to a larger company. But the difference between Oculus and Pebble is that the latter could benefit from selling to a company that might help it ship its smartwatches on time, develop new features to justify the incredible hype surrounding the wearables market, and otherwise deliver on its many promises. Pebble also depends on other companies already — its smartwatches can’t function without the help of a smartphone, and the last time I checked, Pebble doesn’t make phones. None of those things (except the phone bit) are true for Oculus. Pebble didn’t sell when it had the chance; now it seems that Oculus sold too soon.
Facebook doesn’t have any experience with consumer hardware. It has never so much as hinted at a virtual reality product, and its history with acquired companies is mixed at best. The only thing the company can offer Oculus is a few blank checks, and that isn’t enough to offset the malaise Oculus’ backers feel about donating to a company that eventually offered the most promising virtual reality product to the highest bidder. Those backers were sponsoring a revolution, and they’ve been repaid with promises of independence and a product category that just “became a monopoly before it even became a market,” as Pando’s James Robinson wrote in a post about the deal’s wider implications.
It could be argued that Oculus’ promises to its backers will be fulfilled whenever it ships the last shirt or poster it offered in exchange for their cash. The company never promised independence; it simply promised to make some swag and allow the backers with the deepest pockets to test its technologies as they were being developed. If it’s already done those things it’s upheld its end of the deal.
That argument would be disingenuous at best. Despite the general bunk of Kickstarter’s claim that it isn’t a store, it’s clear that Oculus’ backers were contributing to the company’s campaign because they believe in a future where virtual reality is viable, not because they wanted to pre-order a shirt. Oculus was well on its way to making that future a reality — its headset is expected to best similar products from Sony and Microsoft — without having to sell to a social network-turned-Silicon Valley behemoth.
Venture capitalists can live with Oculus’ sale to Facebook. Their job is to invest in small companies that will either crumble after a few months or provide substantial returns to the prescient investors who recognized their potential. Many invest because they want to see new technologies flourish, but often their first commitment is always to their bank account, with the ideals of whatever companies they decided to back coming in a distant second (or third). Viewed from that perspective, the chance to sell a young company for a few billion dollars is welcome.
But the ordinary people who wanted a new way to interact with virtual worlds and placed all of their hopes in Oculus won’t see things that way. Their bank accounts won’t be replenished. They don’t get to raise another fund and hope another Kickstarter project will have a billion-dollar exit. All they get is the knowledge that their money helped a bunch of Silicon Valley bigwigs get a little richer while the technology they backed is placed in the hands of a company many of them distrust.
[Zuckerberg photos via Thinkstock]