Between campaign and fulfillment: Soma and the delicateness of post-Kickstarter life

By Richard Nieva , written on April 15, 2013

From The News Desk

The thing about the end of a Kickstarter campaign is that -- aside from the one-off projects like funding a movie -- it is hopefully the start of a company. And that means a rollercoaster ride no matter what the circumstances.

But things get a little more complicated when there are thousands of Kickstarter backers,  who are financially invested but, as laypeople, receive no equity, waiting to see their support bear fruit after donating money on the crowdfunding platform.

With that kind of scrutiny, it’s easy for a campaign to suffer backlash. Just ask musician Amanda Palmer. Answering to all those backers, it’s how a public company must feel, only without the financial boon of an IPO or the wherewithal and experience of years as a private company to handle the ire. So with all those landmines, it might be prudent to focus only on one thing until the product ships: making sure the best product ships.

That’s the kind of predicament Kickstarter stud Soma, which makes Brita-esque water filters in elegantly-designed carafes, could find itself in. Last week, the company, which in December met its goal of raising $100,000 on Kickstarter in just nine days, announced that it would team up with the nonprofit Charity: Water to bring clean drinking water to countries in the developing world. Soma plans to donate a percentage of each water filter sale to the charity for its effort in building wells in those regions.

The two organizations will solidify the partnership this week by taking a trip to the affected communities in Ethiopia, documenting the problem and sending back dispatches on social media and emails to people who signed up for updates on the company’s website. The delegation includes two Soma team members – including CEO Mike Del Ponte – two members of Charity: Water, and a delegation of creatives like writers and musicians to help tell the story for customers.

First, it should be mentioned that there is no, to my knowledge, foul play here. The company did not use any Kickstarter funds to finance the trip, CEO Mike Del Ponte says. It came from a separate fund raised from different investors. Del Ponte says the company wasn’t allowed to announce the partnership until now because of Kickstarter guidelines that forbid talking about charities. He says the two organizations actually had a partnership before Soma launched its Kickstarter campaign.

It’s a genuinely noble cause and a slick marketing strategy, but in a way, it’s a case of no good deed going unpunished. It’s no easy task to plan a trip of this magnitude, especially for a startup with limited resources. And that's the issue: “They don’t have a product yet, and they are focusing the story on a high-expense trip,” one Kickstarter backer says. “[They are] giving money to charity before they even give a product to their investors from the Kickstarter campaign?”

It might be putting the cart before the horse, but Del Ponte defends against the claim by assuring that the product is on track to ship on time this summer, and that the people going on the trip are not integral to the product development process. He says there will always be naysayers, and that the company also added a consultant to plan the trip. "We brought him on the team specifically so our product development guys would not be distracted in any way," says Del Ponte.

That may be true, but it almost doesn’t matter. If it created the perception that the company is losing its focus, it hurts Soma in the eyes of some backers (though, clearly, not all of them). It’s already been a tough slog for Kickstarter companies that have been late to ship. That’s the reason a site like Christie Street exists to protect backers of deadbeat campaigns.

And even for Kickstarter darlings, the road has been bumpier than expected. Ouya, among the most celebrated campaigns on the platform, last month shipped to backers and some early reviews haven’t been so favorable. The Verge gave it a stingy 3.5 out of 10 and criticized its design. If that project, which hit all the right marks during its campaign, couldn’t get it right when the product shipped, no campaign is immune.

To be clear, the issue is not that the company is doing a good thing by giving to Charity: Water and raising its profile with a major excursion. That's very commendable. The issue is that it creates the perception that the company’s attentions are divided.

It's really a problem in messaging. The company didn’t make it clear that it wasn’t using Kickstarter money to fund the trip. Perhaps Soma could have waited until its carafes had shipped to announce the partnership and go on the trip, to quell that argument before it began. Or the company could have waited until it was in a more stable place to take on the charitable endeavor. That arguably would help Soma's chances at longevity and allow it to help over the long term.

For many of Soma’s more than 2,300 backers, the notion that the company is simultaneously bringing drinkable water to the developing world while trying to bring a product to fulfillment is not a problem, especially for the socially conscious among them. But the nature of having so many backers means that not all of them will feel the same way. Some just want a good product that will provide them clean drinking water. Throwing the charity narrative into the mix just adds needlessly to the pressure, no matter how confident Soma might be.

In which case, the company just better make sure the product delivers.