With crowdfunding gaining mainstream awareness, it’s never been more tempting for small design studios to break out of the commissioning cycle and create their own product. Sam Hill from PAN Studio, the team behind the phenomenal Kickstarter app, Run an Empire, shares the pros and cons of taking that plunge.   

Sam Hill will be speaking about Run an Empire at our Active by Design summit this Thursday 18 September.

The temptation

Ben Barker and I started PAN Studio three years ago. Our business partnership started with a shared desire to apply critical design thinking and technical knowledge to creating new kinds of enriching, playful experiences. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2014 that we seriously decided we wanted to develop our first product, Run An Empire - a strategy game for mobile devices where players compete to run around and capture places in the real world.

Kickstarter is something of a ‘hack’ of the product development process. You get to gauge the popularity of your product before investing a lot of time into scoping it out.

As PAN, we have played experimentally with the idea of products before, but only dryly - as objects for critical discourse, design fictions, material explorations or pet projects. Our work was mostly generated through approaching clients. We’d bootstrapped the business off the back of freelancing, and we basically carried on with the same model, pitching to organisations, businesses and institutions to win commissions for their audiences or stakeholders.

Working as a small design practice on a commissioning basis is rewarding for a great number of reasons: the work is fast moving, you learn quickly, and you get to do a huge range of things. However, for a lot of designers (ourselves included) the beckoning siren call of 'product development' was always in the air.

What exactly is so tempting about developing a product?

1. You get to work on something that interests you.

When pitching work, the client is your boss, even if you’re running your own business. But when you’re developing a new product you’re not answering somebody else’s brief, you’re writing your own!

2. There are the financial reasons.

If you do a great job building something for a client, you get paid. Then you look for further work. You build once, you sell once. It’s an unrelenting process, and spending 40% of one’s time looking for the next gig is considered fairly typical. With product development, in theory, you design something once, then sell it thousands of times. That’s a very tempting idea.

You need to invest a lot of time and money to even stand a chance with product development. On top of that you need to do an incredible amount of marketing. And, despite all the hard work, you still need a lot of luck.

The reality

The truth, it seems, is that nobody is ever their own boss. Even when you’re developing your own product there are two demanding groups you have to keep happy: investors and customers. Both parties can make it difficult to remain agile if brought on board too early, as acceding to their demands can make the parameters for development less flexible.

What’s more, product development is a much riskier process than seeking commissions. In the last year two of our most respected peers Hide and Seek and very recently Berg, having switched business models, each invested themselves into what appeared to be very promising and exciting products. Both of them failed to come out the other side. You need to invest a lot of time and a lot of money to even stand a chance with most product development. On top of that you need to do an incredible amount of marketing. And even, despite all the hard work, you still need a lot of luck.

We raised £23,067 from a £15,000 goal across 35 days, with 1,825 backers helping us. Crowdfunding really does fast-track product development

Crowd-Funding

We chose Kickstarter to get the ball rolling on Run An Empire. We raised £23,067 from a £15,000 goal across 35 days, with 1,825 backers helping us. Crowdfunding really does act as a fast-track for product development and it looks like it will be here to stay as a funding model. However, there are still pitfalls to be aware of that many businesses fail to appreciate.

We were lucky to have a couple of advisors ready to help us out. Before starting, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino pointed out to us, based on her experience with the platform, that Kickstarter is something of a ‘hack’ of the product development process. You get to gauge the popularity of your product before investing a lot of time into scoping it out. That’s a great way to see if it’s worth expending further efforts on, but there’s no relationship between the popularity of an idea and its feasibility. Plus you’re likely to lose any intellectual property rights if you don’t seek proper IP protection before making an idea public.

Even when you’re developing your own product there are two demanding groups you have to keep happy: investors and customers.

Alex Fleetwood, formerly of Hide & Seek, who used Kickstarter to build Tiny Games also prepared us for the Kickstarter experience. He warned us that a polished Kickstarter campaign can take months to prepare for. What’s more, unless it goes stratospherically viral, you’ll need to pester friends and family and work constantly to promote it. Even when the fundraising is over, it can take a lot of time to fulfil orders and honour pledges. For example, we spent an inordinate amount of time making and distributing posters and T-shirts to send out to only a handful of our backers.

So, is it worth it? 

When things go well, product development can be great. The challenge is exciting and stimulating and like no other creative process. Should you drop your current business model to pursue it? I would say that depends massively on two things:

  • Whether you have absolute, infallible faith in your idea.
  • Whether you think you are capable of executing it.

A good idea on it’s own is not enough, nor is just raw ambition. Both are needed in equal measure (plus a lot of luck), but the rewards are there for those that take the chance and win. At least, we certainly hope they are!

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