How not to run a business (Part 12) — Case Study: Trust
A business is as good as the trust it practices. Trust is a crucial element in gaining new business. If prospects cannot trust you or what you offer, that your business is genuinely there to help your customer, that you will provide a high quality service, your business will never succeed. Trust is critical to business success. Let’s explore.
Recently, you may have heard about the H+ Holus project on Kickstarter. Its premise is to create a display device that can provide a wide variety of viewing angles. Some words used to describe the device include ‘holographic’, ‘holographic experience’ and ‘3D’. From the link above, the description states,
Holus provides a blend between the digital and real world by converting any digital content into a 3D holographic experience
To visually get the point across, H+ uploaded some CG representations of what the finished product might look like… including this video….
By Day 3 of this Kickstarter project, the project had already been funded the amount of $200k CAD. So here’s where things get a little dicey with both this project and Kickstarter when complaints begin to roll in. At the end, the Holus project raised $297,790 CAD. Some sites are already asking if the Holus is the most expensive scam in Kickstarter history. Reddit readers state these grievances of the Holus device.
Kickstarter’s rules are clear on misrepresentation. In the above video, it is clearly shown that as the camera moves, so does the 3D of the imagery. With Pepper’s Ghost and a flat screen, this is not possible which misrepresents the capabilities of this device. In other words, Kickstarter doesn’t allow realistic 3D rendered concept photos or videos as part of the project. Including photos of the prototype or drawings of the concept is perfectly fine. However, 3D realistic images depicting a concept are not acceptable and Kickstarter’s rules prohibit the use of such imagery.
We all know what these are. They’re basically your flat screen TV with shutter glasses. They’re cumbersome to use, give you headaches and, in general, are mostly a novelty. Yet, this is the state of 3D displays in 2015. No, we do not yet have floating displays such as what’s shown in Minority Report or Avatar. These displays, if even possible, are years away from becoming reality. Yet, here we are on Kickstarter with a small company claiming they’re about to produce a 3D Holographic display. Frankly, it’s not possible. What Holus offers is no better than Pepper’s Ghost.
Pepper’s Ghost is a technology that dates back to 1862 and is named after John Henry Pepper who discovered the illusion. A Pepper’s Ghost display has no relationship to holograms or holography, further misrepresenting the display. What Holus offers is a flat screen reflected off of a transparent surface. Because the screen located in the roof of the cabinet is flat, it’s definitely not 3D (without using glasses). Worse, there are already devices like this available on Amazon right now for the iPhone for $10.99. Visit Amazon and compare.
Whether the H+ folks intended to deceive or were naïve about what they could show on Kickstarter, it doesn’t really matter from a fraud management perspective. The listing violated Kickstarter’s rules. Yet, Kickstarter did nothing to stop or prevent this listing from continuing. In fact, it seems that Kickstarter even awarded staff pick to this project at some point. When this listing was brought to Kickstarter’s attention for misrepresentation, they ignored the warnings and allowed the project to fund anyway.
As a CEO, it is important to maintain trust with all of your customers. If you don’t attempt to maintain that trust, your business is hopelessly lost. Case in point… Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler leaves a comment on Joanie Lemercier’s ‘covering up a scam’ blog article after she and several others unsuccessfully attempt to bring this misrepresented project to the attention of Kickstarter. Strickler’s comment is defensive and deflecting. Here’s what Strickler has to say (full comment below):
Hi Joanie —
Yancey from Kickstarter here.
I’m responding, in part, to thank you for the attention you’ve paid to the Holus project. We’ve seen a lot of debate and strong feelings around the project, and we’ve heard a lot of questions about our policies and how we enforce them. I’d love to clear up a few things about how we did so in this case.
Part of the issue we’ve seen with this project revolves around words like “hologram,” “holographic,” and “holographic experience,” which people have come to use in so many different colloquial ways. Some of our most-discussed “holograms” — Tupac Shakur’s appearance at Coachella, CNN’s election-night guests — aren’t holograms at all. Even Microsoft bills its HoloLens as a holographic product. There’s an odd lack of clarity involved in what many people mean and understand when they say the words.
So in this case, our approach was to focus in on how Holus actually worked. We asked the Holus team to post an update that demonstrated, clearly and openly, exactly what they were working on. They responded with a public update that outlined the technique they use. That update was emailed to backers of the project, to help make sure everyone involved was fully clear on what they were supporting and what they could expect.
Then there’s the question of our rules for hardware projects. First, we require creators to show prototypes of their work. Second, we prohibit them from using photorealistic renderings.
Holus satisfied the first rule, posting a number of demo videos and documentation showing working prototypes. But when the project originally launched, it included CGI renderings. We informed them that this was strictly prohibited; they promptly removed the material. They also emailed backers to clarify their process, including a video demonstrating their iterative prototypes.
And last, there’s the question of the staff pick. Holus was originally selected as one, until we spotted and received reports about CGI renderings. We immediately removed the staff pick status, and asked the Holus team to remove the badge they’d added to their project image. (Staff pick badges aren’t a part of our system; we don’t create them or provide them. Actually, we strongly advise creators not to use them at all.) They promptly did so.
In other words, the project conformed to our stated rules, added more information on request, and made a transparent, good-faith effort to thoroughly inform backers about the nature of their work. Based on that, we continued to monitor it, but allowed it to remain on the site. The question then became: were people interested in backing it?
And this is the part where you — and the broader Kickstarter community watching these projects — become invaluable. One of the reasons Kickstarter uses all-or-nothing funding is because it gives everyone involved in a project time to really research what the creators are doing, discuss it with others, and come to a collective decision about whether it’s still worth supporting. Ultimately, it’s backers who decide what gets funding, not us.
That’s why we’re always grateful to anyone who joins in the public debate about projects, asks tough questions about the claims they’re hearing, and shares their expertise with other backers. That kind of discussion is crucial, especially when it comes to new technology. It helps our Integrity team monitor projects for problems or violations of our rules — as we did throughout the Holus campaign. It helps backers vet ideas and make the most informed decisions possible. It holds creators to a high standard, and helps them build stronger communities. It does all these things no matter what action Kickstarter winds up needing to take, and whether projects succeed or fail.
And that’s why I’d like to thank you — and to say that, if you’ve chosen not to get involved in any more projects, we’re sad to hear it. The role you played in this one is incredibly important. Members like you are welcome in this community any time: you make things better for everyone involved.
This is not the type of diatribe I expect to hear from a CEO. CEO’s are the top agent of the company. They are the person who investigates wrongdoing and the person who puts a stop to it. No where above did Yancey even mention investigation, taking the strictest action or in doing anything to prevent such an occurrence in the future. Sure, they requested the prohibited content removal, but only after the project was already mostly funded. Kickstarter also didn’t apparently require full disclosure of this content removal to the backers.
Instead, he defends the project and states that it is the backer’s responsibility to post meaningful discussions, debate the project and then choose or not choose to back based on these comments. That’s all well and good until Joanie points out in a later blog post that in among other behaviors by Kickstarter to ignore the project and let it proceed, Kickstarter also
When Kickstarter deletes comments that could help backers make informed decisions, that ultimately means that Kickstarter no longer respects the backers and is in it to make sure the project succeeds whether it’s a real project or not. This also means that Kickstarter is in it for the money they will get from the project rather than protecting backers from fraud. This is a serious breach of trust and one that should resonate to every backer who has ever backed a project at Kickstarter.
In fact, Joanie points out all of the trust related issues around this Kickstarter project:
– YOU DID NOT REPLY to the official ‘reports’ made from day 1 (except email auto-replies).
– YOU DID NOT LISTEN to the experts: Jason Sapan has been making real holograms in NYC for over 40 years, he warned you about the fraud.
– YOU DIDN’T CARE TO COMMENT the 3 in-depth articles (1 – 2 – 3) written by Raphaël de Courville about his investigations on the scam.
– YOU DELETED the embarrassing questions asked in the project comments (see screenshots).
– YOU DID NOT MODERATE messages from suspicious accounts (1 – 2) and Holus partner comments (1) who broke another rule.
– BACKERS WERE NEVER INFORMED about the replacement of prohibited CGI and removal of staff pick status.
There were probably even more behaviors not documented here, but these are enough to show that even though Kickstarter was made aware of the project early in its life, Kickstarter ignored it all and even colluded in making sure the project appeared to be legitimate.
Even Yancey’s comment to Joanie attempts to justify the above actions in an obtuse fashion.
Business Don’t — Don’t allow fraud on your service
This is probably one of the biggest business don’ts I’ve ever documented in this series. You don’t do what Kickstarter did. If you establish rules by which the community must follow, then you need to ensure they are enforced regardless of outcome. Even if you stand to lose 20% of that 200k or whatever Kickstarter’s commission is, that is chump change compared to the trust you’ve lost from your community and the possible legal ramifications you face (which I guarantee will cost you more money than any commission you’d make from the fraud). Your community keeps you in business. For this reason, this trust case is worth studying. It’s worth realizing what not to do when running your business.
In Kickstarter’s case, the appropriate action would have been to delist and refund all backers before the project closed. Then, request the project owner to relist the project using drawings or other imagery that doesn’t violate Kickstarter’s terms… instead of silently requesting the images be removed without letting the existing backers know… instead of removing key discussions from the project to inform backers of what this project really is… instead of ignoring emails ultimately saying that the project is fraudulent.
Fraud is a very real possibility anywhere and everywhere, especially on crowdfunding projects. Fraud is intentional misrepresentation of something. It’s against the law in the US and the US government investigates and takes legal action against those who commit fraud against buyers. Allowing fraud to exist on your own web service and then doing nothing about it once you become aware is collusion and makes your business as much liable as the person who set up the listing in the first place. The one thing you cannot know is intent and intent is the difference between innocent misrepresentation and outright fraud. As a business, you must error on the side of caution and assume the intent is intentional misrepresentation which means taking the strictest action possible by forcibly removing the offensive content from your site.
Were someone to bring legal action against Kickstarter and H+ for the alleged fraud of this project, there is definitely enough evidence that Kickstarter could be held liable and culpable in this activity.
Enforcing Business Rules
Once you establish business rules by which your clients must abide, you need to absolutely enforce those rules by the strictest of actions in every case. If you allow even one client to slide by the rules, your business could end up in court. If you are on the other end of a Kickstarter project and you choose not to deliver on your backer rewards, the US Government will come after you. Fraud is a federal crime and can lead your business into a lot of federal legal problems. Ed Nash found this out the hard way when his company, Altius Management, failed to deliver the $25k Kickstarted funded Asylum card game in 2012.
Failure to provide the necessary level of trust through enforcement of your rules could lead your business into bankruptcy. In this case, Kickstarter’s woes are just starting. How this all ends for Kickstarter is yet to be known, but it’s probably not going to end well. How this ends for H+ and the Holus device is yet to be seen, but delivering a Pepper’s Ghost to backers will likely lead to outrage.