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Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 12/24/2012

In crowdfunding, is there a difference between ‘customers’ and ‘investors?’

As the Securities and Exchange Commission drafts regulations for crowdfunding — in which large groups of small investors can buy shares in start-ups, usually online — some look to existing online platforms for hints as to how the public may respond to investment opportunities online.

Kickstarter — well-known for connecting artists and product designers with financial contributors — has successfully funded thousands of projects. But, as Wharton Business School professor Ethan Mollick determined, 75 percent of the projects didn’t deliver products when organizer said they would.

The site allows users to post projects and request funding from the general public only in exchange for non-financial rewards — recognition or samples of the product, for instance, as determined by the project’s creator. Though contributions sometimes entitle backers to a product once it’s finished, Kickstarter’s founders emphasize that “Kickstarter is not a store” but rather a “new way for creators and audiences to work together to make things,” according to its blog.

The site’s creators added a “Risks and Challenges” section to each project’s page to “reinforce that creators’ projects are in development” so that, before they back, contributors can judge the “creator’s ability to complete their project as promised.”

But when one of the platform’s most highly funded projects — the Palo Alto, Calif-based Pebble E-Watch, a water-resistant smartphone-synced wristwatch — missed its estimated deadline by several months because of challenges in production, some of its backers have expressed dissatisfaction as they might on any customer service page.

The Pebble Watch team reached its $100,000 funding goal within the first two hours of being on the site, and today is backed by more than
Wharton Professor Ethan Mollick warns crowdfunders against considering themselves “customers” and instead to think like “investors”. (Julie Jacobson - AP)
68,000 people for over $10 million. The team’s initial estimate was a September shipping date, but the company recently posted a note on its blog saying the watches won’t be ready for the holidays.

“I do hope that you can tell from these updates that we’re quickly moving towards the moment when Pebble will finally be on your wrist,” project creator Eric Migicovsky wrote on the Kickstarter page.

In a comments section reserved for backers with almost 10,000 comments, one backer wrote on Friday, “You’re only countless months off schedule. I gave you $100+ out of my pocket, because I believed in this...This is HORRIBLE service.”

Another commenter linked to the founders’ blog post entitled “Kickstarter is NOT a store,” reminding angry backers of Kickstarter’s stated mission.

Though Kickstarter does not plan to offer backers equity in any of the projects or businesses featured on the site, Mollick warned eager crowdfunders to refrain from conceiving of themselves as “customers”.

“There are three roles people play: patron, customer or investor. The worst place to be is a customer — they’re expecting, ‘what I paid for, I get.’ Patrons are better — they’re involved in philanthropy. Investors realize almost all products are late anyway. In some ways, equity crowdfunding would avoid these problems,” Mollick said.

It may require a cultural or societal change to help the public understand their roles as investors and not customers in the new crowdfunding environment, Mollick said.

“One of the roles of investors is to ensure the company has a goal and ways to learn things along the way, space to do that, guidance and some set of limits,” he said, adding, “I feel a lot of sympathy for the companies [ like those on Kickstarter] — they have a whole bunch of angry customers and haven’t even started building the product,” Mollick said.

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