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众筹切勿“眼高手低” 保证产品交付才是关键

融资门槛预估不足,或致创业企业“出师未捷身先死”。

舆论普遍认为,众筹是一项福利,主张人人平等,能够将产品和服务带给市场而无需依赖银行、风险投资家,或者是现有的资金支持者。现在的很多平台都能让手头拮据(或者富裕)的企业家和群众联合在一起,而不必经历常规募集创业资金时的冗长手续和忧心忡忡。

但是这并不意味着众筹就是万能灵药。实际上,Dragon Innovation, Inc.的CEO和创建者之一的Scott Miller观察到,众筹平台也存在一个薄弱环节:无法保障硬件交付。

“过去的一年到一年半以来,众筹业出现了一种十分令人不安的趋势,”Miller说,“许多项目都达到了预设的融资目标,但最终仍无法保证交付硬件产品。通常来说这并不能归为诈骗,因为这主要还是因为很多初期的创业者并不理解硬件生产。他们也许只是想让更多的人支持他们的项目,所以将融资门槛设置的很低,或者他们可能根本不知道制作一个要进行大量生产的产品模型要花费几何,但是无论是哪一种情况,他们融得的资金都远远不能满足现实需要。因此,当他们需要真正制造他们的产品时,钱就不够了,他们自己也补不上。最终千万甚至上亿美元的资金就打了水漂。”

Miller还是从心底欣赏这些创意的——毕竟,他也是毕业于麻省理工大学的一个海洋工程学学生,曾经帮助设计了一种能够研究游泳力学的机械金枪鱼。但是他同样明白制作和销售产品的本质是什么。他曾经为迪士尼梦工厂开发真人大小的机械恐龙,也曾为孩之宝公司研发机械娃娃。他还曾经带领一只团队设计了iRobot的吸尘机器人,现在这款产品已经成为家喻户晓,而Miller本人参与了从制作模型到大量生产的所有过程。

“那时我在中国住了四年,监督工程进度,”Miller说。“我们在珠江三角洲和印度都建立了生产设施,到工程结束的时候,我学习到了很多有关制造业的知识,其中之一就是这个过程着实不易。如果你轻信捷径,或是粗心大意,或只是考虑不周,都会给公司带来灭顶之灾。”

认清了需要,Miller和董事长兼共同的创立者Herman Pang创建了Dragon Innovation,来帮助硬件众筹者来了解制造业的冷酷事实。

“我们将自己看做是制造业的一个应用程序接口,”Miller说。“我们帮助人们建立众筹项目的功能模型,这样他们就能适应大批量生产产品的事实。”

Miller继续说道,“好消息是,现在对于设计和营销先进产品来说正当时。机械技术的支出已经远远低于几年之前的价格,只要企业家有一点资金就能建立一个功能性模型。但是制造业依旧是一大障碍。”

Miller发现,只懂得做软件的人们在开发硬件时,事情就会变得比较棘手。

“我不知道这是否是因为他们原来所处理的产品都是虚拟的,但是他们的盲目乐观的确会带来严重的后果,”他说。“硬件工程师眼光会更加敏锐。他们明白现实世界中事情是有可能失败的,所以你必须要在建立功能性生产线之前就将众多部件组装好。”

Miller援引了竞选上线之前应该考虑到的三个基本问题:

  1. 成本。在考虑其他事情之前,你需要根据材料、人工和辅助生产费用计算出产品的真实成本。“你不能等到所有事情都确定了才开始设置投资实际门槛。”他说。
  2. 质量。在这一方面,考虑到所有其他因素,“质量”并不是一定要达到最高水准的;那样你就要破产了,Miller提醒道。“你必须根据消费者预期和产品成本来设置质量基准,”他说,“你需要正确的平衡这些关系。如果质量低于你的定价,你不是毫无进展就是流失客户。如果质量高于定价,你就会损失资金,最终歇业。”
  3. 工期。你必须要在预期时间交付产品。“大多数电子产品都是圣诞节期间销售出去的,”Miller举例说。“如果你错失这次良机,销量必然会大幅下降。所以你必须保证生产符合日程安排。这是至关重要的一点。”

当然,为了能够帮助那些创业者整体了解他们成功上线所需资金的数额,这些也只是些皮毛而已。面对Dragon的客户,Miller和他的团队会进行更加深入的说明。从地方人力到工具作业到增高标价等一切事物,他们对这一流程标注出197个时间节点。

“并不是每个项目都会涉及到所有节点,”他说。“我们会选择合适的来用,项目之间也会差别很大。但是重点是我们会尽力深入探讨,这样我们就能够从数学角度计算出融资预期。硬件众筹项目的一大问题是许多人只是会单纯去猜测融资额度。而以我们所见,这可能会导致损失惨重。众筹就像是一个威力无穷的工具,使用得当,收益无穷;甚至让你建立一番卓越伟绩。而使用不当,你也会一败涂地。”

Miscalculating funding thresholds can sink your startup.

There is widespread consensus that crowdfunding is a boon, an egalitarian means for bringing products and services to market without relying on banks, venture capitalists, or established financial angels. Myriad platforms now allow entrepreneurs and folks with a little (or a lot) of cash to get together without the red tape and angst that so often accompanies the soliciting and procuring of startup funds.

But that doesn’t mean crowdfunding is a panacea. In fact, observes Scott Miller, CEO and co-founder of Dragon Innovation, Inc., crowdfunding platforms have an Achilles heel: an inability to deliver hardware.

“Over the past year or 18 months, we’ve seen a pretty disturbing trend in crowdfunding,” Miller says. “A lot of campaigns meet their thresholds, but they ultimately don’t deliver the goods. That’s usually not due to fraud — it’s largely because many of the people who launch these nascent companies don’t understand hardware. They may want to drive people to their campaign by posting a low threshold, or they may not understand the expense involved in getting a prototype to high-volume production, but in either event, they wind up with insufficient capital. So, when the time comes to actually manufacture their product, they don’t have enough money, and they can’t recover. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost as a result.”

Miller is deeply appreciative of visionary ideas — after all, as an ocean engineering graduate student at MIT, he helped design a robotic tuna fish to research the mechanics of swimming. But he also understands the nitty-gritty of making stuff and selling it. He worked on life-sizerobotic dinosaurs for Disney Imagineering and robotic baby dolls for Hasbro. He also led the team that took iRobot’s Roomba, the now near-ubiquitous robotic vacuum cleaner, from prototype to high-volume production.

“I lived in China for four years overseeing that project,” says Miller. “We set up production facilities in the Pearl River Delta and India, and by the end of it, I had learned a lot about manufacturing. And one thing that I learned is that it isn’t easy. If you’re naïve, or careless, or you simply don’t think it through, it can spell the end of your company.”

Identifying a need, Miller and president and co-founder Herman Pang set up Dragon Innovation to help hardware crowdfunders grok the unforgiving realities of manufacturing.

“We consider ourselves an API for manufacturing,” says Miller. “We help people with functional prototypes configure their crowdfunding campaigns so they accommodate the reality of producing products at high volume.”

The good news, continues Miller, “is that this really is a great time to design and market advanced products. The costs for robotic technology are much lower than even a couple of years ago, and entrepreneurs with even a little bit of money can build functional prototypes. But manufacturing remains the big stumbling block.”

Things can get particularly sticky when software people launch hardware projects, observes Miller.

“I don’t know if it’s because the products they’re used to dealing with are essentially virtual, but they often have a kind of overriding optimism that can be fatal,” he says. “Hardware engineers tend to have a more gimlet-eyed perspective. They understand that things can and will break down in the real world, that you have to fit a lot of components together before you get a functional production line.”

Miller cites three basic issues that should be addressed before launching a campaign:

  1. Cost. Before anything else, you need to determine what the true costs of the product are in terms of materials, labor, and ancillary production expenses? “You can’t begin to set realistic margins until you have that completely nailed down,” he says.
  2. Quality. In this case, “quality” doesn’t necessarily mean reaching for the highest possible standard, with all other considerations secondary; that’s the path to bankruptcy, notes Miller. “You have to match customer expectations and product costs to your quality benchmark,” he says. “You need the right balance. If the quality is too low relative to your price point, you’ll either never get off the ground or your customers will ebb away. If the quality is too high per the price, you can lose so much money you go out of business.”
  3. Scheduling. You have to deliver products when they’re expected. “Most electronics are sold during the Christmas season,” says Miller by way of example. “If you miss that delivery, your volume falls off a cliff. So, you have to know your production can meet your schedules. It’s absolutely critical.”

Those are the broad strokes, of course, aimed at helping bootstrappers get a general idea of the amount of money they’ll need for a successful launch. For Dragon clients, Miller and his team go deeper. They have a list of 197 milestones that address everything from local labor to tooling to mark-up.

“Not all are relevant to every project,” he says. “We apply those that are appropriate, and it varies from project to project. But the point is to drill down as far as we can, so we can mathematically calculate the threshold that needs to be raised. The big problem about crowdfunding hardware projects is that so many people simply guess about their thresholds. And as we’re seeing, that can be disastrous. Crowdfunding is like a power tool. Used properly, it’s great; it allows you to build remarkable things. Use it improperly, though, and you cut your leg off.”


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