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This article was published on May 13, 2015

I’m tired of startups asking us to take the risk on their ‘pre-order’ products

I’m tired of startups asking us to take the risk on their ‘pre-order’ products
Owen Williams
Story by

Owen Williams

Former TNW employee

Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their word Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their words friendlier. In his spare time he codes, writes newsletters and cycles around the city.

This week’s hot new gadget is a Lily – an autonomous drone that takes to the air and follows you filming whatever you’re doing.

I watched the video and immediately got excited about the prospect of taking drone selfies. That was until I saw the big blue pre-order button.

Still, I figured the wait time couldn’t be too bad. I clicked and my fears were realized – it doesn’t ship until February 2016

This approach to selling products is becoming more and more common with the rise of hardware startups who can’t or won’t take on the risk of building, manufacturing and developing a product. I’ve had enough and you should have too.


Asking me, the consumer, to front $499 to a company with just a fancy video and early prototype to show for itself is ridiculous.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t mind spending the money, but it can be a big risk, with essentially no protection when it falls apart.

It’s difficult to predict which companies will be able to produce a finished product at scale and which won’t. It’s a gargantuan task and many startups underestimate the challenge.

Time and time again, crowdfunding projects and pre-orders fail, fall short, or disappear altogether, often leaving backers out of pocket. Even large, successful campaigns like Pebble’s can hit major hurdles.

It’s relatively trivial to build a shiny website and a workable prototype. Actually producing a product at scale is where it gets truly difficult.

The advent of crowdfunding campaigns and pre-order programs has spurned startups to trot out half-baked products under the illusion that they’re fully developed and ready for use, but it’s misleading at best and a scam at worst.

Lily, like many other projects that offer pre-orders, is actually venture backed, but somehow also needs consumers’ cash to build its product. These type of campaigns are often used as a type of customer validation, but I don’t think that cuts it.

Sure, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding services have ultimately resulted in some great products from companies that might not have had a chance in the past, like Pebble or Coolest Cooler, but these are not the norm. Hundreds of projects fail every year (that’s why Indiegogo now offers a form of insurance).

There’s a long held piece of geek wisdom that skipping first generation products from established companies like Apple can be a good idea, because they’re often much better in their next iteration. Yet, people seem willing to pour thousands into companies and products that are utterly unproven and don’t even exist in the real world.

To be fair to Lily, it does offer a refund of your money if you request it “before it ships” and it did show off an early prototype this week.

It’s incredibly rare for the product you receive to look exactly like the one you pre-ordered. Kickstarter at least offers some protections against unreliable or unscrupulous campaigns. Third-party pre-order programs have none.

Next time you see a ‘cool new thing™’ up for pre-order, take a step back and ask yourself if you can just wait for the real launch. If it’s a year away, what’s the rush? It’ll probably be on sale a matter of weeks after pre-orders ship.

Technology moves at an endlessly increasing pace, so it’s cool that we get a peek inside the world of unfinished hardware before it reaches the masses, but the marketing-fluff campaigns and lofty promises don’t make it clear how risky it really is.