Oculus Grift: Kickstarter As Charity For Venture Capitalists

There is a standing presumption when one backs a Kickstarter project: you may lose your money. But there's a new—or at least now proven—angle to consider, in light of Facebook's acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus: people may use your money to make a lot more money without ever properly starting a successful company in the first place.

I have a lot of emotion tied up in Oculus, I'll admit. As one of the first 9,500 backers of the original Kickstarter—not to mention the backer of the very first successful Kickstarter ever—I put up $300 of my own money to have access to one of the first development kits. I don't feel ripped off by that transaction, in and of itself. I've written publicly in various outlets about my ardor for the Rift and virtual reality. And I remain convinced that VR is going to be a huge new format for media and interactivity in general.

If anything, I am frustrated with a narrative, not the mechanism of a Kickstarter campaign. It's implicit when you back a product-based project that they will turn into a profitable company, if their idea and execution are solid. If Oculus turned into a billion-dollar company on their own by selling hardware, publishing software, and forging strategic alliances with other companies, I don't think I would have given my Kickstarter money a second thought.

But that's not what happened to Oculus. Instead, the money given by me and my fellow Kickstarter backers served as bait for venture capitalists, who invested three rounds of $29 million and $85 million apiece, leading to an eventual sale to Facebook for $2 billion. It's safe to presume that the VC involvement accelerated a sale to Facebook; surely Oculus could have gotten a product to market for $100 million, but no sane VC is going to turn down a 20x return on their investment.

The fact that everyone involved made a rational choice to sell out isn't what I find frustrating, I don't think. (I don't even particularly care that Oculus sold to Facebook and not, say, Microsoft. Ultimately a sale is a sale, even if Facebook is the worst possible partner for Oculus of any of the large technology companies.) It's that I, as a consumer, bought into the narrative that underpins almost every Kickstarter project: that without my contribution, something novel would not exist. And while that remains true—and is a reason that Kickstarter's owners continue to underline that their goal is to fund "creators" and not "products"—Oculus' sale to Facebook also highlights the disparity inherent in the current capitalist and investment structure, where small investors are excluded from returns by regulation, but investors with more capital can quickly extract more capital by pushing a quick expansion into untapped markets, even without proving that those markets actually, truly exist.

I mean, I don't even get to claim my contribution to Oculus on my taxes as a charitable deduction.

At a certain practical layer, caveat emptor still applies. I spent my $300 with no promise of equity in Oculus, only the (not legally binding) promise that I'd get a development kit with which to screw around. Even if they turned my $300 into what was eventually a roughly $250,000 return (by my quick estimation*) they still delivered what they initially promised, which was a fully functional dev kit. (Pity those who donated cash at levels that returned no reward but a "Thanks!" Many backers on Kickstarter are not pleased, to say the least.)

But I still feel as if circumstance removed me from an opportunity to turn my speculative belief in the future of VR and Oculus's role in it into real money. Their story—a genuine garage hacker does what billion-dollar companies would not—didn't imply its eventual end: that the barefoot, teenage founder would sell his startup to a giant technology corporation before they sold a single retail product. No injury, perhaps, but plenty of insult.

Until the regulations change to allow venture investments of any amount—something Title III of the JOBS Act, when implemented, will put into place; opposed to the current system, which limits equity-based crowd funding to "Accredited Investors," or people who make over $200k a year—I won't be backing any more Kickstarter or crowd-funded projects. It's not that the risk is too great; it's that the potential reward is too little.

* People more intelligent than me, from the European equity-based crowd funding company Seedrs, calculated something more like $20,000 on a $300 investment after dilution from the VC rounds.