A couple of months ago, we covered a story that appeared straightforward enough at first but took an odd turn just a day or so later. When the story first gained traction in the media, it appeared as though Apple had hamstrung a Kickstarter project
for a mobile charging device called the POP Charger
. The item was supposed to be a charging station for every mobile device under the sun, but Apple
apparently hadn’t played nice and refused to license its new Lightning connector to the group.
Effectively, without the ability to offer charging capabilities to users of the latest iPhone (not to mention future iPhones), the project would fail to live up to its billing. Faced with a bad situation, the project’s leader, Jamie Siminoff, decided to pull the plug on the POP Charger and refund his backer’s money, which amounted to about $139,000.
The problem was that Kickstarter
didn’t have a way to process those refunds. Siminoff, it seemed, was undeterred and promised to make it happen by launching his own site called Christie Street
that would be able to get that money back to his backers.
The POP Charger
And that’s where the story took a weird turn
. First, Christie Street was not launched in the aftermath of Siminoff and company getting stonewalled by Apple; it had already been in the works for a while. Second, Apple responded quickly to say that its guidelines were clear up front and that the request was impossible due to a technical issue, indicating that perhaps Siminoff submitted his application knowing full well that Apple would reject it. Third, Apple said that it had actually since resolved that issue, paving the way for the POP Charger project to continue.
Suddenly, Siminoff went from looking like a bold man of integrity to a someone who gamed the system and fleeced us in the media to drum up interest in his Kickstarter competitor, Christie Street.
This is a story that needed some closure, so we went to the source, Jamie Siminoff, who was kind enough to carve out time to answer our questions and put these issues to rest. His answers were at times surprising, but ultimately illuminating.
(Edited for length and clarity)
HotHardware: So first of all, it looks like the POP Charger is really happening now. What’s going on with that process? Are you still waiting on Apple for something here?
We’re trying to be a little bit softer now in our messaging through the rest of the process. At this point, everything is going at the speed that it should go, in terms of everything we’ve been told; the various groups have gotten back to us on time, so nothing right now is blocking us from the June delivery date. We talked to various parties to ensure that was a realistic delivery date for the product.
HH: Can you explain what happened with Apple? I mean, I can sort of piece it together, but I want to hear it straight from you. What exactly went down?
Basically what happened is, it was a little bit of a comedy of errors. The POP Charger came out--you know, we finished funding [on Kickstarter] September 1st. Lightning came out I think September 7th. When we made the charger itself, we had no idea it would be such a different adapter in terms of not only how it was designed, but how it was sold by Apple.
When Apple changed that whole process, they put in an enormous delay, for us and everyone else who wanted to make something iPhone 5-compatible, because they had to go through this approval process. The rules of the approval process...we had seen things that said there’d be no product that could have Lightning and 30-pin on the same charger. And honestly...even though we saw that, we didn’t feel that in any way that could be talking about what we’re doing. Why would they not allow a multi-device charger? It must be something else.
When we started to get bogged down with them on that issue and realized that not only was that the case, but we were hearing rumors that it was going to be even more restrictive than that in terms of what other devices and what other connectors could be on a device that has Lightning.
We just decided that you know what, at this point it’s just better to refund everyone their money, and let’s move on with this. Because we’re getting bogged down, everything’s under NDA, we really can’t talk about it, and let’s just back out of the product, give them their money back, and you know, if we can redesign it someday, or if it does get approved, re-crowdsource it or whatever. But at least this way people aren’t, you know--we don’t have people’s money that we’re waiting on. That was the stress we were under. We had $140,000 of people’s money...and at some point you just want to either give it back or deliver the product, but you don’t want it to just sit there.
HH: So when you submitted the application to Apple, did you have an inkling that it might get rejected, or were you just kind of blindsided by it?
At first, no, and then things went back and forth a little bit, and we were definitely getting inklings along the way. And then once they started to really approve and not approve other products, we were like, “We’re probably not going to get this.” They never actually came back and said no; they just didn’t say yes. We finally decided that at the end of the year...let’s just give everyone their money back, we’re under a lot of pressure because we have this money. I don’t want the money sitting in our account.
And then, you know, when we gave the money back--obviously we were having a little bit of fun with it, a good story, whatever--we had no inkling, thoughts, you know, wildest dreams that it would get the attention that we ended up getting with what happened. That thing went to the highest levels of Apple and everywhere else--you’re a reporter, you’ve seen Apple do a lot of things. I don’t know how many times they’ve turned around in 22 hours and changed a guideline for one of their, you know--a fairly significant piece of their business. It was insane.
HH: It sounds like things kind of got out of hand, but I have to ask the question because the timing of it, it felt a little weird. Because one day, your blog post saying “We’re going to refund money”--you know, we covered it, and myself and a lot of other people thought, hey, this is really commendable. This project has fallen through, Apple is screwing the little guy, and they’re saying “We’re giving this money back” even though it’s hard to do. But then the next day, it was sort of like--oh wait, you have this competing site to Kickstarter, and you’re saying Christie Street can handle this, and all of a sudden it just looked like maybe we got played. So what would you say to that?
We launched Christie Street December 7th, and a lot of what shaped our thought process was because of what we were going through with POP. The news got so f***ed up because so much was going on with this thing, it was kind of crazy. Things were sort of going all over. We announced the POP refunds--if you look at the original email sent out, which was the first thing that everything got written up, we were going to refund it on Christie Street.
So obviously, yes; like, was there a sort of secret little, like, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, let’s refund the money, but at least we’re doing it on our platform.” We got our platform some exposure--that’s not such a bad thing. Absolutely. I would not say that was not a thought in our minds. The reality was though [that] Kickstarter did not and does not have a refund system.
We needed to do something in order to refund the money and handle it. And part of what we had built with Christie Street was a refund system because, again, we saw that go over with POP, and as October, November sort of dragged on, and we said, “You know, we might have to refund this money...” The reason we built Christie Street was a response to our experience doing a Kickstarter with POP.
And so, I answer the question with sort of like, it’s a little bit 50/50. Was there a hidden piece of it that we were trying to leverage? Yeah, but at the same time, to be fair to us, we were losing 8% of that money. So I’m losing $11,000 doing the refunds right off the bat. So the fact that I was doing something that maybe gave me a little bit of an edge on another startup I had? You know, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I can tell you for sure that we were losing money and doing the full refund.
HH: If you didn’t have Christie Street brewing, kind of ready to go to solve your problem, would you have gone ahead with the Lightning connector and just said, “Sorry everyone, we can’t do the iPhone 5 compatibility, but this is what we have”?
No, because our real business, our goal, is to build great products, and getting $140,000 and building a product, you’re still losing money on that product. So if that product can’t go to retail, or it can’t be sold online, or do anything after that, honestly it’s...a little bit bad for the environment. Because you’re just building something that’s really not to scale, it’s never going to be used again. And I can tell you that there’s not a single retailer that’s going to take a 30-pin charger-only charging station right now.
From just that side, it was killing [the POP Charger], and the other side is that we did get a lot of people that had a lot of concern in August about the iPhone 5 coming out, and that it would have a new connector. We said, “Yeah, sure--you know, we’re not going to start making this thing until after the connector is out. So sure, of course we’ll have the connector in there, great.” We sort of publicly told everyone it’d be iPhone 5 compatible. And when it wasn’t...I don’t think shipping a product that was compromised for ourselves would be good, [and] I don’t think it would have been good for the investors.
We’d rather see only awesome products get built and stuff that has been compromised get refunded than have a compromised product. If you look at what’s been crowdfunded, there have been products that have shipped that have been substandard products that would have been so much better if that inventor, for themselves and for the customer, had said, “You know what? It’s not coming out the way that I had imagined, but let me refund the money.” It’s better than shipping it.
I asked Siminoff to expound further on the differences between Kickstarter and Christie Street. He noted first off that Kickstarter is owed a debt of gratitude for essentially figuring out the current model of online crowdfunding, and he hopes the site continues to have great success.
Where Christie Street differs, however (aside from the refund capabilities), is that it’s focused solely on hardware projects instead of Kickstarter-type projects such as musicians raising money to record an album or other creative endeavors. “We’ve decided that product--physical product--has its own problems”, said Siminoff. “By having a crowdfunding site, or pre-sale site for just products, that we can solve a lot of those problems, and in doing so protect the buyer as well as the investor.”
Christie Street has an auditing process before it accepts products onto its site to ensure that a product has a certain level of viability and that the people behind it are doing things fairly, honestly, and as wisely as possible. It’s an interesting approach, and it makes a lot of sense.
Jamie Siminoff was frank and honest in his answers to our questions, and he didn’t shy away from tough questions nor sugarcoat his answers, which I appreciated. The whole POP Charger-Apple-Kickstarter-Christie Street story was an interesting and odd one; as is almost always the case in real life, the truth behind it is much more nuanced than what it appears.