Great Minds Think Alike: A Tale of Twin Kickstarter Projects

Side-by-side comparison of the Astro (left) and Radian time-lapse photography devices (Kickstarter)

Imagine devoting months of your life as well as personal funds to developing a product only to discover on launch-day another team has just released the same thing.

That's what just happened to two teams of engineers, one in Minneapolis and the other in Palo Alto, who independently designed and built a hockeypuck-sized tool for easy and affordable motion time-lapse photography. After developing the device, both teams, Astro and Radian, independently turned to crowd-sourced funding-platform Kickstarter to raise capital for their initial production runs.

Both then -- incredibly, improbably, and independently -- prepared to launch the same day. But as it happened, Astro was able to release three days early, while Radian, delayed by complications with their Amazon Payments account, opened one day late. By the time both were live, the four-day difference had put Astro $100,000 ahead.

"I was in shock," said Kris Cheng, one of Radian's four founders, when he got a "check this out" text and link from a Kickstarter-cruising friend three days before their launch. "I mean, what were the odds?"

The Radian guys, all engineering students from Stanford University, were bummed. "We thought the Kickstarter community couldn't possibly support both products," said Cheng. "We were ready to call it quits."

But then deciding they had nothing to lose, they posted their product anyway. Stunned, they saw their account grow by tens of thousands over the next few days. It blasted through their target goal of about $180,000 in about two weeks with time to spare.

Meanwhile Astro has raised an even greater amount: $255,000 (and counting) -- more than five times their initial fundraising goal of $50,000.

Competition is rarely a bad thing. It forced the Radian team -- acutely aware of how little differentiated their two products -- to make some fast adjustments to their product launch.

Radian's photography tool could pan and tilt, and had longer battery life. Astro's had a sleek, more intuitive physical interface that didn't need the smart-phone app Radian required.

"We had to figure out what we could do to make our product more appealing," said Marcus Albonico, another Radian founder.

The most obvious solution was to recalibrate their higher costs to beat Astro's price point. "We knew that if we sold 1,200 units, our molding costs would drop dramatically," Albonico noted. But this also meant needing more sales, causing them to significantly raise their fundraising goals. "It became a: 'go big or go home' kind of thing," he said.

This is where the importance of Kickstarter's unique low-risk business model came in: If a project fails to reach its fundraising goal, its backers aren't charged and there is no obligation to deliver.

The other Kickstarter advantage, at least for the consumer, was that each team's visibly-detailed online product description, in addition to the comments' section that invites backer feedback and questions, enabled both groups to see and then cannibalize each other's features to improve their own product prior to market.

Thus, just as Radian did some revising to compete, Astro's engineering team quickly added a Radian-style tilt option in addition to other upgrades to enhance their device.

As for the odd timing coincidence of the products' launch, Astro's Oscar Ramirez, who has an MBA and a degree in industrial engineering, suggested it might not be all that surprising:

There are other bulkier and more expensive time-lapse devices already on the market, he noted. But, "as cameras become more capable, people want more control." Frustration with such tools can be a great motivator for those who know something about industrial design.

The take-away from this dust up? Joe photographer has benefited. The result of such friendly competition (both teams were kindly complimentary about the other) brings two new, slightly different, slightly improved, ever more affordable, cool photography tools to market.

Final lesson? Ramirez, who gained a financial advantage in launching first, offers this advice to anyone planning a start-up: "Release! We released three days early. Had it been three days later, the story might have been very different. Had it been two weeks earlier? Who knows..."

Imagine devoting months of your life as well as personal funds to developing a product only to discover on launch-day another team has just released the same thing.