Crowdfunding campaign for home espresso machine brews backlash

The company's plans never materialized, and now supporters who spent as much as US$1,000 on the machine are looking for answers

TORONTO – Backers of a failed effort on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter are considering their options after founders of a coffee maker missed a mid-April deadline to get the project back on track.

ZPM Espresso claimed its Nocturne coffee maker was the world’s first smart espresso machine for the home because of a programmable control chip, more common in commercial machines, that would allow consumers to create the perfect shot of concentrated java by precisely controlling water pressure and temperature.

Yet the company’s plans never materialized, and now supporters who spent as much as US$1,000 on the machine – and assorted bonuses including T-shirts and coffee paraphernalia – are looking for answers.

Christopher Browne, a Toronto-based computer scientist, said he contributed $350 during ZPM Espresso’s original Kickstarter campaign from December 2011 to January 2012, which was supposed to cover the cost of the machine as well as a few extra gifts. The campaign raised US$369,569, well above the original US$20,000 goal.

The creators posted frequent updates in the beginning, Browne said. As the months passed, he remained positive even as the company ran into problems. There were issues with the quality of the manufacturing, and ZPM Espresso hired outside consultants to adapt the design.

Browne said he knew the project was destined for failure last fall as updates became less frequent and problems seemed to multiply.

In January, ZPM Espresso announced it was shutting down and that only a small amount of the initial money remained to return as refunds. The news prompted other backers to complain on Kickstarter and social media, Browne said, with some comments from those who felt “betrayed” by the company turning vitriolic.

In an interview, one of the founders of ZPM Espresso shed light on some of the problems.

“The way you make something at volumes of 50 is completely different than the way you make things at volumes of a thousand,” said Gleb Polyakov.

Consumers need to understand that crowdfunding is a different consumer experience than buying an existing product from an online retailer like Amazon, he added.

“That feeling of involvement and early access and participation is probably the main reason people go towards crowdfunding as a platform and find it exciting,” he said.

“But when a company is only three people instead of IBM or Apple, the manufacturing process and the customer service process looks much different.”

On its website, Kickstarter says the responsibility for completing the project lies with the creator and that any refunds must be processed between the creator and the backers.

The company has updated its rules and terms of use several times since the site launched. Last year, it clarified the legal rights of backers to sue creators if they fail to bring the project to its “best possible conclusion.”

Browne said he and other backers have discussed going to court to pursue a refund or some other remedy.

“The agreements that Kickstarter set up are worded such that this isn’t formally a product, where you can have a direct expectation of delivery,” he said. “Anyone that’s looked at Kickstarter with any care ought to be aware of that, but people like to imagine otherwise.”

Despite that, Browne hasn’t soured on the idea of crowdfunding. On April 24, he posted on Twitter that he was proud to be the 1,119th backer of a specialized 3.8-litre insulated flask for storing beer that claims to be the world’s largest personal keg.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.