The camera press went a little crazy this week as a small company announced that something tiny will sell for something massive. As someone who hates tripods and will go to some lengths to avoid using them, trying to get my head around the column inches has been fascinating.
Trying to find a news outlet or vlogger that wasn’t shouting excitedly about this new tripod was almost impossible on Wednesday. Even brand-specific rumor websites were running the story — a far cry from their usual fare of Sony firmware updates and Nikon lens patents — and every outlet tripped over itself to announce that there was going to be a new tripod that’s slightly smaller, slightly lighter, and quite expensive. It’s not for sale yet, but holy crap, it’s new and slightly different from all those other tripods that already exist.
There’s no denying that Peak Design’s new tripod looks fantastic. As companies go, Peak Design’s journey has been something of a triumph, both of design and marketing. The fact that a new product — launched via a Kickstarter no less — can create so much buzz is reflective of the quality and respect that this brand brings and generates. Kickstarter is a platform that generally breeds a lot of skepticism from photographers, having produced some rather dubious failures over the years, such as the Yashica Y35. With the Yashica, investors paid more than a hundred dollars for a woefully cheap piece of plastic that barely worked, a sign that, as though one were needed, investing in Kickstarter projects is always a gamble. I suspect that the list of photography Kickstarter projects that have garnered wide investment and then failed to deliver is not a short one. Backers of Meyer Optik Görlitz will not get a refund, a reminder that crowdfunding is not the same as preordering.
Bags Are Killing It With Kickstarter
For bag companies such as Peak Design and WANDRD, however, Kickstarter has been the perfect means of getting products to market, and these companies are now able to build on a significant amount of trust. Somehow, bags lend themselves to the crowdfunding model, with niche requirements addressed by well-researched, extensively tested solutions, presented through pretty videos featuring gentle voiceovers and the upsettingly enthusiastic, plinky-plunky “hey, we’re a fun, small brand with a nice product” soundtracks that Apple popularized 10 years ago and now drive me completely insane. The editors will not let me write what I want to do to people who use ukuleles in their Kickstarter videos (editor's note: you don't want to know anyway). You are selling a product. You are not making a cat video. For the sake of humanity, please stop.
Peak Design’s products are fantastic. I own a bag, my friends own bags, the straps are great, and I’ve heard so few complaints that you have to wonder when it's going to drop the ball. Are their products too expensive? Well, if people are buying them — and they are — apparently not. The early criticism of the tripod (leaving aside Northrup’s bloodied finger and the limitations of the ball head) is that $600 for a travel tripod is insane, and yet, the Kickstarter will clear ten times its goal by the end of this week. The fact that Peak Design managed to convince every major vlogger and their milkman to shout about something as mundane as a tripod is testament to the company's reputation and a triumph of marketing. It’s more than a couple of days later and I’m still writing about it and you’re still reading about it. Clearly, the marketing team is doing something right.
The Blessed Comments Section
The usual arguments play out in the comments: “It’s too expensive!” Then don’t buy one. “The legs look unstable!” Then buy a heavier tripod. “The legs look like they might bend!” Then buy a bigger tripod. “They’re forcing me to use a hex key!” Then buy literally any other tripod. “You can’t see the bubble when you put the camera on!” It’s a travel tripod, not a magic tripod. “It’ll be too wobbly for really long exposures!” Then maybe a super-lightweight tripod is not for you. In short, this is a travel tripod, not a magical, weightless unicorn that will follow you around and intermittently hold your camera very, very still for you because you've decided that the clouds aren't quite right. Compromises have been made, and, like any product, it will have some limitations. For Peak Design, getting this tripod into the hands of so many noisy influencers is very successful, but the company is aware that this carries a risk, as any flaws will set the tone at a very early stage.
So Why More Crowdfunding?
It's interesting to assess customers’ willingness to return to Kickstarter to support companies that have already established themselves as major players in the camera industry. Shouldn’t a successful brand like Peak Design be seeking a loan or taking on private equity to bring a product to market rather than relying on the speculative pledges of their large fan base? In crowdfunding, those stumping up the cash are investors, not customers, and those willing to risk their money are doing so based on those execrable ukuleles, gear acquisition syndrome, and a large amount of goodwill.
There’s also something seductive about this new commercial model, of feeling bound up in a brand, and buying membership into a special collective that has access to something unique. As a means of connecting with buyers, crowdfunding establishes strong bonds with dedicated followers — followers who appreciate a small company's desire to remain independent of shareholders and large investors who are typically more interested in the bottom line than whether a product is awesome or not. A combination of brand loyalty and products that integrate with one another means that it’s far from unusual to see photographers strutting around proudly rocking every Peak Design product on the market.
Now Go and Make Ten Thousand Tripods
The patience of Peak Design’s fans for ever more Kickstarter projects does not seem to be wearing thin, and given that this model continues to work for Peak Design, you can expect to the company — and others — to stick with it for the foreseeable future. At time of writing, there were almost 10,000 investors, which suggests that Peak Design needs to take its millions of dollars, go away, and make 10,000 tripods. That is an insane number of tripods, and it only takes a small glitch in production to set that process back by 6 months or more and leave 10,000 people — most of whom are probably missing the best part of $500 — wondering where their tripod is. That lifetime warranty doesn't count for much if the product is sitting in a warehouse in China and wondering if it will ever see daylight again. This is not knocking Peak Design: it is an established company with a decent track record (although let’s not forget the camera straps), and whatever you think of the products, investors have demonstrated a lot of faith in its ability to deliver on its promises. However, this is a model that still carries significant risks, both for investors and for companies.
What does the future of the camera industry and the crowdfunding model? And there’s something else that intrigues me: does Peak Design make the majority of its money from the Kickstarter sales or from post-release sales? By the end of this year, it will probably have generated more than $20 million in crowdfunding alone since the company’s launch in San Francisco in 2010. If you have any thoughts on this — or anything else — please leave a comment below.