When Richmonder Zachary Jester raised nearly twice the amount of money he hoped for from a crowdfunding campaign two years ago, it was cause for celebration. But after ordering the material for the high-end speakers his donors were clamoring for, Jester had a problem: he had to build them.
“We got the stuff ordered and had to figure out how to do this en masse,” he said. “It was a lot more than we thought.”
The item in question is the BeamBox, a stereo speaker made from reclaimed, hand-hewn wood in Jester’s new shop at 1600 Valley Road near I-64. Each BeamBox is made with more than 25 individual parts put together by hand. Because of the complicated design, Jester has done the work himself with help from a former employee.
“I probably designed it the most complicated way I could have,” he said.
Jester, who in his day job runs Van Jester Woodworks making furniture out of reclaimed wood, set out in 2014 to raise $8,000 on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and hoped to sell about 20 BeamBoxes as a way of launching a spinoff company called ClawHammer Co. But money poured in – $15,786 from 81 donors to be exact – resulting in orders for 40 BeamBoxes.
Now, more than a year after raising the money, Jester has completed only about 15 BeamBoxes and has 25 orders and a list of frustrated customers to satisfy.
Self-imposed deadlines for getting the BeamBoxes shipped came and went, and some of Jester’s backers turned on him, asking for refunds and berating him in the comments section of his Kickstarter page.
“People have asked for their money back but I can’t do it because I already bought everything,” Jester said. “They view it as if they purchased it.”
Jester said the crowdfunding money all went to materials – not just for 40 BeamBoxes but for 80. That’s because in addition to meeting the orders of his backers, Jester’s plan was to invest in the future of ClawHammer and have units ready for the retail market. But spending all the money on inventory left nothing to put into the labor.
“It took away some of our ability to get the things actually made,” Jester said.
As the excitement of the campaign was replaced by angry customers and lingering unfilled orders, Jester posted a lengthy mea culpa on Kickstarter apologizing for the delay and pleading for patience from his backers that began: “I used to be a good person.”
“I’m just a guy who thought he wanted to make something cool, took a risk, and failed,” Jester said in his post. “That anxiety weighs on me every day.”
Jester’s apologies aren’t enough for Backer #68, Jon Coonce, who has sent messages and a letter to Jester asking for a refund.
“Just saying ‘I’m sorry’ – it’s kind of redundant,” Coonce said. “I’m a very sympathetic person, I understand things happen, but enough is enough.”
Coonce, a 34-year-old owner of a trucking company in Tennessee, has given money to about 100 crowdfunding campaigns. He said he first heard about BeamBox when he saw it featured on one of KickStarter’s pages. The website lets people and companies offer products and services online to raise money. Since launching in 2009, 11 million people have backed 102,710 Kickstarter projects for a total of $2.3 billion.
Coonce was one of three who gave $600 – the maximum amount for Jester’s campaign – in exchange for the promise of a BeamBox, a smaller speaker called the BarnBox, and ClawHammer swag.
“It was just so unique, and the guy that was doing the talking on the video looked like he a was a very hands-on kind of person,” Coonce said. “The appeal (of crowdfunding) is when you are just a little guy in a big world and you have a really good idea and maybe you don’t have the resources or network to be able to bring that idea to market or public. That’s the appeal: to help somebody or someone or something just bring their product to market.”
Coonce said what bothers him the most about ClawHammer’s campaign is the lack of communication about the status of the products he was promised.
“They’re not replying to emails or messages on Kickstarter. I even sent them a letter,” Coonce said, adding that his message was that he wanted his money back. “They have just fallen off the map.”
Kickstarter, which makes its money from a 5 percent fee it charges successful campaigns, doesn’t get involved with imbroglios between backers and companies. The company doesn’t vet campaigns: to raise money on its website, Kickstarter requires a project with a clear goal and that the campaign doesn’t offer financial incentives and isn’t for charity.
“On Kickstarter, backers ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it,” reads Kickstarter’s website.
Coonce said his experience with the ClawHammer campaign was an anomaly for him. He still plans to continue to fund interesting Kickstarter campaings he comes across.
“I’m not interested in backing a brand new venture,” Coonce said. “I’ll be more selective on the businesses I back.”
Jester said he hasn’t given up and hopes to ship two BeamBoxes a week until he fills all the orders that came from Kickstarter. Then he hopes to continue selling BeamBoxes on ClawHammer’s website and develop more speakers to sell.
“It’s hard to talk about because at this point there’s no excuse,” he said. “I know some people won’t be satisfied until it’s done but we’ll keep plugging along.”
If he had to do it over again, Jester said he would have asked for less money and put a cap on the total funding he could accept.
“The last six months has just kind of been despair,” Jester said, wearing a shirt stamped with the ClawHammer logo. “The wind is out of the sails. Putting on this shirt reminds me that I owe people things.”
After reading this article I felt compelled to speak up on behalf of Zac Jester, his character,his work, and kick start style programs. I have know Zac professionally for about 7 or 8 years and he’s a good dude. Investors can rest assured you will get what you were promised. This is not a bad guy or someone that lacks the talent or follow through to complete this vision. While I understand the frustration and anger felt by paying for something that isn’t delivered as promised, think about what you entered into. There is an inherent risk with all investment… Read more »
Personally I wanted to and almost backed this great product. I’d suggest a simple private round of fundraising to fulfill the demand. Zachary obviously made a strategic growth mistake, but that’s just business. With a quick infusion of money and guidance, he could turn this around to his advantage. I would think in Richmond there is someone who could step in for a short term convertible note $ relief fund with possible small equity/profit share kicker to resolve this. Bueller? Bueller? Anyone out there? RVAMakers, would be retail distributors like say La Diff owners? Suppliers of wood or inner components… Read more »
I personally know Mr.Jester. The quality of work and his devotion to the craft will see him through this bump in the road. Having done a similar type of action with my own shop years ago, I know it will come around on the wheel properly and with a level of finesse that only he can accomplish.
Hey Paul, perhaps you can get this to Ben.
https://borrow.kiva.org/borrow Could be a great option!
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