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The Internet is Not a Democracy (or: how not to gain customer confidence)

Pete Brown - 03 April 2012

Warning: this is as much a rant as anything remotely useful. Oh, and don't comment without reading the whole thing :)

The Internet is not a democracy. More specifically, blog commenting systems aren't a democracy. Blog authors and administrators get to decide which comments show up on their blog, and which do not. On my own blog, I remove spam messages (or I let Akismet do it in most cases), and the one or two truly offensive troll comments I get every once in a while -- usually only if a post hits reddit or /. . Other than that, I like to keep the spectrum of comments, good and bad, on my blog. I don't pre-moderate as that's just exudes untrustworthiness, and it's a pain to do.

Not everyone agrees with that approach.

The DIY 3d Printer Blog

When you see a blog post like this one, and see the overwhelmingly positive response, you're only seeing part of the picture. See, in this case, Junior moderates his comments and only lets through the ones which meet the goals of his business and his agenda. It's not a democracy, the blog owner gets to decide what shows up. Silencing opposition is a pretty big and powerful hammer. As a blog owner, I'm all for keeping this level of control with the blog owner. But also, as a citizen of the Internet, I try to be very fair and reasoned in how I wield it.

I've been looking forward to the release of his 3d Printer for quite some time. What Junior finally announced was a bit of a let down, but something I would still consider, as the resolution on the printer is spectacular. These two paragraphs in that post, however, set off a few alarms:

Because of this, we think would make more sense to move for only a basic kit, where we would provide all documentation needed to build the Printer, as well the Resin formula and just sell the software and the controller board. The documentation would have the detail technical specification, BOM and Suppliers.

This basic kit (Document + Software + Controller Board) would be sold around $600 USD, but even for that we would need a good volume to be able to produce it.
For this reason we're creating a Pre-order list for both Kits (full and basic), so we can decide the best way to move forward.

The controller board is fairly inexpensive. There are tons of multi-axis boards out there, including many OSH (Open Source Hardware) ones. Almost all are under $150. While I'm sure his controller board offers some additional things, it's probably nothing out of the ordinary. So the real value here is the software. This was further corroborated by his "Wow!!! Thanks for all the emails!!!" blog post where he enumerated several of the pricing tiers:

Software + Complete CD (399 USD - including shipping):
The CD above + full license of our software (features of the software will be in the FAQ)
Software price after Indiegogo: (549 USD)

Basic Kit I (Software + Controler board + Complete CD) (599 USD - shipping not included):
All items above + 1 controller board (able to control the entire printer).
(This basic kit does not include motors or linear guides or projector)
Price After Indiegogo: (849 USD)


Unfortunately we will be able to deliver only 250 full kits this year for this Indiegogo campaign, because of production limitation and we will probably just take new orders next year once we deliver all Indiegogo perks.

So Junior isn't *really* selling a printer. He's selling software. That's ok, just not quite what I had expected. As a business, it makes sense, as the software is where the margin is. In contrast, most other 3d printers sales are about selling the hardware, but the software is all free and open source, constantly improved by an active community of developers.

Anyway, $400 to $549 for CAD/CNC software from an individual or small business is a bit scary. So, I wrote a comment to Junior on the previous blog (before the pricing post, back when the alarms first went off), asking what his plans were for support and escrow of his software and code. When someone offers to sell me software multiple hundreds of dollars, and they're just an individual, and the software is proprietary, I want to know what the support policy is going to be. I wanted to know what guarantees he had in place, and if he's putting the source in escrow.

Why Escrow and Support are Important

Why is this important? His software is not OSS, and I don't want to get something proprietary and have him jump ship, leaving me holding something that can never be upgraded. This originally came to mind because Junior never answers questions on his blog or on twitter. Communication is strictly one-way. Back when I worked in the IT department of a company in MA, I helped develop a bit of very cool (but small) software we sold to hospitals. Because hospitals are huge multi-million dollar institutions, and we were not, they required the software and its source to be placed in escrow. That meant that if the company I worked for folded or otherwise failed to uphold its end of the escrow contract, the hospital would get the source code, data, and binaries for the application. This is important protection for any company or individual.

In another example: I bought some CNC software and hardware some time ago. Shortly after I bought that, the person/company who sold it went slightly psycho and shut down his support forums. Before that, if someone questioned him, he'd rip them a new one and kick them off his forums. He also tried to make the support forums a for-fee item after the fact. It was…strange. I stayed on his good side, but support by fear isn't exactly my cup of tea. Unfortunately, the hardware was proprietary and the software was also proprietary. That meant that he was the sole source of support if I wanted to stick with his products. I'm still stuck with a hardware/software pairing that can't be broken, and there's been almost no real innovation in the software. Ugh.

In any case, Junior didn't let my first question through on his blog. I was equal parts surprised and disappointed, as the comment was not a troll comment and also wasn't rude, or spammy or anything.

So, I wrote again (at 4/1 5pm eastern time), on the "Thanks for all the emails" post. Here's the exact post (I saved it this time):

Once again, I need to ask about the software.

You are an individual, selling custom proprietary (non OSS) software for a non-trivial price. What's the guarantee that you'll be around and will support your product? Are you putting the software and its source in 3rd party escrow? What's your support policy/plan? Bug fixes? Supported operating systems?

I know blogs are not a democracy, but please post the question this time. This is important stuff.



Unsurprisingly, that comment was also not posted on the 3d Printer DIY Blog. Comments posted before and after mine showed up in his nightly moderation batches. Both of mine were both posted using Google IDs with a photo -- they wouldn't have tripped a spam filter or anything. Junior also never answered any of my early queries over Twitter.

He could have answered it over email if he didn't want it publicly posted on his blog. Instead, the queries were just ignored. At the time of this writing, his FAQ doesn't address any of these concerns.

I was tempted to go to his new indiegogo campaign and post the question there, as I don't believe he can moderate posts. However, at that point, it would just be a vendetta, as he has clearly proven to me that he is not the kind of person I'm comfortable dealing with. $600 is not nothing. But hey. I see his indiegogo campaign is doing well, and there are lots of people for whom this isn't a concern. I do (seriously) wish him the best of luck with it, and I really do hope he does something to ensure that folks aren't left in the cold.


This is in contrast to other products I've seen developed openly on the web. Shapeoko, for example, was developed in the open, had a successful Kickstarter campaign, a wiki with help, a free support forum, and Edward Ford went way above and beyond in answering questions. He was answering questions long before he had actual bits in people's hands.

Here's another one I've dealt with. John at Microcarve was happy to help me out when I bought a Z-axis mount from him. He answered all my questions and delivered above and beyond. He's also quite active in the CNC zone community. He didn't pop out of nowhere: he has a reputation and is trusted. He also has a Yahoo group for support of his products, Q&A etc.

Other more established examples include Chris Walker at Secret Labs (Netduino, Plus and Mini) and Gus Issa at GHI Electronics (Gadgeteer Hydra/Spider/Cerebus + Panda). Both of these guys are active in supporting their communities. Both make real money developing products that are, to various extents, open source software and hardware. Both are people I'm comfortable sending money to.

Lessons Learned

What are the lessons to be learned here?

  • If you're selling software, you need to be prepared to support it, and for the questions from people who want a few answers before shelling out. The people asking the hard questions could very well be your best customers and advocates. That's just good business.
  • You can make money selling software, but unless you're trying to build a big business out of it, you may find it easier to simply develop it in the open, as OSS. If your whole business is built around selling the software (which is what it appears Junior was working towards all this time - the printer itself is just ancillary), this may not work for you.
  • When you see overwhelmingly one-sided comments on a blog, and no one is asking the hard questions, ask yourself if you're really seeing the whole picture.
  • Indie campaigns that aren't OSS/OSH just feel old-fashioned.
  • Simply being reasonable in your feedback doesn't mean the blog author/business owner will post it or answer it. Blogs aren't a democracy. Ok, I take it back. They are a democracy, and I'm voting with my feet and my wallet.
posted by Pete Brown on Tuesday, April 3, 2012
filed under:      

11 comments for “The Internet is Not a Democracy (or: how not to gain customer confidence)”

  1. Mario Vernarisays:
    That's absolutely true.
    I was bumping a similar situation by posting my opinion on certain "politically oriented" sites. The moderator (a.k.a. censor) cut everything is not aligned with the site context.
    I really guess we should create such a "garbage collector" for sites like these.
  2. Ryan O'Neillsays:
    Well put. Gus Issa of GHI also spent a lot of time helping me out and even sponsored our user group. The difference is that I now feel I owe Gus something and will happily tell everyone how great the FEZ/GHI stuff is (like now, obviously).

    I agree with you, it works on a business level as the product takes on a life of its own when open. I'm trying to get a customer to open source their lighting control systems along the same lines but they are scared of China. It's an uphill battle.
  3. Rob Sedersays:
    You went through a lot of trouble to absolutely, positively confirm, with certainty, that this is not someone you want to do business with! When in real life, you already had some pretty good indicators!

    I have a "one-or-two strikes and you're out" kind of attitude. If I don't get responses from twitter, e-mail, phone, and/or they censor my reasonable comments - then it's just time to move on. There is nothing good that comes of trying to coerce a business taking my money! If I have to chase down a business-owner to give him/her my money, then there is something wrong with that!

    I mean, I appreciate your pain, but it may have been unecessary. It's kind of like driving at night and you stare into the oncoming cars headlights asking "does that jerk have his high-beams on?" - even if you get your answer, it still didn't help you. All it did was frustrate you!

    With all of that said, I appreciate you posting updates on the 3D printing, as this is something that interests me - yet I find it hard to find any good sources of information/updates on the industry. Keep fighting the good fight!
  4. Nathan Lewissays:
    Finding companies (large or small) that make good products and have excellent support seem to be few and far between these days. So when I run across a good one, I like to give them a shout-out whenever I can. In my experience, Saleae Logic (http://www.saleae.com/) has been fantastic. You can argue their products are overpriced for what they are, but their software is (while not open source) rock solid, fast, and intuitive. BTW, I have no affiliation with Saleae, I just think they're a good small company making a really useful product with great support to go with it.

    For instance, I had some extra clips left over from buying a Saleae Logic and a USB oscilloscope. I wanted to connect two clips together to create some quick jumpers for a prototype I was working on. I e-mailed Saleae asking what sort of connectors they use on the end of their breakout cable so I could make my own jumpers. I got a response within a couple hours, late at night, with a link to the Digikey product they use, and a couple tips on using them. Now THAT's good support.

    With many companies, my request would have been ignored and possibly mistaken for a thinly veiled attempt at trying to duplicate their product. Saleae did the opposite and helped me out, went the extra mile and in record time.

  5. Petesays:

    I've been pretty happy with Saleae as well. I use their 8 channel logic analyzer.

    As someone who likes OSS and developing in the open, I don't like that you need to apply for private access to their SDK, but once I read why, I was generally ok with it.

  6. Beardfacesays:
    I Complete agree. I followed his videos for a while in aw... but the kickstarter launch has been a pure dissapointment, and I've also been the victim of his blog-screening.

    I almost hate to post this comment because it will be seen as spam, but his lack of open-ness has frustrated me into starting my own 3d printer project.

    Its still in its infancy, but hopefully there will be something cool that comes of it... I'm aiming for something that prints very well, and has a high level of design. We'll see where it ends up... :)


    No way will I be charging 600 for software, I gaurantee it'll be open source / open design. (Assuming it ever materializes and anyone other than myself wants to bulid one).

    You can save this post as history in case I am corrupted by the smell of green (resin... :) ).
  7. Petesays:

    Not spam. It's completely relevant.

    One other issue with Junior's approach, at least from the comments I've read on his indiegogo page, have to do with patents. I'm not a big fan of patents in situations like this, but I'd be afraid that I spent $600 for software that is proprietary to his board, and then he's not allowed to deliver the boards or other bits to the US. If it were open source, you wouldn't have to worry too much.

    The TikiPrinter looks awesome. You could potentially run into the same legal issues, but given it is a lower profile project (no 300k funding campaigh) and all OSS/OSH GPL, there's both less risk of a lawsuit (I would think, IANAL) and some peace of mind in case it *does* come to that.

    How far along are you? Are those sample prints from your actual prototype in your lab environment? What do you need to make this a reality?

  8. Pazusays:
    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I too was a victim of his blog censoring. I merely posted legit questions to his intention of releasing a partial kit but was shocked that it didn't appear on the blog comments at all.

    Needless to say, that left a bad taste in my mouth. Such a shame because like many others, I've followed his progress like a little puppy and wished him success.

    At the current state, there is too many questions left unanswered for me to blindly throw in 4k in cold hard cash. Looking at how the crowd-funding project is run, it also shows how unprofessional it's set up. The lowest pledge actually says it'll get you on with "some secrets". Like,.. what? Unicorn tears?

    Honestly, if they can't handle 100 emails a day at the height of their funding phase, I don't feel safe letting them handle a funding project that intends to take in 300k. It's simply no excuse for their lack of communication and transparency. There is absolutely no information on the capabilities of the "magic" controller board.

    Finally, I think he absolutely dropped the ball with his latest update post. Sounding like a spoilt child is not going to help his already shaken credibility.

  9. Peter Zamovsays:
    I, like you, was also interested in the development of JR's printer until he started deleting posts and censoring comments ( some of my questions actually made it to two of the FAQs he posted, then he mentioned patents and most everything got censored and covered up. That inspired me to create my own version of a 3D DLP Printer and post everything. I have done it with the help of a fine group of people any it is only deserving I share all I have learned. I am not about to support his campaign, but will remain positive about the whole experience, that led me to where I am.


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