Vernon Kerswell asks if we can meet at a Thames-side café in Teddington, south-west London. He doesn’t say as much, but he seems almost resistant to being seen on his home patch, five miles away in Wimbledon.
A diffident young man, Kerswell has even more of a frightened-rabbit look than he did the first time I met him, in early 2020. At that point, the sustained online campaign against him had yet to reach its near-hysterical crescendo.
Today, just under 37,000 comments – mostly complaints against the man they routinely call ‘Vermin Kerswell’ – have been posted on his crowdfunding page. ‘Vernon Kerswell is a lying piece of s--t,’ is one popular refrain among his detractors across the world. Or ‘Mr Pathetic’. Failure. Scammer. Incompetent amateur. ‘He simply has totally nothing. Apart from his lies that is,’ types another critic. Others pledge to sue him.
What is the crime of this likeable, geeky 34-year-old electronics whizz, talented musician, churchgoer and Mandarin speaker? He has been rather late delivering an affordable drone he and a young London team designed, crowdfunded by some 11,000 people to the tune of £1.3 million. Originally promised in June 2019, following production problems in China and subsequent Covid-related delays, delivery of the £145 Micro Drone 4.0 has since been pledged for several other (since missed) deadlines; it will now, Kerswell assures me, ‘be delivered in the next three months’. Those who had stumped up an early-bird reduced price to get their drone had already started to swarm like angry, slightly deranged wasps back in 2019. Now, they are incandescent. There are people who have posted their ire online more than a thousand times.
‘Vernon, can you please stop with the misleading information,’ says one Georgi Georgiev. ‘This is not a genuine project and it’s a scam. There is not even a single evidence of the existence of the drone. There is also no proof that there is a Micro Drone team. There is no drone. There is no team.’ I have met Kerswell in order that he can put his drone through its paces and I have a working example, but I don’t suppose that will matter. The invective spews forth in an unstoppable torrent.
The battle between Kerswell and his critics is a classic example of the kind of storms in a bell jar that, unknown to the general public, pervade the microclimate of many hobbies. In the Micro Drone 4.0 case, unprintable accusations fly around, with mutterings hovering menacingly of restraining orders, harassment, legal action and even unspecified ‘sinister forces’.
What Kerswell, the sole British maker of hobbyist drones, is suffering from (or causing others to suffer from, according to your perspective) is a growing phenomenon across the world, of young technology entrepreneurs chomping off a great deal more than they can chew – especially when it comes to financing.
Crowdfunding is capitalism without the usual capital: the way new, small-scale technology companies often raise money. Instead of getting an angel investor or borrowing money from the bank, innovative start-ups whose owners don’t want to follow a typical career path, but rather get on with inventing what they hope will be ‘disruptive’ gadgets, partner with the public. Publicising their product – often little more than a glint in their eye – on major crowdfunding platforms such as US-based Indiegogo and Kickstarter, they attract thousands of small investors and then get on with developing their project.
Not that Kerswell’s business, Extreme Fliers, is quite a start-up. After attempting to raise money on Dragons’ Den while he was still a student (unsuccessfully, although Deborah Meaden said he was ‘very investable’), the computing and business graduate has been designing and selling drones for several years. Earlier models have been stocked in Selfridges in London and Fry’s Electronics stores in the US. He even won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2016.
Despite these successes, however, the toll on Kerswell’s well-being from the stress of producing the Micro Drone 4.0, and the related campaign against him personally, is palpable.
‘I try to be thick-skinned,’ he says, ‘but it’s upsetting. Some of the complaints are fair criticism. But it seems they find abusing me entertaining, which is a bit sad. Some post abuse to pressure me into rushing things, some people genuinely want to see the project fail. But calling me a scammer is totally unfair. They’re obsessive, like vigilantes. Some of them are posting comments 20 or 30 times a week. This kind of thing has the potential to ruin people’s lives.’
To gauge whether the participants in bad-mouthing extravaganzas are brave behind a keyboard, but shyer when it comes to talking one-on-one, I Zoomed with one Sean Hickey, Kerswell’s most trenchant nemesis. The 45-year-old former estate agent from Camberley, Surrey, who runs a YouTube channel about drones, Geeksvana, was far from reticent, however.
‘Vernon is extremely bright. He’s a very nice guy. I started out sympathetic towards him when I interviewed him on my channel,’ Hickey says unexpectedly. ‘But hundreds of backers then contacted me with evidence of conversations with them where he is a different person, very angry, very confrontational, attempting to intimidate all the time – or just refusing to respond or engage.
‘So I don’t think this is a guy that woke up one day and thought, “I know how to con people out of a couple of million dollars, I’m gonna do a fake crowdfunding campaign.” I think it went wrong and it’s now out of control for him. I do think it actually warrants police investigation. But I also hate the way people have got personal in their comments. They are frankly shameful. Because at the end of the day, you know, he isn’t a mass murderer. And even a mass murderer has rights.’
Take a look at Indiegogo or Kickstarter and you’ll see they host almost a surfeit of imagination. Day by day, there’s a constellation of ideas that would struggle to get past even the long list for Dragons’ Den. Miniature phones too tiny to use; an electronic ‘posture corrector to tone your muscles & relieve back pain – only 23 minutes a day’; a toothbrush with built-in toothpaste supply. All can be yours at a discount early-bird price.
Or not: even Kickstarter has admitted that nine per cent of its projects never deliver. The platforms police their sometimes excitable entrepreneurs to an extent, but not as much as some backers would like. Kerswell’s campaign was still open until mid-September 2021. It was suspended by Indiegogo at the time of writing, but those almost 37,000 raw complaints remain live.
As Rory Cellan-Jones, until recently the BBC’s technology correspondent, who has also followed Kerswell, says, ‘People don’t understand that crowdfunding isn’t shopping. You’re backing something from scratch, not buying a ready-made product. You’re taking a risk. I think Vernon has made a complete hash of his campaign, but when you talk as I have to his detractors, you just think, “Get over it and get a life, guys. Even if he never delivers, a punt is what you signed up for, and you haven’t lost a fortune.”’
This was a view backed by judges in two recent county court hearings, one in London and one in Birmingham, where disgruntled backers tried to sue Kerswell. In both instances, the complaints failed on the grounds that backing something on a crowdfunding platform is a far cry from buying it.
Even technology journalists can find themselves losers, though. As it happens, I was one of the punters who put up $109 years ago towards another crowdfunded gadget that appealed to me – a ‘whole mouth’ toothbrush that promised to clean your teeth thoroughly in 10 seconds. It reminded me of the Eagle comic in the 1960s, in which Colonel Dan Dare and his space crew had a shaving device that clamped over the lower jaw and removed all bristles in a few seconds.
With testimonials from, among other impressive-sounding people, two actual dentists, I pledged my money. I liked that Unobrush was Danish – it sounded reliable and well designed – although had I known when I backed it on Indiegogo that the company was owned by two teenage boys, I might not have been so keen.
One of the benefits of putting an idea up for crowdfunding is that you get a sound indication of whether it will appeal to buyers. Unobrush, for example, raised 70 times its target, receiving £2 million from 30,000 backers. Despite its enthusiastic reception, however, the product is truly awful, like some nightmarish Victorian contraption. For a start, it is far too large to get into most people’s mouths. Once in the mouth, it is like swallowing a lawnmower.
As Jon Love, who runs Electricteeth.com, a specialist website focused on dental care, puts it, ‘Is Unobrush the worst toothbrush I have ever seen? Certainly one of.’
Unobrush backers seem even a little angrier than Vernon Kerswell’s. There is an ongoing petition on Change.org entitled ‘Hold Unobrush Accountable for Defrauding 28,721 People’. It has been signed by close to 2,500 people.
You could not intuit any of this chaos from Unobrush’s slick website, which closed when the company went out of business in mid-September last year and referred inquiries to a law firm in Copenhagen. The site in its pomp displayed 27 reviews, all deliriously positive: ‘It has changed my life,’ said Jordan from the UK. ‘A great innovative product,’ said Christian from Denmark. ‘I am honestly mind-blown,’ posted Jasmine from Sweden.
A former PR man for Unobrush insisted, ‘It’s not a scam. They’re innovating an industry that’s unchanged in 50 years.’ Amusingly, however, their PR guy up until they went bust said he was unable to get a response from the Unobrush founders Andreas Dierks and Daniel Kristoffersen, when I asked to interview them. To put it into perspective, this refusal by a tech start-up to speak to the media – or even to their own PR man – is not unlike giving your dog a raw fillet steak and the dog saying, ‘No thanks.’ It is unheard of.
One of the things that most enrages crowdfunding backers about young, hopelessly over-optimistic tech entrepreneurs is their poor communication. Even as someone who rather sympathises with Kerswell, I have sometimes not received a reply to emails and texts. With Dierks and Kristoffersen it would have been more productive to try to phone the cat. They simply did not respond before they announced the end of their Unobrush ‘journey’ – a classic start-up word. Many of the angry comments about Kerswell result from frustration at his failure to reply to questions.
This is not always the case, mind. There are two or three products I’ve backed on Kickstarter that I suspect may never quite make it, but which update their backers almost weekly in such minuscule detail (usually about Chinese factories messing about or backing out) that you end up not bothering to read the emails. The sense that at least the entrepreneurs are trying is enough to make up for the almost certainly lost money paid as long as five years ago.
There have been some amusingly spectacular fails. Take Triton, the ‘artificial gill’ device that raised more than $800,000 at $300 per backer. It could supposedly extract breathable oxygen from water, and enable you to remain underwater for 45 minutes. Triton posted a video of the machine seemingly working, but it was not convincing and the product was, unsurprisingly, never released. Supporters received refunds – though the campaign was then relaunched.
In 2019, a hopeful in Silicon Valley was even convicted after a scam partially conducted on a crowdfunding site. Jeffrey Batio was found guilty of six counts of mail fraud and six of wire fraud after raising more than $700,000 from 4,230 backers on Indiegogo for the Dragonfly Futurefön, an $800 three-in-one laptop, tablet and smartphone, which existed almost entirely in his imagination. The ‘inventor and dynamic futurist’, as his website described him, was sentenced to eight years in prison in November last year.
In 2013, the team behind Montrex, an American mechanical watch, turned on backers, who had put up nearly $62,000. ‘Because of the fact that we are being called thieves and con-artists and frauds without having done anything wrong,’ they wrote, ‘we have chosen to cancel this project,’ though further updates suggest they did continue to ship watches.
As over-optimistic as they can be, there is nevertheless something magnificent about the early 21st century’s army of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs, who shun the corporate path and do things their way. But it is hardly surprising that when they mess up, paying punters – me included in the case of Unobrush – get cross and amused in equal measure.
Kerswell, our sometimes elusive drone man of Wimbledon, says, ‘They love the idea that Extreme Flier 4.0 is an elaborate fraud and I’m sitting with bags of their money on a West Indies island with a Ferrari.’ A lot of Kerswell’s enemies believe he has used the £1.3 million he raised to fund a luxury, sports-car lifestyle. In fact, he drives a clattery old Vauxhall with a baby seat in the back.
‘But there’s no doubt about it,’ Kerswell concludes, looking somewhere between tearful and defiant, ‘the best way for us to silence these people and repair our image is to deliver, and that’s what we’re about to do.’
Ready cash: a brief history of crowdfunding
Crowdfunding is a way of getting a large number of people to pay a small amount to make anything from a gadget to a film. Although the word is only 16 years old, the idea goes back over 300 years. Mozart and Alexander Pope used it to fund some of their work. Even the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal was crowdfunded by 160,000 donors.
Donors take a risk but, in the case of products rather than, say, films, if the makers are successful, backers can get things at a big discount. Online crowdfunding has had a patchy history, though in time it has become a major way to finance innovation.
One of the most successful campaigns was for Pebble, a smartwatch much like the ubiquitous Apple Watch – but years earlier. Pebble raised millions and delivered, but went out of business shortly after the Apple Watch came out in 2015. Glowforge, a 3D laser printer, beat Pebble’s record for a single campaign, raising $28 million in a month; it also delivered.
Crowdfunding campaigns give inventors an indication of how popular their products will be. After a teenage Palmer Luckey built a virtual-reality headset he named Oculus Rift, he tried to raise $250,000. He got that in hours and went on to raise $2.4 million. In 2014, he sold his fledgling company to Facebook for $2 billion.
But it’s often for near misses, flops and scams that crowdfunding hits the headlines. Smartwatches as thin as paper, ‘gills’ to help humans breathe underwater… Such ideas have tried, raised substantial sums, but not quite succeeded.
One of the most notorious, meanwhile, was a Welsh-designed drone, Zano, not unlike Kerswell’s Micro Drone 4.0. However Zano, which raised an extraordinary £2.3 million, failed an important test – it didn’t fully work.