Is This Overfunded Sandals Project the Biggest Kickstarter Flop Yet?

Vere Sandals suffers another setback, this time in the form of a fire.

Bad news for those among Vere Sandals’ 1,091 backers on Kickstarter who still haven’t received their footwear: The factory caught on fire and your sandals may have gotten burned up. Really.

At least Vere’s creators are offering to negotiate “options” to fulfill its obligations to backers and has refunded some pledges. Because the situation at this point is best described as a quagmire. The creators posted a request for funds in January, 2011, saying they had the equipment and the experience necessary to make a bunch of sweet, eco-friendly flip-flops right here in the U.S.A. (“I LOVE FLIP FLOPS!!” one backer commented at the time.) But the Geneva, New York-based operation has struggled monumentally with actually making and shipping sandals for a year and a half after raising $56,618 of its $12,000 goal.

Vere tested its backers’ patience with sporadic updates about broken equipment and repeated apologies for manufacturing troubles. Most recently, a kerfuffle broke out when it was revealed that the company had shipped sandals to surf shops and retail outlets before shipping them to backers.

“Guys, what is going on? Was supposed to have these for spring break last March and now I leave a year later this weekend,” commented Scott Wilson, a Kickstarter celebrity as the creator of the iPod nano watch kits that fell just shy of becoming the first million-dollar campaign on the site, on March 15.

Mr. Wilson had enthusiastically plugged Vere Sandals to his 13,512 backers, but he joined more than 100 backers voicing complaints about the state of the sandal: “Happy to support Kickstarter projects and realize that in any start-up there are obstacles and challenges but communication, transparency and taking care of your investors/backers first is essential. What’s up with these going to retail first? Hopefully this is an overzealous retailer and not a poor decision on your side.”

The next day, Vere posted an update: “Again, we feel terribly about not having delivered product to all backers at this point. We’re not even close.”

There were no updates for backers again until last week, when Vere dropped a doozy (emphasis ours):

During the evening of May 21 a fire started in a section of the factory. Luckily John was there at the time and within five minutes, it was put out. Despite the fire only reaching a small area, in a zone where two overhead sprinklers were needed to contain and put out the fire, there was fairly significant damage and a colossal mess from the water. Big thanks to the local fire stations that quickly responded to the fire call and worked well into the next morning with the initial cleanup. Thankfully with cooperation from our landlords, insurance company, and our staff, we were able to resume most of our operations enough to get back to the business of sandal making within ten days.

It is amazing in that short time how things, mainly the water and soot, have left their mark. There was damage to finished sandals, work in process and equipment. We needed to take some extra time after the fire to take stock of the damage, clean up, reorganize, make preventative adjustments to the process, restart operations, and do some catch-up before we could offer a clear update to our backers.

The fire started in the bin that collects shavings from the shaper, Vere said. It and water damage from the sprinklers destroyed soles, the dust collection machine, an air compressor, a glue machine, a sole roughing machine, and a computer. As a result, more sandals have been delayed. These guys—who did not respond to a request for comment—just can’t catch a break, can they? Maybe that’s why all the other eco-friendly companies make their shoes in China.

In November, cofounder John Eades wrote to Betabeat: “It’s been a long, frustrating process to say the least, and we’ve hit more roadblocks than even we expected. Kickstarter orders were overwhelming, and if we were to do it again we would definitely have put a limit on the number of backer awards available… They just want their sandals. I can understand that, I just can’t fix it yet, so we keep working to get them out as we can.” Take heed, equity crowdfunders.

UPDATE, June 28: Mr. Eades responded by email. Vere Sandals has shipped sandals to “just over half” its backers. If they had to do it over again, they would have capped the number of sandals they’d be shipping as rewards. “The fire was unfortunate, but in the end just another obstacle.  There’s no doubt that this undertaking has been bigger and more difficult than we imagined (obviously),” he wrote.

Without question if we were to do it again, we would have capped the rewards.  Our business model is built for wholesale, and we’ve never planned to ship individual orders as we do not have direct retail through our own stores nor through our site.  It’s been eye-opening how time consuming it is to ship individual orders, which confirms our original plan to be a wholesaler/producer and not a retailer.
I did an update a while back addressing the retail issue, and there’s no doubt it’s a sticky one.  The original stated plan was that we would ship to backers at the same time we released certain styles to retailers – for instance, when we made a style, we’d make them all, then ship that style out to retailers and backers at the same time before moving on to the next style.  In theory, that’s the right plan from a production standpoint.  In reality, with all the delays we’ve had, that plan went out the window.  We were in a position where if we did not deliver to retail this season, we would not survive to get to next season.  To those backers who backed us to help a domestic manufacturer grow in a lost industry, that decision is an easier pill to swallow as the long term goal is more important than the short term reward.  To those backers who just want sandals and aren’t as concerned about the long term, which is a perfectly legitimate position to take, it’s s sore subject.  Not an easy business decision to make, but if we want to exist into next year, it was a decision that had to be made.
In regard to the upset backers, it is a very vocal minority, and we don’t try to argue with any of them.  At the end of the day, they backed us and expected sandals within a timeframe that we were not able to hit.  Some of the commentary has been over the top and venom-filled, but beneath the accusations and insults is disappointment in our ability to deliver and we can’t argue with that.
All we can really do at this point is keep our head down and keep making sandals.  Fortunately, the sandals we have shipped have been received favorably, and even some of the most vocal critics have made a point to comment favorably on the fit, quality and comfort of the sandals once they’ve gotten their package in the mail. There have been very few quality issues, even as our very first production run, and those we have had we’ve worked quickly to replace and make right.  Until we send every backer reward to every backer, there’s not much else we can do.
Is This Overfunded Sandals Project the Biggest Kickstarter Flop Yet?