It is no news to say that the best way to learn a foreign language is to be fully immersed in it. You might have heard the tale of someone who traveled elsewhere “knowing not a word” and came back speaking fluently. What if a team of people could develop an AI-powered home assistant that can do that (and a lot more) for you? This was exactly the dream of 8,748 people who contributed to Lily‘s IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign and have yet to receive something.
Their dream turned into a nightmare, and the most advanced language-teaching device in the world into a million-dollar rip-off. Read on as we unveil the reasons to conclude that the Lily project was a scam (and it wasn’t the first).
Introducing Lily, the AI Chinese speaker
Lily is the first of its kind. Wait, perhaps, we should begin by saying that “Lily might become” the first of its kind. Lily introduced the concept of a voice-controlled, AI-powered language teacher in the shape of a speaker to the market. It was designed to overcome the difficulties of learning a foreign language with no books or practicing material.
Along with the state-of-the-art teaching software, this device was to respond to every query in Chinese allowing the user a fully-immersive experience in the comfort of their house. As you can see in their promotional video, users could do everything from taking lessons to singing, asking for the weather, playing games, and much more.
Lily was a revolution that could help people learn and understand Chinese with quotidian practice. Difficult and tedious activities like correcting pronunciation and symbol choice could easily be fulfilled while kindly playing a game. This innovation could change the way we see language-learning.
All of this, of course, is in the imaginary collective; we are yet to see the future of this IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign whose sweet-sour story hasn’t ended yet.
Maybe‘s promises about Lily
According to the company behind the product, Maybe, Lily was ready to hit mass production by the end of 2019. Moreover, when the crowdfunding campaign started those who backed it would get their device by January 2020. The design was ready, AI was ready and all they needed was the funds to make it happen. Eight months have gone by since that promised date and nobody has received anything but false promises and scarce updates so far.
Empty promises and sour hearts
After the January shipping date wasn’t met by the company, Maybe posted several updates with contradictory messages. All messages were written in the first person, signed by the company’s CEO, and the team added after him.
January update; late but struggling
The first update came in January stating that the company was closing the funding and moving over to the “production phase” and also reported malfunctioning on the main PCBA board (the heart and soul of Lily‘s hardware).
February update; Corona Virus and a promise
The second update came in February speaking of the Corona Virus outbreak and the impossibility of having all the supplies to build the orders. Wait, they didn’t have the full supply stock a month after the official shipping date? No, they didn’t; but they promised they would ship all the Lily units promised in less than four months (June/July 2020).
March-April update; starting to show the cracks
By the third update, the words of the CEO began showing cracks and the truth behind the big words, multiple number charts, and photographs. For example, the third update stated, “Now we’re developing the testing software for mass production to control the quality of the product.” Backers started reading properly and found out that months before, by shipping date, the company didn’t even have quality-control software for the mass production of Lily.
The update ends with an uplifting sentence, “We have the finance, the team and the passion to finish developing Lily and ship it to you.” But the promise was, once again, broken.
June-July update, the beginning of the end
It didn’t take long for the debacle to come along. Their next update (they were no longer uploading them to Medium, but you can check them out here) announced “a big change to the Lily project.” Soon after that line, the company’s CEO announced that they could no longer sustain the hardware project and thus were morphing into an app.
The communication strategy was to take all the cons of “speaker vs. app” and post them trying to convince backers that paying $200 for a delayed app was a good idea. Closer to the end of the update you can read: “Lily’s future won’t be a smart speaker. But Lily as an AI language teacher will live on.” That particular line got people furious; the company was telling them that there would never be a speaker.
This was July 15th, six months after the original shipping date. There was no hardware and the promise of an app within 90 days.
One day later; excuses and silence
One day later, though, the company went backward with their statements by confirming that there will be a speaker. In the same piece, Maybe‘s CEO listed several reasons why the project involving hardware and software couldn’t go on due to a lack of resources to pursue both at the same time.
Moreover, the company’s CEO stated in the same post that they had used the money to fund the project that far and couldn’t do refunds because they… had spent the money. He finished with more empty promises and after that, not a word was heard from him or the company. Their social media remains silent as well; their last Facebook post dates back to July 2019 and shows happy faces and a red Lily prototype.
According to Forbes, the company got overfunded by 11,938%; aiming initially for $10,000 (yes, you’ve read it right) they got a little over $1,500,000. How can a company that received close to twelve thousand percent over what they had calculated run out of money before even sending the first finished product?
Their public announcements speak of many pitfalls encountered as if they were scouting new territory. Indeed, Lily was to be the first of its kind, but not at all the first AI-controlled speaker in the world.
After the last official communication from the company, a deafening silence worried backers even more. Will they ever build the actual hardware and ship it to backers? This remains to be seen, but it is not the first time this happens to Jie Meng-Gérard. He was involved in a similar case a few years before the Lily project started. The similarities between the cases can make us think we’re talking about either a serial scammer or a very clumsy CEO who repeats past mistakes.
Meet Jie Meng-Gérard, the Founder of Maybe
Jie Meng-Gérard is the name of Maybe‘s CEO; the person who signs every update on the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign page. He obtained his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2010, and by 2011, he was already pursuing the dream of his own company.
The Whyd case
Jie met Gilles Poupardin with whom he would start Whyd in 2011. The idea behind the platform was great (just like Lily). The pair of entrepreneurs set out to build a service where music lovers from all around the world could share all the music they felt like regardless of the platform it was in. For example, if I loved a song on YouTube or SoundCloud and wanted to share it with a friend who uses Spotify exclusively, I could do it through Whyd.
The platform was only half the idea, the other half was the production of a state-of-the-art AI-powered speaker to listen to that music with. Rings a bell?
These French entrepreneurs had everything they needed for a prodigal business start. They even had a loyal subscriber base of 50,000 happy music lovers waiting for their Bluetooth loudspeaker with integrated AI to listen to their music as they had always wanted.
Out of the blue, things changed drastically and the project took an unexpected turn.
The same mistakes?
Using the same platform as Lily, but years before, it was Gilles Poupardin who wrote to the backers announcing a change of plans. In the piece, the co-founder and CEO of Whyd told everyone that there was not going to be a Bluetooth speaker.
The CEO stated that the company had “hit a wall” when trying to get the approval of music streaming services. According to Poupardin, major music-streaming companies wouldn’t work with anyone other than Alexa (Amazon), Google Assistant, and Cortana (Microsoft).
The big difference?
While it might seem that both cases share the same level of lack of planning, the ending was very different. In the same piece, Poupardin announced refunding for users and an alliance with 8tracks to include it in the Alexa experience. The statement concluded on a call to action transforming Whyd into a software company inviting all those who wanted to build a voice-controlled assistant to contact them.
Specialized media echoed on this decision and, although the 8tracks Alexa Skill still shows one star after only two user reviews, there was optimism in the future of Whyd as a software developer for other companies.
The company failed to deliver the product they got the funding for and instead offered a software solution; does that bell ring a little louder now?
Will Lily have the same ending?
Before the failure of Whyd, Jie joined forces with Alexis Pons, another Frenchman in Shenzhen. The year was 2015, and Jie proposed him the idea of funding Maybe and working on Lily. To Alex, it was a golden ticket to computer-tech stardom.
The story repeated but this time around it was Jie who wrote communications for backers. Opposite to his previous experience, the company didn’t offer any refunds. The startup that set $10,000 as a goal and got $1,500,000 spent it all on bad decisions, faulty providers, and a stream of lies.
The case went public; you might have heard about the “Lily Chinese scam” on different platforms. There’s a thread going on in Twitter under the hashtag #maybeLilyscam, which is used by backers from all over the world to share updates. They post personal news about their specific cases as well as calls to action over Maybe, Jie, and IndieGoGo.
Refunds on the way?
According to the results in that Twitter thread, the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign has started refunding a small number of backers. By August 11th, that number was 31. According to the backers themselves, the company (either IndieGoGo or Maybe) is refunding only the noisiest.
In the meantime, the 8,717 backers remaining in the list of the Lily Chinese scam are waiting for the app-version and all its promised benefits. Will they refund everybody as they did with Whyd? That is yet to be seen; for now, backers will get history’s most expensive app and maybe a speaker sometime in the future.
The future of crowdfunding
There are many active projects currently on the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign site. Many of them are interesting, promising, and can help many people live better lives in the future. Furthermore, many of them come from Shenzhen, the so-called city of dreams or “the Silicon Valley of hardware”.
Will the Lily Chinese scam undermine the hundreds of new start-ups looking for funding online? Will people become hesitant or afraid of investing in the unknown and being scammed? So far, numbers say the opposite. According to IndieGoGo, 19,000 campaigns launch every year and receive backing by 9 million people from 235 countries and territories.
Crowdfunding made it possible for small dreams to fly high as the sky. Many success stories started with a successful crowdfunding campaign. For example, Oculus, purchased by Facebook by $2 billion, started as a Kickstarter campaign not so long before that.
Other success stories like The Coolest Cooler and BauBax went through a similar situation to Lily and Whyd. Both companies found that they couldn’t meet the demand and hence had to go through another crowdfunding round to fulfill the orders of the first round but managed to survive.
The future of crowdfunding looks bright and promising. Will the next revolutionary tech device that changes our lives come from IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, or GoFundMe? Hopefully.
Final words – What can we learn from this experience?
An event like the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign that leads to the Lily Chinese scam is something we can get a precious insight from: Human Resources matter.
In the 21st century, it is easy to assume that hardware production is highly automated and that, with the right funds and the right team of designers and engineers, anyone can change the world.
Human leadership is as important as every penny raised from any of these campaigns. Several bad decisions can ruin any business plan. Was Jie telling lies the whole time and by the moment the company hit IndieGoGo they didn’t have any production capabilities? Was the whole Lily project made of high hopes and thin air? This is the most likely scenario. The question, though, still lingers: was it intentional or did it go out of hand? Whichever the answer is, it is clear that the human factor makes the difference even with the best of ideas.
While the 8,717 backers wait for a favorable resolution, the tech world keeps spinning faster than ever. What the future brings can only be in our imagination, but surely there’s already a team of people working on it somewhere in the world looking for funds to make their dreams a reality.