The presale, best typified by Kickstarter, has become a powerful tool for hardware companies to sample market demand and fund initial manufacturing. It’s not the endless beta-test that software developers have, but it moves in that direction.
Presales are not perfect: a successful sale is not necessarily evidence of product-market fit. Witness Ouya, which had one of the most successful campaigns ever, shipped product as promised, but then failed to create a library of compelling games. In this case, users bought into a vision that turned out to be much harder to realize than expected (namely, enabling a vibrant, non-proprietary, micro-console game development ecosystem).
In other cases, a presale may find the hard-core early adopters, but may not represent the broader market. Kickstarter is littered with small, but successful products that never transitioned to mainstream.
However, a presell failure can be quite telling: if you can’t find (say) a few hundred or thousand buyers out of those bleeding edge adopters, how will you succeed in the main market?
Which leads to a very reasonable investor question: if your hardware startup has no presale plan, why not? There may be some good reasons, but that’s become the exception, not the rule. After all, a presale yields valuable insights, early in the product cycle, for a relatively low amount of work (and work you’re mostly going to have to do anyway). The process forces a lot of good MVP hygiene: entrepreneurs have to describe the value clearly, converge the features & design, and understand pricing & margins.
It’s certainly possible that Kickstarter is the strategy fad of the decade, much like India offshore development was 10+ years ago. But I don’t think so: the hardware presale is here to stay!