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A Tale of Three Kickstarts

Ben Edwards with a SmartThings Sensor
Ben Edwards with a SmartThings Sensor
Last month, we ran a nationally focused story on the spread of crowdfunding via sites like Kickstarter--a story that included an account of QONQR, a strategy game developed locally. Reporter Michelle Bruch looked around for other Kickstarter success stories on our turf, and here are three standouts that she found.

Over pancake breakfasts, Aaron Melander and his brother Erik invented the Supr Slim wallet. It's a simple concept: the wallet is made of elastic, designed to hold credit cards and nothing else.
"It was a basic instinct, we felt we were carrying less and less cash," says Aaron, a principal art director at Target Corp. "We went out to make a wallet for ourselves."
 
In one original design, the Melanders tore an elastic strap off a pair of Tretorn shoes to make into a wallet. They went on to become elastic experts. They chose a material with the perfect stretch and thickness, and found a U.S. manufacturer.
 
To raise money for the product launch, they chose Kickstarter, a website that facilitates online donations for creative projects. Backers can support a project in any amount they wish, receiving rewards in return like T-shirts or product preorders.
 
"Kickstarter is great for finding that niche audience," Aaron says. "They give you access to the global market. It makes it easier for products to be focused on what they are trying to do. You're not having to appeal to everyone; it's not a mass market product."
 
Supr Slim Wallet
Goal: $10,000
Kickstarter pledges: $203,488

 
The brothers' minimalist hunch was a hit. Wallets preordered through Kickstarter will ship out to 70 different countries.
 
"This wouldn't have been possible five years ago," Aaron says. "You're selling an idea more than a product. It's an amazing feeling to have people support your idea, and allow you the freedom to come along for the ride....In this day and age, you can find an audience simply by selling your idea, and not having to make all that investment."
 
The Supr Slim Wallet is one of several local projects that recently netted thousands of dollars through Kickstarter. The new Lynn on Bryant restaurant, located in a rebuilt Minneapolis site that had been destroyed by fire, received $34,000 to meet budget goals for construction, equipment, and finishes. And a new product called SmartThings raised more than $1 million from backers in September. The gadget allows smartphone users to remotely monitor and control devices in their homes.
 
In all of the projects, the owners sought a closer link to their customers, whether to drum up excitement, solicit feedback or learn about their audience. "They are the ultimate market testers, and no one is out all that much money," Aaron says.

All or Nothing

In three years, the New York-based Kickstarter site has crowdfunded 29,000 projects, at a dollar figure of $365 million. Many of the pledges have gone to film and music projects, helping musicians record albums and move screenplays into production.
 
If Kickstarter gives creators the green light, they have up to 60 days to raise the money they're requesting. The funding format is all or nothing: if donations fall short, no one pays a dime. If donations hit the goal, the money changes hands, and the creators are obligated to complete the project and deliver rewards promised to donors.
 
"No one is happy with the current creative economy, and fans will support people who dare to challenge it," co-founder Yancey Strickler wrote in a recent blog post. "They know it's a risk and they appreciate it."
 
The Lynn on Bryant
Goal: $25,000
Kickstarter pledges: $34,607

 
Kickstarter launches 80 new projects every day, according to Wired Magazine, and the staff post a few of their favorites every week. In late August, staff highlighted The Lynn on Bryant, developed by a "chef and a bookhound."
 
"The Lynn on Bryant pretty much had me at the first line of their (totally sincere, heartwarming) project video," wrote Kickstarter staffer Cassie Marketos.
 
The restaurateurs think Kickstarter is underutilized by restaurants.
 
"It's a great tool if you have a support group looking for ways to help," says manager Jay Peterson. "We could get an extra little cash boost for the final run, and really try to get people excited."
 
He and chef Peter Ireland used many avenues to raise money. They found donations from friends and family, a low-interest loan from the city, a traditional bank loan, and a group of investors. For the final push, they asked Kickstarter backers for $25,000. In exchange, donors received gifts of thanks based on their level of funding, like a free cup of coffee every day for a year ($365), a bundle of pastries to bring to the office ($50), or dinner for two ($100). Over the course of three weeks, The Lynn on Bryant beat their goal by nearly $10,000.
 
"It was hard to take your eyes off the site," Peterson says.
 
SmartThings
Goal: $250,000
Kickstarter pledges: $1,209,423

 
Ben Edwards can relate. As a co-founder of SmartThings, he was checking the Kickstarter website once every couple of minutes for a solid week. And there was plenty to see.
 
"More than 3,500 folks are giving us a lot of comments," Edwards says.
 
When it came to financing the operation, Kickstarter was a no-brainer for the team. The seven founders have personally supported more than 140 projects. Edwards has backed projects for barbecue sauce, a camera adaptor that automates time-lapse photography, and a crime lab that will report on every murder in Washington, D.C. for one year.
 
The SmartThings project started with a basic problem. Founder Alex Hawkinson's cabin basement flooded when the pipes froze and burst. He wished he could be notified if his basement flooded, or if the temperature at the cabin suddenly dropped, even in a power outage.
 
"Why can't my house tell me things about what's going on? I should be able to know day-to-day how much energy I'm using, or whether water is leaking in the basement," Edwards says. "No one has really solved it."
 
Hawkinson and some friends decided to fix the problem by creating sensors that detect things like motion and temperature. By sending the signals to a phone app, they could always know if the dog got out, for example, or if a door opened while they weren't home.

SmartThings sensors could note when the weather forecast calls for rain, and put the sprinklers on pause for a day. If a dog was home alone during a thunderstorm, SmartThings could turn on some lights and music for the dog. Lights could dim every time someone received a new Twitter follower.The devices could function as hot-tub controllers, baby monitors, or mailbox alerts.
 
Kickstarter backers had plenty of ideas as well. A post seeking suggestions yielded 1,600 responses.
"The main thing for us was to see if there was a consumer or not," Edwards says. "It's an easy, quick way to engage people who are interested."
 
Aaron Melander, creator of the Supr Slim Wallet, says it's been interesting to watch the dialogue on Kickstarter. Contributors talk among themselves, and occasionally suggest that the creators add features to the wallet.
 
"But there is community support for the original intent," Aaron says. "[Others] say, 'Don't mess with this; we love it how it is.'"
 
The brothers have a few other ideas for new products, and it's a safe bet that Kickstarter hasn't seen the last of them.
 
"It's the biggest boutique in the world," Aaron says.

Michelle Bruch's last article for The Line was a July 31, 2012 profile of Accent Signage in Minneapolis, the site of the recent tragic shooting. Michelle joins the staff of The Line in extending deepest condolences to the loved ones of the victims and in wishing a speedy recovery to those hospitalized.

Photos, top to bottom:

Ben Edwards with a SmartThings sensor

Erik and Aaron Melander, from their Kickstarter video

The Supr Slim wallet

Peter Ireland and Jay Peterson of The Lynn on Bryant

The Lynn's kitchen

Images of the Melanders and the Supr Slim wallet courtesy Kickstarter; all other images by Bill Kelley




 
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