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Crowdfunding 201: Not As Simple As It Looks

on Wednesday, Apr. 10th

Last April, I took up running again after an absence of over 15 years. Turns out I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be. Still, a month ago I decided to run a half marathon to raise money for rescue animals and learned exactly why people wear those dorky looking belts with water bottles on them–when you go past an hour, you need to bring your own fuel or you may or may not puke on the side of the road in front of your friend’s house. The belts look stupid, but carrying a water bottle is a hassle (I spent the entire 8 mile run switching hands and wondering if I could throw the bottle on someone’s lawn). So I went to Google and stumbled upon Simple Hydration, a hands-free bottle that, lo and behold, was born on Kickstarter.

I’m always looking for new angles to take for “Crowdfunding 201”, so I tracked down project creator Brian Hock, to see if we could learn something about the transition from Kickstarter campaign to real, live item you can buy.

Interview, with commentary, after the jump:

McNelly: How long did it take you to come up with the idea and what was the process of deciding to go with Kickstarter?

Hock: The idea for the Simple Hydration Water Bottle struck me on a brutally hot July run as I was preparing for the Louisville Ironman Triathlon. I was trying to simulate the hot conditions of that race and the late mid-day start of the marathon. I was running a 5-mile loop around a local airport and needed some water in between my car stops for fuel and hydration. I hate to carry bottles or wear a bulky hydration belt so I would stick an Aquafina Water Bottle (with some air pressed out of it) into the back of my shorts. It would kind of stay in place but would ultimately slip down due to the sweat and movement. So I thought: “What if there was a hook to keep it on the waistband?” 

I didn’t begin work on my product idea until after the Ironman in September of 2010. The design of the bottle took on many shapes and forms the first few months before finally realizing that the bottle itself could be hook shaped. I finalized the unique hook-shaped Simple Hydration Water Bottle design in January 2011. I then spent about 2 months sourcing a company that could create the CAD drawings and produce a prototype for testing. I also contacted numerous blow-molders during this time to see if they could produce my product and was told by most that it couldn’t be done or their equipment wasn’t setup to do what I wanted. The education curve was tremendous in having to learn about the blow-molding process and the various types of plastics. I was lucky (through many calls) to find a mold company and a blow-molder in California that could not just produce the bottle but do it cost effectively. The complete process of ideation, research, drawings, CAD work, prototyping, patents, sourcing and testing was about 5 months.

My background is in marketing and design so that proved to be very beneficial for putting together a crowdfunding campaign. I had researched a few crowdfunding sites at that time but the dominant one in the US was Kickstarter. Plus I had just followed the overwhelming success of Scott Wilson’s TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits campaign. That product touched runners so I was hopeful that would translate to my campaign. Plus the ease at setting up the campaign on Kickstarter was attractive.

There’s two things here that started Hock off well. One, he was filling a need in a market that’s pretty sizable. And two, he spent 5 months testing it. The product looks simple, but even that took 5 months. A lot of people rush into this before they’re ready, anxious to get their idea out into the world. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.

LM: How’d the campaign go? What do you feel worked well? What could you have done better?

Anytime you meet your goal it’s good. We raised $21,180 over the 60 day period of the campaign. Note that this was also the largest Kickstarter funded campaign in Cincinnati back at that time.

The one common characteristic of the successful Kickstarter campaigns was a well-developed and professionally-produced video. So the one thing that I put quite a bit of time against was the video concept and working with a professional firm to produce it. The unique dual personalities of me in the video I feel reinforced the unique design of the product, while injecting some fun.

I could have spent more time upfront planning a better outreach program for both consumers and media. While I had decent social networks on Facebook, Dailymile (running community), Twitter and LinkedIn I found that I was being more reactive than proactive. I also wonder if different rewards at the various pledge levels would have yielded stronger results.

The vertical here is pretty clear–runners, walkers, etc.–and the running community is a pretty strong one with an inherent sense of supporting people. One thing Hock has done since the campaign is get the bottle in the hands of bloggers that review running gear to have them put it through the paces. Had he more than just the prototype, that could have been a pretty beneficial campaign promotion.

So let’s look at the perks. They’re pretty basic. There’s the bottle and the shirt and the “team” and that’s pretty much it. There’s a bunch of room to work with here. You could put something in at the $10 level and, of course, add more stuff at the higher levels. Partnering with one of the newer websites that are trying to make in-roads with the running community could have some benefits. Or, partnering with races in Cincinnati to give backers a race discount or something. You get the idea. There’s a lot of options that could bring more awareness to something like this.

LM: Did the campaign shape the bottle in any way? Was there a feedback process?

BH: No. The bottle really is simple. Most of the feedback was why didn’t I think of that. We did ask for feedback once we shipped the bottles to the backers in September 2011. We’ve logged all customer feedback and plan to incorporate their suggestions in the next design.

LM: It looks like the campaign generated a lot of press. Was that helpful in attempting to get the product in retail spaces? Or is the plan to stay mostly on-line? How is that transition going?

BH: There’s no doubt that having the bottle funded through Kickstarter was a nice and unique conversation starter with media outlets. We were able to get great reviews in the LA Times, New York Daily News, The Washington Times, The Cincinnati Enquirer and Women’s Running Magazine to name a few. The press was helpful in validating the idea and adding credibility to the product but it really wasn’t helpful with getting the Simple Hydration Bottle into retail stores. We do want to be in retail stores of all sizes but the challenge that we encountered is that our bottle doesn’t fit an established hydration category (handheld, belt or pack) so there is a bit of education that needs to happen both for the retailer as well as the consumer.

We currently sell in 30+ specialty running retailers throughout the United States as well as online at www.simplehydration.com and Amazon.com. As more runners use the Simple Hydration Water Bottle the awareness and entry into the running shops has become easier. Our ability to get Simple Hydration into other countries has been strong as we now have distributors in France, Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Philippines, Japan and 3 others countries.

It’d be interesting to kind of survey creators of Kickstarted projects like Hock’s and see if they have similar issues with their stuff not fitting in traditional categories. I feel like we just need to get Brian on Shark Tank. Does anyone know Mark Cuban?

LM: What sort of challenges have you faced in transitioning the bottle from a crowdfunding campaign to a product people can, you know, buy? What have been the surprises in the process? 

BH: The biggest challenge with our product is that when a person backed it on Kickstarter they were able to read about it and watch a video before making that important purchase decision. They knew the Simple Hydration Bottle and how it worked. Once our Kickstarter campaign ended that interaction and sales pitch ended. We were then relying on sales people to educate the consumer as to why they should buy our product. We’ve recently armed the sales people and retailers with brochures and posters to help with this process.

The support of our customers and the running community in general has been a great surprise. Many of our customers routinely blog about the Simple Hydration Water Bottle or will provide any support needed just because they want to help and see this product succeed. I’ve reached out to them for testimonial videos, pictures and even supplying video clips for a promotional video. The time that these customers are willing to invest to help see Simple Hydration succeed is awesome. 

And that really says it all, doesn’t it? Hock is essentially taking what he learned and grew in the crowdfunding process and applying it to the process of getting traction in the retail market. Because ultimately they’re very similar processes, different sides of the same coin.

Extra Credit:

I know, I know, I’m supposed to write something about Veronica Mars, but why bother? Anyone with half a clue knew this was coming sooner rather than later. It’s hardly a surprise. And 90% of the digital ink spilled on it is flat-out idiotic. I don’t see the point in adding to the nonsense.

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