At one time merely a trendy buzzword—even a joke (Google “crystal bacon”)—crowdfunding has fast become a legitimate way to start a new business or bolster a growing one. Kickstarter, the internet’s largest crowdfunding platform, claims more than 100,000 projects have been funded since its launch in 2009, totaling some $2.5 billion in pledge money. Those in the footwear industry are seeing the dollar signs, and in recent years a mix of daring entrepreneurs and more established companies have used platforms like Kickstarter to get their ideas off the ground.
But what does it take to go from the ideas stage to running a successful business? Vamp spoke with four successful footwear-related Kickstarters on their tips and tricks for winning the crowdfunding game.
Inspired by his travels in Latin America, Inkkas was born of founder Dan Ben-nun’s desire to see the beautiful handcrafted footwear of local artisans reach international shores. Each pair of Inkkas is handmade, sourced from countries like Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico, with the goal of making footwear and accessories that are sustainable and responsible.
In 2015, Inkkas struck the Kickstarter jackpot, successfully raising more than $200,000 in funds towards the goal of opening a flagship store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The brand had previously utilized Kickstart to successfully fund shoe orders and knew the challenges going in.
“One of the biggest challenges is after the campaign is done making sure the customer gets the product exactly as they ordered it, especially in footwear which has a lot of different sizes,” says Dan Ben-nun. “Our last campaign around 1,000 pairs were ordered, so over half the proceeds went to producing the product and shipping it to customers.”
But the excitement was short-lived, as the flagship Inkkas location shuttered its doors within months of opening, showing that even Kickstarter goodwill isn’t enough to bear the harsh realities of brick-and-mortar retail.
Inkkas has instead decided to focus on its wholesale accounts, partnering with a retail network of over 19 shops who sell the brand’s shoes, which Ben-nun said has been a winning strategy.
“The company is well-funded and is expanding, and I don’t see any need for another Kickstarter campaign at the moment,” he said. “We’ve kind of graduated from being a tiny start-up to being a small business now.”
When Inkkas first started crowdfunding, Ben-nun sought advice from Jake Bronstein, founder of the 10-year Hoodie, Kickstarter’s first million-dollar fashion project.
“I had met him at a cafe in Manhattan by chance, and I really respect a lot of his work. He gave me some great advice,” Ben-nun said, adding that the support of the Kickstarter community is one of the most beneficial aspects to crowdfunding.
“There’s a really great range of people [on Kickstarter], and each time we launched a campaign we were able to get exposure, and that really helped us gain momentum. So beyond just the people who pledge to your campaign, there are so many people who look at your page and become acquainted with your brand through Kickstarter and then go on to visit your website or mention your product to their friends. So for us, that was the biggest asset,” he said.
“Our first Kickstarter experience was crazy. It was much more work than we imagined. Tons of emails. People want to know every little single detail. Cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s. Make sure to put as much information as possible into your campaign.”
That was Nuhanas co-founder Jamie Mackay describing his first crowdfunding project, Foot Flops, now known as Nuhanas, which successfully raised more than $179,000 in 2015.
The Wyoming-based brand was the brainchild of founders Tom Fay and Jamie Mackay, who bet they could make a better, more comfortable flip-flop than any major brand with their unique concept for Nuhanas.
Nuhanas flip-flops are heat-moldable sandals that are designed to conform to the shape of the wearer’s foot, which the company claims offers more support than any other flip-flop on the market.
Not only new to crowdfunding, Nuhanas was an entirely new company at the time of its Kickstarter campaign, hedging its fortunes on the kindness of the platform’s backers.
“Starting a business in general is tough. Kickstarter is a great way to test the waters and make sure you have a sound, viable idea,” said Mackay.
Being new to the platform, Mackay said one of the challenges was deciding how much to set the campaign’s goal amount, which determines whether or not an idea gets funded. (Kickstarter operates on an all-or-nothing principle, meaning only campaigns that reach their target amount get the money pledged).
“If you put your goal too high people won’t think you’ll get funded so they won’t invest; if you put it too low, then how are you going to fund it?” he reminisced. “To be honest, we kind of shot from the hip on that one. It was an educated guess.”
But the project was a success, eventually ending up on Kickstarter’s favorites page for a period of time which, “helped a lot,” Mackay said.
The next phase of growing the business will include athletic shoes, and Mackay also hopes that the spotlight of Kickstarter will help lead to interest from other companies about licensing the technology.
Having successfully survived his first campaign, Mackay said he learned several lessons that can be applied to other Kickstarters.
“Be ready to work around the clock if you want to be successful, and have employees who are dedicated, who own a part of the business, or else it’s not going to work. You have to have lot of support and you need to make sure you have shipping, manufacturing—there’s so many components. So we definitely got schooled on a lot of that ourselves and learned a lot,” he said.
If there’s any one company that proves its possible to run a successful business from Kickstarter, it’s Y Athletics. Building innovative products from the ground up, the young apparel brand focuses on manufacturing high-tech, best-in-class gear.
Founded in 2014 by Sam Mazumdar, the brand first hit Kickstarter with its popular SilverAir odorless shirt, utilizing fibers made of silver, a natural anti-odorant. After raising more than $250,000 for that project, the time came for a follow-up. The idea was obvious—target the next-smelliest part on a man’s body—his feet.
“We wanted to make a sock that was extremely comfortable, and it had to be the best-in-class when it comes to odor control,” said Mazumdar. “We developed our own fabric, a custom blend of merino wool and silver.”
The sock was a hit too, topping more than $385,000 in pledge money. Many of the same people who bought the shirt returned to back the sock, something Mazumdar said is key when trying to build a brand through crowdfunding.
“Kickstarter has been one of our main sources of customer acquisition. Every time we get new people who hear about the brand and they become our customers,” he said. “We’ve seen that Kickstarter customers are very loyal, even after [the campaign].”
Blowing past its $35,000 goal, the SilverAir Sock is proof that it takes a certain level of finesse to successfully campaign on Kickstarter.
“The goal number does not really have any meaning to it. It’s more of a marketing number. We set our goal at $35,000 but in reality we actually needed $100,000 to get the production started.”
Mazumdar broke down how he spent the $385,000 dollars the campaign earned, estimating that roughly 50 to 60 percent of the money was used on production, another 20 percent on shipping, 10 percent went to Kickstarter in fees, while the rest was spent on advertising.
The company ponied up for Facebook ads, which Mazumdar said helped the campaign reach beyond the walls of Kickstarter. He’s clear, however, that any product put up for auction on the site has to speak for itself.
“It’s important to tell the backers who you are, what you’re doing, and what’s unique about the product,” he said. “For us, it works because we create so few products that it’s easier for us to highlight the innovative features. If your product has a lot of innovation behind it, then it’s a good place to launch. But if you’re just trying to create a fashion brand, it’s probably not a good idea.”
One of the biggest rewards of using a crowdfunding model is the feedback one receives from backers. “Once you do a Kickstarter you learn a lot from your customers, and then you go and take all that feedback and you can go and make version two which solidifies the product,” Mazumdar explained.
The company is now in the process of crowdfunding a type of underwear utilizing a similar concept to the shirt and socks, something Mazumdar said will also continue to be updated and improved.
“What we learned about socks is you can’t please all feet with one sock. So now we’re working on different socks for people’s preferences in terms of thickness and cushioning and padding. Some people who run prefer lighter socks, some people like lighter socks.”
While innovative, forward-looking products tend to grab the most attention on Kickstarter, Baabuk was successful for just the opposite reason. Looking into the distant past for inspiration, the Swiss start-up launched its first crowdfunded product, the Baabuk wool slipper, in 2013.
Inspired by Russian Valenki boots, the Baabuk is a modern take on the 16th-century style which helped generations bear the frigid Siberian cold.
With the success of their first product, Baabuk returned to Kickstarter in 2015 for the launch of the Urban Wooler, a wool sneaker based on the same concept as the original Baabuk. Backers were interested, and the company successfully raised more than 171,000 Francs (roughly $173,000.)
Baabuk Sales and Marketing Director Mélanie Fournier said that key to developing any successful Kickstarter is testing the product before putting it in front of the public.
“We traveled back and forth to our factory in Portugal in order to create the perfect design and the perfect combination of materials for our prototypes,” said Fournier. “We asked our friends and family to wear the shoes and collected as much feedback as possible to improve each prototype. We did a lot of brainstorming with our friends to catch the best ideas to improve our prototypes. Everything had to be perfect.”
Beyond testing the product itself, there are naturally concerns of manufacturing and fulfillment, in addition to having an e-commerce presence where customers can actually complete orders. Fournier said Baabuk’s first campaign was something of a learning experience.
“Everything has to be well-organized and smoothly running to facilitate the process and make things easier to handle after the campaign,” she said. “After the success of our campaign, our small start-up did face some troubles having everything run smoothly. During and after the campaign we were in constant communication with our factories and warehouses. We traveled a lot to our factory to make sure everything was under control. To be honest, it takes a lot of hard work and sleepless nights to make sure everything is secured.”
Despite any lost hours of slumber, Fournier believes the Kickstarter campaign was crucial to the small Swiss company gaining visibility internationally (the brand recently gained a U.S. distributor in New England-based Rust & Salt). She also says that the feedback from the crowdfunding process helped better develop Baabuk products.
When asked if she’d do it all over again, Fournier is emphatic, “Yes! We are already planning on launching a new crowdfunding campaign. We have a lot of new ideas in mind that we would like to share to the world. We had an amazing past experience and are definitely looking forward to being back in the starting blocks very soon.”