Like most of you, I’ve been hearing about the influence of crowdfunding in the world of industrial design for the past few years. It started to peak my curiosity when I noticed how it changed the way companies and entrepreneurs bring products to market more rapidly.
In the not-too-distant past, it has required an army of people to develop, market and distribute products. In addition, there needed to be a large commitment of time and money to make it happen. Today, technology combined with the power of social media and online crowdfunding platforms, companies, designers and inventors can create, market and start selling their products at an accelerated rate.
A couple of key elements of product development that I noticed have changed over the years include faster development, custom manufacturing advancements and an increased variety of materials and global distribution. The internet has opened more doors to those trying to deliver what they believe is the best product in this fast-paced, crowded world that we live in. Our perception of seeing crowdfunding sites used as a major platform for people’s ideas gives me a sense of being included in their conversation with others – which is an exciting portrait of the bigger picture that we might not always get to see when working in a traditional “go to market” approach. As we become more digitally savvy, technology has a tremendous influence on trends in the marketplace, making it more convenient and reliable to release these products.
What is Crowdfunding?
Let me take a step back quickly and talk about what I mean by crowdfunding. Crowdfunding by definition is, “the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet”. As a result of the unexpected recession wave we unfortunately encountered several years ago, companies, small businesses and entrepreneurs struggled to find funds to stay above water and support their product development efforts. Enter crowdfunding. Crowdfunding became a way for individuals to gain support both financially and socially to showcase their products and make them a reality.
Sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo have been used to develop new business ideas, fund entrepreneurial products and support personal causes or nonprofit organizations. Out of the three platforms that we researched, here are our recommendations:
•Kickstarter is the place to visit first for your crowdfunding. It is the only site that requires a project to reach its goals in order to receive funding. Some might think that it would be a negative, but if you think about it, this is a more reliable outlet to put your product out there for review.
•GoFundMe is a platform that allows users to keep the funds that are pledged towards your goal, regardless of whether or not the project meets the final amount. This means that if you have obligations to fulfill or promises that you made to backers, they need to be completed fully.
•Indiegogo, compared to Kickstarter, supports a wide range of products to choose from. There is a choice from flexible funding to fixed funding. The difference is keeping the funds that you have made or only keeping the contributions of the project reaches its goals.
These sites provide a prime opportunity and platform for a start-up company or an individual to get in front of a large audience before investing thousands of dollars into a product or service that could fail. Which one is best? Well – it all depends on what you’re looking for, whether it be hitting your goal mark, what kind of funding you need and personal preference and just receiving money and support.
Insight from Crowdfunding Users
Being in the product development world for more than 30 years, I’m surprised each and every day with what I see. I recently spoke with a few people who have used Kickstarter to gain more insight into what goes behind the scenes, their experiences and thoughts on what the future of crowdfunding holds and how it changes the way the average person can bring their product to market. Among these inventors are Jack Newell and Seth Unger, who came up with the idea to install LED lights under the Chicago’s Wabash El stop called The Wabash Lights, Frank DeMartin – Senior Vice President of Product Development at Directed, who has been on the traditional side of product development for both small and large companies, and Ryan Frost, creator of EdgeOpener, which is a mounted piece of material that allows users to open up a bottle without destroying furniture.
I’ve included what I believe are the three key points of how crowdfunding has changed the way products are introduced into the marketplace.
01 Research to Test Product Interest
A company or an entrepreneur may have what they believe is a brilliant product or service, others might not necessarily agree. We live in a world where any product could be a giant success, while others could just be a massive flop. Crowdfunding platforms can allow people to test the waters to see how influential or profitable their products could be. It’s all about the amount of money invested into a project. By engaging the crowd, comments and feedback can pour in – giving the inventor a whole other side to think about and these platforms are an informative place to start. “You never really know what the consumer wants until they weigh in – and crowdfunding allows this to happen before you invest thousands of dollars in production” says Frank. Another benefit is that it provides an inventor with a deeper understanding of what consumers want out of their products and how much they would pay for it.
“For us, the L representing something about that city we both love: the gritty, hardworking side. We wanted to bring this project to Chicago because we saw Wabash as a unique district that was in need something to tip it over the edge…” says Jack.
02 Public Relations and Advertising
What is the number one benefit of being on a crowdfunding site, as opposed to the traditional approach? “Exposure. You can’t get this kind of popularity anywhere else this early in the design process” explains Ryan. These sites provide a free and easy way to reach a large audience quickly and early. This can allow for thousands of visits from users all the way to potential funders. “A big part of it is to keep backers and potential backers up to date on what is going on with updates and posts on other social media sites” says Ryan.
By receiving all these visits from different users, you have the ability to share and spread the word to other connections. Traditionally, setting appointments or even a conference call with a busy investor was a challenge and took time.
“We really wanted to put the public back in public art, so crowdfunding was really important to us – we were always going to crowdfund this project” says Jack. With crowdfunding, it is an effective way to reach your target market the way that you want, in the shortest amount of time.
“It goes beyond the friends and family approach you might see traditionally. You have to build an underlying interest in your idea and your story” says Frank.
03 Direct Sales
There’s no time like the present, and as part of this world we live in speed, ease and efficiency are necessary when it comes to communicating with others or making a financial purchase. Instant gratification is very important – especially when it comes to crowdfunding and backing a product. Traditionally, there were different channels of distribution including retail, mail order and door-to-door sales. While these options were appropriate and sufficient for that time, they would not be as acceptable today, especially with the advancements that we have seen in technology.
These sites, along with the social media platforms they incorporate, allow for instant sightings and potential for funding support. Moreover, Jack explains that Kickstarter is known around the design and other communities – thinking that users feel safer using this platform to donate.
“You need to show revenue in order to raise the kind of money required to go to market, but how do you make sales when you don’t have the initial capital necessary to create your product? It’s a Catch 22” says Frank.
The amount of initial investment is significantly less and there can be projected and expected outcomes – unlike your traditional ‘go to market’ approach for direct sales.
As product development experts, we realize the advantages of using crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to promote products that we think would succeed. Over the past four years, programs like dig-8 started by Beyond Design, now see-8 teach product development to 8th grade students at Chicago Public Schools that include research, design, engineering, marketing and sales in an educational setting.
Prior to The Jewel Tree and Smart Mail projects, The Elephant Hooks were the first project that Beyond Design started with dig-8 with the intent of using crowdfunding. The final outcomes of this work, having gone onto Kickstarter, exceeded the revenue goal and generated a phenomenal return on investment with funds going back to the school. Today, entrepreneurs and start-up companies are looking into these sites in a completely new way to provide them with the building blocks of achieving their goals, starting from an idea and ending at the distribution of the product.
There is room for both crowdfunding and traditional methods of going to market; however, I believe crowdfunding will remain a growing platform especially for entrepreneurs – as the benefits and return on investment are very apparent for some products. Millennials have an entrepreneurial spirit and these crowdfunding platforms will continue to grow for new and innovative products. We need to be ready for the new wave of product development and how this will further improve our economy and competitive advantage for the up and coming start-ups and entrepreneurs.
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