The benefits and pitfalls of crowdfunding the outdoors

Crowdfunding is hot, but it’s no surefire success. SNEWS looks at lessons from the outdoor industry, plus a list of past and present pitches.
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Part non-traditional financing, part social media, part viral video — you’ve likely come across the idea of crowdfunding to launch a new business or product.

It’s worked to jumpstart a couple of ideas in the outdoor industry, but does this new vehicle have legs to carry more? SNEWS takes a look at several outdoor crowdfunding projects — successes, failures and the latest initiatives — plus what brands and retailers can get from the experience beyond just money.

Alternative financing
As traditional forms of financing dried up during recession, entrepreneurs took to the web through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo to pitch consumers, instead of bankers and investors, their ideas for new projects or products. There, consumers voice their interest by pre-buying the product, or supporting the project.

If enough money is raised, the money is released to the entrepreneur, the project is funded and the products are delivered. If enough money can’t be raised, the project doesn’t get its funding and the money is returned to the consumer.

Consumer validation
The beauty of the model is that it takes away the risk of gauging initial demand, said Jason McGowin, head of sales and marketing at FlameStower, which recently launched its outdoor portable-power device on Kickstarter. Instead of borrowing money to make a product that possibly won’t sell and send the company bankrupt, crowdfunding puts the sale on the frontend of the equation, ensuring the demand.

CrowdfundingOutdoors

“It provides consumer validation,” McGowin said. “We’re going to sell 1,000 units before we even make anything. We’d need to be in 50 retailers to do that.”

And if there isn’t demand upfront, there’s no-harm, no-foul, and it’s back to the drawing board for the entrepreneur.

Achieving goals
While crowdfunding presents a lot of potential to companies, it’s by no means a surefire deal. Consumers can buck a new product just like investors and even the best ideas may fail due to a lack of consumer awareness or unrealistic goals.

Take outdoor brand SlingFin, which has seen success with its line of expedition tents through traditional channels. The brand also had an idea for a heavy-duty pack / bicycle pannier called the Honey Badger. A year ago, it put the proposed product up on Kickstarter, complete with extensive details and even some fun videos showing the pack surviving being dragged behind a truck. While the project garnered more than $17,000, it fell well short of its $175,000 goal.

SlingFinHoneyBadger

On the flip side, start-up Sierra Madre Research recently scored big raising more $167,000, for its Nubé Hammock Shelter, well surpassing its initial $30,000 goal. (Check out our list of other outdoor crowdfunding campaigns below).

SierraMadreResearch_Nube

Perhaps the least talked about tip for crowdfunding success, McGowin said, is starting with smaller, achievable goals.

FlameStower reached its Kickstarter goal of $15,000 in three days, and with 7 days to go in the campaign (as of Oct. 16) it has raised more than $43,000 for the product that converts heat from a camp fire or stove to electricity to to charge electronic products outdoors.

In the end, crowdfunding isn’t so much about the money, McGowin said, than it is about generating support, gaining traction and free marketing, and ultimately proving to potential future investors that the business can set a goal and achieve it.

“Once you hit goals, even if its small, you’re instantly more popular,” he said. In many ways, success at crowdfunding is a lot like a viral video. Those that start small and catch fire do well.

But like many 15 minutes of fame, crowdfunding can get old quickly, and rarely can a brand go back to the well more than once.

Not just products
Crowdfunding campaigns aren’t limited to products. They can go toward causes and ideas as well.

New England Footwear, parent to of GoLite Footwear, has turned to crowdfunding to build support for U.S. manufacturing. While its $150,000 goal on Indiegogo is just a small part of its mission to fund a U.S. factory, CEO Doug Clark said every bit helps to drum up support even if its just some extra marketing.

“We need to show there’s interest for “Made in the USA” and crowdfunding is one of the ways we can do that,” he said. “Our country has lost its confidence that Americans can make shoes. It’s time to bring it back home before everyone forgets.”

Retailer support
Crowdfunding doesn’t just involve direct-to-consumer transactions. Retailers are getting into the mix too, pledging money to some campaigns for the chance to be among the first retailing the newest and coolest products.

Scouring crowdfunding sites can also lead to new ideas and serve as a gauge of where consumers are putting their money. Truth be told, there isn’t a great amount of outdoor products seeking funds, but we found a few past and present worth noting:

>> We told you above about Sierra Madre Research's Nubé Hammock Shelter, FlameStower, SlingFin's Honey Badger and New England Footwear's campaign to build a U.S. factory.

>>Camping hammocks seem to be doing well on Kickstarter — The Alpine Hammock raised more than $42,000.

>> Another hammock product, the HackedPack, reached its goal by raising more $15,000.

>> Before BioLite, there was the Backcountry Boiler, which raised more than $60,000.

>> Firebox Nano did well in the bio stove category as well, raising more than $23,000.

>> Expedition Denali warmed hearts, raising more than $111,000 for a documentary about the first African American expedition to summit North America’s highest peak.

>> Simple Hydration raised more than $21,000 for its innovative water bottle shape.

>> Here’s a campaign that's still going for a few days — Press-bot, a French press for your Nalgene.

>> As we mentioned above, not every well-thought-out idea finds success with crowdfunding, such as these MFD Freetour Backpacks and Collapsible Water Bottles.

>> Bob Marshall Wilderness is a great alternative to Glacier National Park in Montana. This map of the area found funding success a few years ago.

>> And there are just plain fun small projects, like Outdoors with Math, that make it, too.

--David Clucas

Tell us about your past or present crowdfunding campaign or experience in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.

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