All Tech Considered
2:00 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

As Kickstarter Evolves, Investors Watch For Next $1 Billion Idea

Originally published on Thu May 1, 2014 11:12 am

Most of the projects on Kickstarter are quirky, small and artisanal — take the example of the glow-in-the-dark dog collar — but in one corner of the online bazaar, the projects are about the numbers. Some investors visit Kickstarter in search of the next billion-dollar company.

On the crowdfunding site, if you pledged $69 to LIFX you were basically pre-ordering a LIFX smart bulb, says LIFX founder Phil Bosua. The light bulbs blink when you get a text, along with other features. After raising over $1 million on Kickstarter, LIFX made a killing with professional investors, who put in an additional $2.1 million, Bosua says.

"Then about eight to nine months later, we raised another $2.5 million," he says.

Another Kickstarter venture, FormLabs, did even better. The company hopped online to sell a 3-D printer and prove that designers, as a class, want one.

"I don't mean a few designers," says Sam Jacoby, FormLabs marketing director. "I mean a few hundred thousand designers, a million designers."

FormLabs raised close to $20 million in venture capital, Jacoby says. There are so many 3-D printer companies on Kickstarter — such as Pirate3D, which raised over $1 million earlier this year — that they are competing with each other. Jacoby says online sales are a way to show you've got customers.

"Who's going to buy your product? How are you going to make money? Who's interested?" Jacoby says. "When you start your company with something like Kickstarter, that question is put on its head."

As Kickstarter grows up, its language is changing, from backers and creators, to customers and startups, pre-orders and mass adoption. While the average person may not know it, the crowdfunding campaign is the site of a new mating ritual.

VCs Constantly Scouting

Brad Feld, a venture capitalist with the Foundry Group, is familiar with the courting process.

"You subscribe to the campaign. Generally most of them will reach out right away, especially when they realize that I'm an investor," Feld says. He's supported a long list of Kickstarter projects, including Twine, Ninja Blocks and Pebble.

Feld and other venture capitalists visit the site weekly. They're looking for hardware, the physical stuff that can cost a lot of money to build. When they see that something's selling, they put in, say, $100, like dangling a little bait.

So begins the much longer process of closed-door negotiations that could lead to them taking an ownership stake in the startup.

Recently, this process created a bit of uproar when a virtual-reality headset called Oculus Rift was an online hit. Venture capitalists swooped in, then Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. So while crowdfunding backers got some 3-D game goggles that are a bit obsolete, venture capitalists like Nabeel Hyatt with Spark Capital cashed in on an unspecified amount.

"We made a very healthy return," Hyatt says. "We just don't publicly disclose it."

Feeling Cheated

That Oculus deal made Joel Johnson, a crowdfunding backer of the product, angry.

"The implication was never there that I was going to be providing a seed round for a company that would eventually sell for billions of dollars," Johnson says.

This new venture capital activity is changing crowdfunding, he says. Kickstarter was supposed to be an alternative to the marketplace. Now, it is becoming the traditional marketplace. Johnson gets emails from existing companies asking him to back their latest campaign.

"Now they can just use Kickstarter as a pre-sale mechanism to test their idea before they ever have to spend a dime of their own money," Johnson says.

Two years ago, Kickstarter issued a strongly worded statement to its community saying that "Kickstarter is not a store." The statement came in response to growing concern that backers were prepaying for products that don't exist yet, and putting in sizable chunks of cash.

Today, Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler is striking a different tone. When asked about the difference between a customer and a backer, he isn't as firm.

"Well, I think ... in some ways that difference is up to the creator," Strickler says.

There is one stark difference, though: Customers often buy products from total strangers. In crowdfunding, backers interact directly with the maker.

"By virtue of that, a backer has ... more of an emotional relationship than a customer does," Strickler says.

Venture capitalists agree. Kickstarter has helped create an emotional bond — useful in building brand loyalty — that can serve many interests.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. Time for All Tech Considered.

And we start today with the evolution of crowdfunding. Kickstarter is the website where average folks pledge investment in scrappy, little startups, 10 or $20 at a time. But these days it's also attracting the attention of big-money venture capitalists looking for the next billion dollar company.

Here's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Most of the projects on Kickstarter are quirky, small, artisanal, like the glow in the dark dog collar. But in one small corner of the online bazaar, the projects are about the numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF A KICKSTARTER VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, if you pledge $69 you're essentially pre-ordering a LIFX smart bulb.

SHAHANI: The company LIFEX made a Kickstarter video to sell light bulbs that will blink when you get a text. Founder Phil Bosua says it's nice to create nice things. But...

PHIL BOSUA: When you know that there're customers there, it certainly helps.

SHAHANI: FormLabs hopped online to sell a 3D printer and prove that designers, as a class, want one.

(SOUNDBITE OF A KICKSTARTER VIDEO)

SAM JACOBY: And I don't mean a few designers, I mean a few hundred thousand designers, a million designers.

SHAHANI: FormLabs marketing director Sam Jacoby says online sales are a way to show you've got customers.

JACOBY: Who's going to buy your product? How are you going to make money? Who's interested? When you start your company with something like Kickstarter, that question is put on its head.

SHAHANI: And the real money rolls in. after raising over a million dollars online, LIFEX made a killing with professional investors.

BOSUA: Two point one million dollars, just after Kickstarter. And then about eight to nine months later, we raised another $2.5 million.

SHAHANI: Not bad but FormLabs did even better.

JACOBY: Close to $20 million, in series a financing.

SHAHANI: As Kickstarter grows up, its language is changing from backers and creators to customers and startups, pre-orders and mass adoption.

BRAD FELD: You subscribe to the campaign. Generally most of them will reach out right away, especially when they realize that I'm an investor.

SHAHANI: Venture capitalist Brad Feld is with the Foundry Group, and he reads off a long list of Kickstarters that he's supported.

FELD: Twine, Ninja Blocks, Pebble, NeuroDreamer...

SHAHANI: Feld and other venture capitalists visit the site weekly. They're looking for hardware, the physical stuff that can cost a lot of money to build. When they see that something is selling, they put in, say, a hundred bucks, like dangling a little bait.

And so begins the much longer process of closed-door negotiations that could lead to them taking an ownership stake in the startup. This created a bit of uproar recently. A hardware project called Oculus VR was an online hit. Venture capitalists swooped in, then the company got bought for $2 billion by Facebook. So while crowdfunding backers got some 3D game goggles that are a bit obsolete, venture capitalists like Nabeel Hyatt, with Spark Capital, cashed in.

NABEEL HYATT: We made a very healthy return that we really don't like, we just don't, we don't publicly disclose it.

JOEL JOHNSON: The implication was never there that I was going to be providing a seed round for a company that would eventually sell for billions of dollars.

SHAHANI: Joel Johnson is a crowdfunding backer who's angry. He says this new venture capital activity is changing crowdfunding. Kickstarter was supposed to be an alternative to the marketplace. Now it's becoming the marketplace with traditional companies.

JOHNSON: Now they can just use Kickstarter as a pre-sale mechanism to test their idea before they ever have to spend a dime of their own money.

SHAHANI: In 2012, Kickstarter issued a strongly worded statement. Quote, "Kickstarter is not a store" and "no one should feel otherwise." Today, founder Yancey Strickler is striking a different tone. I called to ask him: What is the difference between a customer and a backer?

YANCEY STRICKLER: Well, I think in some ways that difference is up to the creator.

SHAHANI: Though there is one stark difference: Customers often buy products from total strangers. In crowdfunding, backers interact directly with the maker.

STRICKLER: And by virtue of that, a backer has I think more of an emotional relationship than a customer does.

SHAHANI: And venture capitalists agree. Kickstarter has helped create an emotional bond that can serve many interests.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.