When Phil Weiner and business partner John Gorby won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2013 Cupid's Cup business competition, they knew the battle to launch their product, the Nourishmat, was only half over. The judges of the University of Maryland-hosted national contest may have deemed Earth Starter a viable entrepreneurial venture, but Weiner and Gorby would be putting all of the prize money toward fulfilling their initial 1,200 orders. Bringing the Nourishmat to a national audience was going to take something extra, and Kickstarter was the way to get it.
The journey from out-of-pocket project to crowdfunding success story wasn't necessarily easy every step of the way. The Nourishmat Garden System, a 4-by-6 mat with a planting grid and built-in irrigation, was designed in 2011 as a way to make home gardening simple and accessible to anyone with a few square feet of space and a desire to eat better.
"The Nourishmat is an easier way for people to grow food," said Weiner, the company's CEO. "There's so much free gardening information out there. [We wanted] to synthesize that information into a multisensory, intuitive, colorful product that the typical American consumer would want."
After designing and testing the prototype themselves, Weiner and Gorby created a workable model in early 2012 and self-funded a year-long beta test, which received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the 300 testers in 22 states. The Earth Starter co-founders then entered and competed in Cupid's Cup in April 2013, which allowed them to roll out a limited amount of Nourishmats, smaller Herbmats, and pre-planted seedballs packed with nutrients and non-GMO seeds for a variety of produce and herbs. The next step was raising the money to create even more products and spread their gardening tools and knowledge to local schools and food-insecure urban areas.
Earth Starter's 32-day Kickstarter campaign launched on June 29, 2013, with a funding goal of $70,000. Over the next month, the team raised $107,534, adding numerous "stretch" goals toward the end. However, they didn't hit their initial goal until the final 48 hours of the campaign, causing serious concern that they may not make the cut. In addition to increased incentives and amped up marketing efforts, Nourishmat's saving grace came in the form of fellow entrepreneur Ralph Machesky, whose own crowdfunding campaign hadn't been as successful.
"He had a failed Kickstarter project and put his efforts into ours," Weiner explained. "He said if we got to $68,000, he would put in the extra $2,000."
For the duration of its Kickstarter campaign, Earth Starter enjoyed a modest but steady flow of pledges, but it wasn't because of media publicity. Other than a few articles on smaller blogs and websites, there was very little press coverage to raise awareness about Nourishmat.
"We're the ones that drove all the traffic to Kickstarter," Weiner told BusinessNewsDaily. "It ended up being a grassroots effort from a community that came on and backed it first. It was important that the people who backed were fully committed. We were amazed to see the outpouring [of support]."
Through self-published Kickstarter updates and strong Facebook and Twitter campaigns, Earth Starter and its backers continued to grow its community of supporters largely without the help of traditional media coverage. Nourishmat did receive a mention in a Yahoo! Homes feature on the last full day of the campaign (after the $70,000 goal was reached), leading to more than $37,000 in additional funds.
Instead of spending their time looking for potential investors, Weiner and Gorby chose the crowdfunding route so they could focus on creating the best possible product for their customers.
"It's all about the customers," said Weiner, who advised all product-based startups to concentrate their efforts on having a good product and growing their customer base first. "If you get one bad customer feedback story, it'll spread like wildfire."
Earth Starter has made it part of its brand mission to produce its products right here in the U.S. to ensure fast turnaround and support for American manufacturers. The company is also working on donating a Nourishmat to schools and nonprofit organizations in the San Francisco and Oakland area in an effort to educate and give back to the local community.
"Whenever you do anything, it starts with a community," Weiner said. "Whether it's pushing your product into a new realm or hiring a new person, you can build tons of partnerships through community. Community is how we've grown."
Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.