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How 3 Kickstarter Projects Beat the Odds

Fashion start-ups have a lousy track record on Kickstarter--the vast majority never reach their goals. Here are three instructive exceptions.
Piola makes its shoes with rubber from Peru. The company pays rubber producers a fair wage and ensures the harvesting process doesn't harm the rainforest.
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Of the 40,000 successful Kickstarter campaigns hosted on the crowdfunding platform since it came onto the scene in 2009, fashion campaigns are the least successful--only 28 percent of them meet their funding goals.

But in recent months a few breakaway campaigns in this space are worth noting for the lesson they offer any consumer product company seeking to win hearts and pocketbooks. Each company is founded on noble principles that you might think would be the key to their marketing strategies. But ultimately each says there's primarily one thing responsible for their Kickstarter fame: a high-quality product.

Piola

This two-year-old shoe company recently managed to raise more than $85,000, something most companies--in any category--struggle to do.

The idea: Use the Peruvian rainforest's natural resources to create a sustainable business, pay rubber producers fair prices, and wrap it all up in an avant-garde product fashioned by chic Parisian designers.

"We set up an economic development project with US-AID to establish fair trade prices for the rubber and to ensure that our producers got paid a fair wage," says co-founder Joshua Rudd. "The World Wildlife Fund was the team who trained them on how to cut the trees properly and in an environmentally-friendly way without killing the tree," Rudd says.

Not only does Piola now source its materials from 33 wild rubber producers and 55 organic cotton producers in Peru, but also pays them three to five times the market price for these materials.

You can see the appeal here. Not only can you tromp around in cool-looking French shoes, you also get the nice feeling that comes from supporting a company that treats workers fairly and tries to preserve the rainforest.

The 10-Year Hoodie

Flint and Tinder founder Jake Bronstein has a problem with "planned obsolescence," a tactic manufacturers use in which their goods wear out or become unusable sooner rather than later. As a result, consumers buy products more frequently.

His solution? A high-quality, American-made hoodie guaranteed to last at least a decade. If it doesn't, you can send it to Flint and Tinder for mending and the company will mail it back to you for free.

"These days when you walk into a store it almost seems like companies have lowered your expectations so far to the point where, yeah, you can buy something really cheap and that's nice, but when it falls apart on you or when it isn't what you wanted or when it comes apart at the seams quickly, you almost know better than to take it back," he says. "You assume that there's something written on the back of the receipt that says that you got what you paid for and you're not entitled to anything else."

It wasn't always this way, Bronstein says. Background props in his Kickstarter video include things like an old metal fan, a rotary phone, and a hand-crank pencil sharpener--all nostalgic triggers that elicit the idea that "they don't make 'em the way they used to." You'll also see a strategically-placed flag behind him as he speaks--a reminder that the hoodie is made in America, something Bronstein says is important to his customers.

"When my dad was young, you could take anything back to a department store. They had a reputation and valued the relationship that they had with you and they really only wanted to sell something that they felt was going to live up to the promise of both the product and the company selling it and so we kind of wanted to revisit that idea," he says.

It's a compelling concept. The 10-Year Hoodie is the most successful fashion campaign ever conducted on Kickstarter--it recently exceeded its $50,000 goal by $1 million.

Gustin

Jeans makers Josh Gustin and Stephen Powell, co-founders of San-Francisco-based Gustin, did something quite different with their Kickstarter campaign. The six-year-old company offered fans the chance to change the way they buy jeans. Instead of paying as much as $205 for their high-quality American-made jeans typically sold in swanky boutiques, Gustin asked them if they'd rather buy them online in a Kickstarter-like platform of their own.

In other words, after more than 4,000 backers pledged nearly $450,000 through Kickstarter to buy its jeans, which start at $81, Gustin promised to let them keep doing it going forward. Now if you visit weargustin.com you can pledge to buy a certain pair of jeans, but Gustin won't actually start cutting and sewing material until enough backers have committed to buy a particular style. In that way, customers are actually deciding which styles get produced--a pretty genius way to get full transparency into what buyers want most.

"For us, the whole brand is about authenticity," says Gustin. "I think we're changing the way typical fashion brands engage with consumers. Fashion is typically very standoffish--creative geniuses that you'll never understand or talk to and they're just brilliant. We like how we design and our products are great but we don't need to keep our consumers at arm's length," says Gustin.

The Common Denominator: An Exceptional Product

Fair trade, preserving the rainforest, made in America, a tight relationship with customers--these are all compelling reasons to buy products like Piola shoes, Flint and Tinder hoodies, and Gustin jeans. Even so, each company says these underlying principles come as bonuses and are not the primary draw to their products.

For example, when asked if the idea of helping people in Peru and protecting the rainforest are Piola's main virtues, Rudd said, "It hasn't really affected our customers to the point where they will go out of their way to spend the extra dollar. The fashion obviously drives the market first. If they like the aesthetic of the shoe, the customer is going to buy it. A lot of the time they won't even know the story behind Piola and what we're doing until they research us."

Bronstein sings a similar tune when it comes to his long-lived sweatshirt and the draw of "made in America."

"We made the absolute best product that we could," he says. "If you ask people to buy something because of where it was made that's almost like charity, it's not really sustainable. They have to love it, and then where it was made or how it was made is a secondary plus."

As for those crowdsourced jeans, Gustin shares the insistence on creating first a beautiful or superior product. "We're trying to do super classic, super high-quality clothing," Powell says.

Want to see examples of other Kickstarter campaigns that soared past their funding goals? Check out 9 Insanely Successful Kickstarter Campaigns, which highlights companies that are nailing both form and function.

Last updated: May 8, 2013

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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