Jessica Banks designs magic tricks. The thing is, Banks's magic tricks are disguised as furniture.

She's the founder of RockPaperRobot, a robotics furniture maker in Brooklyn. Her newest offering, the Ollie chair, is her company's first attempt to appeal to a mass-market audience and to make her sleight of hand more accessible to the not-ultra-rich -- without breaking the bank herself. To fund, manufacture, and sell the chairs, RockPaperRobot turned to Kickstarter. The campaign has raised $220,000 so far, well beyond its initial goal of $80,000, and will end on March 29 at 9 a.m. ET.

Along the way, she says, she's had quite an education in crowdfunding. "It takes so much time and thought to do a Kickstarter," she says. "You have to get your ducks in a row way beforehand." For Banks, it's been one more step in a creative entrepreneurial journey. She studied at Rodney Brooks's robotics lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then stayed on to teach in the engineering department. She has also worked as a personal assistant to comedian and now-Senator Al Franken.

Her company's best-known product, the Float table, is composed of a few dozen cubes that seem to levitate, remaining perfectly spaced from each other even as they hover in the air. It costs about $10,000. Then there's the Brag table, a large Corian "diamond" that balances on a teeny point, and costs slightly less. But the Ollie chair, which neatly collapses with the pull of a string, is available on Kickstarter for a $300 contribution.

Before the Ollie chair came a folding table -- or at least that was the idea. Banks had been working for a few years on a table designed to simply glide off a wall, where it could be hung flat for storage. But when she showed a friend a prototype of the table, she got some unexpected feedback: What about the chairs?

Banks's response: "Oh, sh--. That is a f---ing great question." Fortunately, designing the chair turned out to be easier than designing the table (fewer moving parts, for one thing). Her company came up with a 16-pound indoor/outdoor chair, made of aluminum and teak. The teak slats can be customized with artwork, and the chair can be displayed just as a piece of flat art would be. A pull of a string collapses the chair into a rectangle just 2 1/4 inches thick.

Her reasons to launch the chair on a Kickstarter went way beyond cash. (RockPaperRobot raised a million-dollar seed round in 2014 and is now looking to do another.) Banks says that, in the long run, her goal is to sell the Ollie chair mostly to businesses -- hotels, cruise ships, restaurants. That's easier on the supply chain, because manufacturers have minimum order quantities, and businesses are more likely than individuals to buy lots of chairs at once. On Kickstarter, RockPaperRobot gets to sell to individuals, but the orders come in all at once, making it more similar to a corporate sale. "This really helps us finalize the tooling and refinement, and pay for the first chunk of chairs," says Banks.

Kickstarter could also provide a proof of concept for a marketing campaign. At the end of the Kickstarter, Banks will know how many people RockPaperRobot targeted, not just from its own mailing lists, but via bloggers who cover tiny houses, boating, and other venues where a cool folding chair might be popular. Then she will be able to see how many visited the Kickstarter site, and how many eventually bought a chair. "You really have to look at Kickstarter as marketing," she says. "We wanted to price it so it was attractive, so our margins are super low. We're paying for a lot of the shipping. We want people to know about the chair."

Banks opened up the Kickstarter for Ollie a day before she started publicizing it. She came up with a special early-bird deal for those who bought that first day. That way, when she started publicizing the Kickstarter, the Ollie chair was already selling. "When we said, 'Welcome aboard,' it looked like there were already people at the party," she said. "The psychology of it really makes a difference."

Similarly, the $80,000 figure was "part psychology and part realism," she says. If the Kickstarter brought in only $80,000, it would have been hard, but doable, to fulfill the order. RockPaperRobot would still have to put in about $40,000 or $50,000 for tooling, but Banks figured that would have been an acceptable cost to launch the product. At $200,000, she's able to cover a lot more of the cost of a minimum order, which is 864 chairs.

Banks's Kickstarter video shows the Ollie chair being used all over New York. She brought the chair to Times Square, figuring that the person who poses for photos dressed as the Statue of Liberty is on his feet all day. Why not get him (yes, it's a guy) to sit down for the video? But the actor dressed as the Statue of Liberty, it turns out, is on stilts, and they couldn't get a clean shot of him moving onto the chair, because removing the stilts is a bit complicated. This being Times Square, though, another character -- the Naked Cowboy -- was soon in the video. "We didn't mean to get him in the video," Banks says. His presence irritated a commenter on Kickstarter who didn't like that the Naked Cowboy is a supporter of President Trump. (Banks had no idea.) Her response: "RPR [RockPaperRobot] does not support Trump, but our chairs support everyone."

Published on: Mar 23, 2017