Leandrew Robinson first met football legend Marshawn Lynch at U.C. Berkeley in the early 2000s, when they were both undergraduates. While Lynch, a.k.a. "Beast Mode," was making a name for himself as a Cal Bear running back, Robinson was busy organizing the Berkeley Scholars Program -- an education non-profit that pairs low-income students of color with a college mentor.

The two weren't exactly close friends. But when Robinson decided to launch Hingeto, a crowdfunding site that lets fashion brands test out their designs, he reached out to Lynch (though a celebrity rep). Lynch, who's now retired from the NFL, has his own Beast Mode apparel line -- and would be a perfect fashion partner for Hingeto, Robinson figured. Lynch agreed.  "He [Marshawn] liked the fact that he could test out different looks quickly on Hingto -- it was a no brainer for his team," Robinson says.

Time will tell if the partnership (and concept) works, but Hingeto is off to a good start. Hingeto, which graduated from Y-Combinator in March, emerged from beta today with Beast Mode front-and-center. The idea behind Hingeto is to help brands save money on excess inventory, retailing only as many products as customers put up the funds to buy. (If a project doesn't receive its funding goal, customers will not be charged, and the item will not be produced.)

Also on Monday, the Oakland, Calif. startup, operated by Robinson, along with co-founders Yaw Owusu-Barimah and Akintunde Ismail Maiyegun, announced that it raised $1.9 million in seed funding. Cross Culture Ventures, a VC firm co-launched by music industry executive Troy Carter and Marlon Nichols, led the round, with participation from Kapor Capital, Base Ventures, and professional basketball stars Magic Johnson and Andre Igoudala, among other investors.

Aside from Beast Mode, Hingeto has signed on 20 fashion partners so far, including Crooks & Castles and Embellish, and claims to have boosted sales for those brands by an average of 20 percent. Items now available for purchase through Hingeto include Beast Mode bomber jackets, retailing at $80, and athletic sliders, which start at $60. The company expects to sign on at least 100 brands by the end of 2016.

"We are working with Hingeto to find new top sellers and offer our customers more selection," explained Brije Grammage, store manager at Lynch's brick-and-mortar shop in Oakland. (Lynch declined to respond to interview questions directly.)

Each week, to drum up attention, Hingeto will offer limited-edited products from a new celebrity or "high-profile" fashion line, Robinson says. The company is currently in talks to do a collection of skateboards with comedian Dave Chapelle, for instance, and Carter's connections in the music industry make both John Legend and Meghan Trainor -- artists whom he has managed -- possible future partners.

Stitching the idea

Robinson first came up with the idea for Hingeto while working for Karmaloop, an e-commerce retailer based in Ontario, Calif. There, Robinson had started the division called PLNDR.com, a daily deals hub, which he ultimately grew to reach $38 million in sales.

"That's where I started to see how broken the apparel industry was," Robinson says. "We were the brand's last stop. We were selling their excess inventory. I was scratching my head, because everyone is looking at these brands, but I'm seeing them lose all profits or almost go out of business from one bad gamble during a season."

That's a problem that even high-end luxury brands are facing, too. Typically, designers will show off their latest wears on the runways as many as six months before the collection hits retail stores -- at which point the looks are no longer 'new,' and customers are wary to purchase them. In response, a number of labels, including Rebecca Minkoff, Burberry, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger, have implemented a new strategy, where customers can purchase runway looks immediately following the seasonal shows.

In addition to letting brands crowdfund products online, Hingeto is also collecting droves of customer data to help the companies brainstorm new creative directions. Hingeto, which has just seven employees at present, monitors how and when customers are buying, and then feeds the information back to the brands for free.

"It's just wrong," Robinson says of the traditional process. "The designer and the brands need to solicit customers' feedback."

If the star power wasn't enough to win over investors, it helps that Hingeto is already seeing $1.4 million in revenue, according to Robinson.

"They're tackling a broken system," said Marlon Nichols, a founding partner at CCV, who sees the inventory risk for brands as double-sided: "There's the obvious problem of, yeah, you ordered too many of an item, and then you have to go to consignment and you lose a lot of revenue that way. But what a lot of brands do is they under-order, and then that presents a whole other problem."

Of course, Hingeto isn't the only company that's offering to help entrepreneurs crowd-source their ideas, and it's worth pointing on that it charges a hefty 15 percent commission on transactions. Kickstarter, which last year made the decision to become a public benefit corporation, charges just five percent, plus a processing fee of between three and five percent. The site has funded nearly 110,000 projects to date, receiving more than $1.9 billion in pledges, compared with Hingeto's mere 1,300 funded products. 

Still, Lynch's Beast Mode, for one, sees promise in the fact that Hingeto is designed specifically for fashion labels.

"Hingeto is geared toward clothing, unlike Kickstarter," explained Grammage, the Beast Mode store-owner.

It's also worth pointing out that brands can launch entire product lines through Hingeto, as opposed to retailing just one product, and can thus use the startup as an extension of their own website.

"Brands can launch a whole collection," Robinson explains. "Kickstarter is really for one product, and you wouldn't make that an extension of your site. In that sense, we're fundamentally different."

Published on: Jul 25, 2016