This is why I’m not backing you on Kickstarter

Posted: November 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 19 Comments »

I want to buy some clothes.  From From Holden (not a typo).  And I can’t.  Because they’re full of Kickstoppers.

More and more, I’m seeing exciting, fun projects on Kickstarter that make me think they’re being run by the cast of Community.  Clever, well meaning, adorable, and more clueless than a general with a gmail account.

In case you just landed from Planet Preorder, Kickstarter is a site where you can “back” projects and get “rewards” in return.  For most of the civilized world, it’s a way to preorder stuff from teams that haven’t figured out how to make it yet.

I’ve backed a few projects before: Romo the Robot (in front of me), Stack Soap (in my shower), LadyCoders (in progress), DIY Spectroscopy Kit (in the mail), and Pebble (in schedule la-la land).  They’ve turned out with varying degrees of success, and that’s OK – part of Kickstarter is that you’re taking a bet on a team to make something amazing happen.

But more and more I’ve been seeing the same set of mistakes that just leaves me sighing wearily, hitting the back button, instead of kicking start.

Because examples are precious, I’m going to pick on the good folks from From Holden*.  I’m choosing them because a) they’re an egregious example of all three Kickstarter sins, and b) they’ve already raised 6x their target as of this writing, so I’m not going to stifle what appears to be a very well intentioned team that seems to have a great product offering.

Kickstopper 1: Dodging Details

Are these shirts machine washable?

Are the T-shirts cut for your founder? Because my abdomen does not look like his.

“You built a venture backed firm that reached 275 million people monthly” – Who?

I realize that you want to sell a crap-ton of T-shirts.  And I know the answers to these questions may not endear you to everyone.  That’s OK.  As a startup, polarizing decisions are a virtue. If you’re selling dryclean-only T-shirts cut for Arnold Schwarzenegger, own it!  You’ll get fewer returns and your target market will love you to bits.  A dear friend of mine (who may choose to identify himself in the comments?) was effusing, without irony, about how much he loved a pair of jeans that is completely unwashable but, instead, must be frozen and thawed.  If they found buyers, so will you.

But when you don’t address issues like these proactively, when you’re answer to “How do I know it will fit” is “Well if it doesn’t send it back”, it makes me think you’re more concerned with having lots of customers than having happy customers.

Kickstopper 2: Not Totally Thinking This Through

“We’ve had dozens of people ask us – ‘what’s next?’, ‘Do we have any reach goals?’ …. well, we spent all night thinking about it and here is what we came up with.”

Maybe you said this solely for the purposes of dramatic illustration, but let me take you at your word.  It is terrifying to me that you are now accepting real cash money for a product that you conceived of less than 24 hours ago.  I’m not entirely sure what a beanie is (this?) but presumably it hasn’t received the same care and diligence for sourcing, design, and so on as everything else you’re offering.  Or even worse, it has.

Kickstopper 3: Bull****ting About Risk

Quite recently, Kickstarter added a section called “Risks and Challenges”. They did this so you could reassure your customers that you don’t have any risks, and that there are no possible challenges to deliver your product.

Or at least that’s what I surmise from reading your section on risks and challenges.  You spend the whole (short) section talking about how awesome you are, then quite literally say that all you need is fabric.

Pro tip: if I, who know your business as well as I know the feeding habits of the Springbok Antelope, can come up with more risks than you can, you’re not doing it right.

Kick this nonsense to the curb

Come on, Kickstarters.  It’s OK.  We know  you’re excited.  We know you’re new to this.  We want to see you succeed. We don’t expect perfection.

We can forgive a lot, as long as you’re being straight with us.


From Holden has clearly mastered the rare and precious skill of listening to customers.  They’ve overhauled their Kickstarter page, and have gone from being the worst-case example to best-case.  I just backed them, because they’ve demonstrated a lot of planning about how to mitigate risk smartly. Bravo guys.

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  • johndurbinn

    WTF is this

  • ahsanhilal

    As far as this particular kickstarter is concerned, I don’t really get why you would want to raise money for something like this. I also started apparel business and sold over 0-300k garments in 9 mths, so I think I know what I am talking about

    1. First of all saying that, it is “raw California grown cotton” is not a competitive advantage. A lot of cotton grown in California is exported to China, Pakistan and India for processing, and fabric-making

    2. What you pay for in the ‘traditional’ model is the brand name (lacoste etc) and the quality associated with their standards. That is like saying ‘we make our tablets in the US’ so they are better than Apple’s?!!

    3. These guys cannot get their fabric made in the US since it is economically unfeasible and minimum order units are way too high. This means they are sourcing their fabric from China/Egypt/India/Pakistan. So what is the fabric advantage again?

    3.The traditional model works like this:
    Cost of fabric, inputs and cutting/stitching: $4-12 (dependent on volume)
    Sell it to retailer for $18-24
    Retailer places a markup of 2.2-2.5 so the cost comes to $40-60, for a normal small brand while the margins and markups are higher for other brands.

    4. There are plenty of small brands that do this in LA, and since they are making regular v-necks, polos and crews, which are hardly rocket science, I bet its very easy for them to take someone else’s patterns and use it; for example American Apparel or Alternative Apparel etc. Just copy and paste. So where is the supply chain innovation.

    5. As for the lean manufacturing bs, theyre basically cutting the retailers margin and pocketing some of that while giving some of it to the consumer.

    6. Lastly, there is absolutely no design innovation, just a promise of a better fit which is wrong. You need to make things that will fit most of the people most of the time, that is the law of manufacturing clothes; so you need to know what your market is and then gun for a fit for that particular market (muscular guys, hipsters, goths etc). As such, you cannot have a great fit for all, just a great fit for some; therein lies the biggest conundrum in manf clothes.

    End of rant. Sorry I got a little carried away.

  • asmo

    Typo: “…when you’re answer to…” should be your.

  • Donkeytronicus

    Kickstarter is the closest thing to free money there is, you are not even legally bound to deliver what you promise. Why wouldn’t you try to raise money there? Do you not like free money? Instead of accountability the system works on trust. So, you better trust whoever you are giving money to.

  • My wife is doing a kickstarter and it is anything but free money. You must work hard mobilize an existing network (in her case, fans & readers of her previous free book + some FB friends). Before any strangers start pledging to it you have to hustle like an entrepreneur. She has put in this work and shown she is trustworthy and now lots of helpful strangers from across the internet are helping her achieve a dream that she couldn’t do without them. Come see what that looks like:

  • Hey Dan, I started the company formerly known as From Holden (we’re renaming), and wrote all the copy for the Kickstarter campaign. I really appreciate the feedback — I’m tightening it up some as I write this reply. Please let me know if you have any other thoughts, this was valuable for me.

    Kickstopper 1:

    – We think launching early is important, even if it can be a bit embarrassing at times. When we launched the campaign, we knew it wasn’t perfect. We accepted that we’d forget some things and mess some things up.

    – We think people get bored quickly. Therefore, we didn’t even try to round out every single detail. We cut out some of the biggest parts of the Kickstarter to keep it short. Fit is a good example; we’ve spent six months thinking about it, and have a handful of killer ideas on how to fix it, but that part took up over half of the original copy. We decided that because we guarantee perfect fit, people would probably trust us on it, and if the question came up a lot, we’d blog about (which we’re now going to do).

    – Fit is tough; I talked to a couple hundred people when I first started the company and almost every single guy said ‘most clothes don’t fit me, I have a unique/oddly shape body’. That is true, we all need different frames, but being online-only means we’re not as limited in stocking 3 sizes. We’re not going to get it perfect every single time on the first try. Building apparel turns out to be much more like building great software than I realized. It will be iterative, and take more trial and error. That said, we’ve developed our initial sizes from 10K real measurements of real men ordering clothes online, and have created a system of ‘micro-sizes’. Our success depends on building a perfect-on-the-first-time size system that fits a large variety of body types and is consistent across every shirt we make.

    – The shirts are machine washable. We’re not trying to be another clothing brand — our shirts and everything we build represents our beliefs. Things should be minimal, simple, assist in living a good life, the best quality, and rugged. We’ll never, ever make something that isn’t machine washable. We’ll will highly advocate for not washing after each use and line-drying though — we think it’s the responsible thing to do if you can.

    – I joined a good friend as the second guy at Shareaholic in Boston Massachussets. We built a really popular sharing widget that was used by 300K+ blogs that had a massive reach. I left to start From Holden.

    – Happy Customers vs. Lots of Customers; our business will live or die by how loyal our customers are. It is really hard to market an apparel company so when people do hear about us, we need to have a perfect experience. We’re working really hard to make this happen.

    Kickstopper 2: I didn’t do a good enough job describing the reach goals. These are not things we’re not going to manufacture and offer as rewards for this campaign. If we reach the volume stated, we’ll have the resources to begin design and production after the Kickstarter campaign. They will have the same diligence in design as everything we manufacture. We are focusing on quality and making the very best of everything we’re crafting rather than catalog depth. We don’t think guys want 1 million options; just a few ones they can trust.

    Kickstopper 3: There are more risks, however minute. We didn’t want it to sound like a legal document because there is literally no chance we’re going to fail at delivering incredibly crafted shirts to all our backers. Well, barring a world-ending meteor or alien invasion, presuming they were hostile.

  • Andrew Davidson

    Now if we can stop the steady streams of ‘super compact’ wallets that show up daily…

  • A comment on HN made it clear that the last point didn’t come across like I intended. I’m confident, but I’m not saying there are no risks — there are. I promise there will be hiccups along the way. As an entrepreneur, I work as hard as I can to mitigate these risks by having multiple mills, sewing contractors, etc. but shit WILL happen. What I meant is that, no matter what happens, I’m going to make and deliver high quality shirts. Small hiccups will happen, but the only thing that makes us fail is me giving up, and that isn’t going to happen.

  • Ahsan, would love to connect. Always love talking to people with deep experience.

    Kickstarter is a perfect way to raise funds to hit minimums on fabric, and it is also an incredible way to spread the word. I’m not sure what the downfalls are, other than that it takes an immense amount of work to prepare and push it.

    The tee’s and v’s are pretty simple, but the polos and hoodies are a bit more unique and more complex to design. We started simple and worked our way up. We’ll be launching other things in the future as well, but you have to start somewhere!

    Cutting out retail is a big part of our model. Optimizing the supply chain is a process of continual refinements that we’ve only started to optimize.

    We have three mills in Los Angeles that we source local cotton from.

    Instead of picking a specific market/body type, we’re creating micro-sizes to accomodate a variety of body types. It may be breaking a law of manufacturing and it may not be the most efficient way to build our business, but we want all guys to have an efficient and pleasant buying experience. We can’t do that with standard sizing.

  • For the record, I happen to be well versed in the feeding habits of the Springbok Antelope as part of my doctoral thesis. Suffice it to say, it is quite fascinating.

  • I think you’ve gone from worst practices to best. I updated the blog post with a note & ordered some shirts. Great work!

  • Tease! You can’t say that without sharing.

  • Thanks so much, I sincerely appreciate the support!

  • haveyouwornanythinghighquality

    Anyone that purchases quality shirts will recognize that the polo in their pictures is cheaply made with poor stitching.. Go to walmart if you need this.

  • ahsanhilal

    William, I want to help you out so how about we connect? I know a lot of people in the industry and one person in particular in LA you should meet. He was my business partner and is an excellent apparel person.

  • I have no idea how to tell if the stitching on a polo shirt is of high quality and I’m sure lots of others don’t either. Could you explain what you’re seeing and why you don’t like it?

  • Apparently he can …

  • Wearparker

    Ahsanhilal – is it possible to email you or connect? I working on a similar line for women’s clothing and wondered if we might be able to speak.