It took just 60 seconds for Alex Commons to kick-start his export dream.
On June 14, the inventor of the Bulat Kitchen Knife launched his crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.com at 7 a.m. and one minute later, he received notification that an Italian backer had supported the campaign.
“That was a crazy moment,” the Toronto entrepreneur said. “To have a stranger backing my campaign in the first minute I launched gave me an overwhelming feeling that this may work.”
And work it did.
Commons far surpassed his goal of raising $25,000 in the first 24 hours of the 30-day campaign. In total, Bulat raised $707,001 U.S., or an average of $23,566 per day from more than 5,100 supporters from all over the globe.
More than half of Bulat’s customers hail from the U.S., followed by Canada and Europe. Many customers received their knives from the initial product run in November 2016. The remainder will be delivered to backers in February 2017.
“I had no idea it would explode the way it did,” says Commons, an Ottawa native. “It’s humbling and amazing to think that more than 5,000 backers went online, saw my campaign and invested in it.”
Behind the scenes, however, Commons’ hard work and sweat equity helped to ensure the product’s successful launch.
A knife aficionado and self-proclaimed foodie, Commons had become frustrated by his search to purchase a new chef knife. In his view, the market offered either low-quality products found at big box stores, or “ridiculously overpriced” blades from premium retailers.
“There weren’t many options in the middle,” he explains. “I wanted to change that.”
After two months of making refinements to the design, the Bulat kitchen knife was born.
Commons cleverly added cachet to the brand by naming it “Bulat”, which pays homage to a Russian steel rumoured to be the material of choice for swords made for Emperor Genghis Khan.
Developing a great product is one aspect of Commons’ success story. The planning and preparation to ensure a successful crowdfunding campaign were crucial as well, he said.
“I spent a lot of time on preparing for the campaign, likely more than most,” he said. “But that’s a must. It’s all about telling a story and telling it well.”
In Kickstarter campaigns, a quality project video is considered essential to engaging backers. Beyond the hours Commons spent crafting his video, he also enlisted the help of a film student and later tested the finished product in a focus group of participants drawn from his personal network.
“The video needs to be incredible, because it’s the first thing everyone sees,” Commons said. “I invested a lot of time in making all of the elements come together, so it looked professional.”
Public relations and leveraging your own network are also keys to Kickstarter success.
Commons sent hundreds of personalized e-mails to journalists, while also leveraging his personal network to promote and share the details of his campaign. He also conducted Facebook advertising in the campaign’s latter stages.
One of the defining moments of the Bulat campaign came when Uncrate – a leading website guide for male shoppers – featured the product.
“I reached out to them and they featured my product on their website. There was an avalanche of traffic back on the campaign website,” Commons said. “I raised about $50,000 in two hours.”
And that type of momentum can boost a campaign overall. Kickstarter uses an algorithm that flags popular campaigns and then promotes them as hot campaigns on its homepage.
In Bulat’s case, Commons’ personal network drove approximately 20 per cent of the campaign proceeds in the first day, but his subsequent public relations efforts led to the campaign’s overall success.
“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” says Commons. “You have to get the ball rolling. You don’t want people to visit your page and see that you are a campaign with zero dollars. But once you get going, it’s a snowball effect.”
However, the work doesn’t finish when the campaign is over. There are communication updates to backers about delivery times, actually manufacturing the product and figuring out shipping options.
Unlike most crowdfunding campaign managers, Commons had most of the back-end details figured out.
“I was prepared. It took 10 months of leg work to put the supply chain together from end to end,” he said. “If I just started looking at that now (after the campaign) there’s no way I would be delivering on time.”
Despite his efforts, Commons still encountered some unforeseen challenges.
“I was naive in the sense that with all of these companies doing e-commerce all over the world, problems with shipping should be worked out by now,” Commons said. “They aren’t.”
Specifically, Commons had to take a crash course in customs and duties in more than 15 countries.
“Despite what anyone says, customs and duties are always assessed at the border and that means you can’t accurately predict or prepay,” he added.
Another item that Commons couldn’t predict with certainty was his Kickstarter campaign’s full potential for success.
“When I started, if I would have reached $100,000, I would have been over the moon,” he says. “What’s great about this is that not only do I have $700,000 in seed funding, but I have 5,000 customers that are interested future products I create. That’s a huge asset I couldn’t get unless I went the crowdfunding route.”