Intro:

Vanhawks was the highes funded Kickstarter campaign in Canada at the time. Ali and his partners were able to raise $820.083 CAD with an initial goal of $100.000 CAD. Their story was covered in all major online tech publications and blog. To name only a few: TechCrunch, FastCompany, Gizmag, Mashable, Uncrate. Here’s how they did it:

Ali Zahid

Me: Describe your product in 1-3 sentences.

Ali: We’re the first ever smart connected, carbon fiber bicycle that’s connected via Bluetooth to your phone and has active feedback for safety, and it’s smart and it’s the first ever sexy bike out there.

Where can people find your website and your campaign?

www.vanhawks.com
Vanhawks Kickstarter Campaign

Month / Year you started working on your project?

June 2013

Size of your current team?

Nine people

Crowdfunding platform you used?

Kickstarter

Your location (City / Country)?

Toronto, Canada

Describe your product development process from the first idea to the working prototype to the ready-to-ship product.

We came from a manufacturing background, so we were manufactures before we started to jump into full-on product design. We came up with a process to fold carbon fibre easier and cheaper, and by easier I mean with less people working on it and kind of automizing the whole process. We created this whole new process of manufacturing and then from there we started to create the bicycle, which was one of our biggest pain-points as commuters. I wouldn’t call myself a bike enthusiast, I would call myself someone who rides a bike from point A to point B to get to places faster, and our design process was more like, I biked every single day, what are my pain-points and how do I solve them. So one of my bigger pain-points was I almost used to get hit by cars from the back so that’s why we wanted to include a blind spot detection system because I couldn’t see behind me. The second was whenever I used to go from point A to point B in downtown Toronto, a lot of the times I didn’t know exactly where I was going so I would have my phone in front of my face while trying to ride a bicycle and trying to navigate myself, and that’s why we have the bike navigation to fit into our bikes for turn-by-turn. And then on top of that I realized, I’m a very design-centric guy, and we really care about having nice things, and that’s why we created the product ourselves which we made sexy and sleek. And it’s super light cause we hate carrying our bikes up the stairs if it’s too heavy.
We’re finishing up our prototype and going through the stress testing right now, and going through the test cases that are needed. We are going to be ready to ship in October.

What was your biggest struggle during product development and how did you overcome it?

We had too many features when we were starting, like way too many features because we thought all those features were needed. To validate those features, I did more than five hundred customer interviews and talked to more than a thousand people about this product asking them questions like, “Would you use this feature?” “Why would you use it?” “How would you use it?” “Is this feature relevant to you?” “What kind of personality do you have?” I tried to hit all these different personalities that came to my mind that will be using our product, and through that process we eliminated the features that were nice to have but weren’t going to provide a lot of value initially to our riders. So that’s the process we went through. We came up with a lot of features; after that we took those feature out to our customers and asked them if they would actually use those features, and determined the key features that everyone cared about.

How much did you know about your niche and the market you were about to enter?

We were new to the market when we started. We didn’t really fully grasp what the full aspect of the bicycle industry would be like. We knew we weren’t fully targeting the bike industry; we were targeting more of a lifestyle brand and creating a whole value through that. And so it was good that we weren’t fully into the whole bike industry because we were bringing a whole new perspective into it. And we weren’t expects at all about any of those things, which is awesome.

Why did you opt for crowdfunding vs more traditional ways to raise capital?

It was more to validate the idea that were we actually going to embark on finishing this project, are people actually going to buy it, so it was seeing the product market fit, and that was the easiest way for us to do it. And if we wanted to raise a lot of money through venture capitalists and then realize that, after making this product and starting to sell it and people don’t actually want to buy it; that would’ve not been good. So, now this is kind of backwards where we know this is going to work, we know there’s a market for it, we know there’s a lot of customers waiting for it, we know this is going to turn into a multi-million dollar business. Now, it’s easier to go out there and raise some funding from VCs because you can argue, look we have done almost a million dollars in sales in a month, there’s a big market for it, we have the right people to do it. It’s easier to go backwards than forwards.

How much did you know about crowdfunding? Did you have prior experience?

No, I had zero prior knowledge. Crowdfunding kind of became a religion for three months. I used to wake up to that website, I used to go to sleep to that website. That also became my homepage. I used to always have Kickstarter and Indiegogo open. I always knew what top-five campaigns were trending on both of the platforms, always knew what kind of values they were using, if they were on any Twitter ads, any Facebook ads, so I was really studying it. As I said, it became a religion.

How did you choose your crowdfunding platform?

The reason why we went is, at the time of our launch, Indiegogo was going through some bad press where they had the EOB thing going on. We knew Indiegogo was launching a brand new logo and a whole new identity. It was just not the right time to go on Indiegogo. And, on top of that, Kickstarter was a very curated process, they actually curated the projects that went on to Kickstarter, and there was a whole process to it, where with Indiegogo, anyone could go on it. And Kickstarter was a lot more for design-centric people.

In what way did you protect your idea, if at all, and why?

We have a lot of intellectual property value that would’ve gone, but still finding our campaign together we all decided we, as people, don’t want to put things on shelves. We always want to be innovating and moving forward, and we want to be the heart of innovation for this industry. So for that reason, we don’t want to look back and be like, look at our trophies. We want to look forward and be like, what can we create that can create a lot of value and make this world a better place to live?

How did you prepare for your campaign?

There’s a lot things that we did: the thousand customer interviews; I knew that out of a thousand people 10 percent would convert into customers, so that was a hundred customers. We knew our bike was going to cost around a thousand dollars, so we knew we needed a hundred thousand dollars and we knew if we could hit the hundred thousand dollar mark in the first day, that would excel us to reach five hundred thousand or eight hundred thousand, or whatever that number was going to be. So we knew we had to hit our goal in the first day and we hit it in 30 hours because we did the thousand customer interviews, we lined up the customers, we pretty much did pre-fills beforehand even before we went in Kickstarter to make sure that if we do go on Kickstarter it will be a success. So that’s how we prepared for it and launched a Kickstarter campaign. We also had a lot of press embargos, if you go take a look, we had a lot of press that we hit and how we hit that is like a whole different talk and I can talk about that a lot. But, yeah, there were different avenues that we hit that was like our own, we made sure the network effect was in place, making sure that every single person I ever walked across or talked to in my life either through Facebook or through email knew that I was doing a crowdfunding campaign. And there are a lot of things that always go in place for you to launch.

Which books, websites or other resources did you find most useful and would you recommend?

Tim Ferriss wrote a really good blog post about it; about how to run a Kickstarter campaign and how to hack it. I think a lot of crowdfunding is, if you were just going to regularly launch a campaign or regularly launch a product you would do all the same things that we did except this is the way to funnel your money into an area where the other funnel would be just going through your own website to your own backing so, I don’t think there’s any magic to it, or any crazy things, it’s just like launching a good product and making sure there’s a product market fit for it and doing the whole work beforehand like lining up the press and letting every single person that you have ever known, that hey, this is the way you do it, making sure you’ve done customer interviews and presales and the understand what you’re tying to do.
In terms of books and other blogs, I read so much about it, there’s so much that comes to my mind, but if you just go in medium there’s a lot of people who talk about it. If you go on Tim Ferriss’s blog, he talks a lot about it.

Did you have mentors or a personal network to consult with? How would you rate the importance of such contacts?

Oh, absolutely. We were part of an accelerator called FounderFuel down in Montreal. They had a massive network, and they were a VC fund so they were helping us through this whole process. I would rate the network as one of their top ones, either the first or the second one as to the importance. Because a lot of people go out there and they don’t have a lot of network or don’t have a lot of network leverage and then a bunch of campaigns end in a fail because not many people know about it because the reality is 80 percent of the traffic that you drive to Kickstarter is yourself and then 20 percent is the traffic that a Kickstarter will drive.

How far were you into creating your business structure when you launched your campaign?

We were only four cofounders so it was very, very initial, very early. Nearly a month before we were going to launch the campaign is when we set up all the legal stuff.

How did you structure your campaign and decide what stories to tell? Which element of your campaign or of the story you told pulled people in the most?

If you notice about our Kickstarter video that none of the cofounders are sitting there and being like, hey, this is my Kickstarter campaign and this is what we are doing. It was more like, the product kind of sold itself and stood alone by itself and no cofounder has to be behind it to sell it. And another thing that we did really well in my mind is that we designed a product around a very large community, which is commuters. And the whole story is told from a commuter’s point of view from waking up in the morning, taking the bike to work, taking the bike to lunch and going through the painstakes of each of those timelines was very important to us that we told the story through a very specific lens which was the commuter’s lens.

Vanhawks App Map View

How did you calculate and decide on the rewards you would offer?

We’re a bit of an anomaly in Kickstarter world because almost every product that goes out there the average pledge on Kickstarter is around 70 dollars, whereas our average pledge was a thousand dollars. I wouldn’t necessarily rate ourselves being like, hey, follow these guidelines, because we were really skewed, because our product was a thousand dollars an item. The way we went about finding all the other T-shirts, posters and all those others was very generic, but we created the content ourselves. I got a very close friend of mine to design the poster, I designed the shirt, I designed the jackets, those are like very regular things, but those didn’t really drive our sales. What drove our sales was our product.
How did you create awareness, and what was the foundation of your marketing strategy? What worked best for you: traditional media, TV, radio, a personal network, content marketing, social media or any other channel?
It was mostly the network effect, I would say, and then a lot of press. The press I’m talking about was all the top, like TechCrunch, Fast Company, all the big media outlets like Engadget, Mashable, WIRED, GQ, all these guys that you want to hit that drive a lot of traffic cause those are the right customers that we knew had the money. And also having all your friends and family, and anyone you’ve ever talked to share your product, and then once they share a product on their Facebook other people notice and other people will share it too. So, the more people that share it the better it is.

If at all, how far in advance of your campaign did you start spreading the word? When is the right time to start generating buzz?

Like four or five months before you’re going to launch a product? The way I see it is, if you’re creating a product that you (only) think is going to be a hit you shouldn’t be creating it. I think you should be creating a product after you’ve done a lot of customer interviews after you know, after you’ve talked to people and if people get excited, that product will be a success, I don’t think you can do all these little hacks and whatnot and I can give you a time limit and like, hey, you should be doing this six months beforehand, you should be creating a buzz, you should be creating an email list with a thousand people and plus. Those are all good things and all good metrics, but the reality is in the end, if you’re creating a product you should really do your customer interviews, you should really see if this product is actually going to be a hit, because out of the thousand people that you talked to that you think might actually use your product and if they all say, “Hey, I don’t think I’m going to be interested in buying this product,” that’s a very key indictor that you shouldn’t be doing it or there’s something missing in your product for the people to buy.
So, when you say, how fast should they start, working towards their marketing, I think when they even start thinking about creating a product they should also be thinking about how I’m going to market it, who’s going to be using it and how am I going to reach those people right from the very get-go. If marketing comes into play very far along in the product and then you realize that people actually don’t want the product, that’s all the time wasted that you put into product development.

What did your days throughout the campaign look like? What did you find yourself doing repeatedly and what led to the best results?

I answered a lot of emails. I remember, for the first three nights I actually didn’t go to sleep; I was high on Red Bull and coffee and whatever you can imagine. My phone kept buzzing for press interviews, so I was doing a lot of interviews with media. Second was I was replying back to a lot of emails, third I was replying back to a lot of Kickstarter messages, and fourth, I was replying a lot to Facebook messages that I got in through people finding my Facebook that I launched a product on Kickstarter. I was doing that for at least, like the first 10 days and I was doing a lot of interviews, every single day I had one or two interviews lined up, or two or three. I was traveling a lot; I was traveling to Montreal, Toronto and San Francisco cause I was doing interviews everywhere. So that’s what I was doing. Another thing I kept doing was talking to our backers and saying thank you for joining us through this journey. And also we spent a lot of time in doing updates, campaign updates, like, Hey, we reached this goal, thank you so much; Hey, we’re doing this now; Hey let’s get more traction; Hey, tell your friends; Hey, tweet about this. So we did a lot of campaign updates.

What was your biggest struggle before or during your campaign and how did you overcome that challenge?

We saw a lot of cancellation in the middle of the campaign, which was kind of scary because we were trending toward a million dollars and then all of a sudden one day we were in negative and we were like, what the heck is happening to our campaign? And then solving that was by giving a lot more updates and by providing a lot of different images for people to see; that was one of our pains. Another one was optimizing FAQs so we would get less emails and have more time to put out of word.

What do you consider the main tipping point of your campaign?

It’s the way the product looks and the way the product was presented and the way we told the story I think was the biggest tipping point. We did a big push, which was like the hundred thousand dollars mark of sales and the rest of the seven hundred thousand dollars was like a pull that customers did. So it was, I would say, like a one in seven ratio that, like if I would tell one person, that one person would tell seven people, which was amazing for us because our product sold for itself.

What was your biggest mistake or waste of money either in the product development process or during crowdfunding?

I don’t know, we were really, really optimized. We had a very, very, very, very, very small budget and all that budget was really, really rigorously thought out, like where would the money go and why would it go there, and how would that money effect our campaign? There was a lot of time wasted where I was so fricken tired that it would take me like 10 minutes to write one email when in reality it should have taken me 30 seconds to a minute.

What key marketing lesson did you learn?

That’s a difficult question to really think about. My aha moment was the video; when we launched the video and got the feedback, people loved the way we told the story. We had a lot of arguments between the cofounders about how the video should be. Some were like, it should be more of a personal story of the cofounder team coming together and creating this; other people were like, no, the cofounding team should not even be in there and it should just be the product selling and the product telling a story that a customer could relate to very easily. So the aha moment for us would be the product that we shipped and the product kind of sells itself and tells a story by itself and the cofounding team doesn’t have to come behind it. It’s just the product. It’s so great, it awesome, there’s a need for it.

What is the one thing you would do differently next time?

I would line up a lot more key people that would be very valuable to me with a big network effect, so that would be like hitting big names or big admirers in the industry. Getting like Andreessen Horowitz guys or Mark Cuban sending out a tweet about us. Or any of the very, very, very big people tweeting things about us would’ve really blown up our campaign. It really just depends on the product that you’re launching. I can’t really tell you I would do this differently until I know what the product is.
And also realizing websites like Uncrate; these smaller blogs actually drive a lot of traffic to your website and that traffic converts into dollars. So, I would target those very heavily.

In your opinion, does it take a team to run a successful campaign, and what kind of talent would you look for?

I’d be looking for the smart people. I can’t really tell you what kind of talent; I’d be looking for people who understand the market, I’d be looking for people who are ready to hustle and do whatever it takes to launch a good campaign. I myself studied biomedical engineering, I had no clue about how to do marketing. I had no clue what marketing is and what crowdfunding is, but I learned it fast, and I adopted fast, and those are the people I would be looking for. The people who are just generally smart, the people who understand, and the people who can adapt and move fast, are the people I would want on my team to launch a campaign.

At what point did you know your campaign would be successful?

The first 20 hours I knew my campaign would blow up. No, I take that back, the first five hours; after the fifth hour the trajectory that we were going on and the money that we were bringing in, and then the amount of tweets and media press we had gotten, I knew there was for sure something there. TechCrunch broke our news, Fast Company picked it up, The Verge picked it up. I started to get emails from Mashable, I started to get emails from Engadget, I started getting emails from WIRED, and then all these smaller blogs came up really, really fast, and then the dollar value started to move really fast.
We knew right away, the amount of tweets we were getting, the press coverage we had gotten, and because our dollar value was really big so one customer meant a thousand dollars to us. When we were at the 40th and 50th customer, we were like, holy shit, that’s a lot of money in a short amount of time.
How did you move on after your campaign ended? What were the next big steps and challenges?
After the campaign, it’s just like growing any company. Those are the pains any company would get, which is like, you’ve got a big customer base, now you need to expand your team, you need to do the right hires, you need to get a right working place, you need to put a culture in place, you need to start raising money. I wouldn’t say all this is a crowdfunding campaign’s pain; it’s any company’s pain. And the biggest challenge for us is turning a project into a company and convincing people that this is not a one-time project, but this is actually a big company that’s going to be a multi-million dollar company. It was our biggest challenge because a lot people were like, okay, great, now you’ve done a good project, how are you going to change this into a company? Whereas, we started saying that this is a big company and we’re here for the long-haul and this was actually not just a one small project.

What stage is your business currently in?

We’re in the growth stage now. We know we’ve got a product market, we know it sells, we know people like it, now we’re just growing it, and with that growing pains come along, which is like hiring the right people, managing your customers, getting a work space, putting our culture down, having some beliefs, raising a lot of money to sustain us over a long time, putting vision down, all the things that, if you go out there, and you’re like, growing a start-up? You will find all the same things that we’re going through right now.
What do you currently struggle with the most and how do you think you’ll tackle that challenge?
Right now, we’re just trying to stay focused on what we need to do. One of our biggest challenges is we get distracted fast because we have so much to do. And then realizing what is really important and know what is going to effect the company, and staying focused. And that is the most important thing to us right now. And it’s a challenge because you get distracted really fast and you have to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and what needs to be done before anything else.

What do you plan for your business within the next 1-3 years?

I can’t tell you, I don’t know. I don’t even know the next four months or six months, and you’re asking me two or three years. If you asked me four months ago, “Where will you be,” I’d have no clue, because we were starting and now I’m here at this moment and I didn’t know our campaign would be this successful and here we are. And I don’t know what the future holds. We just kind of grow; we have key metrics that we want to hit, we have key things that we want to tackle, but, overall, the reality is things come up, things change so fast, that I can’t really look so far into the future. I have an idea of what it’s going to be, but I can’t really share that until I’m like, hey, this is where the company’s future is going.

If you could give only one piece of advice to people in a similar situation to the one you were in, what would it be?

Talk to a lot of people. Talk to as many people as possible in this world. You’re main job should be talking to people and pitching this idea. And gauging if this is going to be a success. The more people you talk to the better it is. And, in the end, everything in the world is people-driven and if people can drive your product and you can create value out of that, that’s what you should be doing. You shouldn’t be thinking, hey, we should do a Kickstarter, you should be thinking, hey, what do the people want and need right now and that’s not harming the world and how are we going to create value so we’re going to sell them this value that they’ll see right now. So, if you’re starting to do a Kickstarter, thinking about doing a Kickstarter, start talking to people, and talk to them a lot and talk to very different individuals.

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