Last summer, John Chapman was looking to offset the costs of building, in the simplest term possible, a circuit board for do-it-yourself robotics projects. He ran a one-man company website, www.cncsnap.com, but he couldn’t count on orders from it to provide him with funding.
So Chapman turned where some Lincoln entrepreneurs, entertainers and artists have started turning for cash: Kickstarter.com. The website has become a destination for independent designers and performers to pitch their products and projects since 2008.
In Lincoln, musicians such as VOTA, Buffington and The Frontier Project have turned there for help in producing albums and financing tours, for instance. The Colonel Mustard Amateur Attic Theatre Company funded last summer's production of "X-Files: The Musical" through Kickstarter.com and already has met its $2,500 goal for the upcoming performance piece, "Gods of the Prairie," after the project was featured on Kickstarter.com.
The site's archives show 14 successfully funded projects with Lincoln ties, and of the seven local projects currently being funded on Kickstarter.com, four have met financial goals ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.
Chapman, a do-it-yourself open hardware builder by hobby, was looking for comparatively small potatoes last year when he posted a video of him performing computer design work with the help of his arduino-powered stepper motor board. It was synced to a clip of Styx's "Mr. Roboto."
Chapman set a modest goal of $200 -- enough to offset shipping costs of a bulk order of boards. For a $20 pledge, Chapman would send the contributor a board. For $30, he’d upgrade it. For $40, he’d upgrade that. And for a seemingly unlikely $340 contribution, he’d give contributors whatever this means: “a complete kit CNC Machine, assembled from laser-cut parts, includes all custom hardware, precision rods, brass bearings, lead screws and nuts, rotary tool and milling bit…”
Within two weeks, Chapman learned something important: You can't stop Kickstarters from throwing money at you.
Fourteen people bought the $340 thing. Chapman received 3,369 percent of his requested goal -- $6,739.
“It was nuts,” said Chapman, 31. “Right after I got that funding, I started a full-time job. I had time, and then all of a sudden, life hit me all at once."
All of a sudden, the place Chapman shared with his girlfriend had to be converted into a makeshift hardware factory.
“First, I had the laser machine in the corner of the living room, and it kind of grew a little bit to the other corner of the living room,” he said.
He was ordered to move everything to the spare bedroom, but that lasted only so long.
“That worked for a little while, but then it crept back out into the living room,” he said. “It’d be perfect if I was living at my parents' house.”
He was able to send contributors the boards relatively soon after they bought them, but the complete builds continue. Chapman said he wished he had planned a little better for this, but said the good thing about Kickstarter contributors is that they seemed to be aware that they were buying a product from someone who was just starting out. While someone who ordered from his website might have started sending inquiring emails after a week or so, the Kickstarters have been pretty patient waiting for their devices, he said.
Justin Brouillette has had a similar experience on a larger scale since he and Nicholas Pajerski received $21,597 in funding for the first product they patented and designed as co-founders of Lincoln-based MAKE Collaboration, the Prop.
It’s a portable, $18 laptop stand that won the three-member judges’ award 2011 Design Showcase contest at www.apartmenttherapy.com. Pajerski came up with the idea while he and Brouillette were undergrads at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and they spent a few years refining it until they were ready to pay for a 700-pound stainless steel mold to pump out Props in an Omaha factory.
But first, Brouillette said, they needed seed money.
"It was a scary large number," said Brouillette, 24. "We needed $18,000 and they were 18 bucks a pop, so we needed (to sell) 1,000 of them."
On Kickstarter they found plenty of buyers, from people who wanted one to a guy in Malaysia who bought a bulk order of them to sell there.
The project was funded in late November, and Brouillette said it's taken until this month to produce, pack and ship all but a few of the Kickstarter orders. Unlike Chapman, they never had to stop taking non-Kickstarter orders at their company website, makecollab.com. And unlike Chapman, they had some key warehouse space for their products.
"It’s been like this sweatshop in my parents' basement," he said.
In retrospect, he wished they'd been further along in the development of the Prop at the time. It's just one of many lessons he learned with his first Kickstarter-funded project. He said he's shared some of the others with potential Kickstarter users who have emailed him.
“It was really fun and it’s a pretty big opportunity," he said. "This was all done while we were in (graduate) school."