How Peak Design became Kickstarter ninjas
In this article, I talk with Peak Design’s Adam Saraceno, to find out how they keep knocking their projects out of the proverbial ballpark.
Peak Design have created five incredibly successful Kickstarter campaigns. Their most recent — for the Everyday Messenger bag — raised nearly $5m from more than 17,000 backers.
In this article, I talk with Peak Design’s Adam Saraceno, to find out how they keep knocking their projects out of the proverbial ballpark. And, perhaps, to find out exactly what the magic sauce is to delivering a successful project.
“Running a photography blog, you get a press release for yet another goddamn camera bag every other day”
Peak Design — how it all begun
In 2011 — ’twas May of that fine year, in fact — and the photography world was treated to something new and exciting: A device that makes it possible to park your camera on your belt using a clip when you’re not using it, and then quick-draw it to bring it back into action. The product was the Capture Camera Clip, and the company was the then-unknown Peak Design.
The Capture Clip was notable for several reasons. In addition to being an innovative product for photographers, it used a site launched just a few years earlier to offer its products. This was before the Pebble watch kicked off the smartwatch revolution, before the Form 1 shook up 3D printing, before PowerUp changed the way we look at paper planes, and well, before most people had even heard of Kickstarter.
At the time, I was paying very close attention to Kickstarter, as I was about to launch my very own Kickstarter campaign— the project that eventually became Triggertrap v1, and I remember that, above all, I was struck by how incredibly well polished their Kickstarter video was. Especially compared to my own. My first Kickstarter project was successful (albeit shipping more than 8 months behind schedule). Triggertrap’s second Kickstarter project, two years later, not so much. We ran into a slew of problems, and eventually ended up failing to deliver altogether — a huge blow to the company and a major disappointment to our Kickstarter backers.
It should come as no surprise, then, that seeing fellow Kickstarter projects succeed hits me right in the feels. It’s not a flash of jealousy or even a tinge of envy. It’s a deep, unmitigated admiration and respect. Few people realise quite how hard it is to deliver a hardware project, and fewer still appreciate how incredible it is to manufacture 25,000 of anything, and having it distribute it to locations all around the world, without a hitch.
Not the first rodeo
First of all, I should state the obvious: The Everyday Messenger bag isn’t Peak Design’s first try at a Kickstarter project. Not by a long shot; they’re the first of a new generation of companies that use Kickstarter as a marketing and financial tool to help drive their business forward. Peak Designs first four campaigns had more than twenty-five thousand pledges, for more than $2.2m worth of pledged funds.
In fact, in terms of number of people involved in the campaign, the the Everyday Messenger did well, but it didn’t do that much better than their previous Kickstarter campaign:
But of course, the Everyday Messenger was a high-ticket item, meaning that each backer contributed a lot more — and that really made the Everyday Messenger stand out:
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…
It started with a partnership
“We’ve always had a bag on the back burner”, Adam says, “Our head designer Art Viger had been thinking about bag designs for a long time, but we didn’t feel like it was the right time for us to spend so much time and energy going into a completely saturated market.”
But then a few things came into alignment all at once. Trey Ratcliff got in touch with them, and it turns out he had been thinking about designing a bag for a while — in fact, if it hadn’t been for Trey, the bag may never have happened.
Trey spends most of his time on the road (that explains the name of his website, too — Stuck In Customs), and has been through a lot of bags. Eventually he decided that enough was enough, and started working with the Peak Design team to create the ultimate camera bag.
That made the team come full circle. Having a series of other products that help keeping your gear safe and accessible, the next logical step would be something to keep your gear safe when you’re not actively using it, but integrating it into the camera strap and camera clip system.
“Part of our fundamental aesthetics is making shit that works together,” Adam laughs. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to make a bag that works brilliantly”
So that’s what they did. “On a Friday, we said ‘let’s do this’, and Art went away for the weekend. We came back on Monday with a prototype. We looked at each other and said holy shit! Art knows how to make a fuckin’ bag! He came back with a really, really cool design.”
That first design was the starting point for a lot of iteration, of course, but a lot of the design features that appeared in the first prototype are still there in the bag you can order today.
Trey became a partner in making the bag happen — he shares in the costs of creating the bag and the profits from the sales, but also had a huge amount of insights into what’s actually important about a camera bag.
“Trey is constantly travelling”, Adam says, shaking his head in mock horror. “I’ve never seen anybody take as many pictures as he does. He’s constantly lugging around a lot of kit, and is the quintessential use case for a bag like this. I don’t know anybody who uses a bag harder than he does, and it shows in a lot of the design choices we made along the way”.
Not selling saddles…
So, the idea for a camera bag isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, as someone running a photography blog, you get a press release for yet another goddamn camera bag every other day. And yet, if there was anyone who was going to be able to pull this one out of the bag (pulling a bag out of the bag? Bear with me…), it was going to be Peak Design.
“All we had to do is to make a really, really good bag”
“With the Capture Clip, we had a whole new category of product”, Adam says, and explains that this was a huge challenge for a new and then-unknown company: People didn’t wake up one morning thinking ‘hey, I may need a camera clip’ in the same way they might go ‘hey, I need a new tripod’.
The company had their first taste of real success with the camera straps they created,. “When we launched our straps, that became our lift-off moment”, Adam says, and admits that they were a bit surprised themselves. “There’s thousands of camera straps out there, but it’s a category that people can grasp. That makes the marketing side of things a lot easier.”
It’s not an uncommon problem; in fact, Slack’s founder recently posted an article titled ‘We’re not selling saddles here’, explaining how breaking through in a market when nobody knows what you are is excruciatingly hard.
A camera bag, however, that’s another story.
“All we had to do is to make a really, really good bag”, Adam laughs.
“What made the bag successful was a range of different things. First of all, the bag that we make has to have some very photography-specific functionality, including the dividers and the quick access points. But, almost as importantly, it’s is not just a camera bag — and that was intentional. We call it the Everyday Messenger bag for a reason: We designed and marketed it around more than just the needs of a photographer”.
Having the bag itself is just the first step of the road. Next, they created a great Kickstarter video (no, seriously, check it out. It’s one of the best feats of storytelling I’ve seen on Kickstarter for a long time). They put together the rest of the page — the photo, description, and backer levels — but that’s just the beginning…
“We’ve talked to people who have backed our project to figure out why they backed it”, Adam explains, and breaks it down: A large number of them were influenced by Trey Ratcliff, a larger number still came from the Peak Design tribe — their existing customers and fans — but the biggest surprise was also the biggest number of backers… “There’s a good half of the people that backed us that had never heard about us or Trey — they just found it through Kickstarter.”
In addition to leveraging their own audience, that of Kickstarter, and Trey’s, Peak Design used Jellop and Funded Today to drive additional traffic to their campaign to further amplify their message, but ultimately it boils down to something really simple: pouring marketing effort into promoting what is already a great product with a good story makes a perfect storm of customers lining up around the virtual block to back the project.
Putting the product first
There are a lot of companies that are doing Kickstarter projects who seem like they’re very good marketing companies and their product comes as an afterthought; Peak Design is the opposite.
“We had the Kickstarter video, images, and everything else cued up months before we hit the ‘go’ button”, Adam says, but hastens to point out that the marketing machinery comes much later in the process.
“We are thinking production long before the campaign starts, and when we launch a Kickstarter campaign, the product is essentially finalised. The prototypes we filmed were very close to what the final bag became, and mid-way through the campaign, had put in that purchase order for the bag to be manufactured”
All tooled up and ready to go
People use Kickstarter for different things; some use it to test a market, to see whether there’s appetite for what they’re offering, but Adam believes that’s a mistake.
“We don’t do a Kickstarter campaign to test whether a product is going to be successful in the market”, he explains, and tells me that they were 90% sure that the campaign was going to be successful before they even hit the button to launch the campaign. “For us, Kickstarter is 75% marketing and 25% finance tool”.
His words ring very true and painfully close to home. Not being far enough into the process, and getting slapped with unpleasant surprises throughout, was ultimately what sunk Triggertrap’s most recent Kickstarter project.
Peak Design had everything already lined up and ready to go. “We have five or six people on our product team, and all of them travelled to Vietnam multiple times — we had people in Vietnam pretty much for six months straight before the Kickstarter launch — to find suppliers, work with them, and to direct the prototyping process.”
“The secret is not much of a secret”, Adam says, with a shrug. “It is all about how much time you spend with your suppliers. As we’re getting better at this, we are spending a lot more time face to face with our suppliers; all the way throughout the production process.”
The benefits are obvious: it’s expensive to make trips back and forth to Asia, but the return on that investment is huge, both in terms of speeding things up, quality of product, and the relationship with your suppliers.
Not all smooth sailing
Of course, Peak Design have had their brushes with disaster as well. During the Slide and Clutch Kickstarter campaign, they ran into a manufacturing problem.
“We had made thousands of straps with faulty attachment systems, and we didn’t realise until we had shipped out thousands.” Adam says.
But — as with so much else in business — it isn’t screwing up that people will remember you for; it’s how you deal with the screw-up, and on that front, Peak Design were exemplary: They contacted the backers, asked them not to use the faulty products, and shipped out replacements right away. Perhaps much more importantly, however, they learned to really double down on quality assurance.
“There’s no substitute for being by your supplier’s side every stage of the project”, Adam says, and describes the elaborate quality control systems they’ve put in place to ensure that the bags are tested and checked every step of the way.
A brush with Patent Law
So, no production problems with the bags (knock on wood), but they did get a nasty surprise from another angle: A patent infringement suit.
Which, as it turned out, was a lot less dramatic than it sounds. Due to the terms of the settlement, Peak Design can’t say much about the specifics, but they describe it as a pretty matter-of-fact affair.
“The whole thing was a very calm, adult, and friendly process. All business”, Adam says.
“There were no hard feelings”, Adam says, with a shrug. “In terms of all the ways that situation could have gone down, I think it went as well as it could”
They settled the suit, put together a licencing deal, and got back to making bags.
So why Kickstarter? Cash and Marketing.
Kickstarter is a fantastic platform for marketing: The ticking clock adds a feeling of urgency, and stuff on Kickstarter appeals strongly to a particular type of person — the self-selecting early adopters who want to be at the bleeding edge of what’s out there.
The marketing side of Kickstarter is obvious. Less obvious — but equally important — is the use of Kickstarter as a financial tool. The problem with doing hardware is that cashflow is extremely lumpy. In other words: one day you feel that you’re rich because there’s a million dollars sitting in the bank. The next day you’re poor, because you’ve just paid all your suppliers. Turning cash into stock is important, of course, because without stock, you have nothing to sell, but you can’t pay your wages with stock, and it becomes an ongoing balancing game to ensure you have both enough stock to sell to customers and enough cash.
Kickstarter enables companies like Peak Design to run the business without taking out loans, debt, or selling off equity in the company. In fact, Peak Design has never needed to raise funding, and so the ownership of the company is still in the company, rather than on the balance sheets of investors. That’s a good thing: It means that they get to continue to decide where to focus their attention.
“It’s so funny, because you show people that aren’t really familiar with a successful Kickstarter campaign, and they immediately think ‘Hey Adam, you’re a millionaire now!’ ” Adam laughs. “That’s not quite the way it works: At any given time, we have pretty much no money in the bank.”
Looking beyond photography
I asked Adam about what the plans are for the future of Peak Design, and he painted a picture for where they’re going. After a few minutes, I realised he hadn’t really mentioned photography. Not once. Yes, there’s going to be more Kickstarter projects. Yep, they have a ton of awesome ideas in the pipeline…
“Photography is important to us, but the bag is the start of something new, I would say. A lot of our backers don’t even have cameras”, Adam reveals.
No cameras? What the hell is wrong with these people? But for Peak Design, broadening the market is a shrewd move: there are a lot of people who don’t have photography as their primary hobby or profession, and Peak Design are slowly positioning themselves to be extremely pro-photography, and photography-friendly, but not necessarily photography-only.
“We call ourselves Peak Design”, Adam says, and explains that that it’s not a coincidence that the company isn’t called ‘Peak Photography Equipment’ or similar. “We are about travelling, exploring, having adventures, enjoying life”
Lessons Learned, or: How to run a successful Kickstarter campaign
So, it’s been one hell of a journey, and hearing Adam explain things, it’s only the beginning. After five incredibly successful Kickstarter campaigns, what have they learned?
“One is that a lot of people use Kickstarter as a way to test an idea. And if you’re doing that, I think you’re missing the greater opportunity. If you’re going through the effort of doing a Kickstarter, start with an idea that you really, really believe in, and take that idea as far as you possibly can before you put together a Kickstarter campaign.”
“The second thing is that I think a lot of people ‘set it and forget it’. Once the campaign is running, that’s the end of the story — they sit back, and expect the money to roll in. That’s simply not the case. Running a campaign is such an active process. Update your backers, talk to them, post videos with them. You learn so much from sharing with them, and actively managing the campaign is crucial”, he says. And then there’s the marketing and promotion side of things.
“Get the word out there. Tell people. Look for ways that you can expose your idea to more like-minded people.”
Promoting to like-minded people certainly worked a charm for Peak Design — and they’re getting more and more like-minded people on board by the day.
This article was first published on DIY Photography.
Haje is a pitch coach based in Silicon Valley, working with a founders all over the world to create the right starting point for productive conversations with investors — from a compelling narrative to a perfect pitch. You can find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.