Lisa Curtis is in the business of selling a plant most Americans have never heard of. It’s called moringa oleifera; it grows across southern Asia and all over Africa; and it’s chock full of nutrients. It has more Vitamin C, per gram, than oranges, more calcium than milk, and more potassium than bananas. Right now, the company Curtis founded, Kuli Kuli, sells this plant–ground up and mixed with dried fruit, nuts and sweet agave–as a brightly packaged nutrition bar, available at Whole Foods in Northern California, and through Amazon.
With a little luck, a lot of hustle, and plenty of kind cash from strangers, Curtis is hoping to make moringa the new hot snack.
About a year ago, Kuli Kuli raised more than $50,000 in startup capital through Indiegogo. But Curtis and her team are ready to expand: they want their bars in more stores, in more states, and they want to sell moringa in other forms–as a powder, as a liquid energy shooter, and in little, savory snack clusters. It won’t be easy. The market for energy and nutritional bars is pegged at more than $2 billion, and it’s growing fast, with some estimates pegging growth at 7% to 9%. If Kuli Kuli can position moringa as a superfood, the market is even bigger, in the tens of billions. The company is now trying to raise at least $350,000 in its first investment round–also through a crowdfunding platform.
Kuli Kuli is one of the first–possibly the very first–company to raise both startup capital and its first round of investment through crowdfunding. Thanks to the JOBS Act, the 2012 law that aimed to allow anyone, not just accredited investors, to buy into growing companies, a handful of new crowdfunding marketplaces have sprung up to help startups sell equity to investors. Right now, those investors still have to be accredited. But already startups have more freedom than ever before to talk about their projects in public, on social media, to anyone who listen. Which means that a small company with a compelling story and a willingness to spread it far and wide–a company like Kuli Kuli–has that much more of a chance of selling itself.
Curtis’s path from Peace Corps volunteer to pioneering entrepreneur was, in many ways, remarkably efficient. It began in the village she lived in as a volunteer in Niger in 2010.
Kuli Kuli, in the Hausa language, means a snack of fried peanut paste mixed with other ingredients (including, sometimes, moringa). Curtis first started thinking of it in connection with nutrition bars when, one day, she and some people from her village happened upon a lost, malnourished kid. “Can you bring your kuli kuli?” the others asked her. They were talking about the energy bars her mom had been sending her.
Those bars had arrived because not long after Curtis landed in Niger, she began feeling weak, as if she wasn’t getting enough nutrients. It wasn’t just the energy bars that helped her regain strength: someone from her village told her she should eat a local plant called moringa. She tried it, started feeling better, discovered it was one of the most nutritious plants in the world, and became a bit obsessed.
Her first attempts at promoting the plant were cut short when, after two French men were kidnapped by Al Qaeda, the Peace Corps suspended its program in Niger. Curtis ended up in India, for a friend’s wedding, and stayed to work at a social-impact investment firm. “That’s when I started thinking: maybe this thing with moringa I keep thinking about, maybe I could do this as a social business,” she says.
Back in the U.S., Curtis worked for a summer at a youth leadership program, which led to a job at Mosaic, an Oakland-based solar power crowdfunding company. When she started there, Mosaic was a small startup; two years later, it had funded solar power projects worth $3 million, raised from more than 1,800 investors. By the time Curtis and her Kuli Kuli cofounders were ready to raise startup capital, she knew what it took to raise cash from the crowd.
As Curtis once wrote, before launching Kuli Kuli’s Indiegogo campaign, she had spent weeks recruiting “ambassadors”–friends, family, and fans who would give and ask others to give.
“I think a lot of people go into crowdfunding campaigns, particularly on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and think people will just come to them,” she says. “They don’t realize how much preparation is needed.”
The first day Kuli Kuli’s campaign went up on Indiegogo, it raised $22,000 by midnight.
For most startups, this sort of successful campaign would be where their relationship with distributed investment ended. But, about year later, having made it into Whole Foods and sold thousands of bars, Kuli Kuli thought about trying the same model again.
“We didn’t really like the traditional ways of raising capital,” says Curtis. In part, this is a values-driven stance: she counts democratized finance as one of her passions and believes that “people should be able to invest in the ideas and the change they want to see.” But it may also be a smart business move. One of the lessons Curtis learned from Mosaic, that she’s hoping to replicate, is that building a movement of people around a product can mean that “they’ll offer everything they have to make it work, whether that’s volunteering or resources.”
And Curtis had another good reason to turn to the crowd: the fundraising system that usually rewards tech companies run by young men in hoodies wasn’t interested in giving a company like Kuli Kuli much attention.
“I think particularly as a younger woman with a food company, people don’t take me seriously, which is really frustrating,” Curtis says. She’d go to pitch events, and even when her ideas sold, people would act like her success came from luck, not hard work. At one competition–which Kuli Kuli won–a man came up to Curtis and told her: “Well, of course you won–you’re a total babe.”
New crowdfunding platforms, on the other hand, were approaching her as a serious businessperson. AgFunder, the platform Kuli Kuli chose, had particularly deep understanding of the company’s work, and recognized what Curtis meant when she spoke about running a “mission-driven company.”
“We’re built on the idea of the crowd and working with people,” she says. That idea runs through her business. It’s important to the company that they’re creating a new market for people in Africa to work in–the company sources most of its harvested moringa from women’s collectives in Ghana. “It’s not a handout,” Curtis said. “For us, the way we think about development, we would prefer for USAID to stop handing out heavily subsided American corn and help grow more plants like moringa, that can help people feed themselves.”
Rob Leclerc, the CEO of AgeFunder, had also worked on agricultural startups in Africa and so had a clear sense of what Kuli Kuli had already accomplished. “It’s very difficult to get investment capital into African agricultural,” Leclerc says. “I liked the model they were applying, and they had a new interface to connect African farmers to, you know, Whole Foods.” Kuli Kuli’s campaign would also be the second that AgFunder ran–which Curtis saw as an advantage. Because AgFunder itself is so new, it’s not taking a cut of the money Kuli Kuli raises.
For the next eight weeks, Curtis and her team will be working to attract investors willing to commit a minimum of $15,000 to their company. (With 54 days left in the campaign, Kuli Kuli had already raised $130,000.) In some ways, this method of raising money isn’t so different from traditional models: it still involves connecting with people who control substantial amounts of capital and convincing them to back your company.
Crowdfunded equity campaigns tend to have a relatively small number of investors, in the range of 20 to 50, rather than the hundreds or thousands that Kickstarter campaigns might attract. That still means finding a couple dozen people with tens of thousands of dollars to commit–a very different crowd than the one Kuli Kuli rallied for its Indiegogo campaign.
“I’m 26, and definitely not accredited and most of my friends are very far from being accredited,” says Curtis. In the lead-up to this campaign, she focused on what “I guess is technically networking”–going to events and trying to connect with people who, at the very least, might know high net-worth people. “I don’t even really drink coffee, but I’ve been on a lot of coffee dates in the past six months,” she says. (She orders chai.)
But in some ways, running a crowdfunding campaign where the “crowd” consists only of accredited investors is the same as running an Indiegogo campaign. The JOBS Act opened up the possibility of “general solicitation”: whereas before private companies like Kuli Kuli could not advertise their search for investors, now they can spread the word about their campaign. “You don’t have to be quiet about what you’re doing,” says Leclerc. “You do have to be careful. You can’t misrepresent yourself. But you do have the opportunity to be heard.”
This could be an advantage even beyond the current investment round, too, he argues. When a big retailer asks the company to make a case for why it can work, “You can demonstrate that people already buy into the story,” Leclerc says.
And, already, the story appears to resonate with the crowd–even in surprising ways.
“We haven’t confirmed this person’s identity yet,” Curtis confides, “but we’re pretty sure a famous hockey player saw us on social media and put in $15,000.”