In 2012 the Pebble smartwatch became the most backed product in Kickstarter history, gaining $10.3 million during its fundraising period.
That record stood until yesterday, when another product smashed Pebble’s pledges–earning an astonishing $11,045,769 (and counting) for a Kickstarter project that still has around 24 hours on the clock.
The project? The Coolest Cooler: a $299 USB-enabled, Buetooth speaker-pumping, illuminated, partitioned, accessory-holding cooler featuring an onboard blender. It is, to put it simply, the most incredible story in crowdfunding history–and made all the more amazing by the fact that Portland-based creator Ryan Grepper only set out to raise $50,000.
So how did a glorified drinks holder become a Kickstarter record breaker?
“I’m so overjoyed and overwhelmingly grateful to everyone who rallied behind the Coolest Cooler and believed in what we can do,” Grepper says.
Like many of the best innovations, the Coolest Cooler started out as a passion project.
“Just in my daily life I’m always looking at products with an eye to whether they are created as efficiently as possible,” he says. “That’s not to say that I’ve always done something with these ideas, but it’s sort of the framework that dictates how I view products.”
Working in product development, several years back Grepper whipped up a blender he could take to the beach by modifying an old weedwacker. To accompany it, he then modified a cooler so that it could play music. “These were just things I created to entertain myself and my friends,” he continues.
It was in 2013 when Grepper first considered that this might be an idea with mass-market potential. He observed the rise of companies like YETI coolers, which put out durable, high-end ice boxes capable of surviving more than one season. When he began running the numbers, he became even more convinced.
“Around 40-50 million coolers are sold every year,” he says. “Most of these serve just one function which is just to keep things cool. That’s perfectly adequate, but I saw it as a bigger opportunity than that. I knew that wherever the cooler is, the party also is. I wanted to create a premium cooler that could really contribute to the gathering.”
After creating some designs he put together a Kickstarter campaign hoping to hit it big. He didn’t. When the campaign ended last November he had raised just $102,188 against a goal of a $125,000 goal. Disappointed, Grepper went back to the drawing board to rethink his idea. Among the things learned he knew that he needed a better design. He also knew that people didn’t want to think about keeping cool in the height of winter.
“But we connected with enough backers who believed in what we were doing, that it gave me the confidence to relaunch and learn from our mistakes,” he says.
With marked improvements, Grepper came back with the Coolest Cooler. And things went crazy from there.
“I always believed that this [product] category was fundamentally exciting,” he says. “At its core the Coolest is about having fun and creating memories with family and friends. We live in a world where we often lack in real experiences. Compare the number of friends you have on Facebook, to the number you see in daily life. It’s easy to feel that you’re keeping up to date with what’s happening, but it’s much more valuable to create memories by making the time to see people in person. That’s what we’re about.”
Making the Cooler into a social experience was a masterstroke. Keeping your drinks cold may be all well and good (although unnecessary in the middle of November) but selling it as something more made the product into a crowdfunding superstar.
This led to one of the many design challenges of the project which was, of course, how you avoid overloading a concept like this? All of us could sit down and compose a list of features for a cooler (fitness tracking anyone?) but simply making the Coolest into a Swiss Army Knife isn’t necessarily the best way to ensure quality.
Chevy Chase once starred in a memorable skit for Saturday Night Live about Shimmer Floor Wax, the dual-purpose product that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Often that joke is used in tech companies, where startups will take a scattershot approach to innovation by creating products that try to do a lot of things, but manage none of them perfectly. How did Grepper avoid falling into this trap?
“One of the challenges was definitely making sure that every component was of top quality,” he says. “For example, rather than this being a blender that you can use outside, I wanted it to be a top-quality blender that can make a fantastic margarita, and can produce enough of them to satisfy your event.”
In a way, this was where crowdfunding both helped and hindered his vision. Crowdfunded projects are great in terms of providing their creators with constant user feedback. Rather than creating a product in isolation and then unleashing it on the world (the way that Apple, for example, created the iPhone), with a Kickstarter project contributors are kept abreast of how customers are reacting, and this can often have a major impact in shaping the finished product.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of input and suggestions from our backers regarding what it is that they would like to see,” Grepper says. “They range from solar panels to motorized wheels you can ride on. It’s great to read them, but at the end of the day as a designer it comes down to staying true to your vision and original design intent. There may be a lot of features in the Coolest Cooler, but all of them solve a problem that anyone who uses a cooler will regularly experience. I want the end user to come away questioning why coolers were not always designed this way.”
For instance, coolers will often accompany food, so it makes perfect sense to have plates storable in the lid, and for these plates to be plastic rather than paper to cut down on waste. The same is true with the combination of music player and cooler, since people will naturally circle around the cooler at a party or gathering.
“I feel proud of the way that we balanced the features that made it into the Coolest, and I’m confident that we will execute well on each and every one of them,” he continues. “Customers are going to say, ‘This feature belongs in here,’ rather than, ‘Look at what other gimmick the designers threw on this.’”
Another issue to grapple with has been the impact of the tremendous (and unexpected) success of the project. No crowdfunding entrepreneur ever sits down and worries about what will happen if their project is too successful. Grepper was no different. He imagined a business that required just $50,000 to get it started. Now he’s in the position of having to manufacture and deliver more than 49,000 coolers–and to do this all by February.
As he points out, however, it presents him with a massive opportunity.
“When you launch a Kickstarter you’re looking to bring it to market for early adopters, and also at a growth strategy down the road,” he says. “The speed, success, and public nature of our campaign means that we’ve been forced to make a lot of that happen much more quickly than would often be the case.”
The scale of the project has opened up new options concerning manufacturing costs (linked to volume), which means that the Coolest can now be a better product at a more reasonable price.
“At the same time, a lot has certainly had to happen very quickly in terms of building up and scaling our team at a rapid rate,” he continues. “It was a real challenge, but as it’s come together, it’s something I’m extremely proud of. Everyone on the team has been working like a maniac to make this product the best it can be.”
When the Coolest Cooler Kickstarter campaign ends tomorrow it will be the biggest success in Internet crowdfunding history. More than anything, though, it shows how this digital-age method of fundraising can take truly original ideas and find an audience for them.
“This isn’t a solution that would have come about through the traditional incremental innovation process of an existing industry like the cooler business,” Grepper says. “I think crowdfunding is going to let us see some amazing concepts and innovations, as different industries get shaken up. I can’t wait to see what they are.”