Starting today, people in Germany can crowdfund their bright ideas using Kickstarter. If it comes as a surprise that they haven’t been able to do so for a long time, that’s understandable.
Germany, after all, is the fourth biggest economy in the world. It has the largest population in the European Union. It’s famed for the quality of its engineering and the caliber of its technical universities–valuable assets when it comes to creating the sort of gadgets that rank among the highest-profile Kickstarter campaigns. Basically, if you were to design a country from scratch to be an attractive venue for crowdfunding, it would have many of the characteristics of the German market.
Entering Germany at its own pace is entirely consistent with Kickstarter’s way of doing things, which tends to be measured and thoughtful. In its six years of existence, the company has only rolled out in 10 countries. Germany is number 11; France, which goes live on May 27, will make it a dozen. That stands in sharp contrast to its slightly older archrival Indiegogo, which counts “global” as one of its defining characteristics and has hosted campaigns for creators in 224 countries. (Indiegogo launched its own major German push in 2012, with a competition for startups that offered matching funds from Google.)
Launching Kickstarter in a new country isn’t just a matter of flipping a switch and waiting for the cool projects to flood in. With its German debut, Kickstarter is available in a language other than English for the first time–an upgrade that required substantial tweaks to the platform. It will also adjust itself to local e-commerce habits by allowing Germans pledging €250 or less to pay with a direct debit from a bank account rather than a credit card.
But for Kickstarter, girding itself to enter Germany was only partly about technical and financial matters. Just as important, the company wanted to debut with a critical mass of outstanding projects–ideas with a high chance of capturing the imagination of the community, spearheaded by people who could deliver on their promises.
“There’s no better inspiration for potential creators than seeing someone putting together a beautiful campaign for a great project,” explains Nick Yulman, a member of Kickstarter’s outreach team who focuses on design and technology. The company found that first crop of great projects via an ambitious, people-intensive process, which included sending Yulman and six colleagues to Germany on a two-week scouting trip.
Despite only formally launching in Germany now, Kickstarter already has a meaningful presence in the country. For one thing, people everywhere have always been able to back Kickstarter projects. (In 2014, more than 63,000 Germans did.) Some have been so impatient to launch their own Kickstarter campaigns that they’ve done so by working with someone in a country where the service was formally available. Beyond that, the service is well known among participants in Germany’s thriving startup ecosystem, which includes its own local crowdfunding platforms and dozens of accelerator programs.
So Yulman started his scouting effort by pinging Kickstarter’s existing network of contacts. “I reached out to them and asked, as far as they were concerned, who was doing interesting work with design and technology in Germany?” he says. “It’s a tight-knit community. Once you meet a few people, they can introduce you to others.”
Yulman was charged with finding projects in the categories of design and technology, a purview that includes the sort of crowdfunded gadgets that often generate buzz for Kickstarter. “The things that get the most attention are hardware, wearables, consumer electronics. Things like the Pebble, which recently made headlines,” he says. That meant that finding the right German gadget campaigns was a particularly vital part of the launch.
Stateside, Kickstarter and Indiegogo have already changed how small hardware companies get up and running: The items that their communities shower with support and money are often the same ones that venture capitalists reject as being too resource-intensive, with too little potential to become billion-dollar businesses.
In Germany, the situation is similar–but the venture-funding pie is far smaller. That means that crowdfunding could serve an even more important role in financing hardware-oriented startups.
“The German market in per-capita numbers has only 1/8th to 1/6th of the U.S. venture-capital penetration,” says Wolfgang Seibold, who’s been a venture capitalist for 15 years. “There’s much less venture capital in the first place, so the effect is even more drastic.” He gives two big GrubHub-style food-delivery companies–Delivery Hero and Foodpanda–as examples of the types of Internet-centric startups that investors are smitten with.
Seibold also happens to be CEO and cofounder of Print2Taste, which is based in Freising, north of Munich. The company is launching Bocusini, one of the Kickstarter campaigns premiering this week in Germany. A Wonka-like system for retrofitting 3-D printers to print with tubes of food–candies, jellies, vegetable pastes, and more–it’s a slightly wacky big idea that one can easily envision becoming a Kickstarter hit.
“We’re this bootstrapped company with great people who have invested energy, time, and enthusiasm,” he says. “I think it’s important to have an international platform with a broad scope like Kickstarter. If you’re promoting a technical product, you are addressing a global market.”
Of course, Indiegogo is already global and available in Germany. And last year, a Berlin-based startup called Senic used it to launch a sleek Bluetooth controller. Looking like the great-grandchild of the classic iPod’s click wheel, and designed to let its users do everything from work in Photoshop to turn on their lights, it was a classic crowdfunding success story, drumming up five times the $50,000 goal.
But when Senic decided to crowdfund a revised controller, it chose Kickstarter. According to cofounder Tobias Eichenwald, it’s a better fit for his company’s increasingly mainstream ambitions, which include working with everyone from furniture makers to car manufacturers. “Indiegogo was when it was more about developers and programming,” he says. “Now it’s all about the smart home experience. How do you make the interaction with connected devices more seamless? Kickstarter is more focused on design and experience.”
Even then, Kickstarter’s high-touch approach to its German rollout helped tip the balance. Senic’s setup, Eichenwald says, is “typical startup. We have a big place we work out of and live out of. Nick came over, looked at the prototype, tested it, and thought this would be a great project for Kickstarter. They gave us feedback, which we’re thankful for.”
As Kickstarter rounded up startups to participate in its German launch, the fact that Senic had one significant crowdfunding campaign under its belt was a point in its favor. “It’s important that people be at the right stage to start a Kickstarter campaign,” says Yulman. “Experienced creators have a better of sense of when they’re ready to make that public rollout.” It’s a particularly important matter with efforts that involve hardware, since the worst-case-scenario campaigns often involve companies that get crowdfunded and fail to deliver devices on a timely basis, if at all.
When Miito first got noticed last fall–by Fast Company, along with many others–it wasn’t yet ready for Kickstarter. The gizmo began with an epiphany experienced by Nils Chudy, a design student in the Netherlands, when he heard a statistic in a TED talk by designer and sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu: The energy wasted by Britons boiling excess water in electric tea kettles each day would be enough to keep England’s streetlights on for a night.
Chudy took the factoid as a call to action. “This is a huge problem, and I have to solve it,” he says, recalling his response.
As a class project, he came up with Miito, a wand you stick directly into a cup or other vessel to heat exactly the right amount of water. After graduation, he teamed up with Jasmina Grase, a fellow student, and moved to Copenhagen to flesh out the concept.
According to Chudy, the first sign that great throngs of people might be willing to help Miito become reality came when he and Grase demonstrated a proof-of-concept at an event called Dutch Design Week. “Thirty-five thousand people walked by, and the feedback was amazing,” he says. “As soon as they understood it–five to 10 seconds, because it’s so easy to understand–they asked, What’s next, how can we support you, how can we make it happen?”
The duo relocated again to Berlin to take advantage of that city’s startup culture and technical resources–including Hardware.co, the same accelerator program that Senic participated in–and took on another partner to work on the engineering challenge. At that point, they met up with Kickstarter’s German advance team. Confident that they’re almost ready to ship a consumer product, they’re turning to the service to fund manufacturing. Early-bird backers will be able to get a Miito for about $85.
As Kickstarter got ready to go live in Germany, it began to spread the word beyond the relatively small group of creators who Yulman and his colleagues had found. On April 28, the company announced its plans and let users begin to queue up projects on the platform. It then held events in Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt, Köln, Hamburg, and Leipzig to spark interest among the creative, design, and technical communities.
For the service to explode in Germany, this effort will have to shift from its current startup phase into a long-term plan. That’s already on Yulman’s mind. “We’re not just coming for a month,” he says. “We’re setting up long-term connections with the German startup scene.”
Then there’s the community of German consumers who might support projects. In 2014, they pledged almost $13 million to Kickstarter campaigns. Though that’s piddling compared to the $336 million from U.S. backers, it works out to a higher pledge per user.
“At the end, the user needs to be happy,” says Print2Taste’s Seibold. “There’s various levels of happiness. One is that the product you’re rewarded with is something that’s worth having. It’s also about the quality of the campaign, how professional and serious it is. Only if these two things are done well is the consumer going to be happy.”
Kickstarter is doing everything in its power to ensure that it launches in Germany with worthwhile products and professional, serious campaigns. Now it’s up to the first class of campaign creators to show everybody else how it’s done. If they do, German consumers should indeed be happy–and Kickstarter could be on its way to becoming the self-evangelizing phenomenon it already is in its home country.