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What A Kickstarter All-Star Learned From Sudden Failure

The company behind Twine had its last product flop on Kickstarter. Having licked its wounds, it’s ready to go again.

A new product called the Range Dial ($64) just hit Kickstarter, and has all the makings of a hit. It’s a thermometer attached to a steel and silicone dial that you spin to an icon of choice–a chicken, or a cow, or a fish. You stick the probe into your protein of choice, spin the dial, and when your food reaches cooked temperature, the Dial will chime that it’s done, and send an alert to your smartphone via Bluetooth if you’d like.

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Range Dial is simple enough for a Luddite to understand, powerful enough to tempt serious hackers and home cooks, and priced just low enough to tempt anyone who has ever turned on a stove.

Of course, Kickstarter is never a sure thing, and no one knows that better than John Kestner, principal of the company behind the Range Dial, Supermechanical. He hit it big on the crowdfunding site early with his first project out of MIT Media Lab, the programmable environmental sensor Twine. Looking for $35,000 on Kickstarter, it raised a whopping $556,000 in preorders. His second project, a comparatively barebones iPhone cooking thermometer called Range, raised a respectable $177,000 (almost doubling its $90,000 goal).

But his third product, the Range IO, unexpectedly stumbled. A more ambitious type of thermometer, Range IO–which housed a modernist butcher block, sensing gestures like double taps on your oven that promised to turn your old gas oven smart–flopped. Well, technically, it received $121,000 in preorders, but that fell far short of Kestner’s $250,000 goal, and his company didn’t get a dime.

John Kestner

“It was horrible,” Kestner laughs. “We had a kid a few months after that failure, so it was a good mental break. But it really sucked. For a month or two afterward, we had to let people go. That was the worst part. I didn’t want to be making kitchen thermometers anymore. It was like, ‘I don’t understand this market.'”

But after a few months, Kestner realized that Supermechanical had invested too much R&D in this world of smart thermometers and cooking products to just walk away.

“The great thing about Kickstarter, and opening yourself to this kind of public failure, is you have a direct connection with customers,” he explains. “Even before the failed campaign was over, I was sending them surveys, asking them what they cared about. I learned they didn’t care about [many] features that just added cost.”

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Designing A Comeback

Kestner’s feedback contained a few complaints. His dramatic industrial design, based upon a knife block, didn’t resonate with a lot of customers.

“The big thought on having such a big bulky thing was it was a good place to store the cords,” he says, “but no one seemed to care about that as much as the price.”

The last, unreleased version of the Range.

It’s true: Cord management is often overlooked by consumer tastes. (How many people actually realize that a sleek Amazon Fire Stick will require a power cord running down the back of their TV when they order it?) And cutting down the size would cut down the materials, which could cut down the cost, which could cut down the sale price.

“I think it felt a little too techie,” he continues. “When you have to grab people with a photo and a few lines of text, it needs to be, ‘I know this thing belongs in a kitchen,’ and it definitely didn’t look like that.”

Kestner starting hanging out a lot at Williams-Sonoma examining other products on the shelves. And as a result, the Dial was developed in silicone and steel, as well as appliance-friendly black and white, rather than coated in the bright colors of modern tech products.

Kestner’s team–which had shrunk from five to three following layoffs–also ignored all of the Internet of Things-based feature creep that had derailed its last product. The Range Dial wouldn’t have features like the ability to double-tap your oven. And because so many polled Kickstarters were just looking for the dumbest functionality possible, the Dial would be a completely functional appliance without a smartphone.

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“Fetishizing computer paradigms and cramming them into everything is why Internet of Things is a dirty term now,” Kestner says. “To borrow a phrase, connectivity and a touchscreen interface are features, not a product.”

(It happens that smartphones are a lousy thing to have around hot stoves and boiling liquids, too.)

To appease his more hardcore fanbase–the Twine-style tweakers who wanted customizability beyond the simple icon-based dial–Kestner buried deeper customization options inside the accompanying app. So cooks who want their pork cooked to rarer temperatures, or beer brewers in need of very particular temperature settings, could reach those settings in the app. And an SDK will allow developers to hack the product on their own, too, updating the firmware as they like.

Yet even as Kestner tells me these deeper options, it’s with a mixture of pride and extreme hesitation.

“I’ve been shy about muddying the message,” he says. “Last time, I threw everything at the wall!”

Lowering Expectations

Of course, if there’s one obvious thing that Kestner did differently this time around, it’s that he lowered his project’s goal significantly. His last project needed $250,000 in preorders to launch. The Dial requires just $60,000 to get out the door.

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This lower threshold is possible in part because his team has done much of the design and engineering work already–and in-house to boot–so that they won’t need so many funds to get the product off the assembly line. But it’s also just a smarter approach for a more mature company. A vast majority of Supermechanical’s business doesn’t actually occur on Kickstarter. It’s the long tail of their product, from direct sales on their site and sales through a few retail partners, that actually keeps operations going. And to that effect, a fundraising goal that’s too high isn’t really worth all that much, Kestner says.

“A pet peeve of mine is that people measure Kickstarter success by the multiplier you raise, as if what you ask for matters. The measure of success should be that you actually ship.”

The Range Dial is on Kickstarter now for a $64 preorder.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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