I talk about Kickstarter a lot. As a self-funded startup whose only outside funding source has come from Kickstarter Backers, IAmElemental’s birth - its very existence - was fertilized by our Kickstarter success. As a result, whenever I am asked to tell my company’s origin story, it always begins with Kickstarter. From the outset, way back in October of 2012, we knew that the only way to ask the question, “Where are the action figures for girls?” was to test the hypothesis on Kickstarter. We set out to prove our argument that: 1) the female action figures on the market at the time were hyper-sexualized and designed for an adult consumer, and that 2) despite the toy industry’s belief to the contrary, people would, in fact, buy female action figures designed for kids. In fact, the only reason we thought we could even consider company creation at all was because we had access to a crowdfunding platform.
Kickstarter removes barriers to entrance and allows lay people like me an opportunity to test the hypothesis and enter markets that used to be closed to all but a few. This is remarkable in and of itself. However, the fact that the IAmElemental/Kickstarter story doesn’t end with our campaign is even more remarkable. Kickstarter success, it turns out, is the gift that keeps on giving.
Backers for Life
In addition to being asked to share our origin story, I also constantly talk about our wonderful Backer community and the important role that their early and ongoing support has played in our survival. As a bootstrapped startup with no marketing budget to speak of, we rely on word of mouth to help us generate brand awareness; and there are no better cheerleaders on the planet than Kickstarter Backers. Believers from the very beginning, Backers invest emotionally as well as financially and, in our case, almost three years later, they continue to show up for us. Not only do they write the best fan letters (I liken them to pen pals), and make great design suggestions (the well-received peg holes and stands we added to our new series are a direct result of Backer input), but they are also exceedingly loyal and generous customers. When we launched our Buy One/Donate One program for childhood cancer awareness last September, the Kickstarter community made up a significant portion of our buyers. And, as further proof of their kindness, a number of them insisted on donating their purchased figures back to us for distribution.
The Creators Club
However, Backers aren’t the only important Kickstarter community in the IAmElemental universe. Fellow Kickstarter Creators also play a role in our continued success. I was reminded of this last month at New York Toy Fair, which also serves - unofficially - as an annual Kickstarter Reunion for us. Thanks to Kickstarter panel discussions and dinners, Toy Fair booth placement, Women in Toys (WIT) events, and email outreach, we have gotten to know a number of amazing Kickstarter Creators over the past few years. Some, like the Roominate team, offered advice prior to our Kickstarter campaign, even helping us find a factory for our first production run. Some, like Wonder Crew Creator Laurel Wider, sought advice from us prior to their own campaigns. And, some, like Laurie Paterson of Build & Imagine, have joined our post-Kickstarter network and contribute regularly to ongoing brainstorming and information-sharing. All of them have also become friends.
To truly understand Kickstarter, you have to experience Kickstarter. It is a trial by fire, and all the due diligence in the world can’t adequately prepare you for the reality. As a result, there is a wonderful comraderie among the Kickstarter community; a kinship and “We’re in this together” sensibility that makes us all fast friends.
As a result, paying it forward is baked into the Kickstarter DNA. It is an ethos that we at IAmElemental very much appreciate. One of our taglines is, “Shared, everyone’s powers grow stronger.” And the recognition within the Kickstarter Creator community that helping to light someone else’s candle doesn’t diminish your own has been instrumental as we all work to transition from Kickstarter campaign to startup in an industry where that generosity of spirit isn’t always the case.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Don’t get me wrong. There are many people within the toy industry who have helped us the past two years. So many, in fact, that I often find myself asking, “Where do you hide your cape?” as I am amazed by the kindness of strangers willing to go the extra mile to make sure that IAmElemental has a fighting chance. However, as with any industry, competition is fierce. Successful Kickstarter startups have grown accustomed to toy fair booth visits from major toy company executives who intentionally turn their badges around so that we can’t identify them, copycat products flooding the market before we are able achieve the brand awareness we need for exponential growth, and massive marketing campaigns designed to cut us out of the timeline all together.
Kickstarter, it turns out, isn’t just giving Creators the opportunity to test a product and prove a viable market, it is serving as a free research platform for major corporations and, in the case of the toy industry, shifting the landscape entirely.
Changing the Conversation... and the Playing Field
Lammily gave birth to Barbie’s new body. Wonder Crew and Boy Story finally convinced American Girl Doll to introduce a Boy Doll. Goldieblox, Roominate, and Yellowscope inspired a whole new category of STEM toys aimed at girls. The list goes on and on. Even IAmElemental’s Kickstarter success has played its part. Not only did we help to change the conversation about the hyper-sexualization of the female action figure, and the way that girls (and boys) play, we also inspired larger companies like Mattel/DC to join the conversation and move the needle further and faster than we ever imagined. In fact, my very first LinkedIn article back in April of 2015 welcomed Mattel/DC to the female action figure party when, following on the heels of our success at being named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014, they announced the creation of the DC Super Hero Girls.
This shift has not only changed the conversation, it has also changed the playing field. Last year, the Toy Industry Association (TIA) announced that they were radically revamping their Toy of the Year (TOTY) award categories. Removing the gendered Boy and Girl Toy classifications, they created six new categories, and IAmElemental was thrilled to be nominated as Finalists in two of those new categories: Action Figure of the Year, and Rookie of the Year.
It is no accident that six of the seven nominees in the Rookie of the Year category began their lives as Kickstarter campaigns (congratulations to 3Doodle who, deservedly, won the award). Kickstarted companies are the fuel that is propelling the toy industry forward, so it is important that TIA not just acknowledge, but celebrate them. And, they are starting to do just that. In addition to the new TOTY Award categories, TIA also re-designed the Launchpad section at New York Toy Fair this year. What used to be a small area highlighting a handful of new companies was relocated, enlarged and heavily promoted.
We Lost, But We Won
As expected, we lost Action Figure of the Year to the DC Super Hero Girls. However, I sent out a newsletter afterward explaining that, even though we lost, we won. Because when DC Super Heroes won, they won a category that IAmElemental - in partnership with our Kickstarter Backers - helped to create.
Every time Mattel/DC Entertainment wins an award, or succeeds in selling the DC Super Hero Girls, they validate the hypothesis we tested via Kickstarter way back in May of 2014.
The industry recognition means so much to us. And we are grateful to the Toy Industry Association for helping to spread the word about our small, self-funded startup. They nominated us alongside one of the biggest toy companies and media empires in the world!
Even though we lost, we truly feel like we won.
Kickstarter is much much more than just a crowdfunding platform.It is a revolution - an equal opportunity revolution. And, for many, the gift that keeps on giving.