with Laurier Mandin, Andreas Schwabe and Jackson Cunningham on February 4, 2020
Inspiration for a new product can come from anywhere—even a pet store. Once you’re inspired and you’ve got a fire in your belly, you need to find a way to make your idea real. Having ideas is easy; paying for them, not so much.
Some startups use their own money or try to find angel investors. It can be equally challenging and discouraging to find venture capital for modest-scale projects. Crowdfunding is a more recent approach to investment capital. While micro-support is a popular idea, it still requires a dedicated marketing strategy and execution to succeed. No one doubt that Kickstarter often works, but how and when it works best is more mysterious.
Jackson Cunningham is the founder of Tuft and Paw, an online pet furniture store that says its products are “Modern cat furniture both cats and humans will love.” Jackson started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new cat litter box called, “the Cove.” The fundraising goal was US $10,000. Clearly the COVE is a good idea because it reached its goal within hours and has raised over TEN TIMES the goal to $150,000 with 10 days left in the campaign.
What are the most important elements of a Kickstarter campaign? How many people are involved? Where do you even begin? Jackson Cunningham Skyped from Vancouver and joined Graphos Product CEO Laurier Mandin to talk about The Cove cat litter box, including how Tuft and Paw engaged the company’s online community to help design it.
Andreas: Welcome to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. I’m Andreas Schwabe, director of media services at Graphos Product.
Andreas: Inspiration for a new product can come from anywhere, even a pet store. Once you’re inspired and you’ve got fire in your belly, you need to figure out a way to make your idea real. Now having ideas is easy; paying for them, not so much. Some startups use their own money while others try to find angel investors. It can be equally challenging and discouraging to find venture capital for even modest scale products. Crowdfunding is a more recent approach to investment capital and while micro support is a popular idea, it still requires a dedicated marketing strategy and execution to succeed. No one doubts that Kickstarter often works, but how and when it works best—that’s more mysterious.
Andreas: Jackson Cunningham is the founder of Tuft and Paw, an exclusively online pet furniture store that says its products are modern cat furniture both cats and humans will love. He started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new cat litter box called the Cove. The fundraising goal was $15,000. Now clearly, the Cove is a good idea because it raised over 10 times the goal to just over $150,000 with two weeks left in the campaign.
Andreas: What are the most important elements of a Kickstarter campaign? How many people are involved? Where do you even begin? Jackson Cunningham Skyped from Vancouver and joined Graphos Product CEO Laurier Mandin to talk about the Cove cat litter box, including how Tuft and Paw engaged the company’s online community to help design it. Laurier started the conversation asking Jackson Cunningham what it was like to have a Kickstarter campaign pay off so big.
Jackson: Oh man, it’s a huge relief. I felt pretty confident. I felt like we had a really good product, but still when you’re doing a big launch like this, it’s always nerve wracking right before you do it that it’s just going to be crickets. Yeah, I was watching anxiously for the first couple of days.
Laurier: And what do you think was the secret? How did you end up becoming a Kickstarter favorite and getting so much attention, having so many people pledge?
Jackson: Yeah. Well, there is a whole science I guess, that goes in behind the blueprint of a successful Kickstarter project. A big part of it obviously is the product itself, but there’s also a lot of preparation and having an audience before you even launch on Kickstarter. I mean, we have the Tuft and Paw website, a really passionate group of cat lovers that was waiting, anticipating for the launch. That’s such a big part being able to say like, “Hey, we got funded this quickly, we got this much money on the first day.” And that gives you some momentum to move forward.
Laurier: Yeah. And I can see that you have that group of people, this passionate audience that supports you. And I think also just to the general public, anybody looking at the way you positioned it, the content was presented so nicely and you’ve got this profile photo. It has a stunningly beautiful cat, I think it’s called Grubber. The product looks sleek and modern. It’s made from a recycled toxin-free plastic. So you’ve got that sustainability part too. When I was looking at it and seeing what the pieces are that go in together, I thought those were really important.
Laurier: A really good cat photo when your audience is people who are investing in a cat product, show them a really pretty cat—and you’ve done that. And have some things to fall back on. The sustainability, the company has credibility, you’re a successful channel for selling. So people know that if they invest in it, you’re going to have ways of selling and getting the product to market. That’s covered. I can see why people want to get behind a product like this because their reasons for investing in something like it aligned very nicely with your own reasons for putting this product on the market.
Jackson: Yeah, totally. We’re not designing this in a silo. As we were doing it, we were talking to some of our customers to see what they thought would be important. I’m a cat owner, I have lots of friends who are cat owners and so it wasn’t a total guess. Again, I felt pretty confident about it. But still, you never know. There’s an element of luck that’s if you launch it and for whatever reason it doesn’t catch that fire. But yeah, like you said, we are over subscribed at this point, so now we’re just trying to run with it.
Laurier: Yeah. And that is so awesome. For anybody who hasn’t seen the product itself, it’s called the Cove and it’s a beautifully designed litter box. I also like the claim. You say it’s going to be the only litter box you’ll ever need to buy. Tell us how you approached that because I’ve seen the sketches and I’ve seen some of the things that you’ve made public about how you went about designing it. But I think our listeners would be very interested in knowing how a product like this from the end user point of view, but also from you as the person who is so dedicated to taking it to market. How did you start the design process and how did you get to what you have that you’re getting ready to take to market as this beautiful thing?
Jackson: Yeah, that’s a great question. It I guess starts like any product idea, just starts as just a seed of an idea. I guess very initially, or anecdotally I guess, I was looking for a litter box that we could sell on tuftandpaw.com and I just wanted to resell a product. I didn’t want to make a litter box and we couldn’t find anything that existed and that seemed strange to me. Like, “Why not?” Even before I thought about the Cove having the integrated scoop and dustpan and stuff, it was like, “Why is there not just a clean, simple white box? Why are these all these weird gray, weird curves and shapes? I just want a simple clean box.”
Jackson: The first idea actually, I met up with our head of product and he is a high end human furniture designer. And our first idea was to make a mechanical litter box that was automa… The problem with automatic litter boxes is they’re super loud and expensive and prone to breaking down.
Laurier: Yeah. I mentioned I had one of those. It was terrifying to the cat and it was a bad idea.
Jackson: Yeah, totally. They look appealing and I can see the value proposition is high. But we thought that maybe there’s a way to make something that was mechanically automatic. Maybe you just twist a crank and it does it. There’s something about sifting crap out of a box that just feels really like you have to be engaged and it’s really an annoying experience.
Laurier: It’s even worse than it sounds. I mean, because you got the smell, cats can be beautiful creatures, but man the things that come out of them don’t smell good.
Jackson: Right. Our original idea was like, “Okay, how do we make something that’s semiautomatic, that is not electric though?” We started doing a bunch of research. We have a cat behaviorist who’s part of our team and she was giving us some ideas and we had a few really cool concepts. But the way that the mechanics worked, the litter box would have to be round or a circle shape. We also learned that a litter box needs to be at least about one and a half times the size of a cat in length. When that’s in a circle shape it ends up just being this massive object. That’s why most litter boxes are rectangular, because you can save on space with it.
Jackson: Anyway, condensing it a little bit, we wanted to make something that was semiautomatic. But through our testing around and looking at different products, we realized a trend that no litter box included a scoop as part of the object. It was either it didn’t even sell one, you just buy a litter box and you’re expected to buy a separate scoop or it’s a scoop with a little hook on it that you just hook on the side of the box. It’s kind of nasty if you think about it. Even for me at my house right now, I have a litter box scoop that just sits on the floor beside the litter box. And that’s what most people do. Or it has a little holder that goes right beside it.
Laurier: Experience every cat owner has. You’re speaking to the choir here. They all know it’s terrible and you’ve got something that works. I think that scoop alone, that’s another example of seeing a need in the market that’s not being filled and taking it to market. I think you should sell that scoop separately too, because people are going to want that even if they don’t want the full on Cove litter box experience. They’re going to want that scoop.
Jackson: We designed this thing and like I said, a lot of us are cat owners and we did research. Everything is intentional, the walls we made. Our cat behaviorist basically recommends anytime somebody comes to her asking for a litter box, she recommends that the walls are only six inches high because cats like to see around them for potential threats while they’re going to the bathroom. So we intentionally kept the walls at six inches because that was the highest we could do it while allowing older cats and kittens to get in safely.
Jackson: However, once launching the product, so many people were talking about how they want a high-walled litter box because their cat pees standing up, which is a common issue. I realized in this process it’s impossible to please everyone. I feel like we put out what I thought was a product that we worked so hard on. But I still see in the comments, people are so passionate about this topic that everybody wants something different. Some people want a covered litter box, some people want high walls, some people will get so angry if you’re doing a covered litter box because it’s something that the cats don’t like. That part is frustrating because you can’t make something that everybody likes.
Laurier: You’ve been talking to the cat behavioral experts, the cat psychologist. You know what the majority of cats want and they don’t want to be inside of a structure. As you said, they feel vulnerable when they’re in there and they need to know what’s going on around them. Not every cat owner knows what you know. And sometimes I think you have to make those decisions based on being well-advised. You’re the one who did your research. The cat owners know their cat, but you can’t design a different cat litter box for every cat either.
Jackson: Yeah, totally. It definitely gives you some empathy for other product designers. Whenever I see products it’s easy to go like, “Oh man, this is such a bad design. Why did they do this?” But you can almost guarantee there’s somebody behind that product who thought about that decision and maybe you don’t know all the details.
Laurier: Yeah. And you’ve reached over $100,000, so you’re expanding into some new features. Can you tell us about that?
Jackson: Yeah, we hit $100,000, which was an amazing milestone for us. Basically on Kickstarter you offer a stretch goal if you’re able to hit something like that. Our original stretch goal was offering some different color shades. Our original is just gray and white. Then now customers can choose between sand, it’s a light golden brown, sea wash, which is a pastel green, or salmon, which is a nice coral. Yeah, different colors depending on what you’d like.
Jackson: Then based on customer demand, we have launched a optional wall extender add on. We designed it on the fly based on what people were saying with the cats who pee standing up or who fling litter. Lots of cats will dig actively and so it can cause a mess. We have this thing that we designed that basically clicks in on top of the existing Cove and extends the walls from six inches to 14 inches. It’s semi-transparent so cats can still see through it. So they’re not going into this dangerous area. And yeah, it’s crazy. We just did a survey with customers to ask-
Laurier: Yeah, I saw that. Which kind of shroud you’d rather have on yours. What did you find? I preferred the one that was more clear.
Jackson: Which one did you like?
Laurier: The more transparent of them.
Jackson: Oh, interesting. The one that was by far the winner was the one that was semi-transparent. It almost looks like sandblast. It’s not fully opaque but the step before that. That one won by I would say almost a landslide and then the one that was by far the least was actually the fully transparent.
Laurier: That’s great. I think it’s good to democratize decisions like that because especially if you see that there’s a really strong consumer preference to one of them, it’s why would you put the others on the market? You know that the majority of people like that one and that’s a really nice thing that you have with your online community going in and voting.
Jackson: That’s the best part about Kickstarter is that you have this engaged community and you don’t have to ask them what they think. They will tell you what they think. So you can actually make it. It can be frustrating, but it also just helps you make a better product.
Laurier: Well, and an important thing I wanted to ask you is with Kickstarter, there are some real perils in doing that. You can go to product Kickstarters and see that they are warning their customers not to buy the counterfeit products and by being on there you know that counterfeiters are trolling and looking for where the interest is so that they can go in and try and beat you to market with a counterfeit of your product. How did the opportunity of Kickstarter in your mind, win out compared to the risks?
Jackson: Yeah, I guess I just feel like you can’t be afraid to step into the sunlight. If you’re going to get big enough that people are knocking you off, that’s our goal. Is to get that big, you know what I mean? If you ever want to get to a certain amount of customers, it’s like people are going to see the product, people are going to make a competitor and we’re just focused on making new stuff all the time. We’re making this, we’re going to make sure customers are happy. If somebody else comes in and makes a cat product that’s just as good or better, great. That’s good for them. I feel like the world can use some nicer pet products. But we’ll always be focusing on just making super high quality stuff. So I feel like customers who end up backing us will see that. We’ll launch a new product and we’ll always be one step ahead instead of just copying other people.
Laurier: That’s a great philosophy. And Tuft and Paw, it’s a purpose driven brand, right? Can you tell us a little bit about your origin story? Because I think it’s a really good one. I think to your audience, to your buyer, it’s super meaningful, so tell us about how Tuft and Paw came to be and why you do the things that you do.
Jackson: Yeah, so that’s a great question. Let’s see. The origin story is that we, myself and my girlfriend, rescued our own cat and I love cats. She is obsessed with cats. We live in a small apartment in Vancouver, it’s expensive. Real estate is really expensive. And we went out to get some stuff for our cat and we just realized that there was no option. The closest thing to us was the PetSmart and there was nothing that we wanted that we would put in our house. We don’t have that much space. So that was the initial idea, but it always felt like it was too small. It was like, “Oh man, cat furniture though? That’s such a niche market.” But I just started talking to more and more cat owners and they’re like, “Man, that’s totally true. Why doesn’t something like that exist?”
Jackson: On the business side of things that really made sense. And on the purpose side of things, I think that if you talk to any cat owner there’s this passion there. And it’s the same with us where it’s just if there’s this opportunity to give back and help the cat community, any cat owner will be on board for that. And that’s something that we’ve tried to do early on, even as a small company. We just partner with so many different shelters across the US. Just when they’re doing fundraisers and auctions, we will be the first to donate. We basically have an open door policy for anybody who contacts us. We donate so that they can help raise money for their shelters.
Laurier: Yeah. Well you have a program for that, your donate a bed program, right?
Jackson: Yeah. We basically have a few different ways that we give back. We have the donate a bed program where anybody can order anything off our site for 50% if it’s going to a shelter. Like I said, the thing that we do most consistently is probably partner with 10 different shelters a month where we will give away products so that they can sell it to their customers and raise money for the shelter. Then we do give aways. Not giveaways, but instead of Black Friday giving a discount on our products, we just donate 10% of the sales to a different charity each time.
Jackson: But the one that we did this last Black Friday was called… There’s this organization called No to Dog Meat and they literally save cats and dogs off of meat trucks in Asia. We were able to donate $5,000 US to them over the weekend and that’s going to have a tangible impact on some cats that they can see.
Laurier: With the kind of success you’ve had on Kickstarter, and that’s the Holy grail for a lot of our listeners, what advice can you share for our listeners who want to take a product to Kickstarter who want to take an idea there and are afraid to? But what can they do to try and improve their odds of succeeding in the way that you have with the Cove?
Jackson: The video obviously is a huge part and it doesn’t necessarily need to be high production. But you need to really think about it’s a project. You need to be thinking about what is it exactly about your product that makes it different and what are the cool features of your product that you can share? Backers on Kickstarter are constantly looking for reasons not to buy. You should assume that they’re going through your video and your product page going, “Okay, yeah, but. Okay. Yeah, but.” So you need to anticipate each of those objections and address it before it becomes an issue.
Jackson: With the Cove, people might be thinking, “Okay, it’s beautiful, but it’s this price,” and then you can address the price. Okay. It’s that price, but it doesn’t have high walls. Okay. Well, you can explain why it doesn’t have that. So the video is a huge portion.
Jackson: The pre work is insanely important too. If you just were to launch something on day one to launch, it’s probably you should consider it halfway through the project. At least three months before we started collecting emails and people who might be interested in purchasing so that on the launch day we could have that big release. Your campaigning should start months before. Sending out emails saying this is the big launch, this is the big launch. Reaching out to publications. Hey we’re going to be launching on this day. Prepare, make a plan and prepare to start a couple months before you plan to actually launch on Kickstarter.
Jackson: And then finally I would say advertising is a big part of Kickstarter. Running ads on Facebook, YouTube, Google. Working with an agency that can help you do that.
Laurier: What’s next for Tuft and Paw? It sounds like you’re going to have more cool products of your own in addition to the ones that you’re sourcing that are really beautiful and well designed.
Jackson: Yeah, I mean we’ll see now that we have our hands full with the litter box, based on the orders that came through. So we’re going to be focusing 100% on this for the next six months to make sure that it goes smoothly and that everybody gets it on time. And from there we’ll just have to see. We’ve considered things like litter, developing some litter, our own litter that would go with the litter box. There’s a lot of strong opinions on litter.
Jackson: We are continuing just to talk to our customers, see what our customers want. And it was a litter box to start, but who knows what the next Kickstarter project could be? We were thinking maybe something to carry your pets. But I think our next project is going to be something really innovative, so something that doesn’t necessarily exist yet but that we feel like could address a cat or cat owner problem.
Andreas: That’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge and our conversation with Jackson Cunningham, founder of Tuft and Paw and creator of the Cove cat litter box. You can find the Cove on the Tuft and Paw website at tuftandpaw.com. Links are in the episode notes. Visit graphosproduct.com, where you can find out more about Graphos, our services, ideas and more podcasts and our blog. All our podcasts are transcribed for the deaf and hard of hearing, or if you just prefer to read. Reach out on Twitter @graphosproduct or email us on the form at graphosproduct.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Andreas Schwabe.