Start It Up

By Luke Sykora

When he’s not working at his day job selling software, William Allen runs the 500-case Two Shepherds winery, focusing on Rhône varieties grown in the Russian River Valley. Last year, he decided that he wanted a concrete egg for fermenting some of his grenache blanc. Unfortunately, with the 2012 harvest approaching, his finances were stretched thin. “I’m capital tight,” he admits. “I could be three times the size if I wasn’t capital restricted.” So he turned to Kickstarter, an online platform that uses crowdsourcing to connect entrepreneurs with funders. The community on the site often funds projects that might not receive investment through more traditional channels.Valley. Last year, he decided that he wanted a concrete egg for fermenting some of his grenache blanc. ly, with

Forty-four backers and $2,350 later, Allen had his concrete egg just in time for harvest. Recently, he invited a few media contacts to taste the concrete-fermented wine against the grenache blanc that fermented in stainless steel—he was pleased to show off their differences, with the egg building the wine’s texture in ways he hadn’t seen before. He’s considering another Kickstarter project to fund a concrete fermenter for his red wine.
   Kickstarter doesn’t exactly make things easy for winemakers, who are not allowed to give away wine as an incentive (at certain funding levels, most Kickstarter campaigns offer funders the actual product that’s being produced). Allen couldn’t offer his Kickstarter backers any dis­counts or wine club mem­berships, either—instead, he offered things like corkscrews, tote bags and winemaking seminars, and also secured a few corporate sponsors to reach his goal in the nick of time.
   Despite these restrictions, Kickstarter has in the last year become a hotbed for innovative wine-related projects. And while several other crowdfunding sites, like Indiegogo, pursue a similar strategy, Kickstarter’s rigorous guidelines and social media tools have made it by far the web’s most powerful and popular crowdfunding site to date. Writer Alice Fei­ring launched her natural wine newsletter The Feiring Line on Kickstarter in August. In less than 24 hours, she made it to her $6,000 fundraising goal and brought in a significant group of initial subscribers. Industrial designer John Paulick turned to Kickstarter when he realized that wine racks would be a perfect application for the interlocking honeycomb structure he’d been toying with. His WineHive project raised $65,000, and has since blossomed into a fully-fledged business.
   The viral power of Kickstarter is surprising even to some online marketing pros. Jamie Kasza, who has a background in e-commerce, launched STACT, a stylish wall-mounted wine rack, with the goal of raising $20,000—and came away with over $100,000. He points out that Kickstarter often gets more daily traffic than most major shopping portals. “If the idea is going to work, you’re going to find out pretty fast,” he says, adding that the site and its users are still evolving: “I would kind of compare it to the Wild West in the late 1800s. The rules are being written in real time.” His campaign did shift based on the user feedback he received—Kasza ended up generating an unexpected following from what he calls the “dude market,” thanks to numerous placements on male-oriented blogs that positioned his product as a way for guys to impress their girlfriends. As a result, he tried to be a little more edgy in how he talked to that demographic: “Bringing sexy back to wine,” as he puts it, rather than “beautifying wine storage.”
   Scott Tavenner, who launched his wine-preserving Savino decanter after funding a Kickstarter campaign for a viticulture-themed board game and exchanging messages with the founders of STACT, calculates that with some 1,300 backers, he’s probably garnered the largest number of funders of any wine-related product featured on Kickstarter so far. He admits that he wondered how limited the Kickstarter audience would be—within Kickstarter’s demographic of tech-savvy early adopters, the subset of wine lovers would presumably be an even thinner slice of the pie. “What we proved was that it’s still a pretty big market by itself,” he says. “And I was surprised, frankly, at how big it turned out to be.”