The Expanding Universe of Crowdfunded Photo Gear
I confess: I’m a photo gear junkie. I’ve bought dozens of cameras and lenses, way too many tripods, camera bags and backpacks, and many thousands of dollars’ worth of filters, flash units, and other accessories. I’ve tempered my obsession over the last few years, mostly because there's only so much room to store these things, but from the flood of new products hitting the market recently I'd say I slowed down just in time.
Most of the gear I’ve bought has come from what are still the dominant camera brands―Canon and Nikon. Of course, there have always been many more choices: Leica, Pentax, Olympus, Hasselblad, just to name a few. Now, however, thanks to crowdfunding we’ve entered a different photo gear universe. And, as Monty Python so cheerfully sang, this one is amazing and expanding.
To learn more about this new universe, I looked at the data behind the top 100 most successful photo gear campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I also spent some time talking with the people behind some of these campaigns to get their perspectives. Here's what I found out:
In the last five years alone, nearly $50 million has been raised for the development of new photo gear on major crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And whether you're interested in serious fun (like Furbo: World's Best Treat-Tossing Dog Camera) or serious work (like The Lomography Daguerreotype Achromat 2.9/64 Art Lens), there's something for everyone in the new invest-and-buy marketplace.
Crowdfunding for photography gear has grown from non-existent as little as ten years ago to what has quickly become an important force in the development of new products. As someone who has bought an unreasonable number (50? 100? I've lost track) of camera bags and backpacks over the years, it's hard for me to believe that the marketplace for new bags is not already well saturated. And yet, the two largest Kickstarter campaigns for photo gear were both for camera bags (admittedly, really cool camera bags) that brought in a combined total of $11 million.
The company that produced those bags, Peak Design, is now the undisputed champion of crowdfunded photo gear. Overall they've raised more than $14 million for their products, and they proudly call themselves “the world’s most crowdfunded active company”.
Founder and CEO Pete Dering started the company in 2011with the strategy of using crowdfunding for all of their major products. He says that “crowdfunding lets us do what we love”, and he claims that much of their success has been due in part to what he calls “radical transparency”. By that he means they communicate with their audiences every step of the way, including showing their problems as well as their successes.
“Crowdfunding lets us do what we love.” ~Peak Design
Dering and his team are such big fans of crowdfunding that they include a Kickstarter 101 section on the company's website. There they share what they've learned about crowdfunding, starting with these five key points:
Solve a real problem. They emphasize that it's not enough to simply find a solution to a problem—you have to know that there's a big enough market for your solution to justify the time and expense it will take to develop it.
Tell a great story. It has to be about real people who see a real need for your real solution.
Pay attention to your customers. Peak Design holds on-air Google Hangouts with their backers so their customers get answers to their questions and the designers get ideas for product improvements.
Tell everybody about it. This is Marketing 101, and it can't be ignored. Start before the campaign is launched, and continue as long as the product is still offered for sale.
Be ready and able to deliver. They say “going from zero to funded is much less difficult than going from funded to fulfilled.” A key part of their success was knowing every facet of the production and distribution processes before they ever launched a campaign.
Staying true to their radical transparency promise, they're quick to follow up on these points with this confession:
“We have mastered none of the above things. As a matter of fact, we maintain that they’re un-masterable. We’ve learned a lot in the past 5 years, enough to formulate some broad advice to the crowdfunding community. But we are always learning, the tables are always turning, and nothing ever goes exactly to plan.”
For the most part, though, innovative companies like Peak Design have been able to deliver time and time again. As of this date, ten photo gear campaigns have raised more than a million dollars each, and another fourteen have raised more than $500,000. Perhaps more importantly, the top twenty campaigns all exceeded their initial fundraising goal by an average of 2250%. And all of them met their initial goal with 24 hours of launching!
“the top twenty campaigns exceeded their initial fundraising goal by an average of 2250%”
Ryan Stout, whose “intelligent camera assistant” Arsenal is now the third most successful photo gear campaign (raising more than $3 million), told me crowdfunding has several advantages over going to venture capital sources:
Immediate feedback: developers get product feedback that continues throughout the funding campaign. People who contribute to the campaign offer encouragement and suggestions that help the developer improve the product and to reach an even larger customer base.
Market confirmation: crowdfunded designers know upfront what the initial size of the production run should be. This saves a lot of time and money that might otherwise have to be spent on research and logistics.
Viral marketing: contributors to the campaign become willing but unpaid advertising assistants. Many of the people who invest in these campaigns are influential early adopters whose mention of a product can reach tens of thousands of people through blog posts, list serves, and in-person presentations.
Stout also made a strategic decision to run his Arsenal campaign on more than one platform. He says there wasn't much data on the overlap between the two platforms, and it was fairly easy to adapt the work they did to develop a Kickstarter campaign to also create on Indiegogo. In the end his risk was well-rewarded. Kickstarter's15,766 backers contributed $2,650,310, and Indiegogo's 2,123 backers added an additional $423,420 (note that the total shown on Indiegogo's website includes the amount raised on Kickstarter).
On the lower end of the funding scale, nearly 40% of the top 100 photo gear campaigns raised less than $100,000. Many of these were for simpler products like camera straps and lens caps, but even so on average they exceeded their funding goals by 240%.
One of the more unusual products in the lower-end category is the SolarCan, a soda can-shaped pinhole camera that's designed to create “extreme time exposures” of the sun as it crosses in the sky. The images it produces directly on paper are as unique as the design of the SolarCan itself, but the SolarCan stands out as a great example of the range of new products now being developed through crowdfunding.
Is there a downside to this new wave of photo gear campaigns? Like all entrepreneurial efforts, some don't succeed. In 2015 a company called Triggertrap raised nearly $500,000 on Kickstarter for their high-speed shutter trigger. Unfortunately, they ran into serious problems between the time they developed their prototype and when they were supposed to start mass production.
Their product budget and their timeline were vastly off the mark, and they wound up spending five times more for research and development than they'd estimated only to find it would cost them three times more than they'd budgeted to manufacture each unit. Ultimately, they abandoned their product after having spent 80% of the funds that people had contributed. Needless to say, no one was pleased with this outcome.
Other failures have led to similar results, but so far the success stories far outnumber the missteps. Photographers will always love their gear, and clearly there's a need for innovation and smart design in a wide range of products.
If you'd like to see a list the most successful crowdfunded gear campaigns so far, go to my Photo Funds Database. Then add a filter to display records where "For contains 'gear'". I update the database at least twice a month, so you'll always find the latest crowdfunded photo gear campaigns listed there.