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Creating the Video Content that Helped Turn a Small B2C Startup into a $200M Enterprise

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This project is a great fit for any young company interested in promoting their new technology, sharing their vision with the market and creating impact and a community.
In this case study, you’ll discover how I built and executed a content marketing strategy for SmartThings’ Kickstarter campaign, capturing the imaginations of early adopters, influencers, and the media alike.
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Kickstarter campaign raised $1.2M, almost 5x the original goal
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$12M+ procured in seed funding
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$200M acquisition by Samsung after 1 year
Background

The Start of a Startup in Home Automation

In 2012, I was serving as Creative Director of Refactr, a small consultancy in Minneapolis, MN. Our specialty was in “starting start-ups.” Enthusiastic entrepreneurs would bring us their dreams — like, “I want Pinterest, but for men” — and we would make it happen. It was at this time that Alex Hawkinson, who would later become the CEO of SmartThings, approached our founders with the desire to infiltrate the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) space. It began with a few humble soldering irons and Arduino components in a small corner of the office, but over the course of a year, it outgrew the entire top two floors of 11 Fourth Street NE. And that's how SmartThings started.

10 years ago, “Smart” devices were popping up all over the place, but they weren’t very useful. Alex wanted to provide a bridge for all these disparate sensors, switches, and motors to communicate, making them truly “smart”. But how would we communicate that value proposition? Who was the target market? Would investors see the potential? These were the questions we needed to answer.

Startups are like teenagers: they’re fresh and relevant, but impressionable and consequently a little volatile. From day to day there are new influences from potential investors, leading to pivoting priorities. As a Creative Director, it’s very important to know your team and their strengths so that you can delegate appropriately and fill in the gaps when necessary.

Alex had onboarded a designer in D.C. with experience in branding, and my team had a pretty good handle on the UI and UX. That left a potential gap in our marketing effort which I was happy to fill. I would work with Alex to identify the message, vet the concept, develop a community, and gather momentum around it.

Execution

Building a Video Content Campaign that Fosters Community

Deciding which Key Audience to Prioritize

We understood the motivation for the product holistically, but the key audience fell into three major camps with differing needs and desires: investors, consumers, and early adopters.

Investors want to be sure there's a market for the product. But the market, composed of consumers, is often unaware of the pain points they’re tolerating. They don't want to think about it; they just want their lives to be simpler and better. This is the opposite of early adopters who love being able to tweak and configure, thrive on complexity, and are excited about being part of a community.

Trying to appeal to all three groups at once could have confused our message; we had to choose a primary focus. As designers, we often relate most naturally to consumers, but after weighing the pros and cons of prioritizing each audience, the team decided to focus on early adopters.

This decision ended up being a good one because early adopters are willing to put up with a lot to be in on the ground floor of a product and have a hand in making it. This would accelerate the development of a company with limited resources and, hopefully, create evangelists for the brand.

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Looking for the Best Communication Channel

With our primary audience in mind, we started looking for the best communication channel, and Kickstarter was making headlines in 2012. This was the first year that a handful of projects had crested a million dollars in backing.

A million dollars seemed like an outlandish sum, but we would soon learn that producing a physical product can be extremely costly. Even if, for example, you’re making something as simple as a Happy Meal toy, one injection mold can cost about $50,000 to produce — and we had multiple devices with multiple components. Not to mention the cost of development, materials, packaging, or shipping.

But our main aim in using Kickstarter wasn’t financial. We needed to vet the concept — to know if this product that no one was asking for would build a tribe and provide us with enough momentum to move forward. At the risk of defeat, we were nervous to set the bar too high. So, we started with a modest goal of $250,000.

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Creating a Pitch Video

Kickstarter campaigns relied heavily on an attention-grabbing pitch video that would tell a story. Alex and I considered carefully what motivated our target audience, and how we might acknowledge their role in bringing the story to life.

In an effort to conserve funds for product development, we produced the entire campaign in-house. I had a few DSLRs and other hobbyist equipment, but there was no lav mic for the talking head — I scotch-taped a pair of Apple headphones to Alex’s shirt. Instead of purchasing stock music for the backtrack, I stripped the vocals from a song my band recorded in a bedroom.

For the sake of speed, there were no storyboards or animatics; we would just brainstorm ideas — say, a shot of some automated blinds — then have Alex, who's now the multimillionaire CEO of a major company, lie in the dusty gap behind a bed and pull a set of blinds up slowly to make it look like they were automated.

We had our doubts as we hit submit and nervously waited for people to respond to the campaign. But we knew we were on the right track when we cleared $100,000 in backing on the first day.

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Sustaining the Campaign with More Content

We were overwhelmed by the response. People were so excited by the possibilities of a smart hub in their vision for the connected home. To keep that momentum going, I started to produce a steady stream of content that would echo the creativity of our base.

One video series was built on 30-second teasers posing the question, “Wouldn't it be smart if…?” For example, “Wouldn’t it be smart if your garage let you know when the door was open?” “Wouldn't it be smart if your basement told you when it was flooding?” We wanted to encourage makers to consider how they might build useful integrations.

Another series showcased maker events. We shot videos spotlighting creative projects being built by individuals and talks by IoT evangelists.

We also printed prototypes on our MakerBot and incorporated them into lifestyle photography that showed how the devices might fit into daily life.

We released a steady stream of this content on YouTube, Twitter, and the key communication platform, the Kickstarter blog. Backers who had already pledged their financial support had questions about how our platform would work and where we were in the stream of development. It was important to engage and make our supporters feel heard.

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Results

Video Content Attracts Attention & Backing from Big Names & Company Takes Off

The community response was telling, but I don’t think any of us anticipated the outcome. After a month-long Kickstarter campaign, we raised $1.2 million, exceeding our goal by almost $1 million.

We attracted the attention of several influencers and celebrities which galvanized the base and spread the word to a wider audience. Kevin Rose, who founded the social news site Digg, tweeted, “just saw the coolest Kickstarter project going live next week, can’t wait to share it!”

TechCrunch, Mashable, and other similar publications picked us up, and the $100,000 we raised on the first day got people talking on social media. Backers, excited to be a part of it, were very vocal within their own communities, and early adopters quickly became evangelists.

And though the early orders were fulfilled at a net loss, the campaign validated our concept which led to another $12-13 million in seed funding. Soon our small consultancy was absorbed by the newly formed SmartThings. We were hiring constantly. Within a year, we went from six employees to around 60 and Samsung reportedly acquired SmartThings for some $200 million.

It all happened so fast. Like running downhill, there were moments when we realized we weren't entirely in control of the next step. There were promises made that couldn't be fulfilled. In the years that followed, I made a greater effort to under-promise and over-deliver.

We all have a tendency to view ourselves as the hero of our story, but as consultants, it’s important to recognize that we're part of the supporting cast. Filling a real need without pushing others out of the way or demanding the spotlight is key. Because even if you're fortunate enough to have a success like SmartThings, the real reward is in the relationships formed along the way.