Ooni co-founders credit Kickstarter with setting the tone
A decade after their breakout moment, the company is stronger (and more optimistic) than ever.
When Ooni founder Kristian Tapaninaho lit upon the idea for a portable, pro-level pizza oven, he knew immediately where he would spread the word to make his dream into a reality. After prototyping the design, he and co-founder Darina Garland turned to Kickstarter to fund their initial production run. Ten years later, Ooni is a force to reckon with: The world’s biggest home pizza oven brand and one of the fastest-growing companies in the UK, with an ever expanding network of retailers and teams all over the world. And it all began with that one fateful campaign…
Ahead of Ooni’s tenth anniversary celebrations, Kristian and Darina sat down to sound off on the crowdfunding platform and how it set the company on the path to success.
First of all, why Kickstarter?
Kristian: So, I used Kickstarter as a backer; I think the first thing I backed was in 2010. I was really intrigued by the platform itself. It was a completely new way of funding a business, especially when it came to products where there were actual startup costs beyond the time and effort that you put into it. And in the early days of developing the original concept, I knew that I'd want to launch it on Kickstarter.
At the time, Kickstarter was only in the US. But then, in September 2012, I learned that Kickstarter was expanding. We launched on November 15, about two weeks after Kickstarter launched in the UK.
We were one of the first projects to successfully fund.
What did you like about crowdfunding versus a more traditional investor model?
Kristian: There's the community that you build immediately with Kickstarter, all these people who are cheering you to be successful and get things off the ground. It really just tested, ‘Are there other people around the world who would want something like this?’ I had no idea what that market would be like; we hadn't launched a product before on any platform.
And then, of course, there’s the initial marketing push: You would get a little bit of attention, especially in the early days, just by the fact that you were getting funded. There was sort of an organic interest in businesses getting started that way, because it was quite a new thing.
How would your confidence in the product have changed if you hadn't had that buy-in from the market?
Kristian: Taking that thing to a bank manager to ask for money or whatnot would’ve been completely different. You'd have maybe spoken to friends and family and raised some funds through that. But either of those, bank or family, they might bring money, but they don't bring the initial sales.
So the difference there, at least with Kickstarter, was every penny that we got for the product wasn't just an investment in the success of it — it was actually sales, which gives you a different type of confidence to invest in the manufacturing.
How did having that built-in community shape your approach to the business early on?
Darina: It was fundamental. Kickstarter backers require a heightened level of care and attention, and people's hearts and minds being won over so early was massively powerful. That’s why customer happiness is so big for us and the business. It’s stayed with us and has been beautifully important as we've scaled that a bit. The community really makes us what we are.
And because we started this e-commerce business on the Kickstarter and Shopify platforms, we were able to be international from day one, even though we were based in London. So many things came out of that early decision to post it there. And the credibility, the buzz of people being willing to talk about [their love of pizza] to each other, let alone to us, was really powerful.
How much of your early marketing was solely Kickstarter?
Kristian: It was all in the back of it, in the press.
We got a massive influx of traffic on the website on the back of WIRED and Coolhunting picking it up in mid-January, after the campaign had already finished. But, they wouldn't have known about the project if it hadn’t been on Kickstarter at that point.
And it helped that you got exponentially more funding than you asked for.
Kristian: This wasn't one of those overnight max successes. We raised £17,000, which is a modest amount in terms of starting a new business.
But I think that was one of the keys to our success, that it didn't become a million dollar project. At that point, you'd have actually sunk the company; the requirements from those customers would’ve been at a completely different level. It's a lot easier to speak with 142 people than it is to speak with 900 or 1,000 people, and it allowed us more time to continue developing the category.
Still, we were absolutely over the moon.
At the time, did you realise what an asset it was to have that level of interest versus something more exponential?
Kristian: Than a hundred times bigger? I appreciated the manageable nature of it. I mean, we didn’t have the product ready nor did we have a manufacturer lined up to produce it. The original plan was for the metal workshop I'd been working with on the prototypes to continue making them for the backers, and they would be only able to make dozens of units. So knowing that, okay, this isn't going to be 5,000 units straight out of the gate, was really helpful.
The first production run ended up being 500, so it was still literally an order of magnitude bigger than expected. But I'm super happy that it wasn't 5,000 or something like that. There's so many campaigns that have failed after being too successful.
Still, it was an enthusiastic crowd. How did Ooni build off that enthusiasm?
Darina: If people were complaining, it definitely would have changed our tone to be apologetic, ‘I'll fix that for you,’ rather than building on more layers and feeding off that energy.
But because of that, we released products — often much faster than other hardware companies — because we realised, okay, we can innovate on this, we can build on this. Kickstarter is obviously not a traditional sales platform. But what they do have is people who are prepared to buy new units and fresh thinking and having fun, and that's a big part of our DNA.
To what extent does feedback from the community actually drive innovation at Ooni?
Kristian: The immediacy of it is a different level than you can even imagine. If you think about your customers as these concentric circles with you and the company in the middle, the backers of a project like this are very much the next circle around that. You don't have a conversation with a customer from an online retailer, or you don't necessarily have a conversation with someone who buys our product from a store, but you inevitably have a conversation with someone who has just backed the project and dropped a comment.
I think that’s inspiring, that sort of immediacy. It's more about understanding your consumer, how close you are emotionally to them and wanting them to be successful. Those were the keys, rather than a customer telling us directly about this idea or how they use that product. It's more about that care and empathy that you have for that consumer.
Where do you think Ooni would be today without that initial campaign?
Darina: We would still absolutely have a product, but it would’ve been slower [to market]. And what Kickstarter allowed us to do was to really test and release sooner.
One of the reasons entrepreneurs with good ideas don't succeed is that they don't release soon enough. Perfection is the enemy of good. And we were, at that point, really able to test and test quickly and get that feedback loop.
Without it, we probably wouldn't have had the same freedom to design the business the way we did. The whole thing was just really fundamental to our culture and how we operate today, so I can imagine it being quite different.