One of my favorite things about having a blog is that it’s allowed me to connect with a bunch of super cool people doing super cool things.
Last month, for example, Harvard student Jason Smith reached out to me to share a story about how he and his roommate had turned a freshman class project into a successful Kickstarter campaign. Their product is an LED lightshow, called Rayger, that can be used in dorm rooms, homes, clubs, or any venue looking for a “one-of-a-kind audio-visual experience.”
If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s a website that enables people to raise money for projects by asking for small donations from a large number of people (a model called crowdfunding). Project creators set a funding goal and deadline, and if people like a project, they can pledge money to make it happen. Here’s the catch: funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, meaning projects must reach their funding goals in order to receive any money. According to Kickstarter’s website, 44%, or less than half, of the projects reach their funding goals.
As of today, Jason and his roommate, Trevor Nash, have been able to raise $20,557–more than double their original goal of $10,000–with 5 days left before their campaign is over.
Jason and his roommate have successfully funded their project and raised a total of $24,900–more than double their original goal of $10,000!
I thought their story was pretty awesome, and one worth sharing, so I asked Jason some questions about how exactly they pulled this off. He shared his insights with me in the interview below.
Q: Can you explain what the Rayger is, what makes it different than other LED light show devices, and how you came up with the idea?
JASON: In short, Rayger is a music frequency controlled light show that flashes strands of LED lights with the beat and intertwined rhythms of music, which creates a totally unique music visualization system. There are plenty of other music light shows that are controlled by audio volume, but the Rayger bases its visual response on the different frequencies, or pitches, present in the music, which results in a far more immersive and precise experience. So you’ll be able to see that sustained high note on one end of the light spectrum and the bass drop on another. Volume controlled systems usually use one strand of lights that respond to whatever part of the song happens to be loudest at that time.
We came up with the idea in a freshman intro Electrical Engineering class. The final project was really open ended, and we wanted to do something really unique that we could use in our room. We did some research and came across the idea of using music to control lights, and realized that a frequency based lightshow didn’t seem to exist. We thought it would be a perfect project to tackle.
Q: When you first started working on this project, did you ever imagine that it would turn into something more than just a class project?
JASON: I think the point at which we realized it could be more than a class project was after we completed it and realized what an awesome effect it was. Because there wasn’t really anything like it on the market, we didn’t know how good it would look. As we started to show it off to our friends, we got a lot of people asking if we could make one for them, asking if we planned to make more and sell them. I think that was the point where it hit us that we had something we might be able to take to the next level.
Q: At what point did you and your roommate make the decision to turn it into a Kickstarter? Have you ever done anything like this before? If not, what gave you the confidence to go through with it?
JASON: We kicked around the idea of selling it fairly soon after it was finished. We actually took down emails from interested people when we were displaying it at the class project fair. We really didn’t know what the next steps were though at that point, and I think largely from lack of knowledge we let the idea simmer for the next 2 years. We used the original prototype in our room and continued to get great feedback, but finally by the midpoint of our junior year somebody spilled some beer on it and it fried.
At that point, Kickstarter had begun to enter our radar, and we didn’t want to let Rayger (then called SMASH, a combo of our last names) die for good. We began talking seriously about doing a Kickstarter, and started to work on a market level prototype. I think one of the major confidence boosts that really solidified our plans was when I got an internship with Power Practical, a small company in Utah who launched four of their products with successful Kickstarter campaigns. It was a great experience, and working there definitely gave me a few insights into what it took to launch a Kickstarter, as well as a really good introduction to the startup and entrepreneurial scene.
Q: How did you approach creating your Kickstarter campaign? Can you walk us through the process, step-by-step, and talk about any specific resources that helped you in this process?
JASON: There are a group of different crowdfunding sites that can all see effective results, but we focused on Kickstarter as we felt it had the greatest name recognition. The only requirement is that you need a video explaining your story and product. If your project falls into the technology category, you will also need a working prototype. First, a little background on Kickstarter. Basically, it’s a platform where you can pitch an idea to people, and offer them “rewards” in return for them pledging money to your project. The rewards can vary, but in many cases it is used as a way to pre-sell a product that you offer as rewards. You also have to set a monetary goal, which is supposed to be the minimum amount of money you need in order to carry out the project. If you don’t reach the goal, none of the backers are charged, there is no cost to you, you hit the bars for a few days then pull your britches up and re-evaluate your project.
There is a lot of variation in campaigns. Some appear to have been done in an afternoon, with a single cut video they took with a smartphone and bullet points to describe the product. Others clearly have spent big bucks on professional videos, photography and graphics to promote the product. We wanted to take a bit of a middle ground, using the skills we had to make as professional and attractive a page as possible.
Our first step, and probably the most important, was the prototype. We had our original class project, but it wasn’t nearly ready to market. You need a reliable product that is attractive to consumers, that can be manufactured scalably and at a reasonable price point. Until you can produce a product that meets these criteria, you probably don’t have something you can take to Kickstarter. Some people elect to launch with only an attractive product and price point, but they can hit serious trouble when they have to figure out a way to produce a bunch of products and haven’t figured out how to do it yet. It’s certainly not impossible to lose money in this kind of situation if you want to fulfill your rewards as described.
We made sure to make our prototype with parts that we had sourced from the same manufacturers we planned to use for production. This made things a lot easier down the road, and we found them simply by searching for reputable suppliers on Alibaba and requesting some samples to make sure they were what we wanted. Once we felt there was a marketable product, we started designing the campaign, starting with the video. One of the huge benefits to college is a large network of people with near-professional skills that are willing to help out at non-professional prices. We were able to have a friend film and produce the video for a fraction of what a professional agency would have cost. The same was true with our website, and that’s a really important advantage that students should remember to take advantage of.
After the video, we began to craft the website, graphics for the page, get great images of Rayger, write the text, and all sorts of small things. Every little bit takes more time than you think, and before you know it your Christmas break has evaporated, but you have a complete Kickstarter page that is ready to submit. This is the path we took, but it certainly isn’t something you have to do. Like I said before, some people elect a more bare essentials approach. Another advantage to inventing in college are the resources such as machine shops, 3D printers, laser cutters, solid modeling programs, graphics software, or editing software that are available to you that would cost you thousands to purchase outside of school. We definitely made use of a lot of these resources along the way.
Q: Did you run into any problems along the way?
JASON: There are certainly lots of snags that can come up in a venture such as ours. Time was the largest issue though I think. The bottom line is that everything takes longer than you think. It takes a long time to get parts from our manufacturers overseas, and with school work looming constantly it’s so easy to get behind on things. We actually had planned to launch first semester and deliver by February, but ended up pushing things back 4 or 5 months due to delays.
Q: What do you think had the biggest impact on your Kickstarter’s success? Were there any specific tactics you guys used to promote the Kickstarter?
JASON: I think Kickstarter itself has been by far the most impactful on our project. A majority of our backers have come from simply browsing through Kickstarter projects as opposed to coming through our website, social media, or other sources. We did a big media push, but with limited success. A lot of the gadget blogs and sites don’t like to promote crowdfunded projects as they aren’t available right away and they want click-bait for consumers to purchase then and there. We did try to use every angle available to us to market it to interested sites, and it is surprising the amount of traffic that comes to you after you launch a campaign.
Q: How were you able to balance working on this project while also taking care of all of your other responsibilities as a student?
JASON: I’m not going to say this was easy. Honestly, it was really hard, the hardest thing about the project, but its just like taking a tough course load and dealing with extracurriculars. It’s a skill you learn as college students and you just have to figure out where your priorities lie. I have seen plenty of students that put their startup as a first priority, and that can be the right move in many cases. It can depend on the scope of your campaign how much time it takes but I think the success of your Kickstarter is often reflected by how much work you were able to put into it.
Q: What advice do you have for any students out there who might have some great ideas but not know where to start?
JASON: Spend a couple hours researching crowdfunding sites and learn a lot about how the process works. If you think your idea is something that would fit in, go for it! Make a plan and don’t look back. Launching a crowdfunding campaign, successful or not, looks great on a resume, and it ties together so much that you learn in school. Don’t turn back because you don’t think you have the skillset to follow through with it. There are lots of resources in school, and you can take on a partner that makes up for the skills that you lack. I am an environmental engineer and Trevor is in biomedical engineering. Neither of those are fields you would expect to see a party lightshow in. Furthermore, it’s a great chance to make some money and maybe even launch your own company afterwards.
A lot of people don’t realize how achievable it is to launch a campaign or how low risk it is. You can do one at virtually no cost out of your own pocket other than time. It lets the market evaluate your project too, so you don’t end up pouring time and resources into something that you may think is cool but consumers don’t. Most importantly, it’s a chance to really unleash your passion, learn a huge amount, and bring a cool idea to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people. And I promise that is a pretty unique feeling.
Now that the Kickstarter campaign is over, I followed up with Jason to ask him what his plans are moving forward.
Q: Now that the Kickstarter is over, what’s next for Rayger?
JASON: There is going to be a lot of work fulfilling the orders, and that’s certainly going to be our first priority going forward. We ended up being much more successful than we originally thought, so we are altering Rayger a little bit internally and externally to make the mass assembly process easier. After things are shipped out it’s a pretty open future for us. We will both have jobs and its not something we are prepared to gamble our careers on quite yet, but we certainly want to keep Rayger going. Using the Kickstarter funds we will purchase some extra units for inventory and hope to sell those online either on our own site or a different platform. We also have a few ideas for products in the Christmas lighting arena, and we are already brainstorming ideas for what may be another Kickstarter campaign launching next summer. We want to grow Rayger into a larger company, hopefully something we will be able to work full time on.
Image and video from Rayger Kickstarter Page