Video: The Merits of Products Backed by the Crowd

By Scott Kirsner |  September 11, 2013

David and Calvin Laituri’s experiment started with a stainless steel cylinder. They called it a Puc, and pitched it as a rechargeable ice cube. You keep your Pucs  in the freezer, and then drop them into a drink when you want to chill it quickly — without watering it down.

David and Calvin, who are father and son, hoped to use the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to sell $2,500 worth of the Pucs, at $35 for a set of six (they come with a sleek maple storage case).

They wound up selling more than $80,000 worth of the low-tech product.

But what makes this crowdfunding success story different is that the Pucs were the first in a line of 100 products that David and Calvin hope to have manufactured within 100 miles of their home in Wayland, Massachusetts. Naturally, they dubbed the experiment Onehundred. The second product, Tuls, is a collection of flat, credit card-sized tools. That one surpassed their goal, too.

What’s the big idea? David Laituri, right, says that Onehundred isn’t a political statement about “made in the USA.” “I’m agnostic about making things in China,” he says. (Another business he runs, Vers Audio, makes home audio gear there, and he had plenty of experience with Far East manufacturing as director of product development at Brookstone, the New Hampshire-based retailer.)

Instead, it’s a bet that the Laituris’ relationship with nearby manufacturers becomes part of the product’s story. (The machine shop that makes the Pucs, Howard Precision Products, dates back to 1843, when it got started making scales and clock parts.) And that proximity and face-to-face communication can speed the design, prototyping, and production process.

The Laituris have been promoting new product ideas and taking orders not only on Kickstarter, but on a newer crowdfunding site called Dragon Innovation. By gauging demand for a new product on a crowdfunding site, then collaborating with local vendors to produce them, David Laituri he’s trying to create a new kind of business feedback loop: “a tight circle” among “people who conceive, buy, and produce things. 

“You don’t make what people don’t want,” he says. “There’s beauty and efficiency to it. You have no excess inventory. And working with local manufacturers means you understand their capabilities, and they understand what you’re trying to do.”

Laituri’s idea is still very much in beta… but it points to an interesting possibility: a population of locavore consumers who fund new products this way not only because they want them, but because they know they are also supporting businesses and jobs in their community — not unlike buying produce at a neighborhood farmer’s market.

Could something similar work for a large company, as opposed to a pair of scrappy entrepreneurs? Laituri says he could imagine a consumer electronics, furniture, or perhaps kitchenware company having a “black sheep group” or “Project X Labs” team that would float new ideas on a crowdfunding site. The team could then produce small, fast, initial runs of products that resonated with consumers (perhaps with a domestic manufacturing partner) and do bigger runs with more promotional support on certain products that really take off.

Your take…or examples of similar experiments?