When the Lumos helmet—a smart bike helmet with integrated turn signals and brake lights—launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, it set a goal to earn $125,000 from backers. It met that amount on the first day. Within five days, backers more than doubled the sum. But after filling initial orders, the company didn't have a plan for distributing the product more widely.
The prestigious museum's design store rescued Lumos from potential obscurity to become its first retailer. Lumos isn't alone. Since 2014, when the MoMA Store began offering designs that originated on Kickstarter, the retailer has sold more than 48,000 units of products launched on the platform. Revenue from these designs totals more than $5 million, and right now the store offers 10 different Kickstarter products ranging from techy gadgets to handsome home decor, many of which have made their way to the MoMA Store best-seller list alongside classics like the Eames lounge chair and Noguchi Akari lamps. Here's how MoMA became an unlikely champion of the Kickstarter star.
Typically, a company launches its products on Kickstarter, gets enough funding to manufacture an initial run, fulfills orders to the first backers, then brings their design to retail. That's the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is that a project—like the Zano drone—becomes a victim of its own success and isn't able to fulfill orders to first backers. Perhaps more often, projects simply never make it to retail even if the campaign leads to physical products that wind up in backers' hands.
Having the support of a retailer willing to buy products at wholesale provides a financial incentive to scale a product's production. This is where the MoMA Store has been key.
The MoMA Store first became interested in Kickstarter around 2013. Its buyers and merchandisers frequently travel to design fairs around the globe and keep their ears to the ground when it comes to up-and-coming studios. They kept hearing about projects launching on the crowdfunding platform. During NYCxDesign, New York City's design festival that takes place every spring, the MoMA Store hosts an exhibition related to contemporary trends and decided that the focus that year should be crowdfunding.
"Once a project is funded, it often disappears and often doesn’t have a second life," says Emmanuel Plat, director of merchandising at MoMA Retail. "We thought it would be interesting to tell the story. We said, 'We're interested in documenting what’s happening. We're interested in how designers promote and test their products.' If the funding isn’t significant enough, they’ll move on. It’s a good way to get initial feedback from consumers without too much risk up front, so they can take more risks than with traditional modes of production."
The installation took place in 2014 and focused on 20 of the most popular Kickstarter campaigns. In addition to selling the designs, the MoMA Store invited the products' designers to give demos, talk about their work, and host workshops at the New York store. The products in the exhibition included rainbow coloring pencils, tear-off USB drives, a 3D-printing pen, a camera, and more. "The surge in [foot] traffic at the time was unprecedented," Plat says. "We got a spike in traffic similar to what we experience around Thanksgiving."
And it wasn't just the quantity of people coming into the MoMA Store that was appealing; it was the type of people, too. There were more designers working in tech, younger audiences, and people who were enthusiastic about Kickstarter itself who were getting an introduction to MoMA (Kickstarter sent an email blast to its users about the installation). MoMA opened itself up to a new design market. From then on, Kickstarter products became part of the store's retail strategy.
The MoMA Store keeps a tight edit on everything it sells—crowdfunded or not. An initial entry point is if a designer or manufacturer is represented in the museum's collection, but that's not the only criteria it uses. The retail team talks to the museum's curators to evaluate a design on how inventive it is. Does it provide a solution to a problem people encounter in their daily lives? Does it use a material in a novel way? Why this desk lamp when there are so many desk lamps on the market?
"There are all these different things we use to answer the question: Why MoMA?" Plat says.
The MoMA Store uses the same standards when it's evaluating designs it sees on a Kickstarter. "If we find a project and think it’s interesting, we've never seen anything like this project, never heard of it, and funding seems solid, we’ll contact the designer and say, 'We’re interested,'" Plat says. Another key element is if the company is equipped to sell wholesale, meaning supply a mass order to a store, which then retails to its own customers. Keeping inventory ensures that the store can meet consumer demand and doesn't have any lead time for an order, which could potentially dissuade customers if they can't get something immediately. "If they're not [set up for wholesale] it's the end of the conversation," Plat says.
Designers then enter into an exclusive retail agreement with the MoMA Store that typically lasts six months, which is one selling season, but could be more or less depending on the product. So MoMA gets a product no other retailer has, and in exchange for exclusivity, designers get a powerful sales platform.
For Eu-Wen Ding—one of the designers of Lumos, a smart bike helmet—partnering with the MoMA Store was an easy choice. "We wanted a retailer that would be able to tell [our] story," he says. "When MoMA came along it, was like a dream come true. We could not think of a better way to make a retail debut. MoMA stands for all the things we believe we are and hope to be, especially around innovation and using beautiful design to enhance life."
MoMA is assuming some risk in selling Kickstarter products. While a strong campaign might be a sign that regular customers will fall head over heels for a design, popularity online doesn't always translate. The store has a track record of successfully introducing design to American consumers—the lauded Japanese brand Muji first launched in the United States at the MoMA Store—but simply being in the store isn't a golden ticket.
Most product design startups experience growing pains, and it's challenging to secure a sustainable supply chain. Manufacturing for a couple hundred backers is very different from finding suppliers that can potentially make thousands of units. This is where working with an established company comes in handy. The MoMA Store helps coach Kickstarter designers it wants to work with about where they might find suppliers or manufacturers, how they could structure wholesale and retail costs, or even introduce them to agents.
"Often these young designers and small companies and don’t realize what it means to get into supply, logistics, and product sales," Plat says. "You get an interesting idea, but they can’t make it happen. There’s a big learning curve and backlash against Kickstarter where people fund part of a campaign, and the company just disappears and the product never shows up."
When the MoMA Store began selling Kickstarter products, it also experienced a learning curve. Some companies weren't able to fill orders on time or were delayed by a few months because of unanticipated production issues. "It could be packaging issues with the the product," Plat says. But "it’s mundane details that are important."
Designers, too, are taking a risk that MoMA's audience will buy their product and the store will be a successful launchpad. A downside to entering into a retail agreement with the MoMA Store is that it's exclusive. A company might have to turn away business from other retailers when a product is at its newest and potentially most lucrative.
To some designers, the risk is worth it. The MoMA Store's willingness to give a leg up to emerging designers was appealing to Max Gunawan, designer of the Lumio lamp, a portable light that folds into a book and counts among the MoMA Store's biggest Kickstarter successes in terms of units sold. "I try to engage potential retail partners through conversations and see if there is chemistry—it is like dating," he says. "It’s never been an 'incubator' type of relationship [with MoMA] where they provide guidance on business strategies, but they are a great sounding board whenever I need insight into a retailer’s perspective. It helps me make better decisions by understanding their needs."
The MoMA Store has also gained valuable insights from working with designers who received their start from crowdfunding. One of the Kickstarter signatures is using a short video as a storytelling device. Before the MoMA Store began carrying Kickstarter products, it typically relied on still photography and copy to communicate a product. "Now you think it’s a given to see some demo or video," Plat says. "Kickstarter has been very instrumental in [the change]. Some of these short films are very well edited, well done, and convincing, so it’s a great experience to be exposed to the product since some of these products can be tricky to understand if you don’t have an in situ demo."
In some ways, the MoMA Store and Kickstarter represent opposite ends of the design spectrum. One is established and has its roots in the traditional way people shop; the other is wholly a by-product of the internet era. But by coming together, they've both been able to learn more about what it takes to successfully market and sell a product. Emerging designers have a new audience, MoMA sets itself apart from other design retailers, and customers get access to things that might never have made it mainstream.
"Not everything from Kickstarter has been a best seller, but if you look at our best sellers today, many came from Kickstarter," Plat says. That includes Lumio, a foldable solar lamp, and a squeezable lightbulb that adopts the colors of its surroundings. The next design from Kickstarter that MoMA plans to launch is the Ostrich Travel Pillow Go, a memory foam travel pillow, which goes on sale in March. Whether or not it becomes a best seller remains to be seen—but it just might.
[Photos: courtesy MoMA Design Store]