Nancie Weston: The Crowdsourcing Rainmaker
Ms. Weston on...
Building a consumer hard goods company, twice
The aha moment at a Goodwill store that sparked Raiin
The three things you need for a successful Kickstarter campaign
A side hustle that netted her over $20k last year
Underwire: Give me the quick spiel for Raiin.
Nancie Weston: Our first product is a water filtering purifier pitcher that takes out germs and toxins in seconds. With all the problems in the world, water shouldn’t be one of them. At Raiin, we design products which protect people and our environment.
Raiin is your second startup in the consumer products industry. How did you get started the first time around with Grayl?
I was working around water, always something to do with water—I worked with water filtration purification and waterproofing companies. In 2011, I had this idea about how to filter water a lot faster and easier than what's out there for the outdoor industry. I put together a business plan, rough sketches and started doing the research. Then I found a business partner. One of the reasons I wanted a business partner is because I had never done a startup and I didn't believe in myself. I really didn't believe that I could do it on my own, so now, eight years later, I've learned a ton and realize it's no problem to do it on my own.
It's actually easier without a partner. You don't have to argue, explain or teach someone. But as women we don't believe in ourselves, we don't believe we can do it on our own.
That said, I hired all male employees except one, and hired an all-male board. I wish I would have hired at least half to three-quarters female for the board and team.
I'm sure you didn't say, "I'm going to hire an all-male board." It happened organically?
It was organic in that investors who invest a lot of money won’t invest unless they get a board seat, and they happened to be male. We also needed experts in areas like finance. There are more men in those higher up positions than there are women.
While you were building the board and hiring employees at Grayl, you were also building the first product. How long did that take?
It took us 18 months to get to market with the first Grayl product.
And you got it into REI?
Yes. I had a sales background in the outdoor industry so it was easy for me to get into REI. They knew me, I had invented a firestarter in the category for them, and they were doing well with it.
What were other key milestones from Grayl?
Grayl won the Red Dot award, which is a prestigious award, one of the highest awards you can get for innovative products. We got the most innovative product award at the International Housewares Award, which is huge. They tend to give that award to large companies, and so to get the innovative product award was a big deal for a small startup like Grayl. We also got recognized as one of GeekWire’s top ten startups.
Origin of Raiin
How did Raiin come about?
While I was still at Grayl, our team was trying to figure out our next products. My business partner, the marketing team and my board really wanted to do a bottle which was bigger. My vision for that company was to bring the bottle to market and, if it was a success, invent a filter purifying pitcher to go in every home. Unlike a Brita, which only filters odor, flavor and some lead, our product would filter and purify germs and toxins, as well as odor and flavor. After introducing that product to the market, I then wanted to invent a product that would help developing counties, and millions of people around the world, to have clean water to drink.
But that's not what my business partner and my board wanted to do, so I said, "Alright you guys do that, keep doing what you're doing, I'm going to start a new company." I knew I wanted to do a water pitcher but I couldn't make it the same as Grayl. I didn't want to go up against my former company, and so I thought about it for a couple years. And then out of the blue I was walking through a Goodwill store, of all places, where I saw a drinking cup and thought, "That's it!"
I woke up the next morning, and I was like, "I know how I'm going to do it." That's literally how it happened. It's funny, people ask me, "Oh, so you're an engineer?" And I'm like, "No. My degree is in Parks and Recreation and Art." It’s fun to see the look on their faces when I tell them that.
Yes. Grayl is one of those utilitarian products that’s also artistic and well-designed. That's why I won quite a few design awards.
The prototype for Raiin is beautiful. The lid, the handle, the soft body, it all feels thoughtful. I could see that product sitting on my countertop. It’s the kind of utilitarian product like my Alessi Lemon Squeezer that gives me joy to use it for a mundane task. Tell me about the design.
My whole thing is to make beautiful and functional products so I'm stringent on making sure that Raiin works, beautifully. It needs to pass drop tests. It has to pour beautifully. It should feel good in your hand. All of that is super important. The fun part is when I show it to people, they can’t keep their hands off it, they have to keep touching it.
What's fundraising been like for a consumer hard good?
I made a prototype and I took it to investors thinking that I already have a successful company under my belt, this should be a no-brainer for investors to invest. Wrong.
I pitched maybe 15 investors. I’d be in a room full of startups here in the Pacific Northwest and they'd all be apps or software, every single one of them. I did get in with one angel group, and I showed it and they said they don’t do consumer goods, they only do electronics. So I thought, “Now what am I going to do?"
One time, I was actually told by an investment group that I needed a male business partner for them to even consider me. It’s sad that we are still stuck as women and seen as less-than or weaker.
After trying to fundraise that way, I had to do a total shift very quickly because I was running out of money, which is really, really scary. I have one month left, I can pay my mortgage next month and that's it, and then I've got to either dump this whole idea and put it on hold and go get a job. I even tried to get a loan for my house and the bank said, "Well, you don't have a job." And I only have $30,000 left to pay on my house. I've got over $350,000 in equity on my house and they wouldn't give me a loan.
That’s when I thought about Kickstarter.
I ended up at Western Washington University talking to the entrepreneurship program. I said to a class of students, "All I need is a marketing and video person for Kickstarter." I had eight students come up to me after. One person shook my hand and said, "I've got 10 people for you on my team, I just started a business and I've got two video people for you, I've got a photographer, I've got a graphic arts, I've got a PR, I've got a social media, I've got a makeup person, lighting person, I've got someone to do your website." They had it covered, graphics, animation, they had everything. And he goes, "By the way, we'll do it for free because we need this on our resume. We need to show people we can do this."
It's divine intervention.
Yeah, exactly. I totally believe that. The universe throws me some walls, tough situations to make me really want it, but I definitely think that people cross your path for a reason and if you stay open you'll be lead down the right path.
What have you learned about Kickstarter campaigns that might tip other founders to try crowdsourcing?
One, you have to have passion for what you are doing or it will never fly. There are so many times I wanted to give up but it was driving me crazy how many water filter pitchers are out there not telling the truth about what they filter out. If I didn’t have the passion for bringing clean water to the world, it would have been easy to give up.
I've actually done two other Kickstarters and an Indiegogo. So the second thing is that you've got to have a following. People don't just come to Kickstarter, you have to get people to go look at it, you have to be on social media months beforehand and you've got to be all over social media and develop an extensive email list.
Lastly, you need about 6 months worth of money to live on to do Kickstarter. Plus, you will need money to promote Kickstarter. For example, you need money to produce a video, run social media and advertising, and people to help you, etc.
What kind of following are we talking about to run a successful Kickstarter?
It’s all about your friends and family. They are the core of how your product will spread and they are the most passionate about helping you.
The press is also extremely important. Find your tribe who is passionate about your product or cause and they will shout you out to the world with enthusiasm. Your story about why you are doing your product is so important. People have got to trust you, so you need to get people to believe in you and the product so they'll buy it.
Is a sustainability message going to be part of your marketing?
Yes, definitely, I believe in sustainability. We will be made in the USA, I don't want all the carbon emissions that come from shipping products from China. Same with packaging, I don’t want any plastic on the packaging, I want it to be sustainable. Our filters are small and thin compared to the huge plastic filters of the competitors.
How are you're taking care of yourself?
You know I try and be disciplined but….well, let's put it this way, since I don't have any money, it’s hard. I don't have a social life right now, so I'm not going out with friends. I'll invite them over for wine or cheese and crackers and things.
I jog every other day, and do yoga and yard work. It’s super important to stay fit, it keeps your mind clear, calm and gives it a break that keeps you from getting into any kind of anxiety or depression.
Also living in the present is a huge help. I work really hard at not thinking about the past or worrying about the future, but getting done what needs to get done right now, at this moment. Be thankful for what you have achieved so far, and the support you have at this moment from friends and family. I take walks to free my mind and just look at nature in the present moment.
I've got a 17-year old hot tub. And I like to cook and eat healthy. I like to hike, although I haven't taken a full day off to hike in a while. A day off…what's that?
Here’s something interesting…do you know what I'm doing for money?
Uh oh, what are you doing?
I rent out my home on Airbnb and I go stay at my best friend's parent’s house. I made a little over $20,000 this year doing that.
The things we do for our companies.
Yeah, really. I clean the house, pack up my stuff and go live at my friend's parents. It's humiliating at 55 years old, but hey. You've got to do what you've got to do to survive.