Online crowdfunding site helps launch Portland wallet company

PORTLAND — Despite two decades in the finance world, Ken Minn turned to a new vein of funding to cover his own startup's costs and bring its first product to market.

He and business partner Scott Hussa designed the HuMn Wallet, a slim, aluminum or carbon fiber wallet with room for cash and cards, but not much else. It also blocks radio-frequency identification devices from scanning personal information.

The pair didn't want to go into debt to launch the product or rely on early stage investors, who often seek large equity stakes.

So they went with Kickstarter to help fill the cash void. The online crowdfunding platform allows entrepreneurs such as Hussa and Minn to pitch their wares to the website's visitors, who typically gain something in return for pledges. The projects are active for a set number of days and funded only if they hit their product goal. If not, entrepreneurs receive nothing.

Through the site, the two product designers hoped to raise $66,000 to mass-produce their wallet. They attracted more than four times that amount, raising $295,402 from 3,491 people. A $49 pledge guaranteed fans an aluminum wallet. On the spendier side, $356 secured four carbon fiber wallets and accessories for each.

When the project reached its 39th and final day April 2, one word rang in Hussa's mind: "Wow."

Minn added: "This proved to me — and it's proved to the world — that there's not only one way to do things."

The two spent nearly a year tweaking the wallet before launching a Kickstarter campaign in February. Within four days of introducing the product, they surpassed their original goal.

Today, three weeks after the project's end, they're preparing to fabricate the wallet through manufacturers in Estacada, Milwaukie and Tualatin. They've moved their HuMn Design firm into a Pearl District office and are discussing wholesale and retail channels.

First, though, they must send out more than 5,000 wallets that backers secured during the Kickstarter campaign. "They're our bread and butter," Minn said. "They're what launched us."

Crowdfunding validated that a market existed for their wallet, something many product makers don't discover until it's already hit the shelves. Plus, the consumer research that Kickstarter — through the backgrounds of people that funded the project — would have cost thousands of dollars, Minn said. "It's so simple, and it's common sense," he said.

The biggest hurdle, both said, is setting aside your pride and exposing your new product to the world. "Wow, we've really exposed ourselves," Minn remembers thinking, "We're really out there."

In fact, extra exposure helped fuel the momentum behind the project. Several bloggers featured the wallet and drove traffic to its Kickstarter campaign.

Other area entrepreneurs have found success through online crowdfunding, too. Portlander Casey Hopkins briefly held the honor of the highest-grossing Kickstarter project ever earlier this year. Another campaign eclipsed his Elevation Dock for iPhones within hours, but he still raised more than $1.46 million through the site. On a smaller scale, several aspiring food cart owners have lined up thousands of dollars in startup funding.

Minn and Hussa agree that fulfillment is their first priority. They initially explored manufacturing in China and Thailand. But the quality control varied widely — a problem they didn't want to face when they started mass-producing the wallets.

They found Portland-area manufacturers instead. They've approved the final samples and are awaiting production.

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