When Soma, a minimalist, stylish water filtering system first appeared on Kickstarter last year, it quickly became apparent that the product would be popular. Unlike a Brita filter, Soma's glass carafe is attractive enough to keep out for guests, and customers can subscribe to have a compostable water filter delivered right to their door twice a month.
Soma, which starts shipping today, was indeed a hit on Kickstarter, attracting $147,444 from backers. The product has gone from crowdfunding campaign to full-fledged company—as a company, Soma recently raised a $3.7 million from seed investors—but it hasn't always been a smooth transition.
"The challenges of bringing a physical product to market—the growing pains that everyone describes—we certainly weren't immune to," says Soma co-founder Mike Del Ponte. "When you do product development, you have a nice chart in Excel—this will take four weeks, this will take three days—but you throw it all out the window. Some things you can speed up, some things take way longer than you can anticipate."
Soma anticipated a launch date of July 2013, but is only now shipping out its product. That's barely late at all compared to most Kickstarter products, but Del Ponte was surprised by the hiccup that slowed the filter's production schedule. Constructed from vegan silk, Malaysian coconut, and PLA food-based plastic, the filter is assembled in the Bay Area using a mold that makes four at a time. During the production process, the company decided to make some cosmetic changes to the design. Those changes caused the tool to crack, delaying the release date by five weeks. Next time you complain about a slow Kickstarter campaign, remember: Most campaigns have stories like this of their own.
Del Ponte believes that Soma could have gotten off the ground without Kickstarter, but it would have been difficult. "We had an idea, but didn't know if people really wanted it. The first thing we got was proof of concept by thousands of people buying the product," he says. There were two other unforeseen benefits: a built-in community that has been tracking the product since its inception, and easy market research.
Soma sent out a 17-question survey to backers, for example, in an attempt to learn more what water filters they use, the magazines and blogs they read, their favorite brands, why they bought Soma, and the contaminants they want to be removed from their water. The latter question directly informed Soma's final product.
Before release, water filters go through a certification process to validate their claims about what they can remove from water. If a company wants to tell consumers they filter out lead, they need a lead certification. Chlorine claims need a chlorine certification, and so on. "In our own internal tests, we have seen that our filter reduces a number of contaminants, but we couldn't test 10 things at once," explains Del Ponte. Soma instead decided to focus first on the top four contaminants that customers were most concerned about: chlorine, lead, mercury, and arsenic.
Other useful marketing statistics that Soma learned from its survey and customer phone calls: people are most disgruntled about the unappealing design and charcoal flakes on other water filters, they like Soma most because of its attractive design and materials used, and customers are largely male urban professionals. While Del Ponte says that he's personally most excited about the charity aspect of Soma (the company donates cash to charity: water with every filtration system sold), the research made it obvious that potential customers want to hear most about design.
Money from the Kickstarter campaign went towards tooling and other product development costs, but Soma's seed round of funding is being used for more long-term goals, like growing the team from two to eight people. "Before, we were just hustling and learning as fast as we could, but we didn't have the expertise to tackle certain things," says Del Ponte.
Soma's immediate goals are shipping and building product inventory; for now, the company only plans on selling the filters online and in boutiques. But now that Kickstarter has proven there's a market for well-designed water filters, Soma is also thinking about future product launches. "Soma will definitely have mass-market products, but this one is more for the early adopter," says Del Ponte.