Lisa Curtis’ idea for Kuli Kuli was born out of necessity. The 26-year-old was volunteering for the Peace Corps, focusing on improving nutrition in West Africa. Malnutrition affects over 18 million children across the poverty-stricken region.
But Curtis started feeling a little malnourished herself. That’s when locals from her village mentioned a nutritious snack made out of a tree called moringa.
“I ate moringa in the form of a peanut snack called Kuli Kuli. It made me feel a lot better,” Curtis says. “Then I did a little research and realized, oh my goodness, this tree is incredibly nutritious, even more so than kale. It has tons of calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and protein.”
Curtis tried to figure out how to get more people in West Africa to eat and grow moringa. She realized the best way to do this was to help locals earn an income from growing and selling the plant.
Curtis came home and started Kuli Kuli Foods, the first U.S. company to make food products with moringa. The company sources its moringa directly from women-owned farming cooperatives in West Africa, where it pays above-market wage. In addition, 5% of retail sales and 15% of online sales go back to the company’s local nonprofit partner to help them with nutritional work, Curtis says.
“We started selling it small scale at local farmers markets to test out the idea,” she says. “I was still working my day job at a tech startup, and doing this on the weekends with friends, and we were selling out. We just couldn’t make enough.”
Curtis realized that it was time to grow her business. She was ready to hire what’s known as a co-manufacturer, a third-party facility that manufacturers and packages products for businesses. But doing so would require at least $50,000, which the bootstrapped company simply did not have.
Turning to Indiegogo for help
Founded in 2008, Indiegogo is a global crowdfunding site that allows individuals, businesses and nonprofits to raise money online.
The Kuli Kuli campaign was launched on the site in June 2013. It was a smashing success, raising $24,000 in the first 24 hours and a little over $53,000 total. People from 22 different countries backed the campaign, according to Curtis.
“The whole thing about Indiegogo is there really isn’t an application process — anyone can create a campaign, anywhere, at any time,” she says. “It really is sort of the people’s platform to crowdfund anything they want. It definitely doesn’t promise your campaign will get funded, but they give you a lot of tips and help along the way. “
Breanna DiGiammarino is the current co-head of Indiegogo Life, a new charitable service that helps individuals raise money for emergencies or medical expenses. She previously worked with Curtis on her Indiegogo campaign, and said she thinks this campaign stood out because of its personal touch.
“What she did so effectively was share her story,” DiGiammarino says. “You understand why she cares about doing this business. It was because of that personal connection that she was able to do such an effective job of getting her story off the ground.”
With Indiegogo campaigns, it’s important that you get some initial momentum by first effectively communicating your message to those you know most closely, DiGiammarino says. This should help inspire others, like secondary networks and friends of friends, and then ultimately strangers, to support your campaign.
“She got their support early on, which then enabled her to continue to raise funds and have a snowball effect,” DiGiammarino says.
Once the campaign picked up some initial momentum, Indiegogo helped spread the word by speaking about Kuli Kuli at events, and promoted the campaign in its newsletter, social media and the homepage.
After the campaign ended, the company was funded almost immediately. From there, Kuli Kuli landed a large Whole Foods order in California and got into a bunch of other stores, according to Curtis.
Since it worked out so well for the company the first time, Curtis decided to do another crowdfunding campaign the following year. This time, Kuli Kuli landed an investment through a company called AgFunder, an equity-based, agriculture-related crowdfunding platform.
“AgFunder actually reached out to us,” Curtis says. “They were very hands on, helping us put together a webinar and a pitch deck, so both platforms helped us out a lot.”
Through AgFunder, the company raised $350,000 in convertible debt, a type of financing commonly used by startups, through a 60-day campaign in April 2014 — a figure that soon after rose to $500,000.
“One of the cool things about crowdfunding is you get this sense of momentum, very visible momentum,” Curtis says. “We had people I didn’t even know were accredited investors, who saw our campaign and ended up putting in money. A lot of people came in at the last minute to help us reach our goal.”
The capital went directly to operating the company, from filling up the staff and sales team, manufacturing, and new product development, according to Curtis.
“When we started the campaign, we were in 20 stores, and we’re now in about 200 stores,” Curtis says.
Tips for small businesses
“The best thing we did was really figure out why we’re doing a campaign and have a very clear goal,” Curtis says. “We planned out the content and video in advance, because it’s the most important part of what’s going to capture people’s heart strings and actually make them want to donate.”
In hindsight, there are a few things Curtis wishes she had done differently along the way.
“We thought, ‘Oh, we’d get the money and be able to ship out products just a few months later,’” she says. “And, of course, manufacturer runs take much longer than you think. It often takes people a really long time to ship out their products, and it was pretty stressful because we had a lot of people really eager to get our products.”
“Give yourself like six months before you actually deliver the product,” she says.
When it comes to Indiegogo, the company recommends a video that’s three minutes or less, and one that focuses on you.
“A lot of the time, entrepreneurs will be so excited about their company, that they will focus on that over themselves,” DiGiammarino says. “It’s much better to focus on yourself and your story and why you are doing this work, and then talk about your company.”
It’s also important to think about the other reasons people will contribute, and offer perks that align with those reasons, DiGiammarino says. For example, Kuli Kuli offered a personal thank you and shout-out on its website for a $5 contribution, a Kuli Kuli sampler six-pack for $25, and for $200, 60 bars of Kuli Kuli, a personally signed thank you note from the Kuli Kuli team, and a packet of moringa seeds to plant your own.
For Curtis and the team at Kuli Kuli, the future looks bright, thanks, in part, to the support it has received from its crowdfunding partners and supporters.
“We’ve got a lot of ambitious goals,” Curtis says. “We want to grow across the West Coast and over to the East Coast, and really scale up and release our new products, and support a lot more women farmers.”
Images via Kuli Kuli.