The first time Eric VanderSchaaf watched his wife, Mary Claire, pour maple syrup and honey on her pancakes, he thought it was odd. But one taste convinced him that the sweet mixture could find a market beyond their Austin, Texas kitchen.
“It has such a unique flavor,” he explained.
The couple created a few test batches of the maple syrup and honey blend and asked their friends for honest feedback. It was love at first bite.
Before investing in a production run and attempting to secure retail accounts with their new product, Tree Hive, the couple decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to test the market.
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Barnraiser allow creators to post profiles of their projects online and seek funding from backers who commit cash to help bring the projects to life. To acknowledge their support, farmers offer rewards that can range from t-shirts and food products to farm tours.
“Farmers and the people they serve have enjoyed direct personal relationships for centuries [but] much of that was lost during the rise of the industrial age,” Kickstarter spokesperson Justin Kazmark said. “In a lot of ways Kickstarter represents a chance to rebuild those connections. It’s fueled by a generous spirit of community and a cultural longing to know more about the people who produce what we consume.”
VanderSchaaf launched a campaign on Kickstarter in 2014 with a goal of raising $3,000 to fund Tree Hive’s initial production run. During the 30-day campaign, 123 backers pledged $6,580 to get the honey maple syrup from concept to customer.
“Crowdfunding helped us mitigate some of the risk of bringing a product to market,” VanderSchaaf noted. “It was a way for us to get the product in front of people and turn them into devoted customers.”
Like Tree Hive, other maple producers are turning to crowdfunding to help fund equipment purchases and promote maple syrup products.
On Kickstarter, Occasional Creek Maple Syrup in Belchertown, Massuchesetts raised more than $3,500 to purchase an evaporator in advance of its 2015 season; Freeborn Farm exceeded its $1,850 goal to purchase equipment to improve the filtering and bottling system at its Caneadea, New York, farm; and Westhill Maple Syrup Orchard enlisted support of 62 backers to raise in excess of $5,000 to restore an historic Vermont sugar orchard and begin producing maple syrup again.
While crowdfunding is popular and campaigns can raise funds to support farm operations or drive revenue through product sales, running a campaign takes time.
The most successful campaigns include videos, descriptions of the project and how the funds will be used and creative rewards for backers. (Tree Hive offered various quantities of its maple honey syrup to backers who pledged between $15 and $125 and a “breakfast for dinner” event for two to backers who committed $500 or more to the campaign).
Creators also have to promote their campaigns on social media to build support (and funds) while remaining active on crowdfunding platforms, posting updates and answering questions throughout the campaigns.
For Tree Hive, which sources its syrup from a family farm in Vermont and its honey from a beekeeper in Dallas, crowdfunding was a priceless business strategy. The popularity of the campaign not only allowed the VanderSchaafs to do a limited production run of their honey and maple syrup blend, it also convinced them there was a broad market for the product.
Over the last three years, the startup is moving faster than sap in the spring. Tree Hive is stocked in 26 locations, including several Whole Foods stores.
“Our biggest fans and customers came through our Kickstarter campaign,” VanderSchaaf said. “They are still buying from us; crowdfunding helped us build a lot of brand loyalty.”