Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bucksport dog biscuit company seeks backers on the Web

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Chris Roberts and Renee Johnson run their business according to their ethical ideals. Their young company, Barkwheats, makes organic dog biscuits using local ingredients, such as buckwheat farmed in Aroostook County, blueberries grown Down East, pumpkins from Waldo County and parsley, sage, lavender and honey from an array of small farms around the state.

Only the ginger isn’t local — that’s grown in Belize and obtained from the Surry-based fair trade organization Sustainable Harvest International.

“No one else in the dog food market goes to the extent that we do to support local farmers and to use all organic ingredients,” said Roberts. “I think that’s been the biggest thing. We’ve remained totally committed to our ideals. That’s appealing for a lot of people. We’ve had a lot of really great media coverage and a lot of word-of-mouth hype, too.”

Roberts and Johnson had no idea their business would take off with such speed and ferocity. Nearly three years after its founding, Barkwheats has grown from something the couple sold at farmers markets and on Etsy.com to a rapidly growing small business with a backlog of thousands of dollars’ worth of orders from all over the world. Johnson and Roberts are buying buckwheat, pumpkin and blueberries by the ton.

The demand is so high and Johnson and Roberts’ ability to meet it is so low that the pair has decided to kick their business up to the next level. Last month, Barkwheats moved its operations from the couple’s home in Stockton Springs to a warehouse in Bucksport, giving them far more space in which to work.

The only other thing they need to meet that demand? Equipment. Barkwheats needs to upgrade its dough molder so that instead of it taking an hour to produce a batch of biscuits by hand, it will take 90 seconds. One of those molders costs a whopping $50,000, however — far out of Johnson and Roberts’ price range. Which is why they’ve turned to the fundraising website Kickstarter.com for help.

“Kickstarter is this amazing website that allows lots of people to help fund a business or a nonprofit or just a really good idea,” said Johnson, 30. “Basically, we have three months to raise $25,000. If we don’t meet that goal by Aug. 8, we don’t get anything. It’s really exciting.”

Kickstarter, founded in April 2009 in New York City, is a fundraising platform dubbed “crowdfunding” — a unique way of helping to fund an idea for profit or not. People who log onto the site and peruse the hundreds of different projects will see many ideas, ranging from helping a band record an album or a filmmaker make a movie to projects such as mobile lending libraries and community gardens. As a potential backer, you can help fund a project that is aiming for just $500 by giving it $10, or you can give $100 or even $500 to a project such as Barkwheats that is looking for $25,000.

Backers aren’t investors in the traditional sense — they don’t own part of the company once they put their money down. A backer usually receives some sort of thank-you gift for a donation — for example, a band will give a backer a copy of the album it recorded with the money it raised. Other than that, however, contributing to a Kickstarter project is something done out of a spirit of giving.

“That’s why we liked this idea, because we don’t want to have to have any kind of committee or a big group of people making decisions for us,” said Roberts. “But you can still feel like you’re a part of the company. It’s more out of a spirit of helping someone that has a good idea.”

Kickstarter seems a natural fit for Barkwheats with its emphasis on being green and supporting local farms.

“My take is that it’s a very socially responsible way of getting funds for your business,” said Deb Neuman, director of the Target Technology Center, a business incubator affiliated with the University of Maine in Orono. “It’s very much about helping the little guy. That’s what I like about Chris. That’s what he’s all about — being green, giving back to local farmers. He’s got a really cool business model.”

According to Neuman, many small businesses struggle more with the growth phase of their business than with the startup.

“It’s really hard to take your business to the next level,” said Neuman. “There are a number of funding options out there though, if you look around for those connections. There are resources here in Maine to help people who need to get those kinds of funds, but aren’t necessarily going get a bank loan because they’re too high-risk.”

Some of those options include the Small Business Association’s micro loan program, which in the Bangor region is run through Eastern Maine Development Corp. There also are loan guarantees available through the Small Business Association, so a bank can give a business a loan without assuming all the risk. In Maine specifically, the Libra Foundation offers the Libra Future Fund, which makes small loans to businesses run by those age 29 and younger.

“There are people in the state who can help people figure out where the best options are for their business,” said Neuman. “With a program like Kickstarter, you’re taking a little bit of a gamble, but then again, if you don’t meet that goal, you don’t lose anything either.”

Just a few Mainers have launched Kickstarter campaigns. The makers of the documentary “The Way We Get By,” about Bangor’s troop greeters, successfully raised $5,000 to release a special-edition DVD of the movie. The Maine Museum of Photographic Arts in Portland has a campaign going to raise $17,955 to create a virtual museum website; it is 36 percent funded and has 11 days left in its campaign.

“The Way We Get By,” produced and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Aron Gaudet, an Old Town native, and Gita Pullapilly, discovered Kickstarter at a conference about self-distribution for filmmakers.

“We had wanted to do a two-disc special edition of the film, and we thought it was a perfect way to let our audience that we have for the film decide, in a way, if we can pull this off,” said Gaudet. “We let our fan base fund the seed money for it.”

Gaudet found that the three-month fundraising period resulted in bursts of giving at the beginning and the end. The first 20 percent was raised in the first few days; the remaining amount was raised in the last 20. Their campaign ended May 1. The DVD will be released on Aug. 3, coinciding with the film being shown on PBS.

“Kickstarter says that when you get past the 25 percent level, your odds of getting fully funded increase dramatically. It improves to 90 percent or right around there,” said Gaudet. “I think when people see that you’re getting closer and it’s really possible, they really get behind it. They want you to succeed.”

Potential backers get a gift at each giving level. With Barkwheats, it starts at $10, with an invitation to an open house party in August in Bucksport, and then goes up to $25, which offers two magnets and two packages of Barkwheats. If you invest $500 or more, you get a specially commissioned portrait of your dog by artist Abby McMillen of Folk Dog Art, who designed the Barkwheats labels.

If Barkwheats doesn’t reach its goal by Aug. 8, it won’t get any money, and those who did put their credit card info on the site will not have their cards charged. If they do reach the goal, that $25,000 will be withdrawn from the accounts of all of the backers. Roberts and Johnson hope they will exceed $25,000, since Kickstarter allows you to keep receiving funds once the campaign has hit its fundraising goal. Whatever difference is left over after the money from the campaign is factored in will be made up by a bank loan — and Barkwheats will finally have its new dough molder.

“[The dough molder] would completely up our game,” said Roberts. “We would increase our production output many times over. We could employ a few people. It would change everything.”

As of Wednesday, May 26, 16 days into the campaign, Barkwheats was 6 percent funded with $1,439 pledged thus far. Johnson and Roberts are crossing their fingers and telling everyone they know about the campaign — while cranking out box after box of their dog treats.

For information to buy Barkwheats or to contribute to the Barkwheats Kickstarter campaign, visit www.barkwheats.com.
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