There are Kickstarter campaigns gone gangbusters, like the one used by Hugs & Donuts owners Jason Hill and Matt Opaleski to raise $50,000 for the donut shop of their dreams. There are Kickstarter campaigns gone awry, like the one attempted by Maine-ly Sandwiches owner Buddy Charity to raise $100,000 for a business that had similarly gone awry. Charity only raised $497 of his goal, and canceled the campaign a couple of weeks into fundraising attempts. And then there are Kickstarters like the one currently raising funds for Bravado Spice Co., which has exceeded even owner James Nelson's wildest expectations.
"It's off to an incredible run," says Nelson, who will celebrate three years in business this October as Houston's most popular hot sauce company. "We didn't really expect to hit our goal in four days, which is nuts." Their goal was a manageable one, as far as Kickstarter campaigns go: $10,000 by June 14, which the company would use to put two new products into production—bottles of its so-called Crimson Hot Sauce and wide-mouth jars of chile-garlic pickles—and into the 170 stores that currently sell Bravado's trio of hot sauces (pineapple-habanero, jalapeño-green apple and blueberry-ghost pepper). But with fans helping Bravado hit its goal in less than a week, Nelson—whom many may also recognize from his time as a contestant on Fox's MasterChef—and his team decided to shoot for the stars, raising the goal to $25,000.
"If we hit our stretch goal, we're going to massively upgrade our kitchen," promises Nelson of the 3,000-square-foot space off Aldine-Westfield where he and his three full-time partners/employees still make every batch of hot sauce by hand, cutting and prepping the ingredients themselves and hand-delivering batches to the dozens of Houston stores that stock their products. Though Bravado Spice Co. now has two distributors—one of which handles Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana accounts, and the other of which handles the other 23 states they're currently selling in—Nelson says: "We still drive out to all of our local vendors because we like to see them."
It's this local touch to which Nelson attributes both the popularity of his hot sauces and the speed with which the initial Kickstarter goal was met. "Even though we've grown, we never really lost that connection with our customers. We're still at farmers markets and food events and music festivals and hot sauce festivals; we don't hire people to do that. Me and the three guys that started the company, we're still doing that." Nelson and all three of those guys, as it happens, left lucrative careers at Apple—Nelson himself did business-to-business sales for the tech company for years—to commit themselves full-time to Bravado Spice Co., a move which started with a similar Kickstarter campaign three years ago.
This is part of the reason Nelson has returned to the Kickstarter well as opposed to a more traditional small business loan, but there's more to it than just nostalgia. "Kickstarter was instrumental in building our fan base right away and really established who we are," he says. "Now it's more complicated to get a product out there. We've always been very anti-investment and anti-loan. We don't want a third party to have any sort of control or direction over this company. Kickstarter was the ultimate way of saying we'll just do it ourselves."
"We could spend all the money to do this," Nelson says, "or we could put it in the hands of a crowdfunding community and see if they believe in it." Bravado's community already believes in the Crimson Hot Sauce—that much is known.
As one of the first products in Bravado's line-up, the cascabel-chile de arbol blend was "one of the backbones of the company" until they had to cease production a while back. In the time it took to rehydrate the dried chiles, grind them, de-seed them, puree them and strain the product, Nelson found that they could make far more batches of the other, fruit-based hot sauces. "The amount of time invested to make the product was so high that the labor cost was just going through the roof," he says. "We had to make the tough choice of killing it off. It just didn't make sense to keep it around anymore, but we always wanted to bring it back." And so did Bravado's customers, whom Nelson says have never stopped asking for the return of the hot sauce that helped start it all.
With the $10,000 goal met, the return of the Crimson Hot Sauce is ensured, as is the introduction of the chile-garlic pickles that Nelson calls "the ultimate burger pickle. It's got some heat, it's got great crunch, it's got a great peppery bite to it." Backers of the Kickstarter campaign will be the first to receive the product, even before grocery stores do.
And if that $25,000 goal is met by June 14, Nelson says to look for Bravado's next product to hit store shelves even sooner: a raspberry-scorpion pepper hot sauce that he wants to have out by the end of the year. "The faster it goes, the quicker I can turn around and produce enough product to get it out to our retailers." And as for those retailers, the $25,000 worth of kitchen improvements—including bigger, better Vitamix blenders and an industrial-strength Robot-Coupe food processor—means that Bravado can also hit its goal of selling its hot sauces in 300 stores nationwide by the end of the year. But even if the Kickstarter campaign falls short, Nelson isn't sweating things—even if he does deal with hot sauce all day long.
"I think back to two years ago when we were in three stores in Houston and nobody had any idea who we were," he says, recalling those days spent pulling double-duty for both Apple and Bravado, before taking the leap and throwing all of his chiles into the pot. "I've had an opportunity to do something great with my life. I don't want to spend all of my time making someone else rich. I don't even care about making myself rich. I just want to make something I love."