INSANE IN THE SUBDOMAIN

A Kickstarter campaign for a winter coat has raised millions, thanks to a clever trick

It’s typically bad form to start a news story with a question, and even worse to begin with a line from a press release. But when Toronto-based startup North Aware introduced their first product in January, they asked an intriguing one that nobody (including the company) has answered since: “What happens when a software developer hacks the winter wear market?”

On the face of it, the answer would be the Smart Parka, a $1.9 million Kickstarter campaign. With more than a dozen features including a detachable hood, stitched-in scarf, built-in gloves, and pockets aplenty, the $209 (and up) winter coat is a bargain—or should be, when backers ultimately receive it.

In the meantime, it’s up to Jamil Khan* to turn this crowdfunding project into an actual product. Khan, North Aware’s president and CEO, is a former software developer who has worked with many startups through Toronto’s INcubes incubator, where he gained experience helping to ramp up startups and made contacts within the city’s investment community.

So last January, it wasn’t entirely unexpected when the 36 year old quit his job to hang his own shingle. But when friends and co-workers heard what he wanted to do, shock set in. “They said, ‘Don’t do it, are you crazy?'” recalls Khan. And they had a point—Khan’s experience is in JavaScript, after all, not cross stitches.

Despite Khan’s lack of experience in clothing design and manufacturing, more than 7,200 backers believe in him. That’s a big number, and Khan says he is overwhelmed by the success. “This was way past our expectations,” he says.

“Quantity is not something that should stop you from fulfilling the order, because factories love more quantities,” he says. “If everything is planned, it’s not a big problem. But still it needs hard work and we’re all prepared for that.”

While that may sound confident, it doesn’t exactly mesh with the complaints of people frustrated by delays with Baubax, a feature-filled travel jacket that hauled in more than $9 million on Kickstarter last year.

When asked for details on how North Aware would meet the demand it is generating, a company spokesperson deferred to the FAQ on the campaign’s page, explaining that if they get 7,000 preorders, they will manufacture the coats in Canada. “No matter where our coats are made, the high standards we have set for the North Aware Smart Parka will not be compromised,” it says.

But as the Smart Parka’s campaign winds its way towards its Mar. 24 conclusion, Khan says he’s already learning things at the speed of light, seeking out mentors, and talking to people who have been in this industry already. This includes the founders of Ravean, the world’s first heated down jacket, which landed $1.3 million in Kickstarter funding itself last fall.

And even though Khan has zippered nary a zipper, other Kickstarter campaigns are already flocking to him for advice. That’s because—to answer the original question—when a software developer hacks the winter wear market, he also cracks the code to Kickstarter as well.

According to Khan, the secret to his crowdfunding success is how he programmed a clever workaround to a problem that has long-vexed Kickstarter campaigns. One benefit of using Kickstarter is that it’s a very basic interface. But the service is so streamlined that users aren’t even given access to the crowdfunding webpage’s source code, which makes tracking ad effectiveness and conversion impossible for Facebook ads, the promotional method of choice, these days. “You have to have a workaround,” says Khan.

According to Skyler Baird, who used Khan’s program during the Zyntony RA Adventure Light Kickstarter, the problem is that there’s a disconnect between Facebook Pixels (the company’s ad tracking program), Google Analytics, and Kickstarter. “You connect your Google Analytics to Kickstarter, and you can see that people came from a Facebook ad, but you don’t know which ad, or who is actually buying,” says Baird.

What Khan has done is develop a way to bridge that gap—and through segmenting the ads demographically, determine who is actually buying Kickstarter products. He creates subdomains for each Facebook ad that then redirect to his main Kickstarter account. (Subdomains are the part of a web address that sometimes appear at the front, like “http://subdomain.domain.com”.)

“Essentially what you’re doing now, instead of sending people from Facebook to Kickstarter, you’re sending people from Facebook to a specific subdomain,” says Baird. Khan just makes the subdomain correspond with a specific ad and corresponding targeted demographic. Kickstarter records the subdomain as the referrer–which means Khan knows exactly which Facebook campaigns are sending users to Kickstarter, and also how many. Then, once he figures out which specific audiences that are buying the product, he can advertise to them heavily.

Khan describes the ideal product for his strategy as a box where you put in $5 and it gives you $10 back. But to make that box work, you need to find the right demographic to advertise it to. “If you’ve found that market and your conversions are awesome, at that point, it’s just smart to spend more money on ads, and take your campaign to the next level…. But you need to have some programming background.”

Still, Khan’s subdomain secret sauce won’t turn just any crowdfunded concept into a million dollar baby. “If your page or your product is not converting, you cannot have this kind of success,” he says. In other words, running a successful crowdfunding campaign can have as much to do with how well you code a page as how well you design the goods.

And Khan is currently working with top Kickstarter campaigns to put his programming to the test. Every evening, Khan says he spends 30 minutes on the phone, walking others through his steps. He lists the $1.1 million-netting Luuup Litter Box, the $547,000-earning Duffel Suitcase, and the $295,000-generating Zyntony RA among the campaigns successfully using his strategy.

Baird even concedes they could have done better if they had used Khan’s method more faithfully, claiming it padded their campaign by about $50,000. “I think that if we used it from the beginning, it would have had tremendous impact and been incredibly valuable,” says Baird.

And in return, Khan is getting nothing. “I’m helping them for free, not charging anything,” he says. Free advice? That’s a pretty good deal—even Kickstarters charge a buck.

*This article originally misspelled Jamil Khan’s last name as Kahn, and has been corrected.

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