Carolin Kunert, founder and CEO of Knister Grill, was proclaimed the winner of the Retail and eCommerce category in the 2020 Forbes 30 under 30 list. Carolin graduated from the University of Southern Denmark with a degree in Integrated Design and upon graduation, started working as an industrial designer. She founded Kinister Grill in 2017, an urban outdoor lifestyle brand focusing on devices that are compact, dishwasher-safe. These devices can hook onto a bike’s handlebars or carried like a basket. They are innovative products designed to allow users to start a barbeque anywhere they go. The brand’s revenue is expected to exceed $1 million in 2021. In this interview, Carolin shares with us her journey in starting a sustainable brand, as well as her vision for start-ups.
Motivations, strategies, challenges
Q1. What is the motivation behind Knister Grill? Can you elaborate on any experiences which sparked your passion for sustainability?
Before I founded the company, I worked as an industrial designer in many big brands such as Telekom, and designed a few products that were brought to the market. However, the main point was that I couldn’t really control the supply chain. Even if I designed good products, the production decisions were made by other departments, and the companies I have worked for specifically asked me to design these products in a way such that they would be broken within two years. This is definitely not the way I want to work as an industrial designer.
As an industrial designer, you design huge quantities of consumer goods and invest a lot of time and brainpower in coming up with the designs, so it was really unpleasant for me to know that they were meant to break within two years. That's why I stopped working as an industrial designer and instead founded my own company.
To have control of the whole supply chain means to have control over its quality and to be responsible in terms of sustainability.
Q2. Funding can be very challenging for student entrepreneurs, especially in the starting phase. How did Knister Grill manage to get €17,167 from 155 bracketers from Kickstarter? Were there any strategies that led to this result?
How to make a successful crowdfunding campaign is a huge topic. I started the Kickstarter campaign with a promise: within three months, I would bring this product into real production. But at the time, I had no idea about marketing or financing; all I knew was how to produce the product. Of course, this campaign is not a huge one with millions of backers and funding— those are usually financed by a lot of marketing budgets. I started with zero money in my bank account, and my idea was just to get customers, because they were the ones who would eventually pay for the product. On Kickstarter, the question was how we could get them to pay before the goods were even produced.
I attended a workshop on how to get the press writing about one’s products, and they told me to make a spreadsheet, then simply write compact information to newspapers. Turns out, that was the biggest shot I made— I wrote to the biggest German newspapers and basically said, “We’re a young startup; would you like to write about it?” Of course, no one replied. But suddenly, a large German publication wrote a press release about us, which motivated a few other newspapers and blogs to write about us. The key is having one big press player.
Everyone will also start to write about you, because they don't want to be the last one.
One other important thing is to give them an inspiring story. For me, the number one story was “the first girl in the BBQ industry”. Talk about your personality, even if “being a woman in a male-dominated area” is a gender topic. This is how you’ll be able to put your name and company out there.
When I started my idea, I set up my newsletter and told everyone around me to sign up, attempting to gain as many followers as possible. I kept my followers updated, for example, notifying them about the Kickstarter campaign in advance. The goal was to have a minimum of 50% funded and to get the most traffic as possible on the first day of our Kickstarter campaign, so that we’d automatically get ranked very high, and get organic search results. You need to get the backers ready to be keen on being the first one to get the best price on the first day in order for this to work. To be honest, during my entire Kickstarter campaign, of these 150 backers, 10 were my friends. But that's a good sign! That’s what gets you more supporters. I got everyone in my circle on Facebook to post and reshare my Kickstarter campaign on that day— 200 of my 700 friends did it, and that's how you get marketing without even spending money.
Q3. Starting a business from scratch can be a really tedious process, especially when it comes to building a successful customer base. How do you market your business and which tactics have been most successful?
One advantage we have over other products is that customers can actually see our product in open spaces. It’s not a product that hides in your fridge or shelf, or an app that people surrounding you don’t see when you use it. For us, when people use it in the city or in the park, it’s free marketing.
Try to implement a system that motivates people to share it with their friends. For us, social media advertising was not as successful as people might think it to be. Social media posts and Instagram stories don't work that well. Alternatively, offline marketing has been the most successful way for binding our customers to our brand, because the attention period where they interact and pay attention to our product was hundred times higher than it was on an Instagram advertisement. Although it was more expensive, the returns were way higher than that of online marketing.
We’re also currently working on building connections between customers and trying to build a community or a fan base. It’s difficult, because half of our customers are blind customers who buy the product in retail stores, so we won’t be able to get their contact information, and we thus lose the opportunity to engage the customer in our community. This is a challenge that we are still trying to tackle. Once we’re able to build such a community, word-of-mouth strategies will make marketing way easier and cost-efficient.
Social enterprises and sustainability
Q4. When starting a social enterprise, is it better to think of an idea from the social perspective first, then come up with a feasible product? Or is it better to have an idea of the product first, and then adapt it to fit a social objective, such as sustainability?
In my opinion, to be a successful entrepreneur, you really need to have a deep belief in what you're doing. Making a quick product, and then adapting it to some market trends like sustainability might not work. I would recommend trying to conceive an idea of what your goal is. For example, in my case, it was making sustainability consumer goods. Regardless of whether it’s barbecue or sustainable pillows, you need to have a clear vision behind your idea especially when it comes to social businesses. This is extremely important, because there will be many ups and downs, and it is very tough to survive through it.
To have enough personal strength, you need to have a deep understanding and belief in why you're doing this, whether it’s about sustainability or other goals.
Q5. Are sustainability and social enterprises becoming a global trend? What do you think about the development and opportunities for sustainability-focused social enterprises in the upcoming year?
I see it as an ordinary trend, like in fashion— many companies try to promote it, but they are just using sustainability and social objectives as buzzwords for marketing purposes. It's definitely a huge trend, but it's a marketing trend in many cases. I hope that this marketing trend will eventually shift to a real understanding of sustainability. If companies see a positive return in using sustainability as a marketing tool, they might realize that sustainability is actually the reason why people buy products. Maybe next year, they will increase the percentage of sustainable elements in their production, as they now understand this marketing trend more. That's what I hope will happen, but it all comes down to the numbers. No company would try to be more sustainable if they had to sacrifice 50% of their revenue.
Q6. As the world moves towards Net Zero 2030, more governments and enterprises are putting greater emphasis on sustainability. Do you see this as an opportunity or challenge, and how do you envision Knister Grill to grow in the upcoming year in response to these trends?
We are already working with reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It is definitely necessary, and I think governments should regulate that even more. I definitely see how it could be a challenge, but I think it’s just like natural selection and evolution— if a company doesn't manage to reach this goal, it'll fail. It works as a mechanism to select who will survive in the market. If you can’t reach the target, then you shouldn't be supported any longer. It's a tough goal, even for big companies, to change the whole production system and shift to sustainable businesses in ten or even twenty years. However, if you start right now it’s definitely feasible.