Fundraising Kickstarts Alumna’s Business

By Joe Flaherty


Sword & Plough, the company founded by alumna Emily Núñez ’12, had the kind of launch on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter that most start-ups can only dream of. On its April 15 launch, the company received pledges that surpassed their $20,000 goal in two hours. At the time of print, they have raised over $150,000 from over 700 donors.

Sword & Plough offers bags made of surplus military materials that are manufactured by veterans with the goal of reducing waste and improving citizens’ understanding of the armed forces. Haik Kavookjian ’09.5, another alum and Sword & Plough’s communications director, spoke about what Kickstarter can do for a start-up like Sword & Plough.

“Kickstarter is essentially a crowd-funding platform,” said Kavookjian, “A start-up or an individual with an idea such as ourselves can post a project on there and it provides you with two really great opportunities.”

The first, Kavookjian explained, has to do with manufacturing costs.

“Basically, you’re getting the money up front that you would need to place a manufacturing order,” said Kavookjian. “If you were going the traditional route of trying to launch a company, manufacturing is really expensive, and you need a lot of capital to place a big order. So unless you’ve got the funds, it’s just not going to be possible.”

The Kickstarter platform works by offering “rewards” in exchange for a donation to fund a project, with the understanding that it may take some time before the final product is ready to be shipped.

“The way Kickstarter is set up is it’s technically not a store, or they don’t advertise it as a store,” said Kavookjian. “When you log onto the Sword & Plough Kickstarter campaign page, you’re going to see what is called a donation. And in exchange for that donation, you get a reward from us.

Kavookjian added that Sword & Plough is trying to get their product out as quickly as possible, with many expected shipping dates to fall around July to August.  The other opportunity Kickstarter presents is a network of people looking to fund and write about innovative projects.

“It’s gotten to the point where there are people who cruise around on Kickstarter looking for really awesome products that they want to donate to,” said Kavookjian.

Launching their company on Kickstarter has allowed Sword & Plough to expand beyond the circle of family and friends that were their initial supporters to people around the world who want to donate. Kavookjian said the motivation to donate often stems from a desire to be one of the first to support an innovative company.

“A lot of it is this idea of getting in at the ground level, of being able to jump in from the start so that when the company does become successful and goes on to do incredible things, you can say, ‘oh yeah, I was there from the beginning,’” said Kavookjian.

More than just a good platform for fundraising, Kavookjian believes Kickstarter fits with the greater Sword & Plough mission.

“It’s more than just the product, it’s about creating this community around the product and what the product represents,” said Kavookjian. “Sword & Plough is about this bigger mission not only to employ veterans but to improve the quality of veteran life and improve civil-military understanding and tighten that gap between the civilian population and the military population.”

Sword & Plough has had a tremendous couple of months, with two wins in the Harvard Pitch for Change competition and articles in Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post and Inc. Kavookjian said the Sword & Plough team was “cautiously optimistic” about the launch.

“Based on the fans we had built up on our Facebook page and the general response that we had gotten from so many friends and family, we had a feeling it was going to do well,” said Kavookjian, “but we weren’t expecting to get launched and then immediately blow past that goal in two hours, so that was definitely a shock.”

Kavookjian said the company is unique in having strong Middlebury roots. Many of the team members listed on Sword & Plough’s website are Middlebury alumni and the Sword & Plough board of advisors includes Director of Environmental Studies, Faculty Director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Professor of Economics Jonathan Isham, Middlebury Executive-in-Residence Dr. Charles MacCormack ’63 and Cully Cavness ’09.5.

“We are very appreciative of the work that they’ve done in a consulting capacity, helping us along in making contacts and just providing insight and their own input into the project,” said Kavookjian. “I think it’s really cool that this project has maintained those Middlebury alumni roots and I don’t know if that’s something you necessarily see that often.”

Elizabeth Robinson ’84, director of the Project on Innovation in the Liberal Arts, said Sword & Plough’s success is an example of students taking advantage of Middlebury’s resources related to social enterprise.

“The inspiration for Sword and Plough was supported by the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and [Núñez] utilized the Project on Creativity and Innovation (PCI) funding and mentorship opportunities — through MiddSTART and MiddCHALLENGE — as a springboard for her venture,” wrote Robinson in an email.

“We are so proud of what she has accomplished and how far she has come in so little time.”

Kavookjian emphasized preparation and networking as crucial steps to ensure a successful start-up launch.  He said one reason a lot of Kickstarter projects fail is that while entrepreneurs may put a lot of thought into their project, they often underestimate how much work is required to get the word out.

“We spent months cultivating media contacts and reaching out to people with media contacts and once we had exhausted our list of friends with media contacts, we went on to LinkedIn and looked for second and third connections and reached out to those people,” said Kavookjian, describing the process as akin to the job search, where having a connection to someone can make a huge difference. “Kickstarter is great as far as this incredible marketing tool, but it will only get you so far. If you can hit launch and sort of hit the ground running, I think that’s going to do you a lot of good in the long run; for us, it certainly did.”