A $2,450 hand-crafted wooden surfboard is a niche product if ever there was one, as is the business of teaching people how to make the boards themselves.

So ever since Grain Surfboards was launched in 2005, co-founder Mike LaVecchia has tried to maintain a lean operation. Grain sells tools and surfboard kits for people to make boards of their own. The business is particularly vulnerable to gyrating fuel costs, which can make shipping expenses swell. Aside from a $25,000 line of credit they took out in 2008 and $27,000 in grant funding from Maine Technology Institute in 2007, Grain has operated with a pay-as-you-go credo.

“We never wanted to get into a position where cash flow was down and we couldn’t make some payment,” he said.

In recent years, the Grain team went west in winter to reach customers. But the costs of flying across the country, renting vehicles and equipment, plus hotels, added up. Rather than opening a permanent West Coast location, LaVecchia and Grain opted for a mobile board-building classroom. Instead of applying for a loan that would have taken years to pay off, he tapped Kickstarter, a social media funding platform, to raise the $38,000 to buy and outfit a bus and trailer.

Using Kickstarter effectively was more involved than just building a site and watching contributions roll in. LaVecchia and his staff spent two months shaping their fundraising strategy as assiduously as they craft their surfboards.

They kicked off their campaign in February 2013, spending hours each day writing thank-you notes for donations, and creating photos and videos to engage potential backers in a fun way that didn’t make them feel like they were merely being hit up for money. They spotlighted Grain’s sustainable manufacturing practices, and the life lessons their students reaped from building their own boards. They thought hard about how to leverage social media, including their 29,000 Instagram followers, 9,000 Facebook fans and 8,000 newsletter recipients. Plus, there were a lot of costly details that required diligent attention. Each donation by credit card, for instance, was subject to a 3 to 5 percent processing fee.

And time and money was required to fulfill and ship of each of the 19 thank-you rewards for backers who donated $10 to $10,000 dollars.

“If you don’t account for the fact that it can cost $2 to ship a package of $1 stickers, you could be in trouble,” LaVecchia said. On top of all that, Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of the total amount raised.

Grain’s Kickstarter campaign attracted 474 backers. The company raised $43,184 in 30 days. The money was used to buy the bus, outfit it and paint the company’s logo on the outside, so it serves as a mobile Grain billboard as it roves the West Coast offering board-building workshops and attending trade shows and other events. When it’s not in use, the bus stays parked in Los Angeles at the home of a west-coast partner. The bus is outfitted with sleeping bunks, so Grain doesn’t pay for pricey hotels any longer. But the best part of using Kickstarter was the way it energized Grain’s customers, LaVecchia said.

“It was something for people to rally around. They got excited, and felt like they were doing more than just donating to a cause, and they were. They were part of something.”

This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. to correct the title of co-founder Mike LaVecchia.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

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