How A St. Louis Toy Kickstarter Raised $2.4M — And Counting
Conor B. Lewis lost his marketing job last spring when COVID-19 crushed the economy. He was far from alone in that; 15% of Americans reported getting laid off in the first six months of the pandemic.
But Lewis’ story took a unique turn from there. The resident of the city’s Shaw neighborhood funneled his severance and his family’s savings into a new product that just saw one of Kickstarter’s biggest toy launches ever. It topped $2 million in its first 10 hours and continues to climb. It’s currently the biggest campaign on the site and the second-largest toy launch in Kickstarter history.
“We had a very realistic idea of what we thought was possible, and we more than doubled what I thought was possible,” Lewis acknowledged on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air.
And for that, the father of two credits his product: a magnetic pillow fort for kids, called simply Fort. It’s basically 12 stackable couch cushions, on steroids. They’re shaped in ways that allow kids to stack them and build with them easily. They’re magnetic, so they stay in place. And, as Lewis demonstrated in his Kickstarter video, they’re stain-resistant. You can pour ketchup directly onto the surface and get them back to looking good with just a few swipes.
As Lewis explained, the idea came to him long before last spring, when he lost his job. He didn’t realize what he had at first. It took being laid off, and then a few months to catch his breath, before he realized what he was sitting on.
“Basically I woke up one day and it struck me: I want to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I was way too scared. And something struck me, and I saw this note in my phone that said ‘magnetic pillow fort,’ that I’m sure I wrote down when I was watching my daughter and my wife play with pillows and blankets, doing what every parent does, making pillow forts with their kids. And that’s where it came from.”
Even so, what seemed like a basic concept proved anything but in building a prototype. “There’s something so simple about foam and fabric, and then you add this very specific scientific thing like a magnet, and it’s a really delicate balance to walk,” Lewis said. “Really strong magnets are incredibly dangerous, and then really weak magnets barely do anything.”
He ended up creating a custom magnet for Fort’s prototype. “It’s surprising how big you have to get them to fight through the fabric and connect with each other,” he said. “We spent a long time researching magnets.”
And no, Lewis had never done anything like that before. But he found he liked digging into the details: “I went to art school, and I credit learning how to think creatively and solve problems, kind of almost thinking upside down, with creating this product.”
He created a Facebook group to build buzz for the idea pre-Kickstarter, and quickly built an email list with 80,000 followers. “There’s a kind of universality to this fort-building,” he said. “It remains very true that most kids are ripping cushions off of cushions.”
Lewis now hopes to gain even more Kickstarter backers and satisfy all 8,000-plus backers with a finished product yet this calendar year. He hopes to start production soon and have the Fort ready to sell by October at the latest.
“I’m 50/50 terrified and exhilarated,” he said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.