TechStars' latest hot startup is... a maker of DIY soap kits

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 17, 2014

From The News Desk

When I interviewed the co-founder of MakersKit eight months ago, I didn't think I'd ever talk to him again.

After all, Mike Stone builds terrariums. To be exact, he builds terrarium kits -- and soap, candle, and lip balm making kits. The kits come with videos to show less-than-savvy wannabes how to make their own products. DIY for dunces. Not exactly a high tech, scalable endeavor.

The only thing connecting MakersKit to the tech world was that it was one of the featured storefronts of Zaarly, a company backed with $15.2 million in venture from KPCB, SV Angel, Ashton Kutcher, and others, with the mission of helping local artisans create online storefronts. The company has since shifted into focusing on service providers like handymen and housecleaners.

Before Zaarly made that shift though, it helped MakersKit secure a Kiva loan to grow its business. That loan turned out to be fuel on the fire. You can imagine my surprise when, eight months later, I received an email from MakersKit CEO Mike Stone telling me -- surprise! The company got accepted into TechStars. A local San Francisco artisan terrarium company is joining a tech incubator. What?

Zaarly's CEO Bo Fishback remembers when the scaling shift occurred for MakersKit. "We started to see some orders coming through and they were much bigger orders than normal for Zaarly," Fishback says. A national store chain had bought roughly 18 MakersKits to sell in its SF location. "We pinged [the MakersKit team] and said, 'Are you guys gonna be able to deliver on this?' And they were like, "We've got [it] under control.'"

Since that time, MakersKit has taken off. Google reached out and asked the company to run a special event for Google Glass wearers. Fab ordered 2,000 units. Stone and his co-founder Jawn McQuade published a book on DIY. Macy's found out about it and decided to stock MakersKits in ten of their stores, flying the founders out to run demos and do book signings in the department store's flagship New York, Boston, and San Francisco locations. Urban Outfitters ordered 1,500 units as a test run.

And most recently, MakersKit got accepted to Tech Stars Winter 2014 class. The co-founders moved to NYC and started last week. "It was eight rounds of interviews. Over 1000 companies applied. Less than one percent were accepted," Stone says. "We were so excited to get it."

It's not the typical trajectory for a company coming out of Zaarly: a tech company bursting from the stomach of an artisan soap maker.

"We could have gotten to where we are today, but it would have been a lot slower," Stone says.

For Zaarly it's a catch 22 -- they've helped a company so much that the company outgrows its help. Fishback says he holds no bitterness, only excitement. "It's a big part of why we started Zaarly -- we knew that magic [of building a company] could happen over and over again," Fishback says. "We try to do everything we can to help make it happen more."

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]