ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- A local entrepreneur who first saw meteoric success is now facing big backlash for not yet providing the product many thought would be the next big thing.
Is it the global supply chain or just bad business to blame?
The FORT started as a simple idea, born from a pandemic problem and an overall parenting one: how to keep your kids occupied, especially when they're inside.
A St. Louis man laid off last April as a result of the pandemic is turning a negative into a positive, becoming an entrepreneur and raising millions in crowdfunding.
“We liked it because of the magnets, how it would stick together,” local parent Tara said. She told News 4 when she saw it, she was hooked.
The concept is a large toy with cushions that can configure in a number of different ways into forts using magnets.
“I actually found it online, scrolling social media and it looked really awesome,” Tara said.
Angelica Earl, too, was immediately intrigued. “I was like, ‘this is so cool,’ my kids would love it. I am one of the moms that builds box forts for them all the time,” she said.
In fact, thousands of parents bought in. At the beginning of the year, FORT inventor and St. Louisan Conor Lewis launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised $2 million in just 10 hours.
News 4 profiled the product and its success marking the second largest toy launch in the website’s history. Fast forward to now and not all consumers are happy.
“We did the Kickstarter in January and we had to wait and wait and wait,” Tara said.
In fact, FORT has created a firestorm.
“I am out the money; I don’t have the product and it’s been going for a long time,” Tara said.
Facebook groups with thousands of followers tell the tale. Many early Kickstarter backers still haven’t gotten their FORT months later despite paying hundreds of dollars.
Lewis has asked for more money from the early backers and in the meantime has continued taking additional orders. The company said more than 2,500 of the 13,000 ordered forts have been delivered.
Some people appear to love it. Others claim it’s not what was promised, even saying the magnets might be a danger to children if swallowed.
Social media eventually turned Earl away. “Everything about this, the quality of it, just wasn’t worth it for me to invest in, in my opinion,” she said.
News 4 sat down with Lewis, who said the backlash has been bad. “It hurts so bad when people are making these false claims about you,” he said.
But he acknowledges consumers’ frustrations. “Every cent from the Kickstarter was spent building the Kickstarter product,” Lewis said.
He explained the business is victim to global supply chain problems, costs on goods and freights he said are skyrocketing more than he ever could have imagined.
“I think all of our supply issues are directly related to the pandemic,” Lewis said.
Even with some quality control issues and demands for refunds, he remains optimistic. “As long as I don't quit, FORT will continue," he said.
News 4 asked Lewis if he thought the company can stay afloat.
“I believe I can make this happen. These products have been made. They are just sitting and waiting, I just have to figure out how to get them there,” Lewis responded.
“It’s not a place that you want to be as a young entrepreneur, trying to start a business,” Rebecca Phoenix with the Better Business Bureau said. She told News 4 this is a scenario they have seen before.
“The problem is that when a new company is starting, they don’t often have the reserves, so they start thinking of other ways to fund those refunds, and so it can become a slippery slope when they essentially end up robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Phoenix said.
That’s why she warns consumers, particularly parents, to be wary of the toys that promise to be the “next” big thing, especially if the funding is crowd-sourced.
“You want to really think about what could happen if things don’t go well, could you lose that money? Are you okay with that? Because there is inherent risks in crowdfunding campaigns,” she said.
Phoenix said with backups in global supply, it’s further warning this holiday season might be full of headaches.
“If you are looking for a holiday gift, you may want to take that into consideration, that you may get the item but it may not be in time for the holiday,” she said.
Lewis promises the products will be delivered, though perhaps not in time for the holidays. Those who want refunds will get them, he said.
“Yeah, to someone who said maybe you should have known better, it’s impossible, I cannot fault myself for the decisions I made, because I feel like I made the best decisions for the company at the time,” Lewis said.
“I asked for a refund and haven’t heard anything back,” Tara said.
Still, none of it is adding up to Tara.
“I don’t know how he has gone through all this money and he can’t get everyone their FORT,” she said.
Tara told News 4 she is unsure if she’ll ever get a FORT or her $500 back. “At this point, I don’t think I will,” she said.
Tara said she just wants to warn others of the risks involved in donating to a start-up business through crowdfunding.