Durham alternative-vehicle startup Organic Transit has made one thing very clear during their Kickstarter campaign. They don’t need investor money. Not yet.

They’ve nearly hit their $100,000 Kickstarter goal in just ten days.

Organic Transit makes the solar/electric/pedal-powered ELF, a single person hybrid vehicle that sits firmly in its own class— it’s designed to be energy efficient, clean, convenient, and safe for road use.

Some 30 years ago, Organic Transit founder Rob Cotter was building $400K race cars for Porsche and BMW. Not too long after that, he wound up being influenced by AeroVironment, who were building pedal-powered aircraft. It was at that point where he extrapolated out that you could achieve highway speeds on one horsepower.

“Why the hell aren’t we doing this?” he thought.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Cotter started blow-molding plastics with ovens he built in his back yard. General Electric heard about was doing and gave him a grant. Then he started doing the same kind of work with composites and landed another grant from DuPont. Soon, he had clients and such, and as the 1980s closed he was putting on the first solar-powered car event in the US.

Then came the 1990s, and suddenly efficiency was no longer an issue. Cheap gas and the rise of the suburbs brought on SUVs.

Cotter turned his focus to marketing, eventually running some of the most talked-about guerilla marketing campaigns for the (notorious) Body Shop, working with Greenpeace and other human, social, and animal rights groups.

Striking out on his own in the 2000s, he took on a consulting project for New York City’s bike share program, which currently makes available 9,000 bikes for shared use throughout the city, and realized that the market has now shifted back towards environmentally friendly travel, thanks to limits and hazards with fossil fuels and lack of parking.

Cotter started dialing in the designs and brought in a team of experts in the space. They all agreed that there was a big future for the right car/bike hybrid. They lined up some angel money and in 2009 Organic Transit was born.

“I guess all entrepreneurs feel like this about their babies,” Cotter says. “You may or may not want certain entities involved. When you are as passionate about your ideals as you are about your product, finding investors who share the whole vision can be tricky.”

This combination of ideals and the current success trajectory of the company led Cotter to Kickstarter

But why Kickstarter?


Kickstarter has become its own entity, evolving from a way to fund ideas into a full-blown, data-rich sales channel with a built-in public relations machine for the right story. Sure, you can get an idea to reality (success rate notwithstanding), you can get a product built by its early adopters or, in the case of Organic Transit, you can open up new markets for a product that’s already had some early success.

So far, about 25% of those who have donated to the Organic Transit Kickstarter campaign (and who get an ELF for their trouble), are new unique customers that didn’t know about the company or product beforehand.

And this fits tidily into the marketing vibe of the ELF. Cotter would rather not jam the holier-than-thou benefits of a human/green-powered vehicle down people’s throats. It doesn’t work. Instead, he’s hoping to educate, bring awareness to an alternative that people might not have known about. People become intrigued, and hopefully become attracted to it, because if they have the problem, the ELF is a proven, viable solution.

“That’s a much more effective sell,” Cotter muses. “Is it for everybody? Definitely not. It’s a niche, but it’s a sizeable niche. And in Europe, it’s already accepted.”

That’s an interesting fact, because Organic Transit is in the enviable position of having a roadmap to success, albeit across the sea. With Kickstarter, Cotter is able to determine where this will work here in the U.S., in terms of both location and environment, and how the story (and its ideals) plays into the purchase decision.

It’s also a way to attract inbound attention from potential partners. The ELF was designed and the company built with mass production in mind, so there are questions to be answered about scale, distribution, and maintenance, especially for a company trying to bootstrap in an industry that usually requires a huge capital infusion just to get out of the starting gate. The campaign has already produced inquiries and interest in assembly and distribution of the ELF.

So for a guy who sold lotions by partnering with the largest environmental organization in the world, this kind of community-based approach to marketing and sales makes perfect sense.

“We’re completely different from everything else in our category,” Cotter says. “In price, the fact that we’re electrified and solarized, and that we sit up tall enough to be accepted in traffic, so safety too. We currently have no competition—I know investors hate to hear that, so maybe you broaden it and it’s scooters, Vespas. But if someone has a strong environmental bent or they want to save money in commutes or deliveries, we’re pretty hard to beat.”

Cotter is hoping that if that message gets out to enough potential buyers, then the campaign will have its intended effect, as a complement to an already successful bootstrapping approach, and Cotter is acutely aware of what that means:

“It’ll help us hit our milestones and up our valuation without diluting our equity,” he says.