If there is a weak link in the crowdfunding operation, it remains fulfillment—the process of packing your product in its shipping box and sending it to your customer’s doorstep. Even though it is the last step in the process, it is a critical step to get right. If anything goes wrong, all of the previous effort you have put into the project will be for naught—and there is a lot that can go wrong. We do a lot of the fulfillment for RAINN Studios ourselves, but the reality of shipping expenses and logistics prompted us to reach out to fulfillment services overseas. When you do this, you are putting your trust in someone else for this essential part of the operation. If those people let you down, the whole operation will fail. This is my European fulfillment disaster story from the Coasts and Rivers Kickstarter campaign. My purpose in telling this is so that future creators can understand at least part of the complexity of fulfillment and also learn from our experience. We worked with Ideaspatcher for the European fulfillment of the campaign, and I understand they have now rebranded as Nift.
As part of the Kickstarter project, we had created sets of risers. These risers are styrofoam hexagons that sit underneath our TerraTiles to create hills and elevation for the setups. The risers were shrink-wrapped in sets of ten, and then each shrink-wrapped set was put in its own box complete with our logo and UPC code. Many backers had pledged to receive either one or two boxes of these with their TerraTiles. After the packages had gone out we started to get messages from European backers who said that instead of receiving one or two boxes of risers, they had received just one or two risers. Surely, we thought, they had not torn open the boxes of risers and shipped them out individually. We gave them a call, and that was exactly what they had done. They assured us the problem would be immediately resolved and that the correct items would be sent out to the backers. We informed the backers of the mix-up and told them the correct items were on their way.
Two days after the replacements were shipped out, we started to get messages about more problems. Instead of receiving the boxes of risers, shipping boxes full of loose risers were getting mailed. We called again. Sure enough, rather than shipping the boxes of risers to the backers like should have originally been done, they had torn open the rest of the boxes of risers and shipped nine of them loose to the people who were supposed to get one box but had already received one riser, and eighteen loose risers to backers who were supposed to get two boxes but had received two risers. During this process they destroyed all the boxes of risers we had in Europe, so we were not even able to get some of the European backers nicely boxed risers because there were no more on the continent.
Moreover, during this time we were also getting reports that parcels were arriving in extremely poor condition and this was causing the rewards, including the main boxes of TerraTiles, to be damaged. Customers were sending us pictures of mangled Kickstarter rewards. The rewards were being shipped in flimsy boxes without any packing materials. The results were not pretty. We compiled a list of these backers and emailed them to Ideaspatcher/Nift to get replacements sent out. Communication eventually broke down entirely. Emails started to go unanswered. The whole operation was dragging out for weeks as I tried to get someone at Ideaspatcher/Nift to contact me so that I could get the rewards to our backers in good condition. I could not get anyone on the phone, even Skype messages which I had been told at one time were the perfect way to reach the company were no longer being replied to.
During the whole operation, I suspected there was more to the story than Ideaspatcher/Nift was letting on. I had the suspicion early on that they were at a remove from the actual physical operation—like our products were not actually with them and they were coordinating with someone else. Later, my suspicions were confirmed. Ideaspatcher/Nift was not directly fulfilling our campaign. They had subcontracted the work to someone else. That means that when an unhappy backer contacted us, we had to contact Ideaspatcher/Nift, and they, in turn, would contact another company that they apparently did not have a great communication relationship with anyway. As you probably know, that is just too many links to render good customer service. When we are doing fulfillment ourselves, we are very proud that if someone has a problem and contacts us, we solve the problem directly and have it fixed within 24 hours and often the same day. Contracting out fulfillment to a company who then subcontracts it to some other unknown entity is just asking for disaster. Jamey Stegmaier came to the same conclusion about the subcontracting situation and it is confirmed in this blog post where Ideaspatcher discusses its rebrand to Nift.
Although we made sure that all of our European customers were taken care of (after weeks of difficulty) through several different channels, Ideaspatcher/Nift had something like a 60% error rate in the fulfillment of Coasts and Rivers, and it basically resulted in the destruction of all of the extra inventory we sent to Europe for future sales. This has caused problems even into the fulfillment of the TerraTiles: Tundras and Wastelands campaign. Of course, we did not use them for the fulfillment of the new Tundras and Wastelands and Battle Packs we had created, but the rewards for the backers who had pledged for the previous sets were supposed to receive them from the remaining stock we had with Ideaspatcher/Nift. We tried on multiple occasions to contact them and ask them to fulfill the rewards, but we never got a response. We ended up shipping those rewards ourselves from the United States. We were happy to do this to get our backers their rewards as quickly as we could, but it did reintroduce all of the expenses and hassles that using a fulfillment service in Europe was supposed to alleviate.
One time when I was trying to get some of those rewards shipped, I emailed the guy who had been handling our account. I got an automated reply saying that he was no longer with the company. It would have been great to know this in advance and to be told who was now going to be handling our account. I emailed everyone again, including the recommended contacts in the automated email. I never received a response. To this day, I do not know where our inventory is, how much inventory still exists in sellable condition, or even how to get that inventory out to customers if they ordered it. In fact, I only accidentally stumbled upon the fact that Ideaspatcher has reorganized itself as Nift. As a customer of theirs who should still have some inventory with them, you would think I would be notified, but I never was.
The problems associated with fulfillment operations was a major part of Jamey Stegmaier’s decision to cease using crowdfunding/Kickstarter to fund his projects. The fulfillment of the Scythe Kickstarter campaign was similarly disastrous and caused Jamey to give them a 2.6 out of 10 rating for their fulfillment effort. Ideaspatcher/Nift acknowledges the debacle with the Scythe fulfillment here. In fact, we were in a very similar situation as was Jamey. Like him, we had worked with Ideaspatcher/Nift before. They had fulfilled the Misty Moorlands campaign and we were satisfied with the service. But then, they fell off a cliff for Coasts and Rivers, and if you cannot rely on previous experience with a company to make a decision about future projects, I am not sure what you can base those decisions on.
I have at least these two recommendations when working with a fulfillment company:
1) Don’t rely on emailing spreadsheets back and forth to communicate orders. Work with a fulfillment partner who has an online fulfillment system where you can log in, upload orders (either hundreds or just one at a time), get confirmation they received the dispatch request, and that allows you to track the package as it goes through their system and then out to the customer.
2) Get visual confirmation of how your parcels are being packed. Have your fulfillment service snap a picture of a box filled with a particular reward level before the box is sealed. That way you can check to be sure that everything is right and it is packaged properly.
The crowdfunding community is in need of reliable and professional fulfillment services. We have worked with good ones, and I want to talk more about that in future blog posts. But in the meantime, the lesson here is that there is a lot to being a successful crowdfunding creator. You are sitting on top of a large operation where you often have to rely on other people to get your creative vision to the world, and one weak link is all it takes to break the chain. I will leave you with Jamey Stegmaier’s concluding thought on the matter, “You can do everything right with a project (or close to it), but if your fulfillment companies don’t finish the job well, you’re screwed.”