Let’s face it, you didn’t get into the crowdfunding game to spend half your day packing, taping and mailing orders, running a mini post office out of your conference room. As your campaign grows and backers start flocking to your idea, you may reach a point where it makes sense to bring on a fulfillment company (in fact, you should have fulfillment partners lined up before you begin your campaign).
There is no shortage of companies that offer this service, so there is sure to be one that matches your needs. But before you pick a partner, you need to understand what your needs actually are. The number of services fulfillment partners offer is seemingly infinite, but for crowdfunding projects there are a handful that are most relevant and valuable to your campaign.
Most manufacturers will make your entire run of product in a single pass and load it onto pallets for you or your fulfillment partner to pack and ship. If you’re running your business out of your home or apartment, you might not have the space for it all. Most fulfillment companies have warehouses where they store product until it is ready to ship.
Kitting/Bagging & Labeling
Depending on your product, you may have to hire on multiple manufacturers, each dedicated to a unique part (for example, a board game may have the cards printed in one location, the plastic pieces molded in another, and then the box and tray at a third). Someone, somewhere, will need to do the final assembly and make sure it all gets in the box.
This is also important for campaigns with add-ons as there will be many "combinations" of packing for your fufillment.
Fulfillment & Shipping
Timely deliveries are one of the biggest factors to backer satisfaction. As such, this is where a fulfillment partner can really make their value apparent. Getting all those rewards into a box, getting the correct postage on them and delivered to the post office can be a time-consuming process on your own. Not only do these companies make it easy, many of them can secure bulk discounts with carriers that you wouldn’t be able to do on your own.
VAT & Customs
This is the most complicated factor to the uninitiated. A fulfillment partner worth their salt can handle the logistical and political factors involved in shipping product to multiple countries around the world.
Handling Returns & Exchanges
In a perfect world, every backer falls in love with your product and has no complaints. In reality, things happen, and someone needs to make unhappy backers whole.
Now that you know what services you might need, let’s look at some things to look for in a partner.
Pick an Expert in your Category
Not all fulfillment partners serve every industry equally. Just because one company is great at fulfillment for board games, doesn’t mean they can handle a more complex or fragile product. When you speak with a representative, ask how they have handled projects similar to yours previously, and probe them for any insights that show they go the extra mile. Asking for references with similar products who have been handled by them is also a strong way to find out how they really handle things.
Know What You Are Paying For
While a company may quote you a reasonable price per unit for fulfillment, make sure that’s all your paying. Look for hidden costs. Some fulfillment companies don’t just charge for storage in the warehouse (which is normal) but can penalize you with hefty fees if you go over (or under) your allotted storage. Likewise, know if a company has added VAT, takes and customs fees into the unit price, or if that is another expense you’ll need to take care of after the fact. Find a company with transparent rate structures who don’t get annoyed when you ask detailed questions.
Though cost is a major factor in evaluating a partner, it’s not the only consideration. If one fulfillment service quotes you a price significantly lower than the competition (especially if you are only considering them for shipping), it’s prudent to give them extra scrutiny. Some creators have shared horror stories of cheap fulfillment partners skimping on packing materials, resulting in broken rewards landing on your backer’s doorstep. This is where reviews can give you a heads up about a problematic company. Crowdfunding creators are a pretty open community, and are happy to offer up an opinion that can save you a headache.
A Reflection of Your Business
The one thing that can spell disaster for a nascent company is unprofessional customer service. All of the above issues can be fixed by a fulfillment partner that has a great customer service track record. Remember, to the customer, there is no difference between you, the creator, and your fulfillment partner. In their eyes, it’s all the same. So, pick a partner that reflects your values. If they seem cold and distant to you, the creator, imagine how they will treat your backers! If you’ve found someone that is responsive and helpful, no matter how big your project is, you’ve found a winner.
Where your fulfillment partner does business is an important factor, too. You may look to work with a US-based fulfillment partner, but your campaign really takes off in Europe. Is it more cost effective to stay with the US partner and pass along the shipping costs to your European fans? Luckily, many fulfillment companies now have warehouses across the globe (though the tradeoff is coordinating multiple shipments from your factory, which as always, adds costs). The key takeaway here is to pick your fulfillment partner based on where your backers are, not where you’re located.
Think Long Term
While you may initially bring on a partner to fulfill rewards for your crowdfunding backers, it’s a good idea to look towards future orders. Lots of fulfillment companies integrate with Amazon, Shopify, eBay and other online retailers, making it easy to stock your product just about anywhere. As your company grows from small-time crowdfunding dreams to a real-deal success story, a partner that can scale and adapt to your changing company is key.