Fulfilment, a self-fulfilling prophecy
The single number one reason that successful Kickstarters become very unsuccessful Kickstarters is almost certainly problems with fulfilment, it’s also the problem that’s most likely to have results that will land your project on the BGG controversial Kickstarters list and wreck your chances of a second project. It is also entirely dull, often sucking the joy right out of the parts of the process that should be the most exciting, reaching your goal and getting your print run through, so you might be tempted to put it off. Do not, there is no part of the process that will have more real long-term rewards for your future happiness, the success of your game and your future hopes of home ownership than getting fulfilment right.
A lot of campaigns now seem to assume a fulfilment centre for their delivery. Fulfilment centres have their place and I’ll talk about where they do make sense, but they should not be considered a foregone conclusion, and I’d like to make the case for self-fulfilment. I’ve used both self-fulfilment and the services of a fulfilment service now so hopefully I can give both perspectives.
There are a range of things to bear in mind when deciding between self or professional fulfilment.
Depending on how hard you’re willing to push yourself, 100 packages addressed, packaged and dropped off at your local postal service is a pretty reasonable rate for one person over one day. The average first successful campaign for an independent designer would be doing pretty well to get over 500 backers. That means around a week is a reasonable period to expect to take when self-fulfilling. Conversely, a fulfilment centre should be able to process a campaign well over that size within 24 hours.
A week isn’t too excessive a period of time for backers to accept, by the time you come to fulfilment weekly updates are more than reasonable, so updating with the start of fulfilment and then the end will generally go over pretty well. However, if your project really kicks off and you end up looking at 2,000 backers, a month can be a very different prospect, particularly when backers will be aware that they’re waiting for their rewards to be sent out while other backers will have received their reward weeks before.
The issue is that by the time you know you’ve got 2,000 backers its likely you’re already committed to one method or another. If you’ve chosen to self-fulfil and suddenly discover that you’ve been hugely over-successful you may find that you won’t be able to keep up the rate of fulfilment you had intended, many creators set aside a week off from their day job or similar to complete fulfilment and that can be an issue if no matter what they do fulfilment will take a good deal longer than a week. At that point the best advice is to go into your pocket and pay some friends or family either directly or with a pizza to pump up your output for a shorter period. If you’ve not moved house as many times in the last few years as your best friends, time to call that favour in, and if you’ve over backed significantly you should have significantly more profit than you were expecting, so this is a great way to spread the wealth.
If this does occur, the single best suggestion I can make is be sure to stick to a first come, first served policy. Send out your backer rewards in the order they backed the project. Batching rewards based on location or product waves is just about acceptable if backers are clearly warned before you do it, springing it on them after the project is complete will result in bad feelings. Wave fulfilment makes very little sense other than as a method of staggering excitement to help market your product, and that’s not a good customer service policy. It doesn’t take any longer to package up orders dependent on their location after all. Absolutely avoid suddenly moving backers with higher level or add-on levels to later wave fulfilment, its impossible to see such behaviour as anything other than punishing those who most strongly believed in your project.
In short, if you know ahead of time that your project is going to enter into the multiple thousands of backers area then a fulfilment centre can offer a significant time saving. If not, then it most likely won’t.
In general, a fulfilment centre and self-fulfilling are actually pretty comparable in price for any package under 2 kilos. A fulfilment centre can offer lower prices on packaging, but will certainly charge for picking and often for warehousing, in our experience significant reductions in price do come with reductions in quality from fulfilment centres.
The only real difference in monetary terms are those achieved by allowing backers to achieve friendly shipping prices by allowing the shipper to pay importing costs and avoiding handling fees. To explain, when a package enters certain countries around the world tax is charged on it. In particular, countries in the EU are quick to do this with packages arriving from outside the EU. If a creator ships to a fulfilment centre in the country then they will pay that fee via the fulfilment centre paying it and charging the creator. If a creator ships from outside the country direct to the backer then the local carrier will pay the fee and refuse to release the package to the backer until they pay the fee, which is annoying, but worse, most local carriers will then charge a handling fee for doing this.
Whether this results in an overall saving can be down to the size of your game box and your personal logistical capabilities. Games will be shipped from your manufacturer on pallets, if your game box is relatively large you’ll be using multiple pallets anyway, so shipping them to hubs in various countries that charge fees in this manner will most likely not up costs. If you game is small though this might mean that you need to have your manufacturer split a pallet and ship it to two different locations, which will increase costs, possibly making the shipping charges you have to level on your backers just the same either way. If you can send pallets to locations that would charge backers handling charges for fees otherwise that’s the best argument for using a fulfilment company, but this can be hard to judge and for a first Kickstarter, if you’re a small independent you’re probably best off not making friendly shipping promises and keeping things simple.
Kickstarter is partly about how small creators can put things into the world in the manner that a larger company cannot. When you fulfil by hand there are things that you can do that you wouldn’t be able to do when using a fulfilment centre. People won’t pay £50 for your signature on your game, but they will pay £2. That’s not likely to be worth driving to a fulfilment centre with a sharpie, but if you’re packing them yourself anyway, why not add a little something on. Scribble a note and drop it into the package, draw something fun on the box, making things personal are something you can do as an independent and backers will really remember, and its something that is a lot easier to do if you self-fulfil.
When you go through a fulfilment service if something goes wrong then you’re relying on someone else’s customer services. Nothing is more annoying for a backer than to make an enquiry about a missing or damaged reward and to either be referred to a fulfilment company or asked to wait while you contact them. You are the first point and ideally last point of contact for a backer, with a fulfilment centre that becomes impossible and that is a serious issue to consider.
Similar to customer service, once you use a fulfilment centre their reputation will to some degree become your reputation. If a package turns up bashed or battered, late or lost people will often not remember the name of the fulfilment centre used as much as they will the company that supplied the product.
In general, if you’re a first-time creator expecting a small to medium project, I would strongly suggest that you consider self-fulfilment, and only go for a fulfilment company if you have a good clear reason to do so. Controlling the reputation of your new company and keeping third party logistics to a minimum is an important choice and not something to be handed off as standard.
So, what do you think? If you’re a creator, have you self-fulfilled, or used a fulfilment company, what were your experiences, positive or negative? If you’re a backer have you had good experiences being on the receiving end of one or another system? Or any bad ones?