This is a review of the general steps that we went through in bringing the Clipboard+ iPad Clipboard to market after successfully crowdfunding the idea on Kickstarter. For some Kickstarter projects, the “getting to market” process is the campaign itself. However, in our case there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed before we could confidently start putting our time into selling the product. This meant that we essentially needed to start over.
Part I: Manufacturing
We had several problems with the manufacturer we used for our Kickstarter Campaign, they were too pricey, not the best at working with young entrepreneurs, and most significantly weren’t producing a product that worked the way we intended it to right off the production line.
We had received a ton of feedback from our Kickstarter backers along with others interested in the product. Basically the main point of this feedback was that we needed to add new features and make the design more accommodating to different size tablets/cases, along with requesting a number of other features. Not having the engineering background to do this ourselves, or to direct a 3rd party to make the changes independent of a manufacturer who would ultimately be making the product, we set out to find this new manufacturer.
Our first stop was to scour the Thomas Register for local manufacturers who generally had the capabilities we were looking for. This mainly results in a lot of open tabs and a lot of inquiries to different manufacturers that don’t go anywhere. We did this before our Kickstarter, and one of the lessons we learned was that this isn’t the best way to go about it, but it is definitely a good place to start if you don’t have any other leads and you want to learn what’s out there.
Searching through the Thomas Register was largely unfruitful, but someone introduced us to a product development consultant who specialized in helping entrepreneurs with basically every problem we were working to resolve. So for roughly two months we worked with the consultant and talked about the best plan to follow going forward. He taught us a lot about what we needed to do in terms of talking with a manufacturer, but he was adamant that we go to China for our product. Ultimately we had to make the decision to not go forward with the consultant primarily because we wanted to stick to the USA for our manufacturing.
Back to square one again. We turned to MFG.com, a sourcing service I had read about it in Chris Andersen’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. The way
MFG.com works is that anyone can go on and create a RFQ (request for quote) containing your BOM (bill of materials) along with a CAD drawing and a description of what you need. It is important to be as descriptive as possible. Those requests are then widely distributed to a number of suppliers. It allows you to easily attach an NDA as well. The suppliers will reply with a quote at various quantities along with any questions that they have about your project.
We received a number of replies from suppliers interested in our project. One of the most important things was that the manufacturer needed to understand our level of experience and be willing to make the design changes we needed. After reviewing the quotes and speaking with several companies on the phone, we had it narrowed down to a few suppliers. Working with them they helped to figure out how we would resolve our design problems, what the manufacturing process would be, and provide a rough estimate on cost. We ended up picking a manufacturer based out of Pennsylvania, which was great because it was so local.
On Site at the Manufacturer
After visiting with the manufacturer at their plant, getting to tour the facility and discussing payment terms, we agreed to work with them on the new version of Clipboard+. This was a huge milestone because up until that point we really didn’t know if there would even be another Clipboard+ since we didn’t have anyone to physically make the product.
However, this was not the end of the journey in manufacturing. Luckily I had already spent a few months earlier on in the winter contacting foam and clipboard clip suppliers around the country to evaluate their samples and determine what would be used on the new version. So before even talking with the manufacturer we had already sourced suppliers for all of the components of our product. But we still needed to have the manufacturer produce prototypes that met our specifications and securely held an iPad in place. It took roughly 7 weeks before we received the first prototype, and unfortunately it was way too loose. The iPad slid right out, and the logo engraving was out of proportion. After going back to manufacturer with all of these problems they worked on solutions and about 3 weeks later I held the first version of what would become the new Clipboard+ iPad Clipboard. The whole process took much longer than I had anticipated at the state, but in the end we had a quality product we were proud of.
Part II: Packaging
For our initial Kickstarter order, the only “packaging” our product had was a piece of glossy heavy stock paper slid into the iPad bay with a picture of an iPad and arrows indicating which way to remove/insert. This wouldn’t cut it if we wanted our product to be taken seriously, or if we wanted to sell wholesale/through retailers.
Unfortunately I don’t know of any MFG.com for packaging, maybe there is one, and if there isn’t one, there probably should be. But either way, we were lucky enough to be referred to a company that was willing to work with inexperienced entrepreneurs and could handle small production runs.
After being introduced we started by having several discussions about what we needed out of our packaging, as well as the various pros and cons of each different option. The company was very helpful and guided us along the way. There is a lot more to packaging than meets the eye when it comes to buying packaging. There are a ton of different considerations such as visibility of the product, strength of material, stackability, hang tabs for retail, what style best would speak best to our customer etc.
We received a box full of samples with a note attached to each one explaining the different box folds, cardboard types, finishes, color printing styles and more. Many companies expect customers to know what they want, but when its your first time doing it, not only do you not know what you want, but you don’t even know what the choices are. Having a manufacturer and a packaging company who helped us along the way was invaluable.
Packaging without artwork.
After settling on a box style and surface finish, we received a sample of what our box would look like (without any artwork). During this time we were still working with the manufacturer to determine the dimensions so we needed to wait until we knew the final size of the product before we could confirm with the packaging manufacturer.
In the meantime we still needed to design the packaging artwork. It felt similar to creating an entirely new website where we had to communicate all of the necessary information about the product in a clear, concise and visually appealing way, except on an area the size of our product. We also needed to obtain a barcode and make sure that we were including everything necessary on the box.
Packaging with artwork.
Eventually everything came together. We had the dimensions, we had the artwork, and a few weeks later we had all of our shiny new packaging ready to be filled with product and shipped off to the warehouse. Although,one hiccup did arise when the packaging came in but it was not intuitive how the boxes were folded into shape. Be sure to discuss everything ahead of time and have the manufacturer supply instructions on how to properly assemble the boxes if it isn’t entirely straightforward.
Part III: Website
Some may disagree, but when you are selling a product like ours, and your main method of distribution is online, you’d better be sure that your website is top notch. The visual appeal of your website speaks volumes about the product and the company who makes it. Most of the time it is the only interaction someone will have with the product before deciding to purchase or to move on.
When it comes down to it, your website is your most important sales tool. Our old website was outdated and didn’t effectively showcase our product; it was clear to us that if we wanted to sell the product we would need a website that reflected its high level of quality. Fortunately we had a lot more experience in building websites than we did building clipboards.
After first considering building the site from scratch we decided to find and purchase an HTML theme that we liked. We found a really nice theme called Crisp on ThemeForest that had pretty much everything we were looking for. It was well documented and worked well with our brand. It may be surprising to some, but the hardest part isn’t actually fiddling around with the website code, it is actually writing all of the copy/content to fill it. This was made even more difficult by the fact that we were building the website before we even had a product so we didn’t have any pictures and had to imagine what the finished website would look like. It also left us with a big chunk of work after the final prototype came in. We had to scramble to get professional product shots taken and then go back to change the website all while doing everything else that needed to be done prior to launch.
Beyond the user facing parts of the site, we also needed to make sure that our website was SEO optimized so that it would show up highly ranked on Google. A lot of thought goes into what keywords you are going to optimize for and how to best structure the site. We also had to figure out the best way for us to have our blog and store to be accessible on our domain even though they were separately hosted. We decided to create subdomains for the store/blog and point the subdomains to where they were being hosted off of our server.
Overall the website was by far the least ambiguous part of the whole process since we had done it before, but it was still pretty time consuming and rather tedious work.
Part IV: Fulfillment
In my opinion, one of the most significant changes that prepared us to bring Clipboard+ to market, aside from actually finding manufacturing for the product, was automating our fulfillment. After the Kickstarter campaign we hand shipped every order. Not only was this extremely time consuming, dull, and hard to keep track of, it was also much more expensive than we had imagined. Our postage and packaging costs ate into our margins and we realized that it wasn’t a scalable solution.
So when we went back to the drawing board after Kickstarter, one of the main goals was to figure out a way to automate all of our warehousing/fulfillment. Step one was to do research on what options were out there, and then research those options in much greater detail to determine what each one would cost and their various pros/cons. A number of services exist to handle these tasks, the most well known are Shipwire and Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA). We ended up deciding to go with Amazon, which is almost certainly the best choice despite a few minor drawbacks with the service.
Our fulfillment system is set up like this: the manufacturer produces the clipboards, places each unit into its final retail packaging, puts those individual boxes into case packs of 12 units, ships those case packs to Amazon’s warehouses, and then finally whenever an order is received through our online store Amazon finally ships out the product to that customer.
To sign up for FBA all you need to do is register for an Amazon Seller account by providing some basic business information. The complicated part comes later when you actually go to ship inventory to their warehouse. Since Amazon processes thousands upon thousands of different products and has one of the most organized supply chains around, they have very specific rules you must follow in order to use their system. All of the information is available online, however it takes a lot of time to read and effectively understand. It is further complicated if you choose not to sell through Amazon.com and simply want to use them for fulfillment.
Nevertheless, after hours of reading the guidelines that Amazon provides, doing other online research, watching YouTube videos, and spending some quality time on the phone with their support, I think I had it figured out. We met with our manufacturer after compiling a document that spelled out exactly what steps were necessary to ship inventory to Amazon’s warehouses along with the restrictions that applied to our product. This meeting was helpful because we were able to get on the same page with the manufacturer, and since we had little room for error in our budget it made us more comfortable knowing that the shipment would go to plan.
The process for shipping inventory was pretty simple when we actually went to register the first shipment. Basically you input all of the product/shipment info, they give you shipping labels to print, those labels are printed and affixed to the side of your case packs, UPS picked them up, and within a few days the inventory appears in your account ready to be fulfilled.