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  • Traps for even simple successful crowd funded projects…

    Posted on December 31st, 2013 EEVblog 43 comments

    Or, in other words, how it can all go horribly wrong…


    It all started as a simple thing to keep some people happy. More and more people were asking if they could get a µRuler I gave away as a promo at the Electronex trade show.
    So on a whim I decided to start a crowd funding campaign on Pozible.
    It seemed like a piece of cake. I’d make a decent batch of 500 rulers, say 5 per person, I could probably find 100 people who want one.
    So some simple math said a campaign target of $2500 would do the job. Enough for the rulers, $2.60 postage stamp for each one, and enough left over to make it worth my time.
    And I knew you could send PCBs in envelopes by regular letter mail, as they are less than 5mm thick, and durable. Letter mail meant no CN22 international customs form, just slap a stamp on and mail.
    This will be the easiest “hardware” project manufacture and mailing in history!

    Then something happened…

    2290 people decided they wanted one!, and within days my campaign had become the most backed project in Pozible history.

    How the hell am I going to post 2290 envelopes? I have to print out the labels (easy on a Dymo printer & the Pozible address database file), stick the label on the envelope, stick the stamp on the envelope, count out the rulers, tape the rulers together, insert rulers into the envelopes, seal, and then post them.
    All those steps add up (here is a video), so I’d need a mailing house to do the job.

    Ok, no problem, find a local mailing house. This wasn’t that easy, as many didn’t want to know, but I eventually found one that would, and gave me a quote for the job that wasn’t unreasonable, I still had budget for that.
    TIP #1: Allow extra budget in case your project goes crazy, and you have to start paying people to do stuff for you. They don’t work for free.

    Because I had ordered some rulers as soon as I hit my goal (Pozible gives you the money straight away, very nice!), I had some on hand and wanted to send some out. So I decided to do a small trial run of 200 or so myself and see how it went. As luck would have it, that’s how many Australian orders I had, so I did those all myself.
    This turned out to be a really good thing, because a few days later people started receiving EMPTY envelopes!, and here is why:
    uRulerEnvelope

    Stupid me didn’t realise that the lose rulers in the envelope can fall out the gap in the folded end! And I’ve been packing and shipping stuff for 20 years…
    So the mailing room floor no doubt ended up full of lost rulers as some of them inevitably went in the sorting machine upside down.

    Then of course, some arrived with torn envelopes, but at least still with rulers. I knew this might happen, and it was a bit of gamble that didn’t pay off. It was worse than I thought.

    TIP #2: Packaging is important. Test it. Put some thought into it. Spend some money on it. Don’t cut corners.

    Then came bulk manufacture of the rulers. They did a small run of 1000 rulers just fine, so I hit the reorder button on 8500. No problem right?
    Wrong. Turns out their 8 days lead time blows out to 24 days for this kind of volume! Oops, sorry everyone…
    TIP #3: More volume than you expect always equals more time, even on simply jobs like this. Pad that into your campaign promised date.

    Then they turn around and tell me that they used manual methods (tape!) to hold down the 1000 rulers for routing, but 8500 would require pins to hold them down, so they need to add another hole to the ruler in the opposite corner. Any other option I ask?, Nope, not really, v-grooving sucks. Well, ok then, add the ugly hole.
    I’m a former full time professional PCB designer, and I hadn’t heard encountered this one before.
    TIP #4: Just because you have experience in the field, doesn’t mean the unexpected can’t happen.

    Ok, so this was good, I ironed out some bugs. I needed tougher envelopes and ones that sealed right. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I searched high and low and finally found tear-proof that envelopes make by Dupont out of a material called Tyvek. Only problem was that these things are rare in Australia, and very expensive. I had to find a US source and import them directly form the US, all 2000 of them. And they ended up costing more than one of the rulers cost to manufacture!
    But luckily I still enough enough profit margin to pay for the envelopes.

    Although the tyvek envelopes were tough, what about those loose rulers? Would the sorting machines snag on the lose rulers? After the last debacle, I wasn’t taking chances, so I got some custom thick cardboard cut to fit. The mailing house recommended gluing them in place on the card (this worked). They weren’t expensive, but it was 2000 of them, and more of my profit margin down the drain.

    Ok, problems solved. I’ll give these to the mailing house and that’s the end of it.
    Well, turns out the US sized envelopes were almost 2mm longer than the maximum Australia Post standard, and all hell broke lose. Australia Post would not budge and said they couldn’t be sent at the standard letter rate. Shit.
    But the mailing house eventually comes back and said “she’ll be right, leave it to us.”

    Hey, this is one of Australia’s biggest mailing houses, what could possibly go wrong…

    “What’s the tyvek stuff?, we’ve never seen it before, I don’t think our inkjet printer will print on them with the water based ink we have!”. Damn, off to the mailing house to do a test run. Luckily the ink dried instantly and we are back in business.

    The mailing house said to leave it all with them, and they would handle the database, label printing, barcode printing, return address and postage, and shipment by Australia Post, no worries.
    Several days later they said it’s all done and have been shipped. Awesome!

    Then a week passes, and no response from anyone who’s got one. Hmm, it usually only takes a few days for at least some to arrive, especially to New Zealand, 5 days tops for the US.
    Then another week passed before I finally get word of some dribbling in inside Sweden. Sweden!? Why Sweden first?
    Then someone posted a photo of the envelope, and it had Swedish stamp on it covering my “Postage Paid Australia” mark. Hmm…

    Then some reports from Singapore and a few other EU countries dribbled in. Again, all with the Swedish post mark. It took almost a month for them to arrive in the US and Canada!
    Then my mailing houses finally admitted they didn’t use Australia Post as I had instructed and assumed they would (it’s a letter, right?), but used a company called Direct Link.
    About the only info I can find about them in the web is someone complaining about what a horribly slow dropship company they are – no kidding.
    Then the bullshit excuses came in from Direct Link. If I dried them out I could have fertilised my lawn.
    It turns out my mailing houses whoever happened to come by that day, Australia Post or Direct Link. I lucked out and got the world’s shittiest mailing distributor.

    TIP #5: Know exactly what service your mailing house will be using, don’t assume she’ll be right.

    But the fun didn’t stop there. My mailing house forgot to print my country on the return label, even though I gave it to them in the exact format I wanted. Kinda important for overseas mail…
    Not that it mattered much anyway, as the Direct Link covered up my return address and added their own! WTF? WHY? Morons.

    TIP #6: Do a trial run though your mailing house first to ensure everything runs smoothly. Don’t just trust to pros, they can screw up too.

    But now, two months later, it’s not over yet. I have about a 2.5% non-delivery rate. I anticipated some, but it’s probably enough that my spares wouldn’t cover it, so I’ll probably have to do another order and post these out manually at my expense.

    So there you have it, how the world’s simplest hardware and international letter mailing exercise turned into a nightmare, with more things going wrong than I could have possibly imagined. And like I said, I’ve been in the mail order hardware business for 20 years.

    Is there a bright side to all this? Yeah, I learned how to mail PCB’s the right way. Winner!

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    • http://www.kean.com.au Kean

      And yet it was probably still a great PR exercise – I’m sure lots of new subscribers will find eevblog when thet see these rulers on a colleagues desk

    • chic thomson

      Dave
      You have the patience of a saint ^h^h^h^h^h experienced engineer.

    • V_Ki ng

      live and learn :)

      I’ve learned very quickly in my previous job in printhouse not to trust custom orders to external companies, unless they are well known and trusted.
      From my own experience I found that it is best to allow more time for custom orders and execute order yourself. If short of staff, a short phone list of trustworthy partimers (students, friends, willing to earn extra buck etc.) is very useful, especially for one man business like yours :)

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/101blog problemchild68

        The Friends/Students/family etc are all good advice.
        Many are in need of a few bucks or just happy to help out in a nice project!!

        Out of interest what was the loss rate you said 2.5 is that 1 in 2.5 ….(rather high but non unheard of ..Grr ) or 2.5% which isn’t bad!

        BTW Dave now you have dived in and found a succesful niche do another run now or soon now you are all tooled up to do it, I know you’ve had an unexpected ball ache with it initially but now you’ve had to cope with it you may as well dive in to maximise the benefit.

        BBTW I use labels rather than printing on the envelope or packaging as it doesn’t jam the mechanism and always prints properly, not to mention you can get 21+ on a good A4 sheeet
        Again Good luck

        • John

          I don’t agree with the Friends/Family thing.. at first they will be willing to help out, but once they see it takes too much time, or they get calluses, or get a paper cut, or slip and fall WHILE DOING YOUR WORK…. they will make sure you never forget how much you made them suffer and that no money was worth that pain.

          No, keep your friends and family at a distance, and pay someone you don’t know to do it.

          :)

          • http://www.youtube.com/user/101blog problemchild68

            Yep that is the down side, yet this had become a flood of unexpected proportions and thus was a bit of an emergency. It can all be done if every one keeps their sanity…pack ..lick..stick …repeat only another 9999 to go :)

        • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

          The print house has custom high speed envelope sorting and inkjet printing machines. I would not inkjet myself, I’d use labels.

          • http://www.youtube.com/user/101blog problemchild68

            yeah my suggestion related to the more home worker style of doing things rather than “pro-printers” way when they can afford the right kit.
            Question is would you use a “service” again or go DIY?

            • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

              The mail house was generally ok, you just have to make sure you know exactly what they are doing, and check everything.
              I would never ever let them use Direct Link again though, I would make them use Australia Post under punishment of death!

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/101blog problemchild68

      Lot of this is the same as a sucessful Ebay project.
      I did the Raspberry Pi cases as they came out. I was totally over whelmed. premeration and experience is everything!!

      Good Luck ..JohnA

    • gustavsen

      I got my 5 rules, Im in Argentina.

      great late Christmas gift :)

    • Ricardo

      Hi, Dave!

      I hope all those problems does not discourage you from doing those cool crowd funded projects.

      I was dreaming with a uCurrent, but it is still off of my budget.

      All the best!

    • Charles

      A typical day in the electronics buisness! Any of the rest of you want to have a hand of owning and running one? This was a inexpensive lesson. Next time your boss is short with you realize that he is propably dealing with some BS just like this!

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        Yes, and that’s the example here. This isn’t even electronics manufacture, nor customs form based international postage, it’s as simple as it gets!

        • Andy

          I really do feel for you on this one.

          The thing I always forget, and it costs me every time is that “simpler is better”.

          You do that, probably as mind over matter. It generally brings success, and then this time it is the penalty.

          I’m just grateful for the lesson learned.

    • Ed

      Next time, you may want to consider using a cardboard photo mailer or a CD mailer. They close on all sides, are made of cardboard, and won’t have the rip or flap issue. Plus, it is not as hard to get as Tyvek and ships flat..

      Ed

    • BaS

      I read this entire thing in Dave’s rant voice.

      • davemisbehave

        me too!

    • http://truthspew.wordpress.com Truthspew

      Years ago I had experience with mail houses. The only thing they can do is label your mail pieces and pre-sort them for the biggest discounts from your postal service.

      The way we did it though – for sub-1000 runs we’d do label stock on a Genicom printer. And our mail pieces (A catalog) already had our bulk mail indicia on it. I forget the name of the software but it did the pre-sort for you. Even put the labels in presort order.

      And the U.S. Postal service will pretty much give you the trays and sacks to presort your mail. It’s the least you can do when you do a good portion of their job for them.

    • tagno25

      I would look at Dangerous Prototypes documentation on how they mail their PCBs
      http://dangerousprototypes.com/docs/How_to_mail_PCBs

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        IME their technique is not really adequate.
        You need thicker cardboard based envelopes at a minimum. I’ll be sending the replacements in those.

    • Kevin J.

      You are lucky only 2.5% were lost. Australia Post is notorious for losing items it seems. Here is one person’s horror story…

      http://lostbyaustraliapost.wordpress.com

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        I’ve shipped many thousands of items via Australia Post over about 25 years now, to almost every country on the planet, and very rarely lose anything.

    • Carey Turner

      I think most of your fans are understanding. So far, you have had 2 fundraisers exceed expectations. I just wish I found your blog sooner, so I could of ordered one of these.

      I hope you will continue to create these awesome projects.

    • PK

      Now that lessons have been learnt, it will ensure every success of your Gold Microcurrent venture. I’m looking forward to receiving a unit once you get them manufactured.
      Are you selling any more rulers? I missed out on putting an order in :-/

      Great to see that you are making a living from the EEV BLOG. It’s wonderful to see how you educate and promote electronics. I used to repair Sony broadcast equipment and commercial electronic equipment, but built in obsolescence has put an end to it all. These days I’m designing AV systems, programming control systems and design and build widgets for particular applications. The electronics technician has been killed off by cheap unrepairable equipment these days.

      Keep up the good work!

    • http://www.eevblog.com thinker

      Could you use the other side for more information or is it just a comercial product?

    • Andy

      Hahaha, I tell you what Dave, when your little lad Sagan grows up a bit and gets a few mates, you can get them all around to stuff envelopes and it will only cost you pop and pizza and playing video games. Of course some pocket money. They will GLADLY do it!

    • Aaron

      I ALMOST sent an offer for my company to lend a hand for US shipments. That way you would have had one bulk shipment and we would parse them out. But I figured it might have been a wash. Maybe I was wrong?

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        I got many offer like that, but the problem is I shipped them to over 60 countries. So the logistics of doing that for various countries is not easy.

        • Aaron

          I figured as much. Thank you for the reply. :)

    • lilshawn

      sounds like the mailhouse sent everything to Sweden because the envelopes were too big to mail via Australia post. Not a big deal if they let you know that’s what they had planned on doing. (and if there would have been an extra delay in shipping.)

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        I suspect that may have happened but they claim it was purely a random choice to use Direct Link.

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    • Reese

      I assume you did still end up with a small profit at the end of it instead of a loss, right? So it was a valuable learning and PR exercise?

      BTW, did you really need the Dupont envelopes if you were sticking them to cardboard side-by-side anyway?

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        I didn’t really know if the glue would hold, so if they got lose, they can rip through normal envelopes.

    • Michael

      Hey Dave:

      I haven’t seem my rulers yet. Is there a way to see if I’m on the resend list?

      • Michael

        I noticed my email was wrong… just fixed it.

    • Stuart

      After seeing one of the update videos I think you could have filtered out sending rulers to people who can’t fill in a form correctly using capital letters as required for countries and zip/postal codes.

      • http://www.eevblog.com EEVblog

        Incorrect filling out of address information does irk me!

    • http://www.openbci.com biomurph

      I have two of these things, and this is the first I’ve heard that they were crowd-funded. My best guess is that I got them at the last open hardwares summit. They are hard to read on the inch (‘) side. In practice, at the scale of this ruler, natives of the ‘ are much more familiar with the divided scale: 1/2, 5/8, 3/4, 1/16, these are what I would call ‘felt dimensions’ that is, familiar. Handleable. Printing the tenths scale on an inch ruler is as distracting and error prone as using a slide rule is in the hands of someone under 50. My go-to guage is a 6′ metal rule with 1/16 and 1/32 marks and decimal eqivilents on the back.
      Please change your design for the next run.

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    • Jan

      Was very funny to read, Dave :)