If you follow news surrounding crowdfunding, you’ll likely have heard a story or two about a project getting funded and the creators getting absolutely overwhelmed trying to fulfill orders for several thousand people. There’s a new company, Make That Thing, which aims to help creators navigate the crowdfunding scene and fulfill those pledge orders.
Make That Thing is a spin-off of TopatoCo, which started out as a fulfillment house for webcomics a decade ago. They’re used to sourcing books, games, t-shirts and novelty items, but will probably shy aware from consumer electronics crowdfunding projects.
Make That Thing is currently in beta testing with its first two projects closing in the next two weeks: David Malki’s “Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination” and Aaron Diaz’s “The Tomorrow Girl: Dresden Codak Volume 1.” Both projects have raised more than $300K at Kickstarter. Make That Thing will help Malki and Diaz manufacture and ship the rewards items for these huge projects using the fulfillment resources they have built up over the years. Malki, TopatoCo’s “Supreme Commander of Publicity & Promotions” and one of the beta project creators spoke with Publishers Weekly about Make That Thing’s business model.
PW: You’re in beta right now. When are you anticipating opening up to the public?
MALKI: We're going to take it slow. Machine of Death and The Tomorrow Girl are going to be the first real road tests for this service—both are big, complex projects with (at this point) plenty of backers and lots of details to get right. And there are a few other existing TopatoCo clients that are in the queue behind those two— we think it's smart to start in our existing wheelhouse. And even when we do open, we're going to be choosy. It's clear that crowdfunding is going to be an important element of business strategy for creators in our world, so we're going to find the way to make ourselves most useful in as practical a way as possible. That means starting small and growing with time.
PW: Are you also consulting on the actual Kickstarter campaign or just fulfillment?
MALKI: We'll do both. Generally the idea will be to work with the artists on structuring the actual campaign, so we can advise on things like "here's a product you may not have thought of," or "thus-and-so will be easier to ship than such-and-such." Practical considerations that the artist may not be fully aware of, but that will increase backer value and save time and money in the long run.
PW: Do clients need to talk to you before the campaign launches or can you do fulfillment after a campaign has successfully closed? The site sounds like post-campaign fulfillment only might be possible while you’re getting set up.
MALKI: We'd really like to be involved early on, so we can help steer things as described above. But obviously we weren't offering this service before, so if someone wants help with fulfillment for a campaign that they held before we came around, we're going to consider those, just as a way of getting the ball rolling. Ultimately, though, we don't want to be strictly a fulfillment house—we want to help artists manage things from the get-go.
PW: In general, do you tend to manufacture products in-house or outsource them?
MALKI: It depends on the products. We don't manufacture much in-house—we have a large format giclée printer for art prints, for example, but most everything else is handled by a close network of vendors. We've been making webcomics merch for so long that we now have a few trusted and reliable sources for most everything: books, apparel, trinkets of various types. And we have good credit terms and long histories with these vendors, so we can swing into action right away in a way that individuals may not always be able to. Plus we have a warehouse with a loading dock and someone whose ONLY JOB is to sit around signing for pallets. Also we have a forklift, JUST IN CASE.
PW: How do you price this sort of service?
MALKI: Generally speaking, on the net [profits of the Kickstarter campaign]. This is another area where Machine of Death and The Tomorrow Girl are going to be our test cases to see where the bottlenecks are when coordinating between a site like Kickstarter and our existing workflows. Establishing the workflows is going to determine the pricing, and there may also be variation depending on the particulars of the project. But the watchword is collaboration: we want to be a service to creators, not a liability. We want everyone in this exchange to be successful. So by pricing on the net, we have a vested interest in efficiency, but it still scales with the success (and the complexity) of the project.
PW: What kind of volume is TopatoCo used to shipping on an average week?
MALKI: TopatoCo currently serves 53 client artists and ships in the ballpark of 500-1000 individual customer orders per week. The main TopatoCo operation has a staff of 8, plus 3 more now dedicated specifically to Make That Thing. Also we just bought a building that's right next door to the post office. So we're handling things at a big boy level.
PW: What do you have cooked up that’s not touched on in the beta description?
MALKI: We really want to enter into partnerships with artists. I want to make it clear to publishers especially that this is not a CreateSpace or LightningSource type operation, where you can upload a file and expect some faceless worker to ship a thing for you. Those services are great, but that's not what this is. We're closer to a publisher model, where we'll be curating and selecting projects that we really believe are great—because we want people to come to care about Make That Thing as a curator of wonderful and creative things that're worth your while. That in turn helps our creators, because they get to tap into an audience that's primed and ready for the next cool Make That Thing project, and eager to see what we have in store next. So, again, we'll be building slowly, choosing our projects carefully, and spending personal time with each creator to make sure each campaign is tuned and primed. Oh, and we also might put flame decals on the forklift, in case that helps matters any.