What would spring to mind if I told you I make a living designing and selling table tennis equipment? Would you imagine me standing on a street corner trying to convince unwilling passers-by to purchase my products? Or perhaps you’d picture me inexpertly trying to stick together bits of wood with superglue?

Screw that.

If you want to make a real, scalable business, those are the last things you should be doing. Why not? Well many reasons, but primarily:

  1. You can quickly become a bottleneck and hinder the business. You might be able to make 10 products a day, but you can’t make 10,000.
  2. Anyone can maintain the business, but the time you waste on it is time you’re not spending creating and expanding. The business owner should be focused on strategy, product conception, networking, marketing, etc.
  3. They’re boring.

In this post I will go through every step we took to build and create the Original Bat Case for Eastfield Sporting Goods Co. We (Ben Larcombe and I) have tried our best to build the brand with growth and scalability in mind. Every single step in the supply chain is set up to be completely automatic – to go from selling 10 bat cases to 10,000 all we need to do is type an extra three zeros into an email.

Now don’t get me wrong – a lot of work has gone into building and designing the case. But that’s the point. All the work is in the building and creation, not in the maintenance. Now that it’s setup the brand is on auto-pilot. That means we can focus all our efforts on marketing and coming up with new, innovative products.

 

supply chain outsourced

Product Creation

The first product we created needed to be special. We wanted something that would be unique and really stand out. For Ben (an avid table tennis player and founder of Expert Table Tennis) a bat case was the obvious choice. Before Eastfield came along it was pretty much impossible to find a bat case that didn’t look hideous.

laptop sleeveWe decided to take a new approach and model the case off the look and feel of a laptop sleeve. But we needed to go beyond that. It needed to be made from the highest quality fabrics that you’d expect in a top end product, and be robust enough to keep an expensive bat safe, even while being thrown around at a table tennis tournament.

At the time, we knew almost nothing about the manufacturing process or even what the ‘highest quality fabrics’ are. But that’s OK, we could work it out…

The first step was to get in touch with a few manufacturers that have a track record of creating good quality laptop sleeves. Finding and getting in touch with them is actually a lot easier than you would think.

We headed over to Alibaba, searched for “laptop sleeve OEM”. Alibaba is a bit like eBay but for wholesale products and we have found it to be great for getting the contact details of factories in China. OEM stands for “original equipment manufacturer”, which means that they are willing to manufacture products for other companies.

We had a look through the search results and emailed each manufacturer that we liked the look of, explaining briefly what we were planning and asking to be sent some samples.

After they arrived we were able to choose the factory that we thought was best and start working with them to create our case. The internet is amazing. Once upon a time we would have had to travel back and forth from China, traipsing from factory to factory trying (and failing) to not get ripped off. But no more, we didn’t go to China once. Almost all communication was done through Skype chat or email from the luxury of home.

As both Ben and I are pretty hopeless graphically, we hired the services of one of Ben’s university friends, Tim Shelton, to turn our ideas into something that could actually be made.

Two months later and after a lot of back and forth our first prototype arrived.

eastfield bat case prototype

The first reaction was that we were really pleased with it. It was exactly what we had asked for, the manufacturer had done their job to the letter. But as time went on and we stress tested it and thought about it some more we realised that it wasn’t good enough. There was nothing exactly wrong with it, but there was room for improvement. The Eastfield bat case had to be the best, we had to be perfectionists.

It was mainly little things: the material felt a bit porous so that if the case fell in a puddle we were worried it could soak through. The inner lining was a bit thin and flimsy – it didn’t hold the shape of the case as well as we wanted. We didn’t really like the orangey brown colour. We thought that it looked a bit cheap. It was also a bit small, fitting a bat quite snugly but with no spare room.

On top of those improvements, we wanted to add a flourish to make it feel a bit more high end and a bit more obviously designed for table tennis. After a bunch of amateurish mock-ups by us, followed by some more professional ones done by Tim, we had our changes sorted and confirmed. Notice the debossed table tennis bat on the back – our minimalist flourish.

eastfield version 2

“All these changes use expensive materials. It will make the case much more expensive.” We were told by the manufacturer.

That’s OK. We wanted the bat case to be the best

Even so it took another two prototypes before we got a product we were 100% happy with. I’m so proud of how it has turned out.

finished bat case

Up until this point, we really hadn’t spent much money at all. All the samples and prototypes had cost us in total under £100 and the only other cost had been the design work. But now came the risky part. It was time to place a large order.

We knew the order had to be large because there was a minimum order quantity at the factory and we needed to bring down the cost per case of shipping. But how large should it be? The time required to manufacture and ship all the way from China meant that there could be as much as a three-month delay between placing the order and it being booked into a warehouse ready to sell. We wanted to have enough so that we would have plenty of time to get a second order under way before selling out. 1020 cases seemed to a good number.

The final step was to purchase some unique EAN and UPC numbers for barcordes. We planned to sell the cases ourselves, but if we ever wanted to wholesale to retailers or put them up on Amazon a unique barcode was necessary.

Freight Forwarding

Getting 1020 cases from China to the UK can be a right hassle; dealing with customs, the legals of shipping and all the various tax is a real headache. Luckily there are plenty of companies, known as freight forwarders, that can manage it all for you. We simply put our forwarder in touch with the manufacturer and with our end-point fulfilment company and they sorted everything out.

If you are looking for a freight forwarder I recommend Flexport. They are funded by Google, have a really good online interface and due to the transparent price comparison service they offer, are cheap.

Having said that we don’t use them, rather we use a small freight forwarder who we have a long-standing relationship with and who also does our quality control once the stock hits the UK. Flexport is great for moving stuff around, but quality control requires a more bespoke service.

For the bat cases we are holding all our stock in the UK at one warehouse. But with one of our other businesses we sell in both the USA and the UK, spread over four different warehouses. The freight forwarding process is the same each time -> let the forwarder handle everything.

Fulfilment

There are many companies around that say they offer fulfilment services, but what exactly does that mean? Basically we wanted a company to store our stock until someone ordered something. Then we wanted them to arrange the delivery to the customer.

Narrowing down the search to high-tech operations that could automatically interface with an online store, and also had a global presence so that we had the option to expand at a later date, left us with just a few choices. We decided to go with Shipwire. A very good company with an easy to use interface.

After the quality control, our freight forwarder delivered the bat cases to the London Shipwire warehouse.

Eastfield packaging

Online Store Creation

For our website we used an out-of-the-box service called Shopify. Shopify is awesome, it takes five minutes to set up and you don’t need to know any programming or have any design skills. Simply sign up and chose a template you like and voila, your site is online.

We signed up for the cheapest option of $24 a month and 2.4%+20p of all transactions. For that they take care of all the payment processing, which is one of the most complicated parts of online business, provide support and host our site.

Shipwire has a plugin for Shopify that automates the fulfilment process. When someone purchases a bat case, Shopify check their details and processes the payment. If there are no problems it sends the order details to Shipwire. Shipwire then picks out the order and dispatches it through mail and informs Shopify of the tracking number.

We set it up, did a trial order and finally, after nine months of planning and prototyping, we were was ready to launch. Warehouse full of stock, website created and fulfilment automated.

And that’s it. Provided people keep coming to the website and buying our bat cases, they’ll keep getting delivered without us needing to do a thing. Although getting people to come and spend on our website is easier said than done… but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post.

If you want to check out the product of all our hard work, or want to get yourself the best table tennis bat case on the market, we have a great launch offer available for you: Just enter code LAUNCH10 at checkout for £10 off your order. The code expires 22 June 2015.

If I rushed through everything a bit too quickly, let me know what you’d like to hear more about by leaving a comment. I plan to write a few more posts talking about how we’re marketing the cases and going through in much more detail how Shipwire, Flexport and Shopify are all set up to work together. Make sure to sign up to my email list so as not to miss out.

 

Further Reading: