When you ship things, things change. Your project interacts with the world and the market changes. You change. There is a mark in the calendar – there were days before you shipped and then there are the days after you shipped.
– Seth Godin, ‘Ship It’
Anyone who has ever read much of Seth Godin’s work knows that he uses the term ‘ship it’ in a unique way. In Seth’s world shipping means that you have stopped planning, testing, evaluating and primping, and you are now officially taking action. Once a product is shipped it leaves your control and is ‘out there’ for critique. ‘Ship it’ in this sense can be both scary and exhilarating, but it is an inevitable milestone in a product’s success.
This past week we shipped our first two customer-ordered large AquaBundance Modular aquaponics systems. Doing so was the culmination of about a year of hard work. For this week’s blog post, I thought you might find it interesting to read just a bit about the aquaponics system shipping process. Here’s what we did to prepare and launch our Modular aquaponics system.
- Design We started this process last winter. We knew from customer and retailer feedback that we needed to add bigger aquaponics systems to our product line. And we wanted to create an offering that was completely modular so that our customers could both customize their systems to fit their particular space, and expand their systems at a later date if they wanted to. We had been working with Murray Hallam’s new CHOP 2 design through retailing his DIY Aquaponics video and by creating our IBC Tote plumbing kit around it. We liked the functionality and flexibility of the design so we decided to base the plumbing for our new systems on it. Next, we needed to either manufacture or find grow beds that were deep enough, sturdy enough, priced well, easy to ship on a pallet and would logically work in a home greenhouse (for example, 4 foot x 8 foot beds are too wide to reach across if they are positioned against a greenhouse wall). We also needed to locate fish and sump tanks that would both create an optimal fish environment and logically work in a greenhouse (for example, we needed the sump tanks to fit under the grow beds, but not be so tall that they forced the grow beds to be uncomfortably high). Once we found all these critical elements we ordered them and got ready for the next step.
- Prototype and test By early summer we were ready to build two full prototype systems: a 3-bed Bountiful system outside and a 7-bed EasyReach in the greenhouse. But first we had to clear the prior experiments out of the greenhouse and build new support structures. By early summer the systems were set up and the learning and tweaking process began. By the end of summer, not only were we satisfied that we had the system design the way we wanted it, but we were also convinced that that the system would perform incredibly well. We were seeing growth far beyond what we had ever seen in an aquaponics system before, and that is saying a lot! This system was going to be a winner!
- Sourcing So now we needed to make sure that we could get all of the parts for the system in a reliable and cost effective way. I worked on the large pieces – grow beds, fish tanks, and sumps – while Alan worked on sourcing all the plumbing parts. We needed to open up several new wholesale accounts and decide initial order volumes for everything so we could get to actual costs needed to ultimately come up with prices for all of the system configuration options.
- Warehousing We work out of our home, but we knew that we couldn’t store and ship these large systems from here. Our neighbors surely wouldn’t be happy with that! So now we needed to find a warehouse / fulfillment center that would be willing to receive, store, assemble and ship these orders for us. And each one would probably be unique. They also needed to be tolerant of us coming down and participating in the first several shipments because we are big believers in hands-on learning and knew that our design would be improved by seeing how it was packed on a pallet. It ends up that this is a very tall order, and we quickly discovered that there was only one place that seemed to meet our needs and that would work with us. As it turns out, even they weren’t quite what we needed. Ultimately we decided to rent a large storage unit at a place that was willing to receive trucks for us and to handle all of the warehousing tasks ourselves.
- Cost and pricing evaluation By now it was early November. We had all the related costs for every variation of the Modular systems that we wanted to offer and Alan went to work creating a mega-spreadsheet that both outlined those costs, and also generated a pick-list for pulling together every single component in each system for shipping. Once that was complete, checked, and checked again, we were able to establish pricing.
- Marketing Now it was my turn. Over the summer when both prototype systems were lush with plants, we had Averan Gale from Green Gorilla Media come out and do a couple promotional shoots for us. Armed with the resulting videos, and the style of website design that we had created for the AquaBundance SpaceSaver system, I reworked the Aquaponics Systems section of our website to reflect the new Modular systems, as well as some future offerings (the Designer system is coming soon!). We announced the new Modular systems to the world through our newsletter in mid-December and have been selling them ever since.
- Assembly and Operations Guide The final step in the development of the Modular systems was to write the Assembly and Operations Guide. Again Alan took the lead and wrote what is, IMHO, the most outstanding set of assembly instructions I’ve ever seen. It has almost forty pages of well organized, engaging text that can take anyone, no matter how handy they are, through building, starting and running any of our Modular systems. This text is backed up with almost thirty pages of detailed figures and photos. It took almost two months to create, and it is quite a masterpiece.
- Shipping While Alan was creating his masterpiece, I was learning the world of LTL (less than truckload) freight shipping. Since we weren’t working with a warehousing company we were going to need to learn how to pack and ship these products ourselves. And we needed to make sure that we shipped them as inexpensively as possible because shipping costs are passed on to our customers. Three heroes emerged here. The first is a company called KeyShip which is a freight aggregator. This means that they take the information about your shipment and shop it out to a variety of freight companies to find the best rate (kind of like how Travelocity works for airplane flights). They do this all through their website and we have found it to be fast, easy to use, and accurate. I highly recommend this company! Second, Scott, our sales rep from Neway Packaging, spent an entire morning showing us how to strap and shrink wrap these very odd shaped shipments onto a pallet. Third, Michael, the manager at Boulder Self Storage, has been fantastically helpful. He zips over in his golf cart with a pallet jack when we need it, and handles the trucks as they deliver components and pick up systems. We couldn’t have done it without these guys!
So you can imagine how exhilarated (and worn out) we felt when that first truck pulled away. We shipped it! Hopefully, our first two shipped orders and the several ordered but not yet shipped are just the first of many from what we think will be a very well-loved aquaponics product line.