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Biggest sale ever – a (now belated) Christmas story

The PiCano case for the Raspberry Pi has always been sold in small numbers. Most of the time orders of a single case, sometimes two or three in one order. This makes shipping very expensive, and profit non-existent. Large mail order companies sell large volumes each day, and therefore get special prices with free returns… We still have to pay the full price.

For instance, one PiCano case destined for the USA costs €72.75 – that’s €39.95 for the case and €32.80 for shipping. On top of that this price includes 21% Belgium VAT, the costs of the web shop, as well as handling and time spent waiting (wasting) in the post office. It’s therefore very difficult to break through on a larger scale. It’s a bit like crawling around on your knees when trying to participate in a marathon.

A black-coated PiCano case

Very rarely do we get an order for more than five pieces at once, but right before Christmas 2017 a French company called Virtual-SR placed an order of 42 pieces in one go! My business partner, who at that time ran the web shop, refunded all the money and referred the client directly to me. This was because the web shop was not really set up to handle business to business (B2B) orders. At that time my business partner also wanted to step-out of the partnership and I had therefore been reluctant to order more stock, not knowing how sales would go without the web shop. Of course, with this large order I was out of stock in one go.

Giving Virtual-SR a “professional B2B price” they increased the order to one hundred pieces. Well… Happy Christmas! It felt like a recognition for the PiCano project, a sort of “validation” of the design. One of the best Christmas presents ever! (Sorry mom!)

Packaging up 100 PiCano cases!
Bad timing.

After a few emails back and forth with Virtual-SR, we settled on a deal. This, at a time everyone else was buying Christmas presents and the industry was working on their last orders before closing down. To make things worse, I was still looking for a new partner to cut the aluminium sheets, because the previous one had made a mess of things once too often. The new cutting company I found promised me a price quote before the holidays – but failed to do so (^£*!&+$).

On top of that, there were promises made that the order (aluminium top and bottom sheet) could be cut in three days time. (I considered a week to be a more realistic time estimate). I also pointed out that the raw material needed to be in stock at the aluminium suppliers. But the new cutting company promised me there was no problem, and closed down for the holidays. They did so without fulfilling their promise to provide me with a price quote. During one of many phone calls I was informed the company would reopen on 4th January – but when I called in on that day to stress that I was still waiting on the price quote, the secretary told me that the manager, who I needed for the quote, would still be enjoying their vacation for another week. (F…?)

Colour.

Upon placing the order of a hundred PiCanos, I informed Vitrual-SR that small changes to the design were possible. They therefore asked me if it was possible to have the aluminium parts cut in Black aluminium sheet. It should be just a question of ordering a different colour of sheet material, and to be certain I had checked with several aluminium suppliers. I was reassured it was indeed just a matter of ordering pre coloured aluminium.

When I was able to finally place the order another issue came up. The aluminium supplier could NOT deliver black anodized aluminium sheet in 1mm thickness. (Wherever you live, you may have heard my swearing… it wasn’t bad weather!)

When I told Virtual-SR they asked me if the option of spray painting was possible. Long ago I had considered having bare (non-anodized aluminium) to be powder coated, but I knew in advance there would be three issues: The price would go up, the delivery time for such a paint job is about three weeks (we were already running out of time for this order), and there would be loss in sheet material because not all of them will be perfect. So I totally stayed away from that option to avoid quality issues, time issues and having to raise the price.

After quite an impossible quest, I found a coating company which had a timing system like in an airport. You get allocated a time slot, and you’d better make sure not to miss the agreed delivery time. If you do, you get a new time slot a few weeks later. This way the loss in time was shortened about ten days and considering Virtual-SR was holding back their delivery to their own client, that was a big step forward. (By this time, Virtual-SR and myself were writing lets say, “emotional” emails to one and other, and they didn’t have a Christmas-like content!)

Coating quality

First the aluminium top and bottom sheets were cut in non-anodized aluminium. After a quality check and a good sanding they could go to the coating company. Both steps together take a considerable amount of time, so meanwhile all other work was done – things like counting and packing the small parts, and preparing the packing material and manuals. This way, as soon as the coating job was finished, everything would be ready to be packed and sent.

However, when I collected the coated material, I discovered that an unacceptable amount of the coated aluminium top and bottom sheets had unbelievable quality issues. It’s normal that there is some loss, and I had calculated a maximum loss of 30%, but it turned out to be much, much worse. Of the 130 top and 130 bottom sheets I had delivered to the coating company, not even the half were usable, so almost half of the batch had to be sanded and coated again (in the hope that two layers of paint would not provoke other quality issues in turn). I knew it was going to be difficult, but still… this was beyond imagining. And I needed a new time slot and therefore lost another four days.

Quality issues with the black coating – an uneven covering, showing the material underneath
Quality issues with the black coating – particularly obvious around the holes on the bottom sheets
Quality issues with the black coating – the same obvious problem around the holes on the top sheets
Big Joy

In the end there is no joy like designing something, presenting it to the public, and then selling it as well. Working on the parts, counting them, making tools to speed up the production, making pictures, drawing up a manual, packing and sending them off to the new owner… well it is difficult to describe the sense of fulfilment if you haven’t been there. Even thinking about a better way to do things is a joy.

Break even

The bigger picture… Calculating the design effort, the run around to find the small parts and things like making moulds, the PiCano project has always been a very expensive hobby. It didn’t cover its costs. That in itself was not too bad because it was primarily intended as a learning project, to find out all about how to promote a product and how to handle a web shop. I also had in mind promoting RISC OS on the side, the native OS for ARM, which can be used on the Raspberry Pi.

But with this large order it is fair to say I also have recovered all cost that I have invested, including designing, and the time spend running around.

New point of sale

The company Virtual-SR had found us through an article on Framboise314.fr. At that time the old web shop was shutting down. All sales are now handled through www.markerdesigncrafts.com.

With thanks to Virtual-SR for the order, and Framboise314 for the promotional opportunities.

Steve Royd-Marker

I would like to offer both my congratulations and apologies to Steve. Congratulations on the achievement of reaching the point where he’s covered all the costs etc. on the PiCano project – as he says, prior to that point, what you get from it is a sense of fulfilment from what you have successfully designed, etc. I’m at the same stage (wearing my Soft Rock Software hat) with the RiscPiC cases – with no immediate likelihood of recovering the costs (including my time) involved. And apologies for taking so long to get around to publishing this; Steve actually sent me the article back in December, but a significant change in my personal life, coupled with a number of problems since – and with my general disorganised nature thrown into the mix for good measure – I have unfortunately, only just remembered it was in my queue!
 
VinceH