The incidence of conventions delayed things a bit, but we at Fleen were finally able to carve out a niche in the very busy schedule of Holly Rowland (VP of Kicking Your Ass at TopatoCo) to Gchat about their new venture, Kickstarter fulfillment service Make That Thing. Some of the assumptions I made about MTT were borne out in our conversation, some weren’t, and in any event it’s going to be a damn interesting service to watch grow, evolve, and brutally destroy all competitors. Along the way we talked about real estate, the similarities of comics conventions and cater-waitering, and yurts.
Fleen: Let’s start with some background facts: how did you and Jeffrey [Rowland, founder of TopatoCo] come up with the idea for Make That Thing?
Rowland: About a year ago we started noticing that more and more of our friends/clients/colleagues were using Kickstarter and completely blowing their goals out of the water — then being faced with the task of fulfilling all of the backer rewards. Some people were having a really hard time with it — it’s why people hire TopatoCo to do their regular merchandise production and fulfillment after all.
Some people even asked us to help them with fulfillment, so I turned to Jeffrey and said, “Look, this is kind of our wheelhouse. We’ve already got the skills and contacts to get things produced and to ship them out. Why are we not offering to step in and take care of this stuff?”
Fleen: So getting the new building wasn’t because of the plans for Make That Thing, but contributed to making Make That Thing a possibility?
Rowland: Yes and no. The new building as it stands now isn’t actually big enough for everything. We’ll be retaining space in Eastworks [ed: home of TopatoCo and Webcomics Weekends 1 & 2] — a storage space and the MTT HQ — and hopefully next year we will be adding a second, auxiliary building to the grounds (it has a couple acres). It was just the right time, building or no. We would have just rented more space in Eastworks.
Fleen: You’ve described MTT as a subsidiary of TopatoCo — how is that structure going to work? Will MTT have its own dedicated employees (once you’re ramped up and have projects coming in regularly) and procedures, or it will be mostly a paper division (longterm clients = TopatoCo, one-offs = MTT)?
Rowland: MTT will be it’s own entity — and other than [Wondermark creator and TopatoCo Director of Communications David] Malki [!] and I, it will have its own employees. I’ll still be doing everything that I do for TopatoCo, but my main focus will be MTT and Jeffrey will focus on TopatoCo.
It’s also going to open us up to working with non-TopatoCo clients, which is pretty exciting.
Fleen: The way a massively successful Kickstarter fulfillment looks in my head, it’s an awful lot like doing a mega-convention: you have a squatload of merch, it’s got to get into as many hands as possible in a limited amount of time, and then it’s DONE. No second takes. Is that how it looks to you?
Rowland: Yeah, pretty much! I keep using restaurant analogies — it’s like the difference between a regular restaurant and catering. In a restaurant you have to keep stuff stocked and then customers wander in and out. When you cater, you know how many dinners and what they’re eating ahead of time. You go in, knock it out, clean up, get paid, go home.
Fleen: Good analogy. That also brings up what I think would probably be the biggest challenge of dealing with one-off gigs — scheduling. This may take a while to get to the actual question …
Rowland: Hah, okay.
Fleen: You say on the MTT webpage that you want to focus on KS projects in certain areas where you have experience (posters, books, things like that). At first I was a bit puzzled by that, cause if somebody had say a technology project (like an iPhone dealie or something), they could just have their manufacturer drop-ship the pallets to you, you guys send it on to the backers, no problem.
But then I started imagining you saying, Okay, 1st of May we have 5000 units of a book project that will be here and have to go out. The 12,000 units of that iPhone dealie were supposed to have been here April 5th, but now it looks like they’re going to be showing up at the same time as the book and the backers are already screaming about their dealies being late. Crap.
Is the desire to keep in your usual areas of expertise in part because the production end is more predictable?
Rowland: No, though that is a good point. We do what we do, and we do it well. We want to stay “on message”, so to speak, and not fuck around with video games or whatever because we don’t do video games and someone’s massively successful Kickstarter doesn’t seem like a proper testing ground. That is not to say that we won’t open ourselves up to it in the future. Right now we’re sticking to what we know.
Also, to clarify: the TopatoCo “brand”, if you will, (gross I hate business terms gross) is artists and musicians and podcasters and funny people and game creators. We don’t want to start adding stuff like, Here is a thingy that holds your iPhone for you while you cook dinner or whatever because those designers of iPhone thingies wouldn’t be TopatoCo clients anyway. They don’t fit what we do.
Fleen: So MTT could be seen as the TopatoCo minor leagues, with some MTT clients getting “called up” into TopatoCo?
Rowland: No; we don’t want people to think this is an audition piece, though I’m not saying that wouldn’t happen. We will have a storefront called Made That Thing that will feature all of our successful projects. So you can buy The Tomorrow Girl, the MOD board game, and Jenny Q. Cartoonist’s graphic novel about growing up in a yurt or whatever. Malki [!] and [Dresden Codak creator Aaron] Diaz¹ already have stores, but Jenny doesn’t and now she doesn’t have to set up a thing just to sell her book
PLUS it solves another problem: people not being able to buy a thing once the Kickstarter ends. We’ll continue to produce and sell it, and you can browse all of our successful projects in one place!
Fleen: So how long do you anticipate the [closed] beta [business testing] going on?
Rowland: A couple months. We actually already have a few more projects lined up. I can’t tell you what they are, but I can give you three words: Hesse, Hastings, and Jacques.
Fleen: So once things open up and Jenny Q. Cartoonist is getting ready to Kickstart Yurt Days, when does she contact you? Are you going to need clients to work with you to lay out their campaigns, and especially their estimated delivery dates?
Rowland: Ideally, we would work with the client from the beginning. They would contact us with a short proposal (we will have an online form) and if our panel of experts decides that the project is a good fit, then we work with the creator to figure out all of the bits and what their goal should be. I have been doing A LOT of reading about crowd funding and the challenges therein, and budgeting and goals is a really big one for some.
Delivery dates are also an issue that comes up time and time again. We want to build in a 6-8 month tight turnaround, and make the artist stick to the deadlines.
Fleen: How big do you see MTT getting? On the one hand, you need to keep a schedule of projects such that your employees stay busy. On the other hand, you can’t be so packed full that an unexpectedly big success messes up your logistics for the next two months.
Rowland: We’re going to take it slow for the first year and only run one or two campaigns at a time². That feels manageable, and gives us space to tweak as we go. After that, who knows? If we could afford to hire a campaign manager for each campaign, that is something I would love to do. A Kickstarter sherpa, if you will.
Fleen: So who gets to drive the forklift³?
Rowland: Whoever calls it first. It’s like Shotgun.
Fleen: One more question — if MTT is its own enterprise and you’re focusing on it, do you have a new job title now?
Rowland: I have to think of one! I went to one of those BS title generator sites, but there are no royalty words in there sooooooo …
Fleen: May I suggest, Holly Rowland: Supreme Fulfillatrix of Make That Thing, A TopatoCo Company?
Rowland: Ha ha, it seems long? But what do I know, my TopatoCo job title is a direct rip from the Angel TV series.
Fleen thanks Ms Rowland for her time. All hail the Supreme Fulfillatrix.
¹ Tolkien and dinosaur scholar par excellence.
² Rowland clarified later that by “campaign”, she meant the actively-funding Kickstarter campaign.
³ As noted at the Make That Thing website, they “have a forklift that can do donuts”.