How Inventory & Order Fulfillment Challenges Can Hinder
Start-Up Growth

August 7, 2019
Read-Time: 4-6 Minutes
Woman packaging and shipping orders from her home

Today, many small businesses dream of a scenario where they have so many clients, they can't keep up with demand. But while this scenario sounds nice, the operational challenges that arise from small business growth can actually do more harm than good. To combat the risks associated with unchecked growth, how can small businesses support an expanding customer base without adding excessive costs or overwhelming their staff? 

Context: How Do You Prepare for Future Sales When None Have Happened Yet?

A few months ago, a close friend of mine (just like several thousand other Georgians) started a CBD business. With the legalization of CBD across the nation in 2018, the industry has ballooned as new entrepreneurs try to capitalize on an enticing market opportunity. And after months of planning and thousands of dollars in investment, he successfully ordered his first round of product. Exciting stuff! The only problem? He had literally no idea what his demand would look like.

In fact, not only did he lack the historical sales data necessary for determining the amount of inventory he should order and maintain, but since the entire industry is brand new, there is literally no sales data (for anyone) available beyond the past 12 or so months. So, to save costs and to be conservative, he only ordered a dozen of each type of product. However, thanks to interest from local veterinarians, sales of his CBD dog treats jumped quickly, and he sold out in less than a week. But because it takes 3 weeks for him to receive new inventory from his suppliers, he lost out on several known sales (and probably a few he doesn’t know about) due to supply delays. But at this stage, how could he have known how much inventory he needed to meet demand? The simple answer is, he couldn’t.  

While this challenge is proving particularly strenuous within budding industries like CBD, virtually all start-ups (save those that sell a service instead of a physical product) undergo a similar challenge. As a start-up that works regularly with other start-ups, we know the costs of developing and storing inventory can be quite high. However, we also know that the costs of being unable to fulfill new orders and meet customer demand can be even higher. The problem is that few start-ups recognize this reality up-front, and instead dream of a scenario where they can’t keep up with all the demand for their products. And while too much growth is a better issue to have than no growth at all, the challenges associated with quickly scaling inventory and fulfillment workflows can quickly become an operational nightmare. To better understand this concept, consider the following examples.

Examples of Start-Up Growth (Almost) Gone Bad

Sara Blakely & Spanx. Given I’m an Atlanta native, I’ll use Sara Blakely as my first example. Today, Sara is a multibillionaire, the owner of Spanx, and one of the most successful businesswomen in the world. But 15-20 years ago, Sara’s life looked quite different. Like most start-ups, Sara was operating Spanx out of her home in the early years. This meant that she stored inventory in her garage and shipped orders from her driveway. But as demand increased, Sara struggled heavily with fulfilling her orders. As the below image shows, Sara’s fulfillment challenges grew so complex that she would come home to dozens and sometimes hundreds of boxes stacked on her doorstep.

Sara blakely and Spanx fulfilling orders from her house

Image obtained via Sara Blakely's LinkedIn profile

While Sara couldn’t have known beforehand what her demand would look like, she quickly arrived at a juncture where continuing to function ad-hoc, without building out a more elaborate demand planning and fulfillment structure, would completely overwhelm her. This realization is was ultimately drove Sara to shift her fulfillment model and to begin plotting her sales demand so that she could more accurately plan her inventory shipping and storage. This allowed Spanx to forecast their growth and scale their operations accordingly. The result? The below image shows just one of their new warehouses. By the looks of things, business is great.

Spanx warehouse fulfilling orders
Image obtained via Sara Blakely's LinkedIn profile

John & Phocus. As another example, I’ll use one of the start-ups my company has been working with over the past year: Phocus. When John (Co-Founder and President) was in medical school, he had tried to find an alternative to unhealthy energy drinks that could help him through long nights of studying and working in the hospital. Not finding an existing beverage that met his criteria, John and his co-founder, Tom O’Grady, created their own. And with the introduction of his caffeinated sparkling water beverages in late 2017, John tapped into a market itching for a healthier alternative to coffee and traditional energy drinks.

As it turns out, Phocus’s early growth was hard to support. The demand Phocus experienced in their first year resulted in triple-digit month-over-month growth. And although John was enthralled with Phocus’s success, he also recognized the risks his budding business faced. With the internal bandwidth of their six-person team stretched so thin, Phocus was ill-prepared to handle additional customers. Staff were already struggling to meet demand, and any further spike in order requests would almost surely lead to fulfillment delays and stock outages.

As fulfilling orders in-house became impossible, John ultimately recognized that if Phocus was to make it through their rapid growth phase, he quickly needed to adjust his supply chain workflows. He also needed to begin analyzing his sales forecasts in more detail. For these reasons, John decided to outsource his fulfillment to a 3rd party, which gave his team the bandwidth to build out Phocus’s future demand projections. And just in time. With CVS recently announcing availability of Phocus products at over 800 locations, John now has an operational structure that can support Phocus’s long-term, year-over-year growth strategy.

Sales Spikes Can be Exciting for Start-Ups… But Also Dangerous

Now, for many start-ups, these scenarios sound like a dream come true. Why complain about fulfillment when sales are through the roof? The above stories seem more like the ideal situation where a small business owner realizes he has a product that sells. But while this is true, there are clearly some underlying risks to consider.

The primary challenge in these circumstances is that if sales increase faster than operations can support, there will inevitably be a fallout, either in the form of missed orders and stock outages, or a breakdown of staff bandwidth. And this is not the time to realize your business is unprepared for growth. While the examples of Spanx and Phocus highlight companies that were able to solve their logistics dilemmas, there are countless other examples of companies that failed because of it. Numerous cases exist where a company’s inability to fulfill orders and meet demand led to their banishment from Amazon and other e-commerce platforms, or where consistent fulfillment delays reduced customer satisfaction so drastically that sales dropped almost as fast as they had risen just a few months prior.

The bottom line here (and the ultimate point I’m trying to make) is that over time, putting all your energy and focus into sustaining daily operations, without setting aside time to strategically analyze your business and make adjustments to your roadmap, can ultimately be the reason your business fails in the long-run. It’s learning how to plan ahead and then quickly scale your operations to account for growth that allows businesses to cope with heightened success, rather than being damaged by it.

Tips for Staying Ahead of Your Own Growth

Ok, so now you (begrudgingly) agree that this is something your business should at least be thinking about. Of course, the issues highlighted above should not be a start-up’s only focus. But, closely monitoring your sales and marketing efforts (and the resulting traction) so that you’re always in tune with the shifting demand for your products is the best way to stay on top of your operational needs, and ensure that you aren’t blindsided by sudden spikes in order requests. With this in mind, the following tips highlight a few ways that start-ups can stay ahead of their growth.

Five tips for start-ups to manage their growth

Final Thoughts & Action Items

Although each start-up may decide to use a different strategy for handling their growth, the important thing is that you DO have a strategy. As a small business owner, you must constantly be looking 1 (if not 2 or 3) steps down the road. Being proactive instead of reactive is how you stay ahead of the game. And as demand for your products begins to increase, knowing ahead of time how to manage your storage, fulfillment, and logistics needs will allow you not to be overburdened by daily operations, and enable you to support the growth your business experiences rather than being overwhelmed by it.  

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