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New fulfillment center in Eastern Market aims to help women in Detroit, South Africa

New fulfillment center in Eastern Market aims to help women in Detroit, South Africa

By Kurt Nagl on August 06, 2018 | Crain’s Detroit Business

  • Thumbprint Fulfillment started out of a house in Sylvan Lake
  • Owners aim to expand into “seven-figure operation” to help small businesses
  • Company received $50,000 from Michigan Women Forward; $4,000 from Motor City Match

Thumbprint Fulfillment moved into a 2,400-square-foot space in Eastern Market in March with help from a $4,000 grant from Motor City Match.

As a lifelong sales and marketing executive turned entrepreneur, Becky Riess recognized that creating a product and running a company are two entirely different beasts.

Riess, 62, saw startups coming undone not because of flawed ideas, but because of an inability to get them out of the door. So, she created a business to grease the hinges.

At Thumbprint Fulfillment LLC, located in Eastern Market at 2448 Riopelle St., Riess operates a 2,400-square-foot space that handles packaging and distribution for small local companies.

“Small businesses reach a point where they can’t keep track of inventory. You’re spending your time packing products, shipping out, doing the invoice, following up with customers,” Riess said.

At Thumbprint Fulfillment, that’s all handled by a team of four, including fellow co-owners Jennifer Egner and Kris Engle. They have a close understanding of how overwhelming the startup life can be even before going to market.

“Small businesses reach a point where they can’t keep track of inventory,” Thumbprint Fulfillment LLC co-founder Becky Riess said.

The idea for a fulfillment center blossomed from a startup called Thumbprint Artifacts founded by Riess and Engle in 2013. Thumbprint Artifacts started as a project to help disadvantaged women in South Africa, where Engle is based, by purchasing from them handmade candles and ceramic products and selling them in the U.S. It grew into a Fair Trade-certified business that supplies products to more than 350 wholesale clients in addition to e-commerce customers.

As the company grew, free space in Riess’ Sylvan Lake house shrank. Nearly every room became a storage area for orders.

“The only sacred room at the end was the bedroom and the bathroom,” she said. “Honestly, it just took over.”

Around that time, Riess made a couple of important observations: Other small business owners were struggling to deliver and she was becoming quite good at it.

She and her partners began looking into a dedicated fulfillment space two years ago. They eventually found the Eastern Market location through the Detroit small business booster Motor City Match, which also awarded them a $4,000 grant, and they moved there in March.

“The support that we’ve received from Eastern Market is just phenomenal; it’s wonderful to be there on a Saturday,” Riess said.

In addition to fulfilling orders, Riess uses 250 square feet of the store to sell Thumbprint Artifact products as well as those from partners.

The fulfillment business has so far picked up four clients, including a candles, linens and other soft goods company. She declined to name them or detail terms of their agreements but said contracts are generally six months to a year. In one case, Riess and her team fulfill orders made by customers directly through her client’s website; in another arrangement, she takes orders from the store owner.

“Our biggest hurdle is letting people know we would handle their product like they would if not more efficiently,” she said. “It’s hard to convince owners. It’s a natural tendency to hold tight to your business. We’ve been down that path ourselves.”

In a new 2,400-square-foot space in Eastern Market, staff at Thumprint Fulfillment handle packaging and distribution for clients.

The candles and ceramic business has been growing steadily, and Riess said revenue increased 30 percent last year after the company distributed more than 50,000 candles. She hopes the distribution enterprise takes off, too.

“We’re definitely looking to be a seven-figure operation,” she said.

The company has received backing from Michigan Women Forward, formerly the Michigan Women’s Foundation, which supports small women-owned businesses by offering financing and other resources. The nonprofit loaned Thumbprint Fulfillment $50,000 last spring.

Riess said she aims to expand her fulfillment center and hire primarily women in Detroit much like her first startup seeks to help women abroad.

“We’d like to do the same in Detroit — training and hiring them and giving them flexible hours so we’re helping women here as well who otherwise might not be employed,” she said.