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We Mailed 100,000 Stickers Around the World and Made a Million Mistakes Along the Way

thepracticaldev profile image dev.to staff ・9 min read

To celebrate our 100,000th Twitter follower in February, we offered to send out free stickers to dev.to users across the globe:

It felt like a great opportunity to reward our loyal followers by sending them a little something that physically connected them to the DEV community. Plus, how hard could it be to mail out some envelopes?

Problem 0: Scale

Within minutes of posting the tweet, we were inundated with sign-ups from all over the world; by the end of the day we had sticker package requests from 86 different countries.

Watching these orders pile up was exciting...but also a bit unnerving, since at that point the extent of our sticker distribution was handing them out here and there to various people with ties to the company. Now we had to figure out the postal idiosyncrasies of dozens of foreign countries, acquire hundreds of pounds (or rather kilograms, given our global clientele) of raw materials, and squeeze what would end up being nearly a thousand man-hours of labor into our already busy dev.to day-to-day. That monumental task, which we'd clearly underestimated, got off to a bad start with an...

Problem 1: Invalid Sign-Up Form

The original version of our sign-up page had a bug that caused any form with the selected t-shirt size of unisex medium to register as invalid and the information dropped from our database. To make matters worse, we gave no indication to the user that his or her form had not been sent, so dozens of users were blissfully unaware that their sticker request had disappeared into thin air. We only realized once a few hundred forms had been submitted and there were no unisex mediums (the most popular size).

This led to the somewhat awkward half-measure of reaching out to folks who might have signed up for mediums to urge them to fill out the form again. And even when we fixed the unisex_m bug, our form still had no way of...

Problem 2: Validating Addresses

By the beginning of the summer, dev.to/freestickers had address validation baked into so that verified locations are suggested as you fill in your answers:

But initially we rolled out a simpler, free-form template that put the onus on the user to provide a valid address.

Now you might think that most people know where they live, but different countries have different standards and conventions that didn't necessarily fit neatly into our USA-biased address/city/state format. So when we got inputs like Después de hogares crea, segunda entrada mano derecha, última casa verde (something about the last green house on the right according to Google Translate), we figured we had to validate these addresses.

We turned to SmartyStreets, an online address processor, to help us clean up and validate the user-inputted information. To our delight, it reported that nearly 100% of our US addresses were valid, but our international yield was closer to 80% and included puzzling verdicts like "partial" and "ambiguous" for some locations. In theory, we could ask those users to re-enter their addresses, but we were missing their IDs because...

Problem 3: Version Control

Initially we assumed this endeavor could be housed by a single Excel file, but after validating several batches of users, it became obvious that this was an untenable approach. Each user had not only a row for the shipping info they provided, but also one for the slightly modified version to meet SmartyStreets' requirements, and another for the validator's output. Mix in different sets of data for US and non-US users, and suddenly our simple Excel file had a half-dozen sheets. Soon we couldn't change a single cell without summoning the dreaded spinning wheel of death.

Unfortunately, by the time we realized a single Excel file was insufficient, we'd already copy and pasted data in and out of SmartyStreets and our label-printer multiple times without bringing user IDs, our primary key, along each time. So even if we had a list of unverified addresses, we'd have to match them with other, slightly different columns in our database just to retrieve the IDs. We were left with a bunch of overlapping Excel files, only some of which had user IDs:

And even when we did have complete, validated addresses we had to deal with...

Problem 4: Character Encoding

The manner in which to encode characters can be a trivial choice in scenarios where just a fraction of your string data isn't covered by [A-Z][0-9]. But when you're sending mail to Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, Киев in Ukraine, Mönchengladbach in Germany, São José in Brazil, and 南京市 in China, encoding is the difference between a real location and pure gibberish.

But we didn't put all that together that until well after the fact. In order to print addresses, we'd opened the data in Excel, copy and pasted it into the SmartyStreets web app, copy and pasted the result back into Excel, saved it as a CSV, manipulated it further in R, and then loaded it into our Dymo label-printing software. By then it had been encoded and re-encoded half a dozen times using various standards, leaving some addresses in a state of absolute incoherence:

Many addresses had to just be scrapped, since we figured the mailman didn't know where house number اÚØ®ØÚ was located. And, as you'd expect, there were plenty of addresses somewhere between perfect and illegible which we released into the great postal unknown with our fingers crossed. Our users were thankful, albeit a little amused, when they arrived:

And if we did manage to encode each character cleanly, sometimes we still had to worry about...

Problem 5: Formatting Addresses

Again, our ignorance of international mailing standards turned out to be a major weakness. Our form asks for two address lines and a city and state, per American standards. But there are far more ways to define physical locations beyond our borders, including localities, provinces, regions, districts, zones, and areas. SmartyStreets filled these fields in their response CSV where applicable, but we needed a blanket strategy for converting these to shipping labels–we couldn't map "district" to an address line if only a few of our recipients even had one.

What's more, two address lines is insufficient in many places, and sometimes as many as six or seven address fields would be returned by the validator. Since we couldn't reasonably fit that many lines on a shipping label, we had to write a janky Excel formula that created a bunch of mirror fields for address lines that weren't just repeats of city or zip code, and then concatenated them into a single address line.

This worked...sort of. Occasionally these "catch-all" address lines would grow so long that the label maker was forced to make the text unreadably small:

If an address was lucky enough to survive validation, encoding, and formatting, it still had to be printed and affixed to an envelope full of stickers, which required...

Problem 6: Packaging Materials

Some of the raw materials were heavy but easy to procure: large boxes of envelopes, cardboard inserts, labels, and stickers were delivered to our door and then stored wherever our modest office space could accommodate them–on a bookshelf, next to the fridge, or (more often than we'd like to admit) just stacked unceremoniously in the middle of the room.

Other stuff was physically unimposing but difficult to acquire, such as thousands of moon stamps, which had to be picked up in-person at the main New York City USPS office on the other side of town by someone with ID.

Then we had to turn these disparate parts into mailable sticker packs. Creating a few envelopes was something the dev.to staff could do in their spare time. Packing ten thousand was something we needed help with. A couple of friends volunteered some hours, but to get the job done in a reasonable timeframe we needed to hire some labor. We turned to TaskRabbit, where we enlisted people with highly rated organizational skills. Our Taskers were great – friendly folks that worked hard for hours at a time – but being outnumbered by strangers in the office was something we had to get used to.

Ultimately, packaging was one of the least stressful aspects of the process, and a lot of us took a break from staring at our monitors to listen to some music and help out every now and then. But on several days we had to ask everyone to work from home because the packing process was turning our modest office into a tornado of discarded labels and stamps:

Of course all the bags in that picture had to make their way to the post office, which leads us to...

Problem 7: Delivery

Sometimes we scheduled pick-ups to clear our office of outgoing sticker packs, but when we really wanted to get them out quickly, there was no other option besides walking them the five or six blocks to the local post office. Have you ever carried a bag full of a thousand envelopes? It's damn heavy.

Plus, the first time we hauled those bags over, the woman at the counter told us that our international letters would not send because we'd used three-letter codes instead of spelling out country names. Turns out she was wrong, but for a day or two we wondered if we'd just botched every single outgoing piece of mail.

And even if we weren't chastised for not writing out country names, the employees at the post office usually gave us some quizzical looks. And who can blame them? Groaning under the weight of giant bags full of black envelopes on our shoulders, we looked like some bizarre combination of Santa Claus and the Grim Reaper!

And, as you might imagine, if you send out a lot of half-validated, poorly encoded, unconventionally formatted letters, you get a lot of them back:

Sometimes the letters were returned for other reasons though. Did you know that the US suspended postal service to Guatemala? We didn't!

Despite these relative missteps, we’re happy to report that over 95% of letters made it to their final destination. Still, that leaves a lot of folks who have very patiently waited for their packages and haven’t received them. Which is why we'd like to apologize and make things right by explaining...

How To Get Your Stickers if They Never Arrived

We've ended the free stickers campaign for new users. But if you were already a dev.to user who requested stickers and never received them, you can visit dev.to/freestickers and (re)validate your address so we can finally send you your stickers.

If you ordered in the month of July, give it a week before marking yourself unfulfilled and re-requesting stickers, since we just sent out a bunch and they may be en route.

Note: While we can tell who originally requested stickers, we cannot verify if they arrived so we're relying on users to be honest about whether they received theirs. Plus supplies are limited, so anyone trying to get a second set is really only taking them from someone who doesn't have any. 😔


And finally a few thank yous are in order. First we'd like to thank the companies that co-sponsored our original sticker batches: Clarifai, Circle CI, and Cloudinary. Their original investment really helped get this campaign off the ground.

We'd also like to thank stickermule who printed all of our lovely stickers. We tried out a bunch of different sticker companies and concluded that they had the best combination of quality and service.

And we'd like to thank the dev.to users who waited patiently for their stickers, some of which never arrived. In truth this was an expensive endeavor, from the raw materials, to the various shipping difficulties, to the labor exhausted on everything from packing envelopes to responding to emails with the subject line stickers???.

But seeing you guys post pictures of the stickers on your laptops (or motorcycle helmets or bumpers or doors or limbs or nameplates or bicycles or water bottles or chargers or file cabinets or nightstands or desks or server racks or guitars or motorbikes or computer science departments or kegerators) made the whole thing totally worth it. 💕

Discussion

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tbroyer profile image
Thomas Broyer

“It seems you've never requested stickers.”

Huh! I'd swear I did. And most probably selected “unisex medium”, so could I have been an unlucky one who you didn't ask to fill the form again?

(now let's be clear, I might have never submitted the form in the first place; I do believe I did though, otherwise why would I expect something in the mail? 😕 Should I see a doctor? 🤔)

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jess profile image
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maurodaprotis profile image
Mauro Daprotis

Same problem here... I didn't received the stickers and now it says that I never requested them 😔

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peter profile image
Peter Kim Frank

Sorry about that -- please email yo@dev.to and we'll get it sorted out!

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michael profile image
Michael Lee 🍕

Thanks so much for these and this epic post! LOL, and thanks for linking me for "limbs" 😆

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scorpionresponse profile image
Paul Moss

I saw this a while back: blackbox.cool/ (from the Cards Against Humanity people, I am not in any way affiliated with them). It seems to be created exactly so that people like you don't have to have enough of these kinds of problems to warrant a blog post.

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remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Oh man, I encountered a ton of these issues myself when trying to launch the user group support program at the company I work for. On top of that, I did not know about (and therefore did not account for) the complexities of shipping things like t-shirts overseas. In some countries it was matter of filing paperwork for customs and paying import duties (in some cases these exceeded the cost of the items I shipped). This also often meant that the person on the receiving end would receive a bill for the customs fees (most would let me know and we'd pay it but some just shipped it right back). In some other cases, there were strong limitations on the import of textiles (which our box of shirts qualified as).

The sad part is that I've more or less had to cease international shipments of shirts and other swag.

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Vaidehi Joshi

I love this! Going behind the scenes of building something (and focusing on the pitfalls in particular) is something that I'd love to see more of in our industry! I also laughed out loud at some of Walker's tweets 😆 Great piece, team! Looking forward to the next one.

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Pablo Lima Dias

My stickers just arrived yesterday in Brazil, and it was certainly worth the wait! I can't wait to stick them around my laptop. Many thanks for the effort!

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Alexis Bertin

Keep being awesome guys!

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suryaharis profile image
Surya Haris Senoaji

thanks for giving away the free stickers.
you guys are the best.

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christinaemlee profile image
Christina Lee

Thank you so much for embarking on this journey in the first place. These stickers made me so happy when they arrived. It's great getting things in the mail that aren't bills lol. Im the proud owner of a laptop with several dev.to stickers on it :)

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Adam Friedl

This is awesome. I love that you guys share when stuff gets crazy and messed up, it's so helpful for all of us suffering from imposter syndrome.

And I love my stickers! Thanks so much – dev.to is the best!

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silwing profile image
Silwing

Amazing story, thanks for sharing all that hard work with us. And well done on keeping up even with all of those obstacles you faced!

I had almost forgot about the stickers when one day a black envelope showed up in my mailbox. All the more delightful when unexpected. And after reading this I'm even more grateful for those stickers and looking forward to finding places to stick them!

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Chrissy Wainwright

I was a victim of the broken form. I realized something was up because I'd filled out the form as soon as it was posted, but you were retweeting people's sticker pics while I waited weeks for mine to arrive. But I did fill out the form again and received the wonderful stickers! Thank you for all your hard work on them!

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engineercoding profile image
Wesley Ameling

I really like how one can link this back to an actual programming project: there are always pitfalls and maybe an unexpected scope :p

This is not intended to be a negative comment! I really like my stickers and actually can now, since the giveaway stopped, make a few friends jealous because of my one of a kind stickers! Thanks for the giveaway, you guys rock (even if you guys didn't do the giveaway, i love this platform. Even though I don't post articles, I really enjoy reading them!)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

This was great. We will do plenty more like this in the future.

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leslie profile image
leslie burugu

I'm sorry you guys had to go through all that :(
But thank you so much for the stickers!

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jess profile image
Jess Lee (she/her)

Feeling nostalgic already.

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Pablo Díaz Márquez

I'm from Guatemala :( never received them

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jess profile image
Jess Lee (she/her)

Sometimes the letters were returned for other reasons though. Did you know that the US suspended postal service to Guatemala? We didn't!

Sorry :( :(

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fcpauldiaz profile image
Pablo Díaz Márquez

I re validated my address to a US P.O. Box

Thread Thread
peter profile image
Peter Kim Frank

Great! We'll get those to you :)

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alt (Guna)

You did amazing and awesome job!!!

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James Hood

I love this post! It's amazing how far scrappy solutions can take you. Thanks for the stickers!

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Marcus Corrêa

Guys, you're awesome! Hahahahahahahahhahahahahahha

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Charles D. Villard

So when will you let us pay you money for these stickers to support you?!