One of the most important decisions a new company with a product to sell will make is selecting a manufacturer. While some design companies may decide to keep production local, most will choose an international factory for mass production, typically in Asia or in South America, depending on your product.
For our company, split between two continents, there was no one “local” option. I live in Los Angeles and the corporate company address for our accessory company was always in Los Angeles. My partner lived in Stockholm and so our business meetings might have taken place in New York, Los Angeles or Hong Kong. Because my partner and I lived in different countries, we decided to do our sampling and production in Hong Kong and China. Since then, I have been to China and Hong Kong more times than I can remember.
Production In China
Basing all sampling and production in China made sense given the special characteristics of our products. Our handbags had a significant amount of hardware on them; the hardware was already produced in China so it was readily available to the factories. Furthermore, our handbags often had a lot of braiding and handwork which would be too costly to have done in the US.
More money spent on labor would raise the retail price of the bag beyond our target, so we opted to do production where we knew it would be the least expensive. Although cheaper than US factories, many of the Chinese factories that we would use employed real artisans. We would spend days in the factories where the employees would weave leather in the sample room and then show us their work for our immediately approval or adjustment.
Before we came to work with these artisans, we certainly had to sift through many shoddy factories and unscrupulous businessmen. We did not have any real contacts in the manufacturing side of the industry so we had to do all of our initial research online. The website www.Alibaba.com, which connects suppliers and factories to potential customers such as my accessory company, was a major resource. We interviewed one company online through email and viewing their online catalog. After we agreed to produce samples with them, I flew to China to meet with the company.
I distinctly remember taking the train from Hong Kong into China by myself. Standing at the Hong Kong station, I waited for an announcement of the track for the train to Guangzhou. But they never announced the track in English, so I just followed all the Americans and European businessmen and took a leap of faith that I was on the right train. I realize now how stupid that was, but really the entire trip placed me out of my comfort zone.
Here I was on a business trip to China and Hong Kong by myself. I was traveling into a Communist country by myself to meet a new supplier without an escort or translator. Luckily, I arrived safe and sound and the business meeting was fine… except that the product was horribly produced! Some might think that I did not need to go to Hong Kong to see the product personally, but when it cost us nearly $300 for a FedEx and a plane ticket cost $700, it made more sense for us to spend a little bit more to get more done. I still think of spending money on courier fees as a waste of time. I returned to Hong Kong that evening and started to work on a plan B.
Our factory visits were always timed to coincide with trade shows in Hong Kong. Walking these shows helped us meet many new suppliers. Ultimately it was a combination of online research and face-to-face meetings with potential suppliers and factories, which cemented our base of stable suppliers. Attending trade shows at the beautiful Hong Kong Convention Center was a very productive use of our time; we would be able to see most of a supplier’s line, or the new products at least, in one space rather than traveling all over the countryside in China.
Many of these companies had showrooms in Hong Kong as well as their Chinese factories so, after the trade shows, we would sit down with the suppliers we liked at their offices before committing to any sample or test orders. It was an important step for us as well as for our new potential suppliers. They were always extremely courteous and excited to have potential clients visit their offices. They always wanted to ‘do business with you.’
Get It Done
How we came to have our first products produced is another example of my general philosophy to just get out there and get it done. We knew what we wanted our product to look like so we went in search of people to make it for us. I see many entrepreneurs who invest years in R & D stages and never even get to launch their lines.
Some of our motivation came from aggressive deadlines that we set for ourselves. We tended to book a trade show and pay for it – and then push to have the samples done in time. Of course, we built in just enough time to have samples made, but even if the finished samples were not what we wanted, we forged ahead and did not postpone. Challenges like that always moved us into overtime; we would often do our best work when up against a tight deadline. For us, it was like cramming for a final the night before!
With my first trip to China, I really had to step out of my comfort zone. I could have stayed at home and waited to have samples delivered to my doorstep. But I decided to see what else was out there and roam around in Asia sourcing. Without contacts, without a guide, but tasked with an important goal, I knew I had to find the suppliers and manufacturers who could make our designs a reality and put us on the path to being a real company. There was only so much I could do on my computer. I had to get out there and discover it on my own.