What a Difference a Good Manufacturer Makes

I’m hot of the heels of a trip to China to visit my factory and suppliers and sourcing agents. This is the second time I’ve gone, and this year was as good as the first (see recap of first visit here).

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Working side-by-side with our Chinese sample room. This is one of my Top 5 Po Campo activities. It’s soo fun!

I’m on my fourth manufacturer, and while each one was a little better than the last, the group I’m working with now is so far and away better that I now know what I was missing out on all those years. It’s like I had a series of mediocre and mildly abusive relationships that I knew weren’t great but felt like the best I could do, to finally being with someone who values me and makes me feel worthwhile. I mean, it’s just a world of difference. Do you find yourself reaching for dating metaphors all the time too?

Just in case you are also in a so-so relationship with your manufacturer, here is a list of things I now realize I was settling for but shouldn’t have been:

1) The product shipped to you should meet your expectations. 

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Examples of “defects” we’d have to catch in our own inspections.

Previously, we would inspect every bag to make sure there weren’t any dots on the printed fabric, missing shoulder straps, etc. We’d tally up the ones we couldn’t sell, ask for a credit from our manufacturer, and then take photos of them to list on eBay for 50% off.

At the time, I was kind of proud that we had such stringent QC measures. I could tell customers we hand-inspected every product in-house, which sounded good. Now I realize how costly that was for us to do labor-wise, not to mention redundant, and that demanding products that you can ship straight-away is not unreasonable. We now ship our products to a 3rd party warehouse and I don’t worry about someone getting a “bad one”. Huge improvement!

2) It’s okay to be uncompromising about things important to your product.

Manufacturers make money on large, repeat orders because they get faster and faster. Since we don’t order a ton of product, I always approached our manufacturers kind of apologetically. Like, “I know this isn’t a big order but I would be so grateful if you made it. I know it’s a small quantity so I’ll pay extra. Thank you, thank you, you are so kind”. If a little detail was off on the samples or production, I wouldn’t want to bother them or seem difficult, so I would often just let it slide. Giving into the temptation of mediocrity!

Now I have a manufacturer that wants to make what I design, and asks for clarification on every little detail. I’m prouder of our products now because I know it will stand up to scrutiny, which I never had confidence in before. It turns out that the best way to get repeat orders is to make a superior product, but it wasn’t until I had a manufacturer who expected a commitment to that from me that I felt like I had permission to demand it. Yes, I know I shouldn’t need permission to demand what I need, but nobody’s perfect.

3) Transparency is a good thing

Despite manufacturing in China for five years, I’ve only made two visits. Why? Because nobody invited me over before and it didn’t seem worthwhile to demand to go, since I didn’t know what to look for anyway.

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Visiting with suppliers and learning the nuts and bolts about how everything is made.

Last year, on my first trip to China, the sourcing company that I worked with (and when I say “manufacturer” in this blog post, that’s whom I referring to) took me around to all of their suppliers. I met so many people in the office, beyond just the people working directly on Po Campo, and everyone was friendly and interested in my business. They readily answer my questions about their business, other companies they are working with, etc.

My previous manufacturers were more opaque, in that I rarely knew anybody’s name in China, was never invited to visit, never saw any pictures of the factory, or even an office. Were they hiding something? I don’t think so. I think that they thought I wouldn’t be interested in it and it’s easier for them to keep me out of the nitty gritty because they don’t have to deal with any ignorant questions. And, until I experienced the openness with my current manufacturer, I probably would have agreed with that to a certain extent. But if you plan to stick around for awhile, which I do, then having a transparent relationship goes so much farther in building trust.

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My team in China.

How is your relationship with your manufacturer? Did you realize you were settling for something that you shouldn’t have? Please leave your stories in the comments below so that we can learn from one another.

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