Every day, new and experienced entrepreneurs ask me the question: "How do I find a manufacturer?" I wish there was one simple answer to this important question. What I've found is that it's somewhat like a treasure hunt--looking for that hidden jewel of a partner. If you're making a new invention--let's call it a "thingamajig"--you can't exactly open the phone book to find a company currently making "thingamajigs" and ask for a quote.
Another frequently asked question is: "Should I produce my product here in the U.S. or overseas?" Again, there are pros and cons to both and serious considerations that only you'll be able to decide upon. Your answer might even be "both" and like many of the challenges entrepreneurs solve every day, there may be more than one "right" way.
That said, there are key resources and information to help you get started. I will share my own story, outline a basic process to follow and provide some resources for finding the right manufacturer.
My First Manufacturing Experience
My first overseas manufacturing experience was a disaster. I found the company via the internet. Although the manufacturing was done in China, an English-speaking agent was available in the U.S., so I thought that the process was relatively simple. After discussing the terms with this rep, I felt confident to move forward.
Since I didn't know the "right" questions to ask, I couldn't foresee the awaiting disaster: 2,000 units arriving at my doorstep, misprinted with the packaging falling apart. Since I'd planned to present this product at my first tradeshow just two days later, my husband and I stayed up all night gluing the blister packs back onto the backer cards. I couldn't fix the print job, so I showed up at the tradeshow and made the best of it.
The lesson I learned from this experience was this: Unless you're starting out well-connected--or you're incredibly lucky--it's not likely that you'll find the perfect fit with your first phone call. At a certain point, you've got to accept some risk and get into the game. To do this, and to minimize your risk, create a network for your business. Start speaking to people in the appropriate area. View your invention as a product--because people buy products, not inventions--and start talking to product developers, manufacturers and other peers.
Where to Start
With the understanding that you're building a network, which takes time, and seeking information--not necessarily finding your final partner--now's the time to get started. An abundance of online resources can help you get this process started, including Thomasnet.com , Tdctrade.com and Alibaba.com . For additional resources, visit the gold member area on our website Mominventors.com .
Public organizations can also assist you. Most states have programs offering support and manufacturing resources. For example, one resource in California is the Center for International Trade & Development . The U.S. Small Business Administration also has small business development centers in most communities.
If you decide to use overseas factories, asking the right questions is critical to determining if they might be a fit. Be sure to ask:
- Do you specialize in certain materials? Do you work with specific materials, for example, neoprene, nylon, cotton, plastic or metal?
- Do you work with small companies?
- What are your engineering and tooling capabilities?
For the full list of questions, go to the gold member area of our website and click on manufacturing resources.
As I mentioned earlier, many overseas factories have a U.S.-based agent that represents them. If you find a factory that seems like a fit, ask if you can contact their domestic agent. Even though my first experience wasn't a good one, after I learned to ask the right questions and exhibited at my first tradeshow, I was able to find another manufacturer in China who has become a trusted partner.
Recognize that your first factory and your first run may not be your final partner. So start with smaller runs. You may even "get in the game" with a prototype.
Continue Networking at a Tradeshow
Once you get your prototype or samples in hand, go to a tradeshow. Find out which trade association serves your target market. The best way to get this information is to search the internet and to ask retailers which trade associations they are affiliated with and which trade magazines they read. It's not uncommon for new companies to show up at a trade show with nothing more than a prototype--dressed up to look retail ready. In addition to getting product feedback at the show and some potential orders, you'll meet other manufacturers in the same industry. Use this opportunity to find people with non-competing products and ask for their factory representatives. In addition, factory representatives often troll these shows for new customers. Those who think they can make your product will likely introduce themselves.
Communicate clearly when speaking to reps and realize that price is just one of the many elements to discuss. Other important issues are tooling or pattern fees, ownership of molds and patterns, how they handle production flaws, payment terms and minimum runs. Don't accept too large of an initial run. For example, an overseas manufacturer may say that their minimum run is 50,000 units. In a case like this, see if you can start with 1,000 samples first and if not, find another manufacturer.
Finally, as you go through the process of finding a manufacturer, recognize that while you're looking for the best partner for you, factories are looking for the best partners for themselves. These are serious business people who have invested thousands--maybe millions--of dollars in their companies. They usually specialize in certain areas of production. So be sure to present yourself as a professional and sell your strengths and why you would be an asset to them.
Keep in mind that overseas manufacturers may have been "burned" by many budding inventors; therefore, do your best to be a good partner. If they sense that you are less than serious, difficult to work with, unfocused or you don't have a well-developed business and marketing plan, they'll make it difficult to deal with them.
Remember that overseas cultures are quite different than your own. Rather than simply saying, "No, I won't give you a quote as I don't think your plan will succeed," they may say, "Yes, I will do a run for you; the minimum volume is 100,000 units." On the other hand, since they are business people, if they see merit in your plan and trust that you'll be loyal after your product begins to take off, they can also be incredibly flexible.
Think of finding a manufacturer as a networking process-- not a single event. Start your treasure hunt through research and making as many contacts as possible, then watch your "thingamajig" take off.