Q: How do you find a manufacturer to make your product?
A: For startup entrepreneurs, there may be no more important question to ponder.
"Selecting the right manufacturing partner is going to save you a tremendous amount of headache," says Ashton Udall, a founder of Global Sourcing Specialists, a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based firm that helps startups find manufacturers and develop their products.
Myriad considerations go into the manufacturing equation. Udall preaches due diligence at every step. The decision, after all, will have a direct impact on the quality of your product, your company's reputation and the bottom line. When choosing a manufacturer, you'll need to consider the nature of your company and how well the supply chain supports its business model.
"There's no one-size-fits-all rule," Udall says. "If you're a consumer startup and want to sell to high-volume, big-box retailers, that likely means you're going to start looking in Asia. If you're a fashion retailer turning clothes out every six months, you need to be flexible and nimble, so you might look [locally] for a cut-and-sew manufacturer that can produce small batches of inventory on a very short lead time."
No surprise, the internet is a good place to start your search. Popular resources such as Alibaba.com, MadeInChina.com and GlobalSources.com provide plenty of good information, Udall says, but he warns that the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is relying solely on a website to guide their decision.
In most cases, it's wise to hire an agent, someone with expertise in assessing factory operations. When screening agents, look at their track record, find out how long they've been in business and talk to previous clients. "There's so much risk in a startup; you want to look for ways to take the risk out," Udall says. "One way to do that is hiring professionals. You wouldn't go out and pretend to be a lawyer. Don't pretend to be a manufacturing or sourcing expert if you're not."
Udall urges entrepreneurs who don't hire an agent to visit prospective factories. "I don't care if it's China or Timbuktu," he says. "The internet does not suffice."
Visiting a factory enables you to meet your prospective business partners and gauge the quality of their facilities and breadth of their services. Ask about the size of the quality-control and engineering staffs. Find out whether tools are built on-site. Take note of organization and cleanliness.
"These are the things you want to understand about the company," Udall says. "As a startup, you have to be able to leverage other people's competencies and resources as much as possible."
Lastly, be sure to provide proper documentation for your product--a meticulous accounting of its size, shape, weight, taste, color, smell and any other qualities the factory needs to know to manufacture it precisely as you intended. "Good documentation," Udall says, "is the key to good communication."
Christopher Hann is a freelance writer in Lebanon Township, N.J., and an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University.