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Seeing a product idea become a tangible reality is the ultimate thrill for any startup, but getting to that point is another story. Before a product can begin to bring in revenue, startups must travel the long road from sketch, to prototype, to a manufactured product. To reach a manufactured product, the startup needs a manufacturer — and finding the right manufacturing partner is critical.
The manufacturer will have a direct effect on the quality of the final product, so this choice puts the entire company and its profitability on the line. Here are a few questions startups should make sure they know the answers to before choosing their ideal manufacturing partner.
A great way to start researching manufacturers is to check out websites like Alibaba.com, Industrynet.com, and Globalsources.com. These provide information about local and international manufacturers that might be suitable for the job. Keep in mind that the manufacturing cycle is complicated and sensitive, and a lot rides on it. The typical DIY spirit of startup companies and a few hours of Googling will not be enough to find the best manufacturer and ensure a successful manufacturing partnership. Some startups prefer to play it safe by hiring an agent with expertise in manufacturing and logistics in their relevant field. This is an option startups should consider if their budget allows for it.
If hiring an agent is out of the question, then approaching people who already have experience getting their product manufactured is the next best thing. Startup owners are often in contact with other entrepreneurs, and this community can be an excellent resource for navigating the waters of manufacturing. Ask other startups how they did it — what was their experience, what are the hidden traps to pay attention to, which manufacturers were they in touch with? Getting to know other's setbacks and successes will save a lot of legwork.
Every startup is different, and so are its manufacturing needs. The best choice of manufacturing partner will depend on the type of materials, the manufacturing process, and the method most suitable for the particular product. Consult with several manufacturers that have experience in the niche or with similar products and see what material samples they can offer. When the startup isn't working with an agent, it can be particularly worthwhile to visit the prospective manufacturer and see the factory and its capabilities in person. This provides the opportunity to properly inspect the facilities, staff, machinery, quality control, and more, and to assess their suitability as a manufacturing partner.
Other important aspects to consider are the labor conditions and sustainability practices of the manufacturer — particularly in those based in countries with labor laws and environmental regulations that aren't as strict as in the U.S. Ask the manufacturer about the rights and conditions of workers, eco-friendly protocols, and where they source their raw materials. All these will have an impact on whether the manufacturer meets the ethical standards and values of the startup.
This is a key question in the search for a manufacturing partner, and there is no right or wrong answer. For startups looking to produce at the lowest possible cost, working with an overseas manufacturer might be the only choice. This will mean factoring in longer turnaround times, potential import and customs issues, and the cost of international travel to meet with the manufacturer and visit the site as necessary.
Manufacturing locally has the advantage of being closer, which means having the ability to drop in at the factory on short notice and maintain a higher level of control. While manufacturing in the U.S. is more expensive, the benefits include no import processes to deal with and quick turnaround times. For value-conscious brands that want to promote the local economy, having a "Made in the USA," stamp can be an invaluable part of a brand's identity.
Whether a startup works with a local or overseas manufacturer, there are several things to look for. Make sure to properly assess each of these aspects in the startup’s search for best manufacturing partner:
This critical manufacturing stage is not the time to cut any corners. Take a look at the manufacturer's track record. How long has it been operational? What products does it specialize in? What is its technical expertise? The manufacturer should be knowledgeable about the materials, technologies, and processes required to manufacture the product successfully. Ask specific questions to get a sense of its capabilities, such as pricing conditions, minimum orders, scalability, and more.
Any good manufacturer will have a respectable range of samples to showcase its capabilities and quality. Request samples of similar products or those made of similar materials or complexity in order to ascertain their experience and expertise. Ask questions about the processes that went into manufacturing the sample, such as turnaround time, cost, and quality control issues that arose. It's also important to request references and to consult with prior and current customers. They'll provide a more rounded and objective picture of what to expect.
A quick way to judge a manufacturer’s quality is to check whether it works with well-known brands. If it does, it’s easy to find out if it has ever faced any regulatory issues or fines, and if located overseas, what its labor and environmental policies are. Regardless of whether the manufacturer has worked with well-known brands, it’s still a good idea to find out this information. Also, invest some time in assessing the quality control department. Quality control is a crucial stage of the manufacturing process that ensures consistent product quality and uniformity while minimizing errors and manufacturing costs in the long term.
Another key issue to consider is the impact of the manufacturing process on time to market. Turnaround times will depend on several factors, such as the size of the manufacturer, what equipment and machinery are used, and the manufacturer’s schedule. Other issues that can affect turnaround times include whether the manufacturer handles sourcing of parts and materials, or whether the startup will need to provide them. Every detail of the manufacturing process should be discussed and detailed in advance to accurately estimate the manufacturer’s ability to meet deadlines without compromising on quality.
When a startup has put so much time, energy, and resources into developing its great idea, the manufacturing stage can be easily overlooked. However, choosing the right manufacturing partner is a vital step, and it requires substantial research and planning. The good news is that every minute invested in finding the best manufacturer is a direct investment in the success of the product and the future of the company.
Originally published on January 16th, 2020, last updated on June 22nd, 2022.