In 2012 I started MATINE as a side project while I was working full-time. I had a little bit of leather and a sewing machine in a spare bedroom. Today I run a full-time production studio where me and a few assistants hand craft many of our bags, while also working with a manufacturer to produce some of our most popular styles.
Let me be clear: this is not something I planned from the start and I did not know what I was doing when I set out to hire a factory just two years later (it still sounds a little serious and intimidating to say!). This kind of growth may or may not be something you set out for, so when you arrive at a crossroads where you need to think about manufacturing, it can feel a lot like driving around aimlessly, looking for answers to questions you don’t know, while everyone else appears to have a map and knows exactly where they’re going.
THE CONDITIONS WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR EVERY PRODUCT, OF COURSE, BUT I’VE PULLED TOGETHER SOME THOUGHTS TO CONSIDER THAT I HOPE ARE UNIVERSAL AND HELPFUL AS A STARTING POINT IF YOU’VE BEEN CONSIDERING OUTSOURCING SOME, OR ALL, OF YOUR PRODUCTION!
WHERE ARE ALL THE MANUFACTURERS?
In my experience, the internet does not make it easy to find manufacturers.It’s certainly a good place to start, but I’ve found that many, many factories have outdated websites, often with little to no useful information—and that’s if they turn up in your search in the first place. Luckily, there is at least one great resource I can point you to called Maker’s Row. It’s a paid service, but may be well worth your while for the simplicity and ease of use.
My other suggestion in your factory search is incidentally something I recommend for most other business questions as well: ask someone who knows. Is there a brand in your field that is doing something similar? It never hurts to reach out and ask for a recommendation. Some people are sensitive about sharing resources and information, but you won’t know until you try! If you don’t have luck asking directly, there’s always the breadcrumbs of social media—my factory loves to be tagged in photos, so it’s easy to track them down, but you can also look for cities where products are made to help narrow your search.
PROTECT YOUR VALUES
There’s an existential crisis that every maker experiences when they start to expand and ask for help. What does it mean to be a maker if you no longer make it all? I suggest thinking about the things that are important to you, your products and your customers. For MATINE, I wanted it to still feel like a handmade product, made by a real person, and I wanted to work with another business that I genuinely support. I chose a small, women-owned American factory. They have a full-time staff of artisans they treat well, they send photos of our work in progress and tell us about the individuals sewing our pieces. It doesn’t feel like a “factory”, it feels like a group of makers who can work far more efficiently than I ever could. So at the end of the day, even though I don’t personally make each product, I’m confident that I’ve found a natural extension of our own approach and the manufactured products fit right in next to the handmade.
IT’S OK TO MAKE YOUR OWN RULES
Expanding production is expensive (I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund our first production runs), time intensive and labor intensive. There are major adjustments that come when you’re no longer making each item to order or crafting in small batches. So rather than biting off too much by trying to emulate what I see (or think) other businesses do, I allow myself to create my own rules.
It would never have been feasible for me to jump immediately into 100% manufactured goods, so instead I’ve taken a hybrid approach that lowers the risk. Many MATINE styles are still handmade to order, and only when we get into a really steady demand for a product do we move it into production. Remember it’s okay to find your own rhythm and make a manufacturing relationship work the way you need it to.
Patience is something I struggle with daily, but you really need to embrace it if you’re going to expand your production. Everything takes at least three times longer than you think it will. (I started conversations with my factory a full year before we received finished products!) There will be road blocks and bumps and detours and all kinds of other traffic metaphors, but in the end, focus on your end goal: to free up your precious time to focus on your business and do more of the things you love. You might be in a rush to get to that point, but lots of patience is the only way to get there.
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise, Carolyn!