What we’re talking about

If your business is based on selling physical products – whether apparel, home goods or food and drink – finding a manufacturer that can produce your lines at the scale you need will be one of the most important things you do. You could try to handle manufacturing yourself, but that’ll only work at small quantities – unless you’re about to build out your own factory, that is. Instead, many small businesses focus on building their brands in-house and outsourcing the building of their products to others. But finding the right partner for production can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. 

Why it’s important

Finding the right manufacturer impacts a lot – from product quality and consistency to the time it takes to develop new versions or colorways, and even how quickly you can replenish stock when it sells out. Ideally, this is a decision you’ll get right from the start because setting up a production run requires some up-front investment for prototyping and setting up packaging and distributing processes. While you can switch manufacturers further down the line, it’s likely to be a bit of a headache.

Things to note

You should factor sustainability aspects into your decision. There was a time when businesses made manufacturing decisions solely based on cost. But as consumers are increasingly demanding more information about how the products they buy are made, it’s worth factoring in sustainability considerations as well. Ask questions (and ideally review evidence, if available) about how workers are treated and what wages they are paid; whether the manufacturers have any environmentally friendly processes in place; and whether they track things like energy, water and waste. Also consider the environmental impacts of your manufacturing location – shipping or air freighting goods over long distances is a major source of carbon emissions, so it can matter how far your factory is from your distribution centers, stores and end customers.

Developing a product will probably take longer than you expect. It sounds like it should be a quick process: you know exactly what you want and your manufacturer is an expert in producing goods like yours. In reality, it can take a lot of back and forth (especially if you’re working in multiple languages or across time zones) to get all parties on the same page about what the end result should look like. Plus, manufacturers often prioritize customers based on order size or customer relationship – so it could take a while for them to slot in a new brand that’s ordering just a few units for a first run.

If you’re new to your industry, it’s probably worth getting some external support. We’re usually huge advocates of doing as much as you can in-house, especially when you’re starting out, but getting expert support to find the right manufacturing partner could speed up your search and help you avoid making expensive mistakes. Look for consultants or brokers who have expertise in your specific industry or sector – they should know some manufacturers already and be able to support you through any technical evaluations.

How to find the right manufacturing partner

1. Define your product. This first step probably deserves a dedicated guide of its own because it’s a big one. While you might have a sense of the kind of product you want to create, you want to put it down on paper as specifically as you can – think: dimensions, ingredient mixes, materials, packaging ideas… all of that. You’ll probably end up deviating from your original specification based on the capabilities (and costs) of the manufacturer you end up selecting, but it’s important to have a clear starting point for what you want to produce. 

2. Do some research. Dig around to get a sense for where in the world products like yours tend to be manufactured and see if you can find information online about suppliers. This could be tricky as not all manufacturers have websites or information that’s readily available; use Google and look at packaging for similar products to see if you can discern anything about where they were made. You might be able to pay for access to some manufacturer databases, which could be helpful. Trade fairs are another great place to find potential partners, so sign up to a few relevant ones – every industry is likely to have a couple of big annual events.

3. Find a broker or third-party expert. As above, this step is optional but highly recommended if you want to save yourself time and money. Finding someone who can help you identify manufacturers and vet their processes and technical capabilities might take as much research as finding manufacturers directly. Ask around (never estimate the power of your network or word of mouth) and scour platforms like LinkedIn.

4. Make a list of suppliers and reach out. Between your research and knowledge from third-party experts, you should be able to create a list of potential manufacturer partners that might be able to produce products like the one you have in mind. Make contact – with enough information about your brand and product spec so they know you’re serious. Though you might expect people to respond quickly to potential new business, the best manufacturers likely already have enough demand for their products, so don’t be disheartened if you have to follow up and chase people before getting a response.   

5. Get some samples. Request samples from your shortlisted suppliers to see what kind of materials they work with and the standard they produce to. Note that you may have to pay for swatches of materials or for products to be posted to you – so make sure you factor that into any product development budget as these could add up if you’re getting samples from several manufacturers. This is also the time to ask for estimated production costs. 

6. Narrow down your list and order some prototypes. At this point, you want to select one to three manufacturers to move forward with to prototype your product. Prototyping or ‘sampling’ can be a costly process as manufacturers will charge a higher price to create a small run of a brand-new product due to set-up costs on their end. For this reason, if all the information you’ve gathered so far gives you confidence in only one supplier, move forward with just them and keep your other options as backups.

7. Kick off a production run. The prototyping process might require you to adapt your original specification somewhat to match your manufacturer’s capability. Once you’ve refined your design with them and are happy with the result, you’re ready to kick off a proper production run.

Key takeaways

• Finding the right manufacturer is essential to developing and producing a product that your customers will love.

• The process might take longer than you expect, and it could be worth investing in some external support to save you from making costly mistakes.

• There are lots of things you should factor into your decision – some obvious ones are location, capabilities and cost, but you should also consider asking about the social and environmental impacts of their production processes. 

Learn more

Perspective. Justin Seidenfeld, CEO of product development agency Doris Dev, gives his tips on how to find a good product development agency.

Example. Brands are increasingly sharing information about their supply chains online. Look to see if any of your peers list manufacturing regions or share profiles of their supply-chain partners.

Tool. Platforms like SupplyCompass (which focuses on apparel) act as a database of potential manufacturers that can shorten your search. 

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