Make your Designs Come to Life (or, 10 Things To Know in working with a Manufacturer)

I’m Mike Arnot, the founder of Owen & Fred. We design and manufacture men’s goods exclusively in the United States. We transform ordinary and boring products into extraordinary designs. Owen & Fred works with manufacturers in over 12 states, from Maine to Washington and everywhere in between, and with materials ranging from concrete and copper to leather and soap.

Over the past three years we have developed a fair amount of insight into designing products that people love, finding great manufacturers to work with, and nurturing that relationship. You might call them manufacturers, but we call them “partners”. Because for us, that’s exactly what they are. We’re in this together.

One additional important point: Owen & Fred is a manufacturer in its own right. Most of our leather products, and our famous little luggage tags, are designed, cut, and crafted in house by us. I’ve personally made several hundred luggage tags, key chains and other products. We make products for advertising agencies and sports teams. Accordingly, we’ve been on the receiving end of working with clients, so I think we have some good insight having seen both “sides”.

 
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1. Build a relationship.
We have great relationships with every manufacturer we work with. We do this by maintaining great and responsive communication with our partners via phone, email, text, visiting them, and breaking bread with them. I’ve visited manufacturers in many states. (A side benefit: you get to see America, and take great photos for your Instagram account.) Remember to not focus so much on business - a constructive, light-hearted relationship with a partner will go a long way. People first, business later. Being open and honest with manufacturers means that you can develop a long-term relationship. If you make them your partners, they will be, and that will save your hide countless times. They’ll help you spot mistakes before you make them. And if you think long-term, not short term - you can work with them for a lifetime. We certainly intend to do so.

2. Do your homework.
Its good to get acquainted with a new material, a new process. We like to dig deep. We like to understand the difference between high carbon steel and cold rolled steel, and how each is made. We do our homework, and it often starts with a Google search. The materials and industry you are working with has a long history, rules, and nuances you will become familiar with. A little background can go a long way in helping you understand how to get to a finished product, communicate ideas with a manufacturer, and move forward successfully. And on a related note, learn how to work a ruler or the units of measure for the materials you’re working with. Fractions, decimals, millimeters, eighths and ounces. Know this cold. It’s not obvious – and mistakes lead to production errors.

3. Don’t assume that you’re a good communicator.
You’ve been working on an idea for a long time. You’ve done many, many sketches, thrown said sketches in the garbage, and talked about your new widget endlessly with anyone who will listen. You’ve shown your mom, your girlfriend, and you think your newest design is fantastic and you’re really excited about it. But you really need to think about how you will communicate the idea to the manufacturer. A drawing is great, but a drawing often doesn’t get across all of the details you want to show. You don’t want to make assumptions about what you are expecting from the final product. Get used to giving precise and detailed communication – often outside of the sketch or rendering.

4. Be incredibly precise, even if it seems like overkill.
If you leave a part of your design up to interpretation, or don’t reference it at all, you are taking a risk. Your manufacturer will either contact you to ask (which is undoubtedly a pain for them), or make an educated guess based on what they think makes the most sense or what you meant. The good news is that your manufacturers probably have a good sense of what will work and what doesn’t, but why leave it to chance? Specify every last detail you think is important, or be surprised when you get the first prototype. You will save time and worry by communicating your vision as meticulously as possible.

5. Rely on their judgment - you’re not their first bronco at the rodeo.
For a young company like us, we bring our designs to new manufacturers, and rely on their judgment of how they will transition the vision into the tangible and into production. Your partners have a lot they can share and they can foresee issues with the design that can be overcome or gone around. Be humble, and rely on their expertise.

6. Communicate timelines in advance.
In the industry Owen & Fred operates, there are particular events that influence our timelines. There is a trade show cycle that follows buying seasons – and many times are a year out from delivery of the product. There are a number of elements to your presentation that you need to show to buyers in advance and communicating timelines and deadlines with manufacturers will help you meet those timelines. Having your manufacturers on your side when you are working to meet deadlines is key. The more clear and explicit you can be about your deadlines the better. In our experience, an open-ended project deadline never actually gets done.

7. Ask lots of questions. Even dumb questions.
Don’t be afraid to ask. When I first meet with a manufacturer – typically for a new material we’re working with or a new process, I tell them to talk to me like I am a 5 year old. (I’m telling you, it helps.) It’s hard to know what is important and what isn’t if you don’t ask a lot of questions. My number one question? “What are the three things your designers do wrong when working with you?” We’ve made enough production errors to know to ask that. I think they’ll respect you even more for trying to make their lives a bit easier. Furthermore, when you ask lots of questions you might find out things you didn’t even set out to know. I met with a brass manufacturer and saw a huge coil of copper sitting on the shelf. It spurred an idea. Not being particularly shy, I asked what it was, and whether it would be a suitable material for a totally different product that I’d had in the back of my mind. And just like that - presto – a new product was born.

8. Understand your unit economics.
Understanding your unit economics will save stress and worry in the long run, and ultimately, help you to create a better product. What do I mean by unit economics? Knowing what your retail, wholesale and costs need to be to make the product a success. It seems simple, but it seems many designers don’t focus this, which is a time waste for all involved.

9. Are you aiming to scale production? Can your manufacturer scale with you?
Can your manufacturer sell the amount of units you might be selling? Particularly when you have large orders from national retailers, this is a question that comes into play. Some manufacturers are able to scale with you if you are going to be selling larger and larger quantities of a product. Others might not have the same capacity.

10. Don’t overpromise. Be humble.
Share excitement in the project but don’t oversell it. Don’t indicate sales expectations that are pie in the sky. You’ll lose credibility. Be honest about what you expect - in fact, it is best to be humble on this end. It is better to have a small order that you end up exceeding.You want to have credibility, so go slow. You don’t need to sell yourself as a superstar - work with your manufacturer to become one.