An Entrepreneur Reveals Their Key to Success: Alexandra Ferguson on “Doggedness”

dog·ged1 [daw-gid, dog-id]

adjective: persistent in effort; stubbornly tenacious: a dogged worker.

I don’t believe in the word “no.”  Same goes for “it can’t be done” and “impossible.”
And as it turns out, that belief is probably one of the key factors that make me a good entrepreneur. Or just really stubborn.

The problem is that, after 10 years of working with factories – whether it’s runway fashion sample rooms, small factories in the NYC garment district, giant factories in southeast Asia or at my own factory in Brooklyn today – more often than not I have turned “we can’t do it” into a viable product in the marketplace.  A determined woman with a proven track record is a force to be reckoned with.

While my process is not for the faint of heart – and I admit to driving many a factory merchandiser completely nuts over the years –there are four distinct methods that I use to help drive innovation and make unique products a reality:

1. Understand the equipment

The first thing I do before I start working with a new supplier is to pay them a visit. Perhaps part of it is selfish – I find factory tours to be fascinating.  And over the course of ten years, I have seen my fair share of machinery. From cut and sew lines, to fabric printing, metal stamping, plastic injection molding, and even electrical hardware assembly and wine fermenting – I am always asking my tour guide an exhaustive number of questions so that I can understand how it works.

And as a product developer, my first job is to understand the outer limits of what those machines can do. While I do believe that machines have boundaries, I have often found that those boundaries are far beyond what people think they are.

 And that’s of course before you bring in the mechanic…

Sometimes it just takes a creative, fresh approach to see a machine in a new light.  For one project several years ago, we were trying to get a piece of foam to fold along many crease lines. Part of the problem was finding the right material that was both rigid and soft, and cut consistently really thin.  On a factory tour (for a completely different project), we were shown a slicing machine.  I ask the guide:
→“What’s the thinnest that machine can slice?”  He told me ¼.”  I needed 1/8.”  “Can’t be done,” was his reply.

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I’m looking at the blades, and I’m looking at the dial. In my head I’m seeing my solution, so I ask again:
→“Well what happens when you set that dial just a little bit further over?”  He told me that the material will create a jam. “Have you tried it using a denser kind of foam?”

I can see it in his eyes – he doesn’t want to deal with the headache.  They’ve simply never done it before, so he tells me it won’t work.  For a half hour he pushed back on me. “But do you think you could just try?  Humor me. Just one sheet?”

He was in bulk production with us two months later.

Knowing what tools you don’t have at your disposal is also equally important.  For example, I made the mistake once of working with a local NY factory that wouldn’t allow me to come visit (red flag #1). We had commissioned them to make polyfill pillow inserts for a special project. When we got the first (and only) production run back from them, the pillows were really lumpy and not at all up to our standards. At which point I learned that they didn’t have a blower machine, which takes raw bales of polyfill and fluffs it up.  We quickly moved to another factory.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 12.25.41 AM Image by: Colin Miller Photography

2. Isolate the problem

Recently at my factory, my sewer was pulling her hair out trying to sew together industrial felt and thick pebbled leather. She’d “wasted” a half hour and an entire spool of expensive Gutermann thread trying to join one seam before she finally came to me – “we can’t make the bag!”

I sat down next to her. Her frustration was palpable. She is an incredibly skilled sewer and all she had to show for her afternoon was a mess of thread and a packet of broken needles. “Well, I can either call the client and walk away from the project, or we can try to figure this out,” I said calmly.  “Shall we see what we can do?” She looked down and shook her head in defeat.  I took it as “OK.”

In my head, I start listing all the variables at play. We have the 3mm felt, heavy duty leather, sewing needles, thread, several settings on the machine (height of the feed dog, tension, broken pieces we aren’t aware of), and the design of the bag. And maybe even some out of the box questions, like did it make a difference if we sewed fast or slow?

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Which part of that cocktail is the one that needs changing?

I sat down at the machine myself and started with a single layer of felt.  No problem.  Two layers of felt?  Fine.  So it’s not that the felt is too thick. Two layers of leather together?  Looked great.  It’s not that the material is too tough.

Then I tried one layer of felt with one layer of leather. There it was – disaster. Something was happening with the stickiness of the leather meeting the sponginess of the felt.

I drilled down even further. We switched to regular T40 thread (got worse). The thread is not the problem. So I suggested changing the tough cow leather to a softer lamb skin. Then we looked at the pattern and identified all the places where we had several layers of leather and felt joining together and eliminated some seams. One by one we went down the list.

She came to me a few hours later with a finished sample.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 12.27.35 AM

By isolating the problem, we transformed “we can’t make the bag” into “we can’t make the bag with this leather and construction.”  Now THAT is something I can work with.

3. Be open to the journey

A few years ago, I decided to launch a tabletop line including placemats, napkins and coasters.

Based on my competitive research, I knew that I would have to explore some different materials and manufacturing methods in order to hit the target price point.  So I did two things:
•I met with a silkscreen printer for the decoration.
•I Replaced our embroidered main labels with printed ones.

The project ate up months of time and thousands of dollars. And when we brought them to market, the reaction was tepid.  We did one small production run, and then quietly scrapped the line.

Sounds wasteful, right?

Well now I had a thousand printed main labels that actually looked a whole lot cleaner and sharper than the ones we were using before. And they cost $2.25 less. So while they were only originally intended to be for the tabletop line, we have been using them on our pillows ever since, ostensibly saving tens of thousands of dollars – much more than I spent on the entire “wasted” development of my placemats.

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Not only that – later that spring, I got a call from a price-sensitive key account buyer looking to pick up some pillows.  Now that I had the relationship (and practice) with the silkscreen printer, I suggested to the buyer that we run a diffusion line of pillows with printing instead of applique that would hit his target price. His in-warehouse due date was six weeks away, but with the infrastructure already in place, we were able to seal the deal and ship 600 pillows on time.

The lesson is that you never know what will come out of intensive explorations.  Sometimes the most impactful innovations come from failure.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 12.31.26 AM

4. Gain trust

The first few projects you will do with a new supplier will be the hardest. Put yourself in their shoes – who is this person, and who are they to tell me what I can and can’t do?  It’s fair.

But I’ve also experienced the excitement and awe that a factory rep feels when they push themselves past their own boundaries and produce the sample that no one dreamed was possible. The best factory workers take a tremendous amount of pride in the objects that they produce, and when they produce something that even they didn’t think was possible, they will be exuberant.

When I first meet someone and ask them to make something crazy, I usually get a lot of pushback. But with each successful project, I earn their trust a little bit more and they are more willing to take risks with me.

Manufacturing innovative product is not for the faint at heart.  Straight up, it’s hard. But that’s also why it hasn’t been done before, and why you will be able to carve out a unique position in the marketplace. After all, if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it. So if manufacturing road blocks start coming your way, take a deep breath and smile.  It might mean that you are on to something good.