There are a lot of “hardest parts” about getting an apparel business off the ground. A lot. Arguably, the single most challenging component faced in the initial stages of our journey to launch the next great American brand, was finding vendors that wanted to take a chance on a new apparel startup. Finding a great and reliable cut and sew provider here in the United States was the biggest pain point. Fabrics, tags, buttons, etc. were no small feat either, but it was the cut and sew component that consumed the most time, brought the most heart palpitations, and cost the most money. It seemed like not one single vendor was willing to take a chance on a new business with a new concept–not to mention one that used difficult fabrics.
Before resources like Maker’s Row existed, finding domestic manufacturers was in and of itself a significant challenge. Few had websites, and if they did, Google wasn’t readily pulling them up. From there, phone numbers didn’t work, and those that did often went straight to voicemail or resulted in a badly broken English conversation that yielded no results. We learned over time that most of the production houses that are still in business in the States have a relatively viable (and very specific) stream of business in terms of one or two garment types.
They had just enough equipment and labor to manage that small niche, and they were not looking for a new client. We also faced the additional challenge of convincing vendors that manufactured dress shirts to work with our stretch performance fabric. This was frustrating on a number of levels. We were fully committed and believed in making our products here at home, but were stalled in finding one of the most critical components of our supply chain.
Sure, we were hardly the most attractive client. We didn’t have much working capital, our order runs were small, we needed to be nimble, and to be frank we had no idea what we were doing. We had a mission and a purpose. That only took us so far.
What we have learned is that your vendors, and your relationship with your vendors, can make or break your business. At first it seemed like the only thing that mattered was selling our line. Sell. Sell. Sell! Now that our business is growing, production remains our biggest headache. In order to make enough product to meet the demands of both our retail stockists and our loyal e-commerce customers, we need to be able to deliver.
I could go into a lengthy story about how many times we’ve been burned by various vendors, but I’m pretty sure that most new designers have had similar experiences. While a few of our vendors are relatively straightforward to work with–submit PO, receive product in standard turn time–some remained a constant, significant challenge. With that said, we’re happy to have found a cut and sew supplier who’ve become more than suppliers, they have become like family to us and critical to the growing success of our business.
The following three rules are the highlights of what we’ve learned in working with a plethora of both wonderful and difficult partners.
Trust Your Gut
The moment you start to feel like you can’t trust the person you are working with, reevaluate the partnership. Keep in mind that this person has, in many respects, your business in their hands. I know that sounds melodramatic, but truly, if you can’t deliver your product in its highest quality, your brand will suffer immensely and potentially irreversibly. Often times we asked vendors for referrals from other clients they had worked with in the past. If there is any hesitation here, run.
I would also suggest making a trip to meet your vendor in person. Shake their hand and get a good read on who you are dealing with. Although most people are trustworthy and do their best, it never hurts to double check. Meeting face to face does not guarantee success in your relationship, but it has been vital to ours time and time again.
Keep Your Cool but Speak Up
I will be the first person to admit that when dealing with a production crisis, I’ve become the worst version of myself; however, we’ve learned that you have to stay calm. Many standard reactions, in fact most, will not fix the situation. Often times, “what’s done is done.” Here’s where you have to get creative.
On more than one occasion, issues with a company have escalated to a point where we were forced to speak directly with the CEO. This is no small feat considering that we were still an extremely small fish. There’s one phrase that seems to do the trick in communicating with another company’s leadership. Next time your having issues with a vendor, try saying this: “As a business owner myself, I felt I needed to let you know how difficult this has been for us before it starts impacting other segments of your business.” Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and while the person steering the ship should know where all the issues are, they often don’t. Be vocal when necessary, but don’t ever let yourself be less than professional.
Keep the Great Vendors Close
One of our vendors, as mentioned, have become like family to us. We speak to them almost every day. We’ve spoken to them on most holidays. We’ve spoken to them at ten o’clock at night. We have grown our business because of their faith in us, their delivery, and the mutual respect and admiration we’ve built together. I know we would have found a way, because we’ve never settled for nothing less, but in many respects, we are where we are today because of our vendors. They’ve worked with us, showed us the ropes, and have become a huge partner for us and more. We have and will do everything we can to send as much business their way. We’re committed to ensuring that handling our business goes smoothly for them.
Production in an inventory based business will always present a unique set of challenges. When starting out, it can be nearly an insurmountable one. We have certainly learned a thing or two on the climb. In our commitment to American manufacturing, we remain proud and grateful for all of our great production partners here at home. Keep these lessons in mind as you grow your own business and run into these problems. To the new brands that are just starting out, you are not alone.