The Manufacturing Mistakes You Don’t Have to Learn the Hard Way

Oct 31, 2018 · 4 min read

This insider has spent decades helping newcomers get acquainted with factory production. Here’s his advice for getting started.

Jeff Lewis and some of his many associates in China.

Jeff Lewis has been sourcing and developing products in Asia since since the mid-’70s. “It was like the Wild West back then,” he says. “The infrastructure was very sparse. Factories that hadn’t finished building their walls yet would start production.”

China’s manufacturing resources have come a long way in the last few decades, but they can still be confusing for newcomers to navigate. Lewis has helped guide a number of clients through producing everything from toys to electric vehicles to agricultural products, and he says many of these creators come to him after costly, frustrating misadventures. “A number of them go the Alibaba route first. That’s risky. You might be successful, but I’ve mostly heard horror stories.”

The low success rate on Alibaba tends to relate to the platform’s limited capabilities in customization, communication, and planning. In Lewis’s experience, the projects that work are the ones that take a holistic approach, mapping out every stage from the first prototype to contingency-plan retail strategies — but it’s hard to think through all these steps when you’re just starting out. Here, he shares some recommendations and tips for first-time makers.

Prototype fast, with your factory

There are resources that are really cost-effective in China — and they’re fast. These companies will also throw a good bit of engineering at the prototype, so you come away with something that you can actually take to a factory and put into production.

But usually I find the factory is the best person to do this prototyping — a lot of the time it’s even included in the price. The better factories will provide higher levels of engineering, especially if it’s very simple and straightforward. Your factory wants to be able to make money on it, so they’ll figure out an efficient way to produce it.”

Consider quantity

Quantity also cuts costs

If you want to do fewer units, you’re going to pay more. I try to urge my clients not to expect to make money on the first production run, because you’re going to pay a premium for it. But I typically urge them to base their sell price on what it would be if they were buying it in higher volumes, because everyone’s goal is to grow.

A small limited production to start off shouldn’t make or break you. You’ve got to figure it’s a test market. You’re going to see how much demand you really have for it, and if it’s as great as we think it is, then volumes will go up, your prices will go down, and everyone will be happy.”

Get help on logistics

Find the right price

If you’re going direct to the consumer, you can certainly work on a much higher margin. The main cost to be conscious of in that case is fulfillment. Most people don’t realize that it’s really expensive. Shipping out product is not trivial at all. There are some companies that offer full-service help — Whiplash is a good one — and they make it easier, but there is a real cost to it.”

Put flexibility into your distribution strategy

I had one client who had developed a full line of product and developed just plain mailer packaging, a white box. And they received about 5,000 pieces — it was in their garage at that point. They were selling a couple hundred pieces a week and they decided to put it out to retail, but they had to repack every piece into a retail-suitable package. It wasn’t cheap, and it was really a pain to do.”

—Katheryn Thayer

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