When the ‘Wrong’ Decision is the Only Right Decision — Why I Refuse to Outsource

My name is Andy Graham and I made a bad business decision.

Five years ago, I invented an musical instrument, mainly to amuse myself. I didn’t expect to make a career of it, really.

The design was so unique that I was able to patent it, which gave me an idea: I could possibly do this for a living. And so it started..

Since the patent was awarded, I’ve been able to support myself producing this instrument while enjoying its steady rise in popularity. It’s been surreal making friends with various professionals, celebrities, and even music legends. I reliable source told me that even Stevie Wonder spent some time playing around with one of my products. Wow! (I’m still holding out for a photo).

I’ve played the instrument on radio and television. I’ve been able to travel more in the last few years than ever before. God bless the business travel write-off.

Sounds like a dream really, especially for a musician like me who struggled with the false promises and hopes for musical success from playing in bands since high school.

A promise I made to myself is to do my best not to forget how lucky I am.

But you see, as I said, I made a bad business decision:

I committed to manufacture my products in the United States, no matter what.

This is apparently a no-no, especially in, you guessed it, The United States.

One of the highlights of my new career is to be able to attend international tradeshows, particularly the annual NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants). NAMM is four days of wonderful mayhem.. a non-stop party, an endless swirl of businesspeople, artists, and media. It’s ‘Ground Zero’ of the musical products industry.

I owe a vast majority of my product’s spread in popularity, new customers, and professional and celebrity connections to my attendance at the NAMM conventions.

Representatives from every aspect of manufacturing bring their best to the table here. A large group among them are companies that make your product overseas.

In today’s manufacturing culture, many consider this path not an option, but rather a required step if one has any chance of profiting at all.

A quick glance at the label of almost any consumer product today reveals that this is the preferred business model…and business is booming.

Without fail, I get booth visits from these pleasant folks at every show, letting me know of the vast manufacturing opportunities that await on their shores. “We can make your product for cheap…very cheap. For the price of a Latte at Starbucks” (yes, I’ve been told that), the rep says with a twinkle in her eye.

My ‘business sense’ should be overjoyed by this. The price of a Latte? What a profit margin! A wave of cash is coming my way if I just put my hands out!

As she continues with her polished sales pitch, I get that sinking feeling in my gut as I consider the underlying reality I’m not supposed to think about:

If my product is made THAT cheaply, then those factory workers are getting paid almost nothing for their efforts, and let’s not even get into working conditions.

One does not have to be an economist to understand this basic principle, in the same sense that you don’t have to be a mathematician to know, with, certainty, that two plus two always equals four.

I have, at times, inquired about theses worker’s lives, while trying to remain professional.

Without fail, I get some amazing, likely rehearsed, responses:

“Actually, the standards are much different there, this is normal practice in that region.”

“These people are just happy to have any source of income at all.”

And my personal favorite:

“Actually this is a great service you’re providing them, they are able to feed their families and have a higher quality of life.”

By this point, I realize that any further concern about human rights will fall on deaf ears, so I smile, take their card and they go on their merry way. It’s a trade show after all and I’m not there to make a scene, except when showing off my wares.

However, I thought up a response that I just may use next time I’m in this position, if I’m feeling snarky enough. It would go something like this:

“You know, you’re right, Thank you for reminding me that standards vary from country to county. It’s easy to forget that, living in America and all.

That reminds me of how much I’m looking forward to my next business trip to Thailand. My buddy was there recently and told me that for around $20, I can get a nice 12-year old girl to spend the night with. In fact, I believe I could easily negotiate 2 at that price!”

The expected level of nausea and disgust to my reply should be high, at least I would hope so if the rep has any humanity left in them.

Fortunately I would have a nice rehearsed response of my own:

“Actually, the standards are much different over there, this is a normal practice in that region. Those girls are just happy to have any source of income at all. In fact, I’m doing them a great service helping them feed their families and have a higher quality of life.”

I get the sense that the look on the rep’s face now would be priceless as two realities in their brain collide.

It’s an extraordinary double standard for those brave enough to take a moment to wrap their heads around:

The very idea of cheerfully traveling across the globe to sexually exploit a couple of pre-teen local girls raises disgust and revulsion even in those of questionable ethics in our society.

But fill a sweat shop in Bangladesh with 100 of these girls so that an American pre-teen can get “The Latest in Back-to-School Fashions”, and nobody bats an eye.

How can one form of exploitation be so revolting while the other is, well, just business?

I think the answer lies somewhere in modern business culture:

There seems to be one underlining principle somewhere in there. Whatever option makes the most money (sorry, ‘highest return’) is, by definition, the right choice. Whatever details required to make that choice happen are not important, especially if they happen in a far-away land.

Out of sight, out of mind. Indeed.

We seem to have, to varying degrees, collectively drank the Kool-Aid on this one: Although we shudder at the idea of people, often children being horribly exploited for financial gain, our concern seems to fade fast in the shadows of shiny new things at low prices.

The media occasionally allows us to hear horror stories about suicide nets installed at Foxconn, or people burned alive when the sweatshop doors were chained shut to prevent those profit-eating bathroom breaks. But damn, have you seen the new features on the latest iPhone? And you got that cute back-to-school outfit for only THAT much?

This brings me back to my ghastly business decision to actually build my own products. I have to accept that my conscience restrains me from taking advantage of those magic latte-priced offerings overseas.

I have to live with that decision. I don’t think this will be a problem. In fact, committing to this was the last piece in the puzzle falling into place. That cognitive dissonance was finally put to rest.

If I want to keep material costs down, I can buy in bulk. If I want to make a process more efficient, I build a machine, a tool, a fixture to do the job.

If I can’t put my 20+years of being a mechanic, toolmaker, fabricator, and problem solver to work on these problems, then I probably have no business being in this business.

There’s always a clever, and ethical workaround. A win-win.

I’m not in business for the sole purpose of making money. I’m here to make a living. If I have to drop my ethical standards to do so, then the ‘living’ part suffers. But that’s me.

Being able to go to bed with a clean conscience is also nice.

Andy Graham

Owner — CEO, Slaperoo Percussion



Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)

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