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I’ve been working with inventor-entrepreneurs and start-ups for fifteen years, and I’ve helped them innovate and develop products in all sorts of industries. Toys, tools, medical devices, consumer goods, professional equipment – if I took the time to think of every project I’ve been involved with, I wouldn’t have time to get to the key points of this article. Many of these products ultimately end up being produced overseas, for a variety of reasons. It is not the purpose of this article to debate the merits of offshore versus domestic production. Let’s just say that some products make sense to produce in Asia, and some products make sense to produce domestically, and leave it at that.
Over the past several years, I’ve gotten a number of questions about offshore manufacturing, and the possibility of an entrepreneur navigating that process on their own. These questions come in many nuanced forms, but the general gist is something like this: ‘isn’t the world getting smaller? Thanks to Alibaba and other platforms, can’t I just go source things on my own? Isn’t it easier than ever for me to access the world marketplace to get my products made?’
The short answer is ‘yes, you, as an entrepreneur have far more access to international sourcing and manufacturing than ever before.’ The internet, in its many forms has opened up levels of access and communication that could not have existed ten or twenty years ago. But, my caution is that this access includes access to both great things and to things that are dangerous. Yes, it’s easier than ever to source things from China – but it’s also easier than ever to make huge, and expensive mistakes sourcing things from China.
I’ll use a relatively simple, albeit imperfect analogy. My son is six years old. He’s not permitted to go into my workshop unsupervised, and he’s not allowed to touch any of my power tools. If he has something that he wants to do (for example we recently built a birdhouse), we build it together, and I handle all the steps that could be dangerous for him. Some day, my son will be older, and he will be allowed to use these tools on his own. This access will give him a great deal of freedom to build things, and hopefully by then I will have taught him how to work safely in the shop. But, I know that giving him access to the wonderful things these tools can do will also expose him to situations where he could get hurt.
Similarly, the internet has given us all a great deal of access to the ‘China toolbox’ and all the wonderful possibilities it represents. But, it also gives us access to things that can hurt us, if we don’t know how to navigate the factories and suppliers, manage quality control, establish testing protocols, and a myriad of other activities necessary to protect ourselves.
In my experience, it’s critical to have feet on the ground near the factories. Things will go more smoothly for your program if you have a representative or partner that will go to bat for you with your suppliers. As I stated in the opening paragraph, I’ve been developing products for fifteen years. I’ve even been to China. Even still, I wouldn’t try to navigate sourcing a new product in China on my own.
The strategy I and my colleagues have used is that we have built partnerships with organizations based in southeast Asia. One of our key partners is a group of quality control experts and manufacturing engineers. They have spent decades building a network of trusted, vetted, audited suppliers throughout Asia. And, they place enough business with these suppliers that they get a high level of priority, even for smaller manufacturing programs.
I wouldn’t think of going it alone in China, myself. Even though it may seem to cost a bit more money to add an additional player in the mix, I’ve found that it pays enormous dividends in the long run. Just a few of the benefits we’ve found through our various partners include:
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This writing represents the personal thoughts, opinions, and viewpoints of Noah McNeely, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Product QuickStart.
Principal, Product QuickStart