Let Your Auditors Do the Walking: Outsourcing Craft Production to Certified Responsible Manufacturers

Many professional crafters have thought about outsourcing their production at one time or another.  But if you’re a “solopreneur”, you probably don’t have the time or money to visit factories or cooperatives overseas.  So how can you tell which manufacturers are responsible companies, and not toxic sweatshops employing underpaid toddlers?  One way to start narrowing down the list is to look at international manufacturing certifications.  These certifications are awarded by independent, international, non-profit auditors, who inspect manufacturers’ operations so you don’t have to.

There are number of different international agencies that provide myriad certifications, but here are a few of the most relevant ones to get you started:

Though the ISO no longer publishes an annual list of certified companies (which blows, by the way — please fix this ISO!), many national and state governments/NGOs publish their own lists, which are easily Googled.  Here are some (not always current) lists for the U.S., Canada and Thailand.

The ICTI does have a database for factories that are CARE-compliant, but the search fields don’t seem to work very well.  I recommend clicking “Submit” without entering or choosing anything, and just browsing the list.

The FSC has a fully functioning, searchable database.  Hallelujah!

Patch Together

Got an idea for the next hot toy?  Put it to the test over at Patch Together.

Here’s how it works: you submit an image of your awesome resin or plush toy design and Patch Together members vote on which designs are worth prototyping.  If your toy gets chosen, it will go up for pre-order in the Patch Together store.  Once it has enough pre-orders (20), your toy will be produced as a limited edition and you share the profits with Patch Together (40% you, 60% PT).

This is a pretty good deal if you consider that average licensing fees max out around 5% for artists and you get to keep the rights to your designs.  If you want to skip the contest part, you can pay PT outright to manufacture your toy.  They’ve also recently started accepting ideas for Flash animations and “products in general.”

“Mason” the vengeful birdhouse by Wickedbird.  Currently available for pre-order.

Ponoko Meets Spoonflower

over at Envelop.  The Belgian-based company digitally prints your designs onto fabric.  They make aprons and pillows (and other things) out of it.  They set up the eCommerce web site and do all the selling.  You upload your designs and reap the profits.  Becoming a member is free, but not all designs make the cut.  For tips, see their submission guidelines.

via SwissMiss

Ask Biz Miss: Sustainable Fabrics

**Note: though this is a very respectfully worded request (note how she doesn’t ask specifically for my sources), it is considered good etiquette to ask advice like this from someone with a related but non-competing business, like someone who’s in fashion, or who makes baby products.  That said, when I had this exact question starting out, I asked the plush toy makers down the block from me.  They were more than gracious and generous in their help, so I’m paying it forward to all of you.  For more on the subject of crafty business etiquette, please see this article I wrote for the Bazaar Bizarre San Francisco blog.

I am currently designing my own line of stuffed animals (not meat products) and would really appreciate your advice.  I would like to make a product that takes the environment into consideration.  I am finding it extremely difficult to find recycled fabrics.  I did find recycled polyfill.  Any advice you can give on finding an environmentally aware manufacturer and materials would be greatly appreciated.

As far as sustainable fabrics go, it is difficult to find them outside of the hemp/wool/cotton/natural fibers area, but there are some polyesters that can be made from recycled plastic, such as fleece and fake furs.  I have never found a place to purchase these in small quantities, so I source my fleece in China, where the minimum for each color is 300 yards.  (I was lucky enough to have a friend whose toy company runs a reputable factory in China.  They were able to point me towards fabric mills there.)  There is a fleece called EcoFleece and a short fur called EcoPile, both available in the U.S., but these lines also require large wholesale orders.  You’ll have to do some calling around and searches through wholesale directories like ThomasNet to find them.  Some manufacturers only make/carry a set of common colors, and others can dye your fabric in any color you choose.

There is also an organization here in San Francisco called People Wear SF that held a small sustainable fabric trade show twice last year. If they do it again, it would likely be in the next month or two.  If not, someone there might have a list of past exhibitors you can contact.

Since you are starting out small, you may have to make some compromises about your fabrics.  For example, you might consider buying fabrics from a creative re-use center or something similar.  I don’t know where you are located, but here in the Bay Area we have S.C.R.A.P. in San Francisco and the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-use in Oakland.  At these places you can buy fabrics otherwise destined for the landfill and you will have lots of choices when it comes to fabric type (but maybe not color/print as much). You can also pilfer clothing and pillows from thrift stores.  Felted sweaters make excellent no-fray fabric for toys and some stores sell by the pound.

You can also just buy off-the-shelf fabrics in the beginning, and try to maintain your commitment to the environment in other ways (which is what I did).  You’ve already found some recycled fiberfill (Carlee sells this in bulk in New Jersey or you can buy corn-based fiberfill from your local fabric store), which is a good start.  You can also ship your toys using only recycled and/or re-used packaging, and you can plant trees or buy credits to make your business carbon neutral.

I hope this helps. There’s unfortunately not a lot of information out there regarding material sourcing, because it’s one way small businesses discourage competition.  If any readers have info they can share, please add it to the comments.  Thanks!

Making Making Things Better Better

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.

My Distribution Deal

This week I sucked it up and contacted a distributor.  I had been avoiding it for a long time because I didn’t think I could afford it.  After all, most distributors take about 20% of your wholesale price and I was doing fine on my own getting local stores to carry Sweet Meats.  I even had stores from other cities, states and countries contacting me about carrying my products.

But then I hit a wall.  I had a hard time finding stores outside of San Francisco that would be appropriate for Sweet Meats.  Those that I did find rarely responded to my cold calls (or cold e-mails) introducing my products.  Even those stores that contacted me weren’t responding when I followed up with line sheets and order forms.  I was spending many hours each week trying to drum up new wholesale business, which is only getting harder the more the economy tanks.

So I contacted a distributor.  For the past two years I’ve been getting his wholesale newsletters, so I know how hard he pushes for his clients.  He was also a customer of mine a couple of years ago and several of my sisters-in-plush use him, too, so I know he’s honest and reputable.  His 20% commission definitely takes a big bite out of my profits, but I figured I’d end up paying that much in warehouse storage before I sold everything anyway.

Our conversation was incredibly simple.  He already knows my products, and I already know his company, so there was little needed in the way of introductions.  What I didn’t know, however, is that his is not a drop-ship business.  He warehouses all of his clients’ inventory — for free!  This made the deal infinitely sweeter. I currently pay about $150/month for storage (it started higher, but has gone down as my inventory has decreased).  That means that I’m not losing any money at all on his commission for the first $750 in monthly sales.  I don’t know if such a set-up is the norm, but if I had known, I can tell you I would have called this distributor six months ago.

The lesson?  If you’ve just started your own line, there’s no harm in calling a few distributors and comparison-shopping.  There might be savings in the deal that offset an otherwise unafforable commission.  Now that I no longer have to worry about my wholesale accounts I can focus my time and energy on my retail business, which pays twice as much per sale.  Win-win!

Worth Its Weight: Ponoko

Apparently I’ve been pretty out of the loop lately, because I hadn’t heard of Ponoko until this week.  An article in ReadyMade piqued my interest, but it wasn’t written very clearly so I read through the Ponoko web site in order to understand how it all works.

Ponoko is similar to Etsy in a lot of ways.  Members have their own little Ponoko shops, where they can list items for sale, buy things from other members, request custom items, and contact each other.  Where Ponoko differs from Etsy is that you can only sell things that are made (at least in part) in Ponoko’s laser-cutting shop.  This is how they make their money.  They don’t charge listing fees or take a percentage of your sales, but they do charge you for the materials and laser time it takes to make your item (or item components).

Most of what gets sold on Ponoko right now is jewelry.  This is because the easiest and least expensive thing to make with their laser is a small, two-dimensional cut-out.  People mostly design silhouettes or etchings that get cut and/or carved into thin sheets of wood or plastic, and then turn them into pendants, earrings, jigsaw puzzles, coasters, and other flat design-y objects.  3-D objects like tables and lamps sometimes appear in people’s shops, too.  These are mostly put together using layering (to acheive a topographical map sort of effect) or a slot-and-tab configuration.  Unfortunately, this causes a lot of people’s products to look very similar to one another.  Additionally, some people also sell or give away products plans in their shops, so that customers can build items themselves, or have the Ponoko factory folks build it for them.

Because of the limits of just one process (laser-cutting) and a few, flat materials (basically wood and acrylic), Ponoko has a ways to go before it can become the small-manufacturer-to-the-masses it would like to be.  I would love, for example, to see them expand to vacuum-formed plastic or fabric-based manufacturing.  If there were a place in the U.S. where I could get on-demand plush toy manufacturing, it would solve a LOT of the problems inherent with my current business.  Luckily for me, however, another product line I’m working on can be made perfectly with Ponoko’s lasers and plywood.  I’ve already researched a lot of industrial cutting facilities for this project, but having one right here in San Francisco that can make them on demand is infinitely preferrable to having to buy and then store some huge inventory again.  I had all but written off this new line for that very reason, but I’m excited to think the possibility exists to move forward with it again.

Ponoko’s ultimate vision is to have dozens of little factories all over the world, so that no matter where you live, whatever you buy can be made nearby.  Making things only to order cuts down on waste, and having lots of scattered factories cuts down on the costs and emissions associated with global transport.  This is an example of one of those forward-thinking green businesses profiled in books like Cradle-to-Cradle, in which it is more profitable to be eco-friendly, not less.  They still have a lot of growing to do, but I really think Ponoko is onto something big.  If I were a venture capitalist, or if they offered stock, I would definitely be investing in these guys.

Biz Miss Math: Time = Money

Time equals money. We’ve all heard the axiom. The problem is, it’s not a precise equation. There’s a coefficient missing. It should really read:

Time = A x Money

with A being some positive rational number. You see, one of the trickiest balancing acts for me in business has been figuring out when it is more beneficial for me to spend time, and when to spend money. Most of the contract work I do these days (when it doesn’t involve new designs), I do for about $30/hour. Since I have neither time nor money to spare, I figure that anything that works out to less than this rate is worth purchasing rather than doing myself. For example, I recently sourced out the screen printing of my t-shirts.

Printing t-shirts is not difficult for me to do, and I already have all of the materials, but it still works out to be cheaper overall to have them printed by another company. Mostly this is because every t-shirt needs to be ironed three times: once to get out the wrinkles before printing, and then once again on each side of the shirt to heat set the ink. This takes about ten minutes per shirt overall. At my pay rate that’s $5 a shirt. At Babylon Burning, however, it costs $1.25 per shirt at twelve dozen shirts. Therefore, when it comes to screen printing,

Time = 4 x Money

You see, I have many more profitable things I can do with my time than run my own little t-shirt printing factory. Ten full hours spent making sales calls, sending out press releases, and developing new products ultimately puts my business further ahead than the $180 I had to spend.

Long Live the Internet!

I love the Internet, and especially the blogosphere. Here’s why: yesterday a gentleman named Mr. Deslauriers submitted a comment to my post about U.S. Customs that was less than complimentary. It’s a little long, but I suggest reading it if you haven’t already.

My first instinct was to go on the defensive, despite the relative politeness with which the criticism was delivered. I briefly considered several routes: deleting the comment, editing the post, and dissecting/justifying every accusation with a well-considered retort. But I soon realized that that’s just e-fascism. Why write a blog if you’re not going to accept certain comments? Plus, on almost every count, the man is right.

Firstly, I didn’t make the distinction between a customs broker and freight forwarder. Mostly this is because for me (and everyone else I know who is a small importer), this is the same person, but it still should have been included. I then publicly insulted the entire profession (also because I and everyone I know who is a small importer has found their broker/forwarder to be somewhat shady). Making sweeping generalizations about any group of people is a mistake, however, and I regret it and apologize for it.

As for the simplistic and somewhat incorrect presentation of my information, such as “A customs broker: this guy gets your stuff off the dock and onto a truck,” I will concede that there are perhaps more accurate phrasings I could have used, but I was using a deliberate teaching tool. The above statement is true if your customs broker is also your freight forwarder, and is mostly true even if they’re not (a customs broker allows your container to leave the port, even if they don’t actually move it onto the truck). In the same way that your high school science teacher started by teaching you Newtonian physics, even though Relativity makes the facts simplistic and somewhat incorrect, I write simplified accounts of my experiences so that complete novices can walk away with a basic understanding of the subject at hand. In other words, I post the information I wish I had received when I was trying to figure out my first steps. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that if my readers decide to be importers themselves, that they will do their own further research before moving forward.

On the whole, Mr. Deslauriers gave me some much needed perspective on a number of fronts. He reminded me that a blog is more helpful when presented as a personal account than it is as a set of prescriptive instructions (especially coming from a beginner like me), that prejudicial generalizations are more counter-productive than clarifying, and that comments that criticize are a much better use of the “social surplus” than those that praise.

I have asked Mr. Deslauriers if he would agree to be interviewed via e-mail so that I can put together some importing information that comes straight from an expert, rather than from the link-trawling of a beginner. Whether he agrees or not, he has made this a better blog by challenging me. I hope more of you will do the same. Thank you, Mr. Deslauriers.