151: Developing and Manufacturing a Product from Start to Finish

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Hi everyone! It’s me, Beth Anne, and today we’ve got a solo episode for you. I’m doing this solo episode because I’ve gotten so many questions from you brilliant business ladies about how I designed my planner.

How do I import a product from overseas? How do I find a manufacturer? How does one scrappy business mama come up with a product idea and make it happen? I’ll give you all those answers.

Let’s dive in!

Listen Now On the Podcast

3:25 - First Product Iteration9:50 - Finding The Right Designer14:18 - Be An Expert In Your Niche17:54 - Your Minimum Viable Product24:03 - Improving On Your Product26:10 - Finding a Factory31:00 - Ordering Samples33:30 - Taking Presales (with Kickstarter)35:41 - Delivery Dates37:34 - If You’re Having Trouble Finding A Factory44:11 - Clearing Customs52:14 - Fulfilling Your Orders

My experience with designing and manufacturing a product, as you might expect, has to do with planners. My product started originally as the the Brilliant Business Planner which launched in June 2015. That first iteration morphed to the Brilliant Life Planner, which launched via Kickstarter in August 2016.

I’ll take you through this process. And rest assured the takeaways will apply to you regardless of your nice.

(But to that point. I’ve heard from many of you with great ideas of planners, journals, and other paper products that solve problems in your niche.)

If you have a fabulous idea for a product that you just know is going to improve people’s lives, and you know it’s a better product than what’s on the market currently., JUST GO FOR IT! Yes, there are a lot of steps and unknowns, and you’ll learn a lot along the way, but you’ll be so glad you did it. When you’ve produced a fabulous product that you can put into people’s hands and help them, it’s really an incredible feeling.

That’s my pep talk as we get started :) I’m going to share my journey and the big takeaways you can keep in mind for your own product launch.

First Product Iteration

As my sister and I were writing our book Time Management Mama we wanted a planner that allowed us to plan our business and lives in one place.

Our planner idea started with lined, blank paper. We sketched out what we wanted on those pages. We really wanted work and personal to do lists, and top 3 priorities for each week. And we knew we wanted our weekly layout to be time blocked.

We just sketched it out our ideas. I should go pull up our old sketches for fun :)

Neither of my sister or I are very artistic or good at drawing. These early sketches were SUPER rough. We just knew what the end result should be, but we needed help bringing it to life. From there, we found a designer to take our sketches and turn them to a digital file.

Takeaway #1:Those of you trying to produce a totally unique physical product, will eventually need a CAD file. CAD stands for Computer Aided Design. You’ll need an expert to translate your ideas to this digital format, so that your factor can use and produce your product in mass quantities!

We got off easy when it came to finding a designer! As soon as we mentioned we were working on creating a planner, one lady in our community reached out and said, “Hey! I make planner pages and am well versed at using Illustrator to create printables. I’d love to work with you.” (SUCH a gift, right?)

This gal took our very rough sketches, translated them to Illustrator, and gave us ideas about how to make the planner even better.

Takeaway #2: When you find your designer, one of the best things you can do is be really prompt with feedback.

Design and development takes a lot of time. It’ll take way more back and forth than you imagined. If you want to keep your project moving forward, you need to write back to that person within 24 hours every time. Otherwise, you’ll be the kink in your own system. Then a year will go by without having a product, but it’s because you didn’t give prompt feedback!

Since this time, we’ve worked with a few different designers and they all appreciate feedback. They’re in creation mode and ready to work, you just have to give the direction you want to go.

You need to also give detailed feedback. Never assume that this designer can read your mind! Spell everything out for them, even when it comes down to the spacing of a line or font choices.

One tip: When I feel like a piece of feedback will be hard to explain via email, I’ll do a video recording. I use a free app called liteCam HD for these quick recordings. What I’ll do is pull up those exact files that the designer sent back to me, and record my screen with me looking at the file. Following my mouse movement, I can say things like, ‘This line is too thick. And these colors aren’t quite what I wanted. But I like this section.’

Finding The Right Designer

If you’re fortunate enough to have a designer reach out to you and ask you to hire them, you can always go to a site like Upwork.com and submit your job. You’ll give details about the job you need done and the hourly rate you’re willing to pay.

I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of paying by the project. I know a lot of graphic designers have project fees - something like $1,500 for one project! I don’t like that at all!!! Here’s why. I want to build my working relationship with a designer and start with a few hours of work before I commit to using them exclusively. Sure, design portfolios are great. But I don’t know how well we’ll work together until I give the designer a few hours of work and we have some back and forth. How responsive will they be? How quickly do they make the changes I request? How easily do they understand my feedback?

Maybe someone who’s skilled, just can’t get your vision. Or maybe you two will have a language barrier that can be tricky. You need to cut ties before the project goes too far! Again, I don’t want to pay $1,500 if it took someone 5 hours to do the work! Or $1,500 if it took a couple hundred hours and I should pay them more.

For me, the hourly rate makes sense. I have them invoice me on a weekly basis, and I pay promptly. I recommend you start any designer with a small, low-impact project and go from there.

It’s ideal to have a designer who is versed in both Adobe Indesign and Adobe Illustrator. (Currently, I do have two designers - one to make my signature florals pretty in Illustrator and one to format the planner in InDesign. They’re both wonderful ladies I enjoy working with!) And, as I said earlier, if you’re creating a physical product you’ll need CAD files.

Be An Expert In Your Niche

The last word I’ll say on product design is this: look at the marketplace and know what other similar products are on market - THEN know how your product will set itself apart.

I firmly believe in the benefit of studying and becoming an expert in your product space.

For example, when we were working on our first planner - I purchased 20 different business and personal planners. I bought as many different ones as I could find with different covers and layouts. I wanted to be an expert in the marketplace. What are the issues and things these products are not addressing? What do these planners do well?

I knew after the first iteration of my planner that I wanted a hard cover. This is an example of a feature other planners had that we didn’t. Sure, at the end of the day a planner is a planner, but there are many little features you can customize to reach your audience. (After being frustrated ourselves that we couldn’t find weekly time-block layouts, we decided to design the Brilliant Life Planner with our weeks divided into time-blocked sections.)

To this day, the Brilliant Life Planner has pages inside unlike anything else. That distinction came from us carefully considering what we needed, and considering what problems other products on the market weren’t solving.

The void your business ends up filling may not be huge, but you don’t want to go through tons of time and effort to create something already existing. Knowing the void that you feel not only will steer your business development, it’ll help you with marketing later on.

I see some people who don’t want to look at what others are doing in their niche and think, “I’m just going to create from my brain and it’s going to be totally unique.” While I do understand that point of view, I have experienced that you miss things by not knowing what’s out there. It’s your job to be an expert in your space.

Your Minimum Viable Product

Once you’ve worked with designers to come up with the digital file you’ll need to make your product, you have to actually manufacture your product!

When it comes to getting your product produced at most affordable price, you will likely have to look at an overseas option. The Brilliant Life Planner is currently manufactured by a factory in China.

One hurdle with using a factory overseas is they often have pretty high minimum quantities you need to order before they’ll work with you.

There are a few ways you can work around this hurdle:

  • Produce your minimum viable product, knowing there are improvements you will make over the next years.
  • Take presales for your product. Once you have one product sample or prototype, get some photos and offer people a sample if what they’ll get. You can take presales with an expected production date in mind.

I’ve done both!

The Brilliant Business Planner was first produced by a printer in the Pittsburgh area. We found a printer close to my sister Sarah, and came to that printer with our planner idea and got a sense of options. This printer couldn’t do a hard cover planner, but they could do a thicker paperback cover and spiral binding.

We gave them our design file and they gave us a sample. Actually our first planner had a white cover, so one immediate change we made was to make our cover a lovely shade of bluish-green.

Our printer could accept a minimum order quantity of 100 units. Volia! We had our Minimum Viable Product. Keep in mind that factories will generally want you to order 1,000 units.

Even with that smaller order quantity, our minimum viable product still cost us several thousand dollars to produce. The cost-per-unit was much higher with smaller quantities. And, as it usually is, much higher with a manufacturer in the United States.

By going overseas to manufacture the new Brilliant Life Planner, everything on my dream sheet - product gift box, custom shipping, full color, thick monthly dividers, metal edge reinforcement - was the same price as my minimum cost-per-unit in the United States.

I still don’t recommend coming up with an idea and plunking down thousands of dollars right away! If we went overseas for our first planner order, it would have cost at least $10,000 - and that would not have been a wise business move. You want to validate that people want your product, before spending tons of money to create the product.

In retrospect, we even could have done presales with the business planner rather than putting our own money into the project.

Once we brought our first Brilliant Business Planner to market, we were able to make sales - but I’ll be honest, those first sales weren’t great. But the women who bought this planner loved it and used it every day. We chalked up the slow sales to our planner not launching in the right season (we launched in June) and with a half-year planner. Then we tried a run of the planner closer to planner season with a full-year planner, and sold 300 units. That was great for us! Getting the timing right was huge.

Using the strategy of a minimum viable product will allow you to start with small, manageable steps - and iterate your way to success.

Improving On Your Product

Even if you think your product is perfect right out of the gate, keep in mind that there will likely be changes your customers want. We sent out a customer survey shortly after our product first launched and asked if there was ANYTHING at all our customers would want changed.

People loved our florals and the planner, but didn’t have a business and need all the sheets. They wanted the time blocking and project pages, but not the pages dedicated to growing a business. I thought I could serve a lot more women if I made the planner for any woman who wants to live intentionally. And that’s really how the Brilliant Life Planner started.

Around this time, Sarah stepped away from the Brilliant Business Moms brand, so it was on my shoulders to get the new planner design in place. But it was WAY easier because we had a base of design files and could easily tweak and improve.

I also knew I wanted a much smaller planner, and hardback. Our local printer couldn’t accommodate, and so that made me explore other options for manufacturing.

Finding a Factory

Okay, I get this question all the time. “Beth Anne, HOW did you find the factory you worked with?” You guys, I used Google and Alibaba. It’s that easy!

Here’s a quote from Marie Forleo I love that applies to this entire process: “Everything is figureoutable.”

It’s so true! I feel like a lot of business owners out there want all the answers before they’re ready to get started. I’ll be honest, you’ll never have all the answers. There was a moment in creating the Brilliant Life Planner when I literally had this amazing product - 1,600 planners on a boat ready to come to me - and I didn’t know how to get them to clear customs. I didn’t know what to do!

Everything is figureoutable. You can do this and find the answers.

You should not wait until someone comes along who is going to hold your hand. Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!

Sure there are people like me, or business coaches, who will give you a lot of information. But at the end of the day, no one person will have all the answers you need. A lot of running a business is figuring out your answers.

What I did to find my factory was visit Alibaba.com. On this website, you can find factories from all over the world who show you the products they’re experts at producing. I searched keywords like: ‘planner’, ‘weekly planner’, and ‘hardcover planner’. I found a factory and was able to see that the structures of the planners they produced was really similar to what I wanted.

I got in touch with this factory via email; there’s even a chatbox within Alibaba that you can use to contact the factory. I asked them very specific questions about what I needed, “What’s your estimate on the cost per unit based on these specs? How long will it take to produce my order?”

The factory quickly sent back photos of other planners that they had produced, and it gave me the confidence that they could print my planner.

When it comes to working with a factory, keep in mind that you never EVER EVER want to throw down cash and order 1,000 units and wash your hands’. Always order a sample first. You need the proof in your hands that this factory can produce the quality you’re looking for. You have GOT to order a sample to see if any tweaks need to be made. You want to ensure that the end result is just what you want.

Ordering Samples

Initially I ordered 4 samples - with my 4 different covers. The inside of the planner was the same, but the covers were different. I paid $500 to get those 4 samples produced. That investment was hefty, but think about it from the factory’s standpoint .They don’t want you to throw them $5 for 4 units and run. They need to know you’re serious about doing business with them. Their team had to work with me and my designer quite a bit to make sure the files were formatted correctly. Plunking down that $500 said to them, “This is serious money and I know it's taking you time to work with me and ship this sample.”

The factory shipped the 4 units pretty quickly, since we didn’t have to clear customs with the small quantity, and got my samples within a week.

After looking at these samples, I realized there were tweaks that needed to be made and corrections to the files. There were 2 covers I loved, and 2 I didn’t. I requested the changes, ordered 4 more samples. With this additional round of samples, I also included a gift box and card with each planner. Once I had these final touches in place, and was confident the factory could produce what I wanted, I picked my four favorite covers and we were in business!

Taking Presales (with Kickstarter)

Since I only sold 300 units of my first planner, it felt like a risk to not use pre sales as a way to test the market. We used Kickstarter, but I have to be honest I was not a huge fan of running a Kickstarter campaign.

We spent a lot more money than first projected with making the Kickstarter video and photos needed to showcase the product. Plus, there’s a lot outside your control with Kickstarter.

If I ever would take presales again, I would put the product in my Shopify store and explain that it’s for presale, giving people the expected shipping date.

You think you’re being smart to take presales before ordering in mass quantities. And while it is smart, you can easily spend $10K getting a Kickstarter off the ground. Especially if you hire a photographer, videographer, graphics, and so on.

Honestly I’d rather see more people do minimum viable products. You could set up an online store with listings, hire a photographer for a hour or two to get product photos, and go from there.

Delivery Dates

One thing I learned is it takes much longer than you’d expect for your product to clear customs and get to your hands. If you’re using any factory outside the US, give yourself 3 months for the product to be to you - or to your fulfillment center.

I was pretty lucky with how the Brilliant Life Planner shipping worked out. I ordered 1,600 units in mid-October and was able to get them to my house by mid-December. This process was a 2-month turnaround which worked hugely in my favor, but I wouldn’t expect this kind of magic to happen every time! Give yourself at least a 3-month margin for sure.

One way you can help this process along is to communicate constantly with your factory. In my case, the factory I worked with needed a 50% deposit, for materials and paying employees. The other 50% cost was required to get the planners on the boat and shipped to me. It took a month for my 1,600 units to be manufactured, and another good month for shipping and clearing of customs.

(Again, I was REALLY lucky with this time frame. But in the future, I’d give myself more margin. I’m a big fan of under promising and over-delivering. Of course your customer would be thrilled to get a product sooner than expected!)

If You’re Having Trouble Finding A Factory

Before we talk about what it’s like to get a product through customs - which was a HUGE learning curve - I did want to point out one thing.

If you’re having trouble finding a factory producing to your standards, here’s a pointer. You can look up import and export records from other companies in the US as that information is part of the public record.

If there’s another company who also produces a product in your niche - a high quality leather shoe, for example - you can find out which factory that particular company used.

Now, of COURSE your product is going to be different! You aren’t going to knock off anyone else, but rather fill a void in the marketplace. So back to our shoe example. Maybe you find another company with a similar, high quality leather show. Or even just another shoe company; you could search ‘TOMS import records’ or something like that. You will likely find a factory that could work with you on your shoe design if you search around.

Here’s how you do it: Google search ‘import records’ for whatever company you’re searching. Be aware that the company official name may be different than how their name presents.

You can find bill of laden information from many companies using ImportGenius.com. Every shipment into the United States will have a bill of laden, and on that document you can see the name of the factory. Import Genius does cost some money, you may want to try other free resources first. But if you can’t find what you’re looking for, Import Genius may solve the mystery.

For a lot of products it’s a safe bet that they’re produced in China. You could use a one-country plan, select ‘China’, and see what you can figure out.

TradeAtlas.com has bill of laden records also. And I was able to get a good amount of details using their free options.

This will take some detective work, but using Google and possibly a few additional Internet resources and you should be able to figure things out!

Clearing Customs

After you’ve taken presales (if you’re choosing that route!) and have 50% to plunk down to the factory, the next step is to focus on shipping and getting your products cleared by customs. Any big shipment into the US will need to be cleared by customs. And I’ll be honest, I’m still very confused by this process.

From the factory you’ll get a bill of laden and other information. What you’ll need to do next is find yourself a customs broker. How did I find a customs broker? I Googled it! (It really can be THAT easy to problem solve in your business.)

I searched ‘customs broker San Diego’ and ‘customs broker Los Angeles’. From my paperwork I could see that initially my shipment was first going to Los Angeles, but then would be transported closer to me in San Diego.

Obviously when it comes to working with factories overseas communication isn’t going to be as constant. But when it comes to working with people who are State-based like customs brokers and freight forwarders, it’s much easier to just pick up the phone and call them. (I did find that a lot of these places are very unresponsive to email.) I called up the first company I found, and got an answer, “We don’t do that, but try this company.” And then I got the same thing again! But finally the third company was able to help me out.

Though it was a winding way to find my broker, as soon as you find a great customs broker, they’ll know exactly what you need. So my broker was able to quickly come back and say, “Hey, here’s some additional information and a piece of paper I need from your factory.” And you say, “Great, let me get that for you!” Hopefully your factory is really responsive and you can put that information into the hands of your customs broker.

My customs broker filled out all this necessary information for me. There was one tricky Excel spreadsheet that I had to fill out myself, but it got done! In my case, I waited too long to get a broker. I got very lucky, but you really should have your broker lined up before your products ever leave port.

In my case, my planners left port and it was another week before I found a broker to help get our products through customs. But (thankfully!) she was able to jump to action and we got the planners to port.

Let’s say if you don’t have your act together, what’s the worst that could happen? If your products are waiting to clear customs, they’ll just be waiting at a port somewhere. It’s not the end of the world, but depending on factors like how the shipments are stored your product could be impacted.

My factory already had a company they worked with lined up to take their shipments off the boat and put them in a warehouse. I didn’t have control over that step, so I had to wait for these parts to move. It took about a week for the shipment to get unloaded off the boat, and then finally the company could give me the status. At this point, I needed to present paperwork to prove my shipment had cleared customs and my freight forwarder could get the planners.

At the end of the day, my customs broker dealt with all these nitty gritty details. (And I was so grateful for her expertise!) We did end up getting our own truck and not waiting for the freight forwarder to bring the planners to me. We called the warehouse and asked if we could come get the planners; they worked with us and told us the specs of the truck we’d need -- and we got those planners! But if we had given ourselves more margin, we wouldn’t have been so pressed for time. I can’t recommend enough that you just find a broker who has lots of experience and can help you navigate the waters.

You don’t have to do this on your own! I promise, with the right help you won’t be stuck in some warehouse in Compton saying ‘let my products out!’ (Not that I know who that person would be :) LOL) Bottom line: get someone on your side who can help you.

Fulfilling Your Orders

We filled our own orders this run of planners, but next time we will be using a fulfillment center.

How do you go about finding a fulfillment center? You guessed it, Google it! Search around and call a few up. Give them your unit numbers, your specifications, and what you need them to do with the orders. Ask for their cost to store and fill those orders, and then compare statistics from a few difference centers.

Not to mention, when you call up the center you’ll get a sense of the company and how professional they are, how organized they seem.

And that’s pretty much it! Let’s recap our big takeaways.

Takeaways
  • Find a quality designer who’s skilled with Illustrator and InDesign if you’re manufacturing something like a planner or journal, and CAD if you’re making a different kind of physical product.
  • Order samples from your factory first to make sure they can create your product to your standards. And another note, if you’re having a hard time communicating with your point person at your factory, just ask if you can work with another person in the factory. (I loved working with my point person, Betta, and highly recommend her!)
  • Find a customs broker for the largest port near you. And ask your factory where they would send your shipment. Give them the final address of your product, either your house or fulfillment center, and they’ll tell you how to get your shipment. Pick up the phone to communicate with the key players in this process!
  • Use Google! Be a detective. And take deep breaths along the way. Ask around and you’ll always find someone with the missing link you need to create your product.
  • Start with a minimum viable product. You will likely begin with a US-based company first and produce a tiny run, or take presales for your larger overseas factory order.

You CAN do this! You can run your fabulous business and create an amazing product for your customers.

And I’m curious, what are you planning on designing and producing this year? Shoot me an email and let me know: brilliantbusinessmoms(at)gmail(dot)com.

And if you still have questions, I’d love to answer those. If we get lots of emails about the same question, we’ll do an episode answering them.

Thanks for hanging in there with this more technical episode.

Now it’s your turn to head out there and Be Brilliant.

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