There are many different ways to enter into the world of ecommerce. You can engage in retail arbitrage, which involves finding great discount deals on big brand items and selling them online for higher than purchases prices. You can be a wholesale distributor for a brand. You can also private label your own brand of products. All of these methods are viable and hold a lot of potential for the online entrepreneur hopeful.
There is one often overlooked process of entering the online marketplace space, and that is manufacturing your OWN product and then selling it. There are also a lot of understandable reasons why this wouldn’t necessarily be someone’s first choice:
• Inventing a product requires some level of creativity.
• Most people lack the skills required to draw up a design.
• Don’t know where to get a prototype.
• Designing a product can be very expensive.
• What if someone rips off my idea?
• What if it fails?
That may seem like a pretty intimidating list of con’s to contend with. However, let’s look at some of the pro’s of turning your invention ideas into a product:
• You get to see your idea come to life.
• You have control over the quality.
• You could potentially create a new market.
• Big brands have their own designs. So when you have one, you’ll be playing in the big leagues.
• Potential for incredible growth (and wealth).
So if you’ve ever come up with a “million-dollar invention” or just a cool design you think would do well but have never acted on it, I’m here to help. My intention here is to disambiguate the process of manufacturing your own product design, dispel myths and rumors, and ideally pave a clearer path so that you can breathe life into your ideas.
Inspiration and design
The first step in figuring out how to manufacture a product is having an idea to manufacture in the first place. This is also, likely the largest stumbling block most people run into. The reason is because of the misconception that you have to be some kind of genius inventor.
It is true that you should stretch your limits of creativity a bit, product design isn’t that difficult. If you haven’t already come up with an idea, but want to, you start with inspiration.
The driving factor for successful product design is need. Filling a need is the mother of all great inventions. The most logical place to look for need is in your own life. You probably won’t have to go far to see there are a ton of gaping holes that could be filled by convenience if only for a clever product designer. Think of how many times you have thought “I wish they had THIS,” or “why doesn’t THAT exist?”
Another great place to look for inspiration is at the products you already use. As consumers living in the technological era we use a lot of….STUFF. How many items do you use regularly that you recognize could be better if only? Building on an existing product and enhancing the design in some way is a fantastic way to break into the physical product space with a unique idea.
And as far as product ideas go; the simpler the better. The less moving parts, the less combinations of materials, the less complex the item is, the easier it will be to create, manufacture and get to market. Think about some of the most successful kitchen gadgets, for example; that silicone ring that keeps your egg in place, the little claw that cuts off strawberry stems, or the rolling pin with raised designs in it so you can make cookies with shapes in them. All very simple ideas that have been widely adopted.
But truthfully, you can expand on any idea at all. Whether it is a tech gadget, a simple kitchen tool, a gardening apparatus or some baby gear, whatever you can dream up, you can achieve in creating your own product. Once you’ve got a concept, the next step is to draw it out.
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t an artist or graphic designer. Get your thoughts on paper. Draw out the shape, list what it does, list what it’s made of, list the dimensions and weight, or anything else that helps describe your vision in great detail. The more specific you can be, the better. These decisions will affect where the product will be made, how much it will cost and how easy/difficult it is to ship. So, needless to say, these specs are important.
Drawing and outline (sketch, CAD, prototype service – engineer)
Once you have an idea of the product you want to have manufactured, the next step is producing an actual design. While your sketches are probably succinct, it is unwise to use them alone to give to a capable prototyper or manufacturer (more on these later).
What you want is a professional digital design drawing. The reason is because, aside from offering greater precision, these design files are what manufacturers use to feed their machinery the specifications they need to produce the goods.
Digital design files provide the exact dimensions, color pantones, thickness, weight, margins, buffer area, layers, and essentially any other element necessary for producing a real product. And not just any product, but the precise one that you envisioned.
Digital design drawings are typically referred to as CAD drawings (computer aided design). There are a lot of file formats and programs that help professional designers with creating these designs. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses, but are primarily for different types of work.
For example, if you are looking to have something 3D printed, you may need an .STL file. For custom package art, an .AI file works. For textile sewing patterns, you may need a .DXF file.
The point of this is to illustrate that, while you absolutely could figure out how to create your design on your own, it will be much more time effective to skip the learning curve and hire a professional to help you with this part.
Where do I get a professional digital design?
Like with any new business, you’ll need to seek the right help. You can always reach out to your personal network for assistance. Perhaps you know an engineer? Or maybe you have designed a textile product and know a competent seamstress? Maybe you have a cousin that’s a sheet metal fabricator?
If your personal network resources won’t work out here, don’t fret. There are a lot of services that offer design work. The materials you are working with will often determine the file type, but for many CAD drawings you might use a freelancing site like Upwork or create a design contest (much like they do at 99Designs) on a site like cad crowd (www.cadcrowd.com).
For textile sewing patterns, you can also search sites like Fiverr for sewing professionals, and for really complex products you may need an engineer’s help. If you can’t find a freelance product engineer, you may have to enlist the help of a prototyping company who has engineers on staff.
When you’ve enlisted the help of a professional to create your digital design file, you’ll have the exact specifications that make your product uniquely yours. Those specifications can then be fed to whatever computer, loom, printer, fabricator or other machinery that will be handling the creation of your prototype or mass production.
Prototype (sew, metalwork, 3D print, prototyping)
Creating a prototype is a crucial step in the process of designing your own product. Even if you are simply adding some features to an existing product, it is important to see a finished design in physical reality. Regardless of whether you are building something brand new from the ground up, or just adding zippers and pockets to something, you will not know for sure if the design matches your vision without seeing and feeling it first hand. And in the event that it doesn’t meet your expectations, you certainly don’t want an inferior product going to mass production.
What you are making and what it is made of will determine exactly how you get from idea to prototype as well. There are a number of prototyping companies out there (you can literally Google “prototype company” and find dozens). However, this is typically the most costly way to go. While a prototype company can assist with everything including design refinements, CAD drawings and the prototype, it all comes at a cost.
If you have designed a complex product with several moving parts, an electronic product, or a product made of many different materials, you may need a prototyping company. However, if you have a simpler design in mind, there are more affordable avenues you can take as well.
If you are designing a textile product, you could easily hire a local seamstress to help you out. You can also find one on a freelance site. If you have the sewing pattern, that should be all that they require. If this isn’t an option, you can also seek out actual custom textile manufacturers. Many offer small batch custom samples and prototypes.
If your design is metal, you can enlist the help of a local fabricator. Just look up metal fabrication in your area. Just like with textiles, there are also plenty of metal fabrication shops and factories around the U.S. that offer custom samples and prototypes.
If your design is plastic, you have quite a few options here. If it can be 3D printed, you can go to a local shop that offers 3D printing, or enlist a 3D printing service online. If it is a really simple, one piece shape, you could also create the prototype yourself by using moldable plastic.
Products like Instamorph allow you to heat up plastic pellets and then mold them into whatever shape you like with your fingers. This has been a secret weapon for cosplayers the world over for years.
If you’d still like to have your plastic prototype professionally manufactured, you can look for small batch injection molding companies. There are many that offer custom samples and prototypes for a reasonable fee.
However you have your prototype made, keep in mind one thing. The closer you have it made to you, the more control over the final product you have. Likely the first prototype will not be perfect. If you are able to have a local professional help you then you can be hands-on with its creation and refinement. If you are unable to have your prototype made locally, then having it made in your home country is the next best thing. That way it is cheaper to send the prototype back and forth and likely you and your prototyper will speak the same language. Otherwise, you will be relegated to online video chat to discuss tweaks and changes.
Whatever your situation, where there is a will to prototype, there is a way. And not only will having a prototype created help you craft your design into the perfect vision of your product, it will also give you the most powerful tool you can have for mass production.
See, digital designs are great, but they are not perfect. The best way to optimize your mass production outcome is to have a physical representation of your product. Manufacturers are usually best at replicating. If you give them your product to hold and analyze, they can typically copy it flawlessly. But before we get into mass production, there are a couple other important issues to cover.
Protecting Your Intellectual Property
One of the biggest concerns about designing and manufacturing your own product in China is protection of intellectual property. Why? Because counterfeiting is prevalent in the country.
And it isn’t because China is full of crooks. It is because counterfeiting is in their culture. It dates back to the Qing dynasty. Counterfeiting is looked at as an art form. Making identical copies is something to be proud of. That is why preservation societies with ancient artifacts from China have so many convincing copies that they cannot comment on the authenticity of many objects.
Many have either heard the horror stories, or been victim to one. Essentially it boils down to this notion that any good idea or invention will be stolen and mass produced to compete in the same market. We’ve seen a few of these stories in the news. Like the inventor of the forearm forklift who almost lost his whole business due to counterfeiters. Let’s not forget the fiasco involving the Blooming Bath.
In both instances, and many more unreported by the media, counterfeiters ripped off the idea, mass produced it themselves and then took to Amazon and Ebay to compete (and win) at much lower prices. This is enough to make anyone wary of sharing trade secrets and designs with a manufacturer.
However, there ARE steps you can take to ensure your protection. These are steps you SHOULD take. Not just to protect against Chinese counterfeiters, but copycats the world over. The problem of counterfeit is not exclusive to Asia, so understanding and exploring your IP protection options is a must.
How to protect your design
The first thing you must understand is that IP protections do not cross borders. That means, if you patent or trademark something in the US, those protections don’t mean anything in other countries. An enterprising seller could still take your idea, have it manufactured in China and then export and sell it in Europe, for example.
If you come up with a new product design, you’ll want to patent it in the country you are planning on selling it in. However, you may also want to consider having patent protection in countries you possibly wish to expand to in the future. So, if you patent your new widget design in the US because you plan on selling it on Amazon.com, that should protect you from other sellers being allowed to sell the same product anywhere else in the US. However, if you wish to expand to Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de, you probably want to look into patent protection in Europe.
Beyond patenting in your designated commerce countries, it goes without saying that you should have that patent in China as well. Many people are unaware that you can do this. However China’s State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) allows foreign entities to file for patent protection of their lawful IP.
There is even an English version of the SIPO website (http://english.sipo.gov.cn/).
In China, you can file for three different types of patents; an invention, a utility model or a design patent. You also have three different avenues through which you can patent your idea:
• You can file in China directly using a local patent agency.
• You can file in your home country first, then so long as it is a Member State of the Paris Convention you can file a Chinese patent.
• You can file an international patent application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). This requires visiting a national patent office or WIPO office.
How to protect your brand
Perhaps your idea wasn’t a new invention or design, but simply some minor tweaks or improvements to an existing concept. Maybe you don’t wish to try and patent your backpack design just because you added an insulated pocket to hold a water bottle. But this may be one of many products you will use to grow your brand. A brand is also an asset worth protecting.
Protecting your brand identity is done through trademarking. Just like patent protection, it is important to trademark your brand/logo/identifying marks in the countries you intend to sell in. And just like a patent, you should file for trademark protection in China as well.
The reason for this is similar to the reasons for protecting your designs with a patent. If you start your brand in the US, then a trademark will prevent anyone from selling products with your brand identifying marks in the country. If you plan to expand to Europe, you will want to trademark there too.
Your brand may not be a target for enterprising Chinese sellers yet, but if you scale to the level of your hopes and dreams, you could find yourself in some trouble. Imagine being beholden to the sly Chinese trademark holder who trademarked your brand name in China to sell “your” products to the region.
Imagine you grow a largely recognized Western brand and discover later that someone has trademarked your brand markings in China and is selling your products all over Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Some of those products may even make their way back to the US or Europe, causing confusion, brand dilution and legal troubles.
To avoid all that, you can file for trademark in China through the China Trademark Office (https://www.chinatrademarkoffice.com/). It is advised to elect to get broad protection, meaning you should trademark the English name or word, the name or word in Chinese characters and the name or word in Chinese pinyin.
Due to the complex nature of classification in China, it is also advised for foreigners to hire a domestic trademark attorney. For those whom it may be difficult to find or afford a lawyer, you can do it yourself with the Madrid System (http://www.wipo.int/madrid/en/). Keep in mind that you will be selecting classifications on your own, however, so you should be very careful.
It is important to trademark in China sooner rather than later. The reason for this is because, unlike much of the West, China trademark law works on a “first-to-file” basis, rather than a “first-use” basis. Whoever files for the trademark first gets it.
I’d like to make one final note on trademark protection. An easy way to ensure your products are protected is to print or stitch your trademarked markings directly onto your product. It is much harder to counterfeit a product that is so unique your brand is intrinsic in its design. And if it is copied, it is easier to prove that it is a fake.
How to protect your tooling
When it comes to protecting your ideas in China, patents and trademarks are a good start, but we aren’t out of the woods just yet. The next challenge is what to do with the tooling and molds.
See, often when designing a new product, if it is made from certain materials it may require a mold, custom tooling or a die cast. These components allow for the manufacturer’s equipment to produce your custom designed product.
The challenge is, however, that the factory may use the mold for more than just your production run. A patent could prevent that, but the other challenge is that the factory may decide to KEEP your tooling if you ever decide to leave them. Given that custom tooling can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand USD, this could be bad for your business.
Thankfully, you do have a few options. First and foremost, if you have a new mold or tooling created, you need to have an OEM agreement drafted (OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer). The agreement should clearly stipulate who owns the mold. The agreement the manufacturer signs should also be printed in Chinese.
If an OEM agreement is not signed, 99% of the time the manufacturer will assume your payment for fabricating the mold does not convey ownership. Since the factory does the design work, they will hold ownership of the tooling. If they are honest, they will likely agree to ONLY use the mold for your production runs, but they will not allow you to move the mold to another factory. And if you don’t have an agreement signed and sealed, a local lawyer won’t even take your case if you decide to fight the factory for your molds.
After the OEM agreement, another option you have is to get your inspection company to wrap your mold. This is a simple process that requires the inspector to visit the factory after the production run, and wrap the tooling in a special adhesive tape with a proprietary sticker that will be broken if the wrap is removed.
Then you can instruct your factory to only unwrap the mold on the next production run. This would require them to show proof of the sealed mold before unwrapping, perhaps in the form of a photo.
A more extreme measure would be to have the mold transferred to a different location in between production runs. This may sound like overkill, but if you design something of extreme value made up of proprietary components, then it may be worth all the hassle to protect it.
The process of transferring a mold can be handled by what is called a “tool and die steward.” Passage Maker (http://www.psschina.com/) offers this service. The advantage to hiring a service to handle this task is that they warehouse your tooling in between the production runs. Alternatively, if you have a warehouse in China, you can hire your own steward.
Steward services can also offer a tooling “watchman.” This works much like it sounds; your steward will remain on site at the factory during the entire production run. This is to ensure you are the only one the tool is used to produce goods for.
All these steps may seem like the actions of a paranoid business owner, and you may even be concerned that this could strain your relationship with your factory. In the end, it is all about how much value your designs or your brand create for your company, and how much risk is left after certain levels of protection.
Think about it. Just starting out, a lot of this may seem unnecessary. But what if your brand takes off and you find yourself running a $10 million a year company in two or three years? Your designs, logos, brand identity….ALL of it is worth counterfeiting then. Ten million is a lot for anyone, and there will be plenty hoping to get a piece of that pie.
Other forms of protection
On a final note about intellectual property protection, I wanted to bring up the standard NDA. Non-Disclosure Agreements are commonplace in Western business. However, they are virtually unenforceable in China. The reason is because your NDA relegates the jurisdiction of IP protection to your Western country. China does not enforce US or European laws.
What you need is to draft an NNN (Non-Use, Non-Disclosure and Non-Circumvention). While it is best to have the NNN drafted by a local law firm so that it can be explicitly customized, you can likely also find a template. As with an OEM agreement, your NNN should be in the Chinese language. A Chinese NNN gives you the power of enforcement of Chinese laws protecting your disclosures to current and potential manufacturers.
And if all else fails and you have to actually ENFORCE the punishment of an infringer or consequences for breach of contract, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of the People’s Republic of China (http://www.saic.gov.cn/english/Home/) can help. This is the body of authority responsible for IP law enforcement over commerce in the country.
Safety Testing and Compliance
The next step in the exciting process of creating your very own product to have mass produced in China is safety testing and compliance. Any products sold in the West, be it the US or Europe, must comply with safety standards and regulations. Many are simply required to have proper labeling, or a statement of confidence. Some require more complex proof of safety, including laboratory testing and certification.
Please understand one thing; regardless of whether your factory has certifications already for their products, equipment or facility, it is ALWAYS the importer’s job to ensure regulations are followed. If a shipment is rejected, or a product requires recall, any legal repercussions that may occur will fall solely onto the importer.
Do not rely on just your factory to inform you of what standards and certifications your product may require. You need to do your due diligence in this area. Aside from your own research, your freight forwarder can also help since goods that do not meet safety standards are often rejected upon import.
I’ll briefly go over some of the regulatory bodies and safety certifications you may run into. It is a good idea to discuss whether your factory is familiar with these bodies and terms. Get them involved, along with your freight forwarder, so everyone can provide a concerted effort in ensuring your goods make it to market safely and legally.
FDA (US) –
The Food and Drug administration is responsible for protecting public health by regulating….you guessed it….food and drugs. However, the scope of that responsibility stretches beyond just consumables to many products that also come into contact with the body or with food. Medical devices are just such an example.
It should be noted that how the FDA classifies medical devices can be a bit confusing too. It sounds cut and dry to your average ecommerce seller, until you find out that things like sunglasses and toothbrushes fall into this category.
For that reason, if there is any doubt or confusion, you may wish to check the FDA’s classification database to see if your product can be found in it. You can do so by searching here: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfpcd/classification.cfm
If your product is considered a medical device, all you have to do is pay for registration and then register with the FDA. That registration code is then checked upon receipt of import. Without it, if Customs and Border Patrol realize your import is FDA regulated, your shipment will be denied entry.
Besides medical devices, the FDA also regulates radiation emitting products. That may seem like a no-brainer (there’s no way I have a radiation emitting product), but again, these classifications can be tricky.
Radiation emitting products, for example, refer to lasers, and therefore can include laser pointers and laser light show products. The manufacturer will need to submit a report and possibly comply with performance standards if you design one of these types of products. There are also special labeling requirements.
CPSC (US) –
The CPSC is known as the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This is a regulatory body that issues directives for safety standards.
In the US, there is no set of standards for all products. Instead, different materials and product types are regulated by different directives. You should always research to see if your product or product material is regulated by a directive. Look at this list for more details/regulations: https://www.cpsc.gov/Regulations-Laws–Standards/Regulations-Mandatory-Standards-Bans
First, you should get your product tested if required. There are a number of products that require laboratory testing. Here’s a small list of examples of products as well as their directives outlining their testing requirements:
• 16 CFR part 1610, Standard for the flammability of clothing textiles
• 16 CFR part 1203, Safety standard for bicycle helmets
• 16 CFR part 1204, Safety standard for omnidirectional citizens band base station antennas
• 16 CFR part 1205, Safety standard for walk-behind power lawn mowers
• 16 CFR part 1209, Safety standard for cellulose insulation
• 16 CFR part 1210, Safety standard for cigarette lighters
• 16 CFR part 1211, Safety standard for automatic residential garage door operators
• 16 CFR part 1212, Safety standard for multipurpose lighters
If necessary, you may have to construct a GCC (general certificate of conformity) for your general use product, and you will always need a CPC (child product certificate) for juvenile products.
FCC (US) –
Radio frequency devices must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. This is accomplished through either authorization testing or statement of conformity, as well as special labeling.
CE (EU) –
Works much like the FCC standard whereas it is a statement of conformity. This is for a number of different product types ranging from electronics to toys in Europe.
RoHS and Cal Prop 65 (EU and US) –
These are standards restricting levels of certain toxic chemicals and components. The use of which are either regulated by labeling or prohibited entirely. New products (electronic for RoHS and largely textile for Cal Prop 65) should be tested for the presence of such chemicals to ensure the avoidance of safety issues (and lawsuits).
ASTM (US) –
There are a number of consumer products that require testing to ASTM standards. These safety standards test things like weight limits, chemical composition, furniture tip-over, buckle and strap durability, etc. ASTM standards are largely enforced for juvenile products and many household products.
CPSIA (US) –
The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act regulates the testing and compliance requirements for a number of consumer goods. CPSIA is the law that outlines specific product requirements. Often CPSIA requires testing to ASTM standards for a number of goods.
UL (US) –
UL is an American safety certification company. UL provides safety certification for electronic goods. UL is the testing company, so it is not a required standard. However, a nationally recognized testing laboratory may be required for some electronic goods sold, and UL is the gold standard in the United States.
Much of your research will lead you to government websites. These are the best places to find specifics on safety regulations. However, they can be confusing. Another avenue you can take is to consult with a lawyer. While this can be an expensive approach, it may be worth it to ensure your product can make it to market.
Remember, once you are clear on precisely what product you will be manufacturing, you need to identify if your product as a whole, or any of its components, is regulated by:
1. Safety standards.
2. Chemical restrictions
3. Lab testing requirements.
4. Labeling requirements or special documents.
Finding the Right Factory
Another crucial step in the process of bringing a product idea to mass production is finding a factory. As if you didn’t already have enough to do, you will also need to vet the right factory to handle the manufacturing of your dream. And this is not a task you can cut corners on. Your factory will essentially be your business partner. The reality of your idea is intimately connected with your production partner.
That said, due to technology, it is infinitely easier to achieve this nowadays. While it is never a bad idea to travel to China to vet suppliers in person, it is not a requirement by any means. The internet will allow you the freedom to do all your due diligence on potential supplier partners remotely. However, it is important to have a good system in place to ensure you end up working with the right manufacturer.
B2B bridge websites
The first place that the majority of physical product sellers will start in their journey to find a supplier is usually a B2B (business to business) website. The most well-known B2B site for the purpose of connecting with Chinese manufacturers is Alibaba.com. Love it or hate it, Alibaba has provided the easiest platform for bridging the geographical and communication gaps between overseas factories and product sellers the world over.
Many of you have probably already heard of Alibaba.com, however you may not be aware that there are other options available. I’d also recommend Global Sources (http://www.globalsources.com/) and Made In China (made-in-china.com). These three websites all serve the same purpose to offer product sellers and distributors a channel of communication directly with trade agents and factory representatives.
Alibaba is the largest and most well-known B2B supplier website because Jack Ma, its founder, has done an amazing job growing the site to effectively service the entire world. Alibaba easily has the largest selection of products and suppliers you’ll find anywhere.
Global Sources has been around for over thirty years and has built a site and system that not only opens communication between distributors and suppliers, but also ensures safe transactions. Global Sources has built a reputation around its stringent supplier assessments, so the site is known for being safe. That said, unfortunately this also means the selection is smaller.
Made-in-China is essentially an Alibaba clone. A lot of the same filters are provided, and many suppliers are on both sites in an effort to gain visibility.
Agents and consultants
Unfortunately, not every capable factory is available for easy search online. Further, many smaller operations may not have sufficient staff to keep communication levels high enough to snag overseas export contracts.
To fill in the gaps, or otherwise make the process smoother and easier for a seller, sourcing agents and consultants offer their services.
On the positive side, agents provide a level of expertise and skill that you may be lacking in the beginning. Many can speak Chinese, or have staff that can. If they’ve been in business a while, they may already have a large database of worthy suppliers on hand. And a skilled agent can also negotiate prices on your behalf, which can turn into large savings in some instances.
Every business option has pros as well as cons, however. And on the negative side, you will be paying a middleman to execute these tasks for you. Furthermore, it is hard to be sure that the price negotiated is the best price for you, especially if the agent has arranged a kick-back from the factory.
Another great way to find a factory in China is through the many trade shows held in Asia every few months. There are a number in South China as well as Hong Kong that run twice a year. You have Canton (the biggest), Global Sources, HKTDC, Mega Show and many more.
While attending a trade show requires travel overseas, it is a fantastic opportunity to vet suppliers first hand. Each booth will tell you many things that you are looking to know; what materials the factory works with, the quality of their other products, and you get to start a conversation with them on the spot. There are very few instances where you’ll be able to hold a product in your hand, test it, and talk to suppliers on the spot about customization to the tune of 30, 40, or 50 factories all in the same day.
The private label path
My personal favorite way to find a factory is to utilize one that you’ve already established a relationship with. By no means is it impossible to start with a unique product from scratch, but there is certainly a learning curve involved with importing and selling physical goods online. You can gain some valuable experience by starting with private label.
When you’ve learned the ropes through private labeling a product or two, you will have also, ideally, established a profitable relationship with a factory. So long as your unique idea uses the same materials as the current factory you are working with, then you can likely get them to manufacture it for you. This will save you tons of time, energy and money, not to mention give you peace of mind because you’ll be working with people you already know, like and trust.
Contracts and Agreements
When it comes time to actually submit payment in the form of your initial deposit for your order, you’ll need to ensure you have your contracts in place. We already went over a few of these in the section about intellectual property protection, but here’s an outline of what those look like again:
NNN – This is your Chinese non-compete agreement. This should actually be issued and signed by any factory you share intimate details about your design with.
OEM Agreement – This is the document that assigns ownership of any molds or tooling. If your design requires custom tooling, you’ll need to make sure you have an OEM agreement that states you are allowed to take the tooling from the factory in case you ever part ways. You may also want to include a “Liquidation Damage” clause that financially penalizes the factory if they don’t deliver the tooling in a timely manner.
Specs Contract – This is the exact specifications of your new product. This agreement outlines the exact materials, thickness, weight, etc of your goods. It is important to lay this out in an exact manner and put it into a contract so that you protect yourself from quality fade. Should your factory ever cut corners in production, this agreement will force them to fix the problem.
Taking Your Idea to Mass Production
The final step in the process, after a factory has been identified, protections are in place, samples are approved, contracts are signed and specifications are outlined, is to have your new product mass produced.
This is the moment of truth. The moment when your brand takes its growth to the next level. At this point, you officially have a unique product to bring to the market, one that hasn’t been seen before. Hopefully this also means massive growth for your brand.
At this step, since you have already been working with a factory, you’ll likely go through the traditional motions of placing a bulk order. The Chinese factory will require the initial deposit in order to obtain the raw materials. This is the standard 30% down payment.
Once the goods are manufactured, you’ll likely have a post-production inspection to ensure the goods are meeting your quality standards. After passing inspection you’ll need to have arranged shipment, likely with a freight forwarder. When the forwarder issues a Bill of Lading (BOL) it is safe to release the remaining 70% of your invoice amount. Then it is just a matter of waiting for your goods to make it over the ocean.
Real Life Anecdotes
I have personally made a couple of custom designs and I’d like to share some of the details of those experiences. Hopefully this helps to paint a picture of how simple and yet complex the process is.
My first unique design never made it to production. I was selling a private label baby carrier, and at the time my carrier, along with many others in the market, suffered a slight design flaw. The waist strap wasn’t padded all the way around, and the remaining fabric tended to dig into the stomach or back of a wearer, causing discomfort. I had the idea to create a simple pad that slipped on over the uncomfortable waist belt to serve as padded comfort. I also wanted to add some “accessories” like a bottle holder and pocket to it.
The first thing I did was reached out on Facebook to my personal network to see if anyone had sewing skills. I found an old classmate who was a costume designer. I gave her my ideas and paid her weekly for the project until she came up with a prototype.
She mailed me the patterns, materials lists and the actual prototype, all readied to be sent overseas to a manufacturer. It worked out exactly the way I had hoped it would, and the only reason I didn’t take the product to market was because I discovered that building those accessories INTO the carrier was more efficient and cost effective.
Which brings me to my next foray with custom design. I decided to improve upon the baby carrier model. So I took to using a combination of poor sketches, cobbled together photoshop images, and as many near examples as I could find to convey the new product I was designing to my manufacturer.
I got the exact dimensions, the fabric types and every possible detail down on paper and through Skype my factory and I communicated our understanding of this new product. It actually worked and my factory successfully made a working prototype (and later mass produced) this new and improved baby carrier model; all through internet communications.
The only problem with this process was that it took way too long. The Skype communications, and then waiting on the prototype in the mail, all made the process take months. From idea to market was close to six months in total. I figured there HAD to be a better way. When I was ready to create a new design, I decided to fly to China.
I visited my factory in person in hopes to expedite the design process. After a cordial meeting over tea, the factory manager, my sales rep and myself went to the sample room. We used rulers, fabric swatches, existing samples and pencil and paper to put together a design, but we accomplished it that same day. About three hours later, we had the foundation for the next product. That shaved roughly three whole months off the process.
The point of these stories is to illustrate that it is possible and relatively simple to bring your product idea from concept to creation. In the above example there was also plenty of at-home doodling, hiring of local freelancers, hiring freelancers online, obtaining image designs, obtaining pattern files, and so on. Those are the elements that make it all somewhat complex. But with a decent road map, you can realistically create a unique product and have it manufactured in China.