The clothing company Everlane has a world map of the factories on their website. That level of transparency is commendable.
I've noticed a recent trend, particularly among bag and luggage companies, of a pseudo-transparency noting not which factories they work with, but their factories other clients. "Made at the same factory as..." a larger and more reputable company.
Why is this a thing? I suppose it's a form of social proof. These companies want to equate their brand with a big, established brand in the customer's mind.
That's not how it works.
I've been in and worked with factories that supply big name companies like Osprey, Marmot, Case Logic, and Delsey.
A factory having long-term working relationship with high volume, high quality brands is a good signal to potential clients.
However, this signal doesn't mean that your products will be of equal quality or that this is the right factory for you. You still have to vet the factory and to learn how to work together.
At the end of 2015, we vetted 22 factories to choose a new manufacturer for what became the Outbreaker Backpack. One factory, we'll call it P, is well known in the industry and produces for both high-end brands and well-designed brands that match Tortuga's style. They seemed like a perfect fit, but were one of the worst factories that we vetted. Their samples were slow, late, and riddled with mistakes.
P didn't suddenly become a bad factory. They just didn't care about us or were busy with higher priorities. We wouldn't have been their biggest client, but we were a real business with 4 years of history and a handful of SKUs. I can't imagine how they would treat an upstart brand trying to make their first run of products.
This problem isn't China-specific. We struggled to work with US factories when we first launched. Even the factory that eventually made the first 100 Tortuga backpacks ignored us at times, was slow to respond, and generally did not give a shit. Many US bag factories rely on fat, multi-year government contracts and do not care about helping a new brand get started.
Every brand-factory relationship is unique. Each company's needs are different. At Tortuga, we work with our suppliers to develop new products and to test new materials. Most factories don't want to do this. They want a sample to copy and big, repeat orders. They want to make as many units of as few SKUs as possible. Factory owners want to maximize their efficiency.
Just because a factory works with high-quality brands does not ensure that your products will be of high quality. Your quality is only as good as your quality control. Even the best factories with well-trained employees can rush through jobs or be inattentive during a key part of the process.
Your quality is your responsibility.
A factory's major client can even be a hindrance to you, the new or small company. You are not that factory's top priority. The big name client is. If they need more units or a rush job, your order will be pushed back or rushed. If the sample room is busy, your samples will get done last. Factories have to prioritize too.
You need a right-sized factory for your business. What is right-sized? A factory that values your business but isn't totally reliant on you as a client. You want to be important enought to matter. When you need a sample done quickly or an order out by a set date; they should want to make that happen to keep your business and to maintain a good working relationship.
If Rimowa or Tumi represents the bulk of that factory's business, then your needs do not matter to them.
Ideally, a right-sized factory can grow with you. Other times, you will have to find a new supplier as your business grows and changes. That's okay. The process won't be easy but will be worthwhile. We've done it.
Hiring a factory is just like hiring a person. You want the right person for the job. Having an impressive company on one's resume is a useful signal, but you still need to interview the candidate and see how you like working together.
If you're a customer impressed by a new brand using the same factory as an established brand, think twice. The new product might be excellent. Or that product might have been the factory's lowest priority.
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