Picking the right suppliers to work with is one of the hardest and most time-consuming tasks. First, most of these suppliers live in the analog world, with sporadic websites, phone numbers, emails and even addresses. Tracking them down is hard. And tracking down the right ones is even harder. There are a few phases of the process, and here are some thoughts on how to make the most of it.
Researching suppliers is a pure numbers game. You need to visit as many as you can. Emails and phone calls only go so far. You need to see the space and you need to talk to the people who run it. If something seems off or they aren't interested in helping you, they sure won't be interested in the middle of production when your risk is much higher. This phase is the lowest risk phase and you need to develop a test or checklist for evaluating suppliers.
Some things to look for/ask
- Ask who their current clients are. The word current is crucial. Everyone in NYC says they've worked for Ralph Lauren and Theory but it's mostly bullshit so try to look past this. Look for suppliers that work with brands you respect (and brands that still exist).
- Thoroughly inspect the factory and premises. If it looks sketchy, it is. But more importantly, inspect the products and garments coming out of the place. Look at the quality of the stuff coming out of there. If it isn't good, why would yours be any better?
- Talk to the people who run the place. If they don't seem like good communicators, say they don't answer phones or emails, they're not going to change for you.
- Ask them what they are best at. Some factories are really good at knits. Others are really good at wovens. If they say they can do anything, be skeptical. Finding places that are really good at one or two things is preferred.
- Ask them when they are busy. When you're small, being flexible about timing is a great way to get really good places to work with you. When they're slow and need some work, they can turn to you. But during fashion week or busy seasons, don't expect to be their first priority. Ask about all of this.
You should always be looking for new suppliers. We spend a few hours each week scouting new places. You never know what's out there until you see it and there's always a better option.
Once you've picked out a few places to move forward with, bring them what you're working on so you can get quotes on price and turnaround time. The cheapest isn't always the best and you'll want to see the going rate for your job. From here, you can try to negotiate a bit. But before you do, ask questions about how they arrived at the pricing. It's never pulled out of thin air. Each stitch and detail carries a price. The more you can understand how they arrived at the price the better you can work with them to get it where it needs to be. You should think of each other as partners, not rivals. The harder you ride them on price the less inclined they are to work with you in the future, especially if it's your fault something is expensive to make.
After you've completed the first cycle of work with a supplier, you'll want to reevaluate their performance and your relationship with them. Did it go well? Could it go better? Did they deliver on time and quality? Were there lapses on your end or their end? You should do this after every job is complete regardless of how long you've been working with them. Talk to them about what you think could be done better. Often times the lapses are related to communication, less so the actual technical results. If you have an open dialogue, everything gets better. But if you never talk about this stuff, no one will know if anything is wrong. People can't read your mind.