If you've finally decided to turn your craft or eureka moment into a full-blown business, congratulations—you're one step closer to becoming an entrepreneur! Understanding the business, however, can be tricky, especially if you plan on scaling up in the future and partnering with large vendors. How to do you find the right manufacturer for your product? How many prototypes do you need? What's an NDA and should you have one? To help answer these questions, we asked the small business experts for their top tips to help you get your idea off the ground.
Have a Solid Idea
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's something you'll want to be entirely sure about before you begin investing your time and money on production. "Everyone wants the next best idea, but another key question is: are you solving a problem?" says Kedma Ough, a Statewide Innovation Director for America's Small Business Development Centers and author of "Target Funding." And if you are solving a problem, are you doing so in a unique way? What's your 'wow' factor?" To help you tailor your brainstorms, Ough suggests conducting a competitive analysis, or seeing what other people with similar ideas are each doing to stand out. "Maybe you're making quilts that aren't as unique in and of themselves, but the person you are serving with them is," says Ough.
Do Your Research
Whether you're starting your creations from scratch for the first time, or have been making something on your own and now want to expand, you can never do enough research before taking your next step. For example, what is the need for your product like? Has it changed over time, or is it new? "Talk to people in your product's audience," suggests Ough. And see if they'd buy it, at what price point, and why." Another great research tool: locate your product's trade show (a beauty expo for your handmade body lotions, for example). According to Liz Bertorelli, an entrepreneur in residence with Shopify and owner of online lifestyle brand, Shop Passionfruit: "Visiting a trade show dedicated to the industry you're interested in allows you to meet many key distributors and manufacturers at a single event who may be able to help you take your idea to the next level."
Protect Your Intellectual Property
Before you start bringing in more people and larger companies into your production process, you may want to consider drafting a non-disclosure agreement or an NDA. This legally binding contract, or trade agreement, can help provide a level of legal protection against other companies from copying your idea. "For creative entrepreneurs, intellectual property is often the heart of their businesses, and they can consider options for protecting it," says Simona Shakin, Director of Seller Marketing at Etsy, who also recommends consulting an IP lawyer, if you can. "When looking into copyrights, trademarks, and patents, it's important to think about the role that intellectual property plays in your business: Do you use designs that are eligible for copyright protection? Have you developed a valuable brand name or logo that might warrant applying for a trademark?"
Prepare Your Prototype
Think of a prototype as your first draft—and something that will be helpful to have on hand as you start testing—continue researching and meeting with potential partners. "Prototypes are a low-risk way to show proof of concept and gauge buyer interest," says Shakin. As with any first draft, your prototype will not be perfect, and that's okay. Shakin says: "Waiting until your product is 'perfect' may mean missing out on the opportunity to receive constructive feedback." In terms of how many prototypes you'll need, this will depend on your product and the resources you have available. If you find yourself needing to create more than you're able to, Ough suggests creating smaller versions or simulating them through a CAD program.
Start Searching for the Right Manufacturer
Finding and working with a manufacturer that's right for your needs is crucial. First, decide if you want to produce domestically or overseas, as each will have their own pros and cons. "Ask yourself how much control you want or may need for producing your product," says Ough. "Producing domestically or even locally will allow you to visit the site directly and check in more regularly (about once a year) than if your site was overseas." However, Ough notes that if lower price points are a priority for you, working with international producers may be the way to go, but be sure to also factor timing and customs when planning out your production process as these can sometimes cause delays and impact sales. "If you're going to work with international manufacturers, consider reaching out to your local economic development chapter (find yours here)," says Ough. "They can connect you with a global specialist who has vetted manufacturers overseas and will help represent you."
Another great starting point when looking for manufacturers is to tap into your industry's small business network, as these folks will have valuable first-hand experience to share. "Getting referrals from fellow business owners via social media and forums can be a great starting point and a way to get feedback on suppliers you've been looking evaluating," says Bertorelli, who recommends directories like ThomasNet, Maker's Row, MFG, Kompass, Alibaba, and Oberlo to help you filter and find available manufacturers. "If you're confident that sourcing overseas makes sense for your business, Shopify's guide on sourcing from Alibaba is a good place to start." Finally, identify your product's local association, the carpentry association for a woodworking project, for example, as Ough says this can be a valuable resource: "Your local chapter will often be tied to a national branch, both of which can help you find vetted manufacturers."
Make Your Selection
After doing your research on which manufacturers may be best for you, start narrowing down your list by comparing prices, timelines, and production processes. "Some key questions to include in outreach might be: What is the minimum order quantity? What is your sample pricing? What is your turnaround time? And what are the available payment methods?" says Bertorelli. You'll also want to prepare a quality control checklist of what you deem acceptable (say, minor discrepancies among products) and unacceptable (major shipment delays). "Be sure to run this by your manufacturer and agree on a penalty—like free shipment if the delay exceeds a certain time period—should these situations ever rise," Ough suggests.
Once you've ticked these boxes, go ahead and give your manufacturer a call. "People often feel scared to make the call, but don't be! A good manufacturer will want to help your business succeed," says Ough. "Don't be afraid to ask all the questions you may have."
Launch the Production Process
You've found the right manufacturer—congratulations! Now, it's time to start producing. Be sure to detail all specifications of your product (like size, colors, and components) on a spec sheet that you will provide to your manufacturer. By having everything listed on paper in as much detail as possible, you can minimize any room for error and confusion.
Still feeling overwhelmed about this process? Bertorelli reminds us: "Starting a business is a journey, and not a race; a journey still begins with the first step. Many new entrepreneurs get stuck in a vicious cycle of constantly evaluating ideas, and wind up never finding the elusive perfect product or starting the business. The most important thing to remember is to keep moving forward."