Made in USA
If you are looking for a manufacturer to help build your products it is nearly impossible to find practical advice on where to find a US manufacturer. Most websites skip over this difficult step by offering up some other sites to visit like Makers Row, ThomasNet, MFG, and Kompass. While these sites list thousands of US manufacturers, it is important to know how to reach out to the manufacturer and the things they are looking for so you partner with them and make a great product!
Why USA over foreign
One quick argument for why US production is important. The first being is that Americans put a value on US made products. Based on a Reuters-Ipsos poll back in 2017, 85% of US consumers believe that US made items have better quality than foreign made items. While price has been the number one driving factor for consumers, the new tariffs on Chinese products is putting US made items back into competition. To read more about this poll click here.
From a practical stand-point it is much easier working with local manufacturers. If you haven’t worked with a firm in China yet, the process can be very frustrating. I worked with five different firms for my first product in 2016 and it was a very simple tablet folio. After placing an order for $4,800 with what I thought was the best company, I found out that the manufacturing run didn’t meet the specifications of the sample prototype and the whole order was useless. It nearly destroyed my newly created company. Luckily, I was able to find another company to help make the correct product but I will never work with a company I can’t easily visit to work through the production process.
Type of manufacturer
Assuming that you know how your product will look and the type of material you will need to use, the first priority is making a list of manufacturers that make similar products. Before you start reaching out to production companies, I recommend making a google spreadsheet with names and contact info and keep track of when you contact them. As you gain experience talking to manufacturers, it helps to know who you talked to in the past and you can circle back to early contacts.
Check the resources section below for manufacturing sites.
Pitching your idea
When you begin to reach out to the manufacturers it is important to know that they do not need your business. They are very busy with work and they will never be as in love with your product as you are. You need to sell them on your idea and touch on a few key items that they want to hear in order to keep the conversation going. This is why it is important to do research on each company you contact and try to make a connection with them. It is a partnership you want to create and help show that you are worth their time.
When I met with a local cut and sew company, I was able to meet with the owner in person and as I talked to him, I saw that my idea for a tablet case was not getting across. It wasn’t until I looked around his office while he took a call in the middle of our meeting that I finally found an “in” with him. He was an outdoorsman and loved being in nature. When I mentioned that my case will help encourage individuals get outside more and take their devices with them, that he finally agreed to help me.
Look at these meetings like investor pitch meetings to show that your product will sell and you are dedicated to your idea. The company rep will have their own ideas to offer up on the production process as well and may even want to change your product to meet their processes. You also need to offer a retail price that is in line with other high quality products made in the US. They will need to know they can make some money to keep the conversation going.
When you find a potential company to work with and fill in the contact info page, it is key to enter in the details that will get the companies to want your business. For example, below are the production requests I sent out on Maker’s Row. The first one is from 2016, and the second is from 2019. Which one do you think received zero responses and which one had six companies offering phone calls in the first day?
Hello, I am looking for help manufacturing a wide tablet case that can accomidate a tablet, as well as a notebook, like a moleskin notebook. The notebook will slip into a pocket on the right side, and the left side has 4 adjustable plastic clips to hold the tablet (or a sketchpad, see images). I also need a pocket on the front cover to hold a piece of paper as seen in the image. My budget and quantity amounts are low as I need a marketing sample I can send out first to build interest before my main order quantity, which will be 1,000 or more.
- Tablet Folio/Sleeve
- Nylon Fabric Case (I will provide the Recycled plastic fabric called Repreve. It is a PU coated material similar to the Cordura nylon fabric)
- Topo Map on outside front of case
- 2 Color Choices
- YKK Zippers and 2 D rings for straps
I am flexible on the design if you have any changes to match production processes.
Thank you in advance and I look forward to working with you on this!
Obviously, the second example is the one that got manufacturers interested in my product. I have held five phone calls from the initial proposal and believe I have found an excellent partner. The second example provided some initial information without getting into the weeds and it also had a much better price point. The first example had a laughable $10 cost that I am embarrassed to share! I was so green back then…
The $35/month cost for Makers Row may seem steep at first, but you can hold your subscription once you make the contacts you need, and restart at a later date. They also have a great blog with useful info like “How I Got My Prototype Ready for Production” and “How to Start a T-Shirt Business.”
To get started with a manufacturer you will need some sketches, or technical drawings to show what you want made.
While Jeff Sheldon is a gifted artist and maker, you don’t need to be a product sketch artist to get your idea across. Simple layout and dimensions are enough for some companies to help start working on a prototype. You do need something to send them, and the more you do and including similar product photos will help them get to where you want to be faster. Each industry is different and you can see what each company might need after looking at the services each company offers. In the apparel industry you will see the term “tech pack” quite a bit. This is a detailed description of the product design and dimensions with fabric choices and colors.
If you want to get some product sketches or CAD drawings go check out fiverr.com.
One big issue that we all will run into is that it takes a lot longer to have products made here in the US than abroad. Unless you are placing a huge order and have a strong relationship with the manufacturer, your order is going to go to the end of the line. I know that when large companies place last minute orders, everyone else gets bumped based on a conversation I had with a business owner that services Apple products.
The trick is simply to start early on the production process and set up a reasonable production timeline. This can be done with the company and keep following up with them to know how things are progressing as well as get a written contract to hold them accountable.
If you work with foreign manufacturers they are geared up for quick production and turnaround. You will get faster replies and a high level of attention from the sales team. This is what makes Alibaba.com so successful. I don’t want to advocate against using a foreign factory, but for my design firm I want to support US companies to help my country and local craftsmen and women.
Makers Row - Companies here are mostly Apparel & Accessories, Furniture / Home Decor, and Packaging that will help startups. There is also a mix of “Other” companies for plastics and laser cutting, and other. If you have any questions about materials please let me know and I can check if there are any possible options here.
Thomas Net - With 500K suppliers & manufacturers, this is a huge resource, but not all manufacturers will work with startups. These are generally large manufacturers that show up on the top of the search results and won’t bother to respond to individuals. Use the keyword “prototype” to help narrow the results down in the industry you are looking in to help find a firm that will help you start here.
Industry Net - Same scale of resources as Thomas Net but geared more for industrial companies (tooling, machining, casting, stamping, etc.)
Kompass - While this is a large listing, it has a broad category list - click on “search by sector” to check your product material type.
Job Shop - Is also an industrial site, but with smaller, and fewer companies. It has a horrible website, but still useful.
Local Search - Once you know the type of company you need to help you, try a google search near you to look for local suppliers. I found a company two miles from my home that has been great to work with and so easy to make changes on the prototypes in person. You might get lucky.
Please let me know if you have any questions and good luck with your product!