I am a mum of two children based in Ipswich, Suffolk, United Kingdom. Like so many women I gave up my career to have children and for two years became a stay at home mum. I loved it but I felt something was missing so I decided to pursue an idea for a child's luggage item that would suit older children. I had no idea when I took that first step that it would change my life forever!
I sit here now three years down the line looking back at my journey both personal and business, as, although they are separate they are so intrinsically entwined wondering what I would do differently and what I would advise new start-ups.
My journey began by making a cardboard box that looked something like the suitcase I wanted to design, putting this box into a garbage bag to hide it, and taking it to the Intellectual Property Lawyers office to find out if one existed. Luckily it didn't and after months of looking at prior art and checking designs I had a concept and design that worked.
The next step was to find a manufacturer, I searched everywhere in the UK but nowhere could I find a manufacturer that could deliver the product for a price I wanted.
Now I have worked for large blue chip companies traveling on business to far flung places, but I had never had to contemplate traveling to Asia to work in a factory, within an industry I knew nothing about. The challenge was huge, where do you start? I looked on Alibaba and found hundreds of factories all promising great things. I spoke to trade associations, and retailers. However the advice came back; you have to go to there and see it being made to get it right!
Now one thing I have learnt is to take advice from people that have done it before, so I contacted a company that claimed to be able to source everything from China. So we met and they took on finding a factory that could comply with requirements for the EU and USA markets. Once the factory was found I then travelled to China to oversee the operation and manufacture. This is when the real challenge started!!
Having planned the visit in advance and paid my deposit I was sure I would get to the design room to see a readymade sample which would need minor tweaking. I would then work there 3 days and then come back with a perfect pre-production sample to begin my sales. How wrong I was!
On day one I met with the supposed factory owner. He showed us round the factory proudly pointing out all the different lines and volumes they made for numerous companies. This reassured me as they worked for some big global names that would have had to comply with everything we would need to. 12 noon was lunch, and then we had the company bonding session at 1pm where everyone would chant the mantra for the company. Once this was completed we went to the design room. Up until now I was impressed everyone was pleasant, several spoke fairly good English and the product looked good.
As I sat in quite anticipation in the showroom surrounded by their own brand of luggage in 38 degree heat with 93% humidity and NO AIR CONDITIONING, I could see my dream becoming a reality. That was until out of the window I saw a man opening a car boot and getting out components of a case, my case! Nothing had been done, it had been moulded but not put together. I felt my heart sink.
The supposed manager came in and handed me the items as if I could somehow create some magic and put it together. I obviously looked surprised and his manner changed. He explained he would get it made up overnight and I would be able to see it tomorrow morning. I asked if I could watch the process, he said no. I asked to see the printed version of the case and he said they were collecting the printed sheets tonight and would mould them ready for my visit tomorrow. He seemed genuine and apologised for the delay but explained as it was a ‘tricky’ mould I would need to work with them. I explained I had two days left and it had to be done.
I reluctantly agreed to leave and meet at 9am the next morning. I took a mobile number so we could speak through the evening and that way we would keep on track.
During the evening I sent a couple of texts so we could make sure the process worked. I asked questions such as is everything going to plan, and, are the printed sheets completed? I got the answer yes to both. Excellent I thought and went to bed looking forward to day two.
Back in the showroom again on day two I was excited in the anticipation of seeing my design come to life. In came the owner, or as I was soon to find out the agent, to advise me the print factory had not been able to get the printed sheets out last night so I would need to wait and see them, however the case was moulded and the interior of the case completed.
We discussed the design and agreed a way forward with regards to the tweaks. I was then advised that I would need to wait until the next day for the printed sheets. I asked if they would be delivered in time, I was again assured they would be! However by now I was beginning to feel that things were not as they should be. I asked them how long it would be for them to guarantee me a printed case to bring back to the UK.
To cut a long story short I extended my return flight by three weeks. It took me every day to get the factory to produce the case. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; I now know that because my order was small I was being bumped to the back of the queue by the print factory had I known this I would have sourced each component of the case individually.
Eventually I got handed 17 days after I arrived two printed cases. They looked great and I was really pleased. Then I got out the tape measure. They had been made to the incorrect dimensions! Still if that was all that had to happen I could leave specific dimensions and surely they could make to that.
Additional samples were sent to the Certification House for testing, as the product was a child’s product we needed CE specification testing for Europe and USA. This is where the real disaster struck. Although the factory had had all the testing requirements in advance they had made the case to the incorrect spec. It would not comply.
At this point I sat and cried I had worked so hard to get this process to work and every turn it failed. The sourcing company advised me these things happen and we would find another factory.
I now realised that if you want it done you need to do it yourself, so I went to find another factory and finally this time round I got my product made. 18months after the day I started we had finally got a factory and a certification house and a product that worked.
We now have the product and have begun the long journey of marketing and selling it to create a global brand. We sell into the UK, USA, China and Japan.
So as I sit here reflecting I would summarise my learning’s as follows;
- Never trust another company to advise you if they are to make a profit
- If working in China ALWAYS go to the factories and seek guidance from a manufacturing company in your own country to see what they advise. Even if it’s a different product or industry the information will be valuable
- Never pay out any monies to anyone you can always work out a deal to get what you need to help early day cash flow
- When in China if they say yes they probably mean no, ask politely yet firmly and you should get a true answer
- Never believe the manager is the manager they are almost always agents
- Source each component yourself – never leave it to the final factory
- Make sure you get Intellectual property as there is a very strong tendency to copy
- If you see a factory making for global names, check them, the global name I had seen had no idea this factory were making their designs!
And finally never give up, its hard and its not easy getting things made and imported, but it can be done, and one day you will see just how far you have come!