Now that we're fully into production, we wanted to share some of the lessons learned along the way. When we started this journey, our experience in setting up a manufacturing supply chain was limited to whatever we were able to read on the internet. Needless to say, we've learned a bit since getting our hands dirty and starting Topology. We wanted to share our learnings to provide transparency to our customers and help anyone looking to start a fashion brand. So, here's a list of lessons we've learned so far.
Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Maybe not literally, but you should still make sure to double and triple check everything so the chances that something can go wrong are minimized. For example, setting up a supply chain to make any product requires collaboration and coordination across several vendors. For our shirts, we needed to source raw materials to be delivered to our manufacturing partner for assembly into our final shirts. In order to quality control (and admire) the materials ourselves, we decided to have buttons and labels shipped directly to us so we could consolidate and send a single package to our manufacturer. However, after bundling and sending everything, our courier service delivered the package on a Saturday without requiring a signature. All of our buttons, labels, and a few sample shirts were lost as there was no one to receive the package. The chances of this costly mishap (in terms of time and money) could have been minimized if we had an airtight process and confirmed our delivery schedule with our courier, triple-checked availability to receive with the manufacturer, and asked for signature on receipt.
Create strong relationships with vendors - value quality, speed, and service as much as price
When you're just starting off (and have a business model that allows for producing domestically), nothing substitutes for being able to visit or talk to a trusted manufacturer or supplier. After scrapping one of the fabrics in our collection, we realized we needed to add more units of the other styles in order to reach a minimum order count. When we'd traveled to Japan, we taken meetings with several textile mills to inquire about shipping directly to the states. We also had identified mills that had representatives based in the U.S. We reached out to our established contacts and were able to order fabric in just a couple weeks. Yes, these materials were more expensive, but the speed with which we were able to react made it worth it.
But don't be afraid to negotiate on price either (after you've solved for quality, speed and service)
Early on we were looking to make our early samples. We reached out to several potential partners to figure out who would help us make shirts. Pricing is generally expensive for samples and small-scale production (many hundreds of dollars to make a pattern + sample shirt) but we found a manufacturing partner that we trusted. Still, with the number of samples we wanted to make, there was definitely a sense of sticker shock. As a new business, it's intimidating approaching a vendor with decades of experience and asking for a discount. However, as a new business, every dollar saved counts - so we asked for a discount and our partner was kind enough to give us a reasonable discount across our samples. We've worked with them ever since and they've proven their ability to work with us through the bumps and flexibly schedule our production.
Always budget more time than you need
We planned everything to hit our initial delivery date. We knew when fabrics and accessories would arrive, we knew how long it would take to manufacture the shirts, and we knew when we would ship everything out. However, what we learned is that we should budget for not only that time plus an extra several weeks for bumps in the road. Don't plan for a timeline where everything goes right, plan for a timeline where things go wrong. As mentioned in the first bullet - things will go wrong. Lose buttons and labels? That will add a month to your timeline. Spend extra rounds negotiating with your manufacturers to nail down pricing and specifics? That could add a week. Make sure you have buffer time so you don't end up disappointing yourself or your customers.
Make samples and never compromise on product
We initially began with 10 styles in the Japan Collection based on 10 different fabrics. As soon as we had the fabrics, we put them on the site as pre-orders. After seeing traffic on the site without conversions, we realized we needed to expedite making samples of all the shirts. After examining samples of all the styles, we realized one style wasn't up to our standards - the fabric just didn't hang right. It didn't matter that we'd already purchased enough fabric to make over 50 of these shirts (a significant cost for us at this stage). We knew we wanted to deliver product at a high standard, so we pulled the fabric and the style from the collection. By sampling first and not jumping straight into production we were able to save on manufacturing costs when we decided to pull the plug. While making samples is costly, it is critical and will keep you from making even costlier mistakes later on - do it early and often to avoid creating unwanted products in the end.
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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more stories from Topology!