Profile: Lauren Venell & Deep Creeps
Lauren Venell is a San Francisco product designer and business consultant. She’s a super-savvy business lady and when I heard she had a new line out that had been in development for a while, I knew I had to ask her about her experience sending designs out to be manufactured. This is a big area of interest for many and Lauren was kind enough to share her knowledge with you in this advanced version of Startup Stories. Thanks, Lauren!
Where did the idea for Deep Creeps come from? Why this, why now?
- “Can you complete the entire project in-house or only certain parts?”
- “What are your minimums?”
- “Do you coordinate shipping or do I need to arrange that separately?”
- “Do you charge for samples and/or revisions?”
- “Do you source your own materials?”
- “What are typical turn-around times?”
- “What does the unit price include?”
- “Does your company have any independent certifications for sustainability, social responsibility, or anything else?”
- “Do your suppliers have any of these certifications?”
- “Can you work with me to provide packaging?”
- I didn’t account for the fact that their suppliers had minimums, too, so I often had to purchase more fabric than I needed, which brought up the cost of the project. Solutions: ask the manufacturer to negotiate those minimums down on your behalf (it often works), modify your design to use fewer different colors/materials, or ask the manufacturer to store the extra material for you for future projects.
- Despite the project manager’s good command of English, there were still some language barrier issues, such as when I was told that a zip-top bag would be impossible to produce. Solutions: send pictures and/or samples of anything you’re trying to communicate visually and be extremely specific (i.e. “the plastic for the bags should be 0.4mm thick”). It turns out the factory was picturing something much more complicated (zip-locs are apparently called “voltage-seal” bags in Hong Kong), so once I sent a picture of what I was looking for, it was easy for them to produce.
- I incurred a lot of unexpected costs through shipping and customs, despite trying to do my due diligence research-wise. Solution: visit the local offices of any customs brokers you’re considering and have them walk you through the process in person, including every possible form and charge, from door to door. If they won’t do that for you, don’t hire them.
- Manufacturing mistakes: one of the problems I had with a domestic factory was that the sample I approved looked great, but the rest of toys varied a lot from the sample in shape, size and quality, depending on who sewed them. Solution: always request a full case of finished, packaged products before your entire shipment is sent out. That way you can examine a dozen or so products to see if the quality on all of them is up to snuff.
- Good packaging is hugely important. An original package that enhances a customer’s interaction with your product can do a lot of your sales work for you. To cater to wholesale customers, I packaged the Deep Creeps in a resealable carrying case that can be hung from a handle or stood upright on a store shelf. It protects the toy from dirty hands, acts as its own underwater display and tells customers that he glows in the dark, practically selling itself. The carrying case also makes the product more sustainable by both eliminating the need for additional packaging while shipping, and protecting the toy so it lasts longer. It can also be recycled when its life is over. It often takes me just as long to design the packaging for a product as to design the product itself, but it’s always worth it. Nearly every product needs some sort of packaging to protect it in transit, but I’ve found it really benefits my business to push the envelope beyond tissue paper and raffia. As long as it’s thoughtful, packaging doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. I wrapped the Sweet Meats in deli paper with a simple text sticker on top, which protected the product and delighted the recipient while hardly costing any time or money. It worked much better than any of the more complicated designs I had come up with originally.
- Don’t compromise your values. You won’t be able to get anyone else to love your products unless you love them first. In order to sell them, you need to be able to answer any question about their price, materials, construction or design confidently and with no reservations. If you don’t feel 100% great about some aspect of your product, wait until you’ve solved the problem before you release it, even if it causes a delay. Some manufacturers and suppliers will tell you that certain things are impossible, but 99% of the time what they actually mean is that your request is difficult. If you do your part to research alternative materials or methods, you can often work together to find a mutually agreeable solution. In other words, be understanding and polite with your vendors, but don’t be bullied into anything your gut finds iffy. You will face a lot of rejection as a small business, but it’s much easier to weather (and to overcome) when you feel confident that you are putting something new and wonderful into the world.