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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?

I’ve always been fascinated with sea creatures, but my love for deep sea animals in particular was re-kindled by “The Deep” episode of BBC’s “Blue Planet” series. To me, the animals at the bottom of the ocean are the most fascinating creatures on earth (octopi with glowing suckers? Fish with teeth so big they can’t close their mouths?!), so I turned three of them into stuffed toys that would have made the 10-year-old, bio-nerdy me poop her pants.  I started with the initial sketches and prototypes almost three years ago and the first Creep (Leonardo the Octopus) was finally released this spring. That’s two years later than I had originally intended, but it worked out nicely because the Deep Creeps hit shelves at the same time as the last Sweet Meats sold out.
Can you talk a bit about sourcing, manufacturing, samples – what unexpected (or expected) difficulties did you run into during this process, and how did you handle them?
It took me nearly two years to find a plush toy manufacturer that I trusted.  I started by contacting a few domestic manufacturers first.  They were relatively easy to find with a little Googling, but each one had a major flaw I couldn’t get over–one was way too expensive, one didn’t do any cutting or fabric sourcing in-house, and one had problems with organization and product quality. I then decided to look into manufacturing overseas, but had no idea where to start. Online searches yielded only spammy results. So I started to just ask everyone I knew about sewing factories and eventually I got some leads. One friend had a relative in the textile industry in India who was able to provide some recommendations. Another friend worked for a novelty company that could recommend a factory in China. My dad had some contacts in Romania, and a family friend knew people in textiles in Argentina. These days you could probably use something like LinkedIn to similar effect. The one person you don’t want to ask is a competing businessperson. Though they might have the most specific answers, asking someone to harm their own business by helping yours puts them in a really awkward position and is just bad form.  
Once I had a few contacts I was able to narrow it down by asking a ton of questions, such as: 
  • “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?”
Eventually I found a manufacturer in China/Hong Kong that met all of my criteria. That’s not to say that there weren’t still plenty of bumps in the road, but I was able to feel great about the process and the finished product, which was the most important thing. A couple of unexpected issues I had to deal with:
  • 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.
Do you have advice for anyone looking to make and market a product, especially if they are trying to do so sustainably?
Wow, that is a really huge question.  If you can produce your products in-house, and it allows your business room to grow (either by getting more space/equipment, or hiring help), that’s great.  Most metro areas have some sort of green business initiative or office that you can contact for tips on how to make your company more sustainable, whether you ultimately pursue some sort of green certification or not. In San Francisco we have SF Green Business, which offers a directory of certified local businesses, so it’s easy to find the green printers, office suppliers and hardware stores you can use to make your own business more sustainable. If you become certified yourself, you can use your green status as a marketing tool.
Materials sourcing: firstly, some states require a reseller’s license/permit to buy wholesale, so make sure you have one if needed. To find green materials, you can search one of the certification databases that have been created online by global trade associations committed to sustainability. The Forest Stewardship Council has one for paper and wood products, and there’s the Global Organic Textile Standard for fabrics. Contact the trade association for the type of materials you’re looking for to find other supplier lists. To find materials domestically, the ThomasNet is a good place to start, but you’ll have to do some digging to find out about any given supplier’s commitment to sustainability.
Manufacturing: If you want to outsource locally, you can contact your local chamber of commerce to see if your area has an association of local manufacturers.  Here in San Francisco, there is an excellent organization called SFMade that connects designers to local producers. To go the global, fair-trade route you can work with an artisan’s non-profit such as Aid to Artisans (who works with groups in the U.S. and abroad) or People of Hope Crafts.  You can also ask any manufacturer for their certifications. The ISO:9001 certification covers things like product quality and management, and the ISO: 9003 certification covers sustainability measures. Both of them apply to any manufacturer, but there are also industry-specifc certifications. For example, I only work with toy factories that have the ICTI C.A.R.E. certification, so I can be sure that they use fair labor practices.
Marketing: I could write several books about this, but here are two choice tips from my personal experience:
  • 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.
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  1. Shana says:

    One thing I learned in the manufacturing process- always ask is that’s the final price! Many things are negotiable.

    Terrific article on the many things to consider when going into manufacturing. I know I had many bumps along the way but in the end I learned so much. So glad I took the plunge into manufacturing, I couldn’t do it myself anymore.

  2. […] like to learn more about Lauren’s experience with manufacturing I recommend reading this Q& A she did with Rena Tom last […]

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