Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez are the co-founders of Maker’s Row, an online platform that connects entrepreneurs to American manufacturers. Matthew began his career designing watches for fashion brands like Marc Jacobs. Tanya worked as an analyst with Goldman Sachs. After launching a leather goods line together, and experiencing the difficulty of finding the right manufacturers, they started Maker’s Row. Introduced in 2013, with a focus on apparel and accessories, the site has recently added furniture and home decor.
Q. What can Maker Pros learn from the fashion industry?
Tanya: Apparel is shifting from mass market to community driven. Independent fashion designers have gained more traction working through their own distribution channels, and I think hardware also has that opportunity.
Matthew: I definitely think there’s overlap. Apparel is responding to what’s happening today in popular culture. Hardware is doing the same. Beats by Dre, the headphones, are a good example. Different communities are building products for their own community’s needs.
Q. As factory experts, what’s your advice to makers with a project that needs to be manufactured?
Matthew: Understand that the product never sells itself. Don’t get so enthralled with your product that you neglect other important stuff. How are you going to bring your product to market? Are you going to go direct to consumer or go wholesale?
Tanya: Test the product. Put the product in the hands of your harshest critic, not only the friends who will just congratulate you. Don’t be afraid to share the idea before you sell it, don’t be so nervous that it might be knocked off. Be open.
Matthew: Don’t rush the process. If the product is not ready, do not take it to market. It will be dead on arrival.
Q. What don’t most Makers know about manufacturing?
Matthew: That they shouldn’t necessarily go for the cheapest price out there. Lots of people get their first lumps on that. It’s not about the factory that gives you the cheapest price. When I’m bringing a product to market, that’s me, that represents my brand. I want to be sure that it’s durable, that it’s quality. That’s what “made in America” historically stands for. You want a quality product at a reasonable price. You don’t have to go for the most expensive either. It’s a dialogue you want to have with your manufacturer. Your manufacturers are your collaborators. You want to develop your product alongside them, not just dictate instructions.
Q. I know you’re advocates of manufacturing in the US (see the section on US manufacturing below), but are there certain sectors where it makes sense to manufacture in China?
Matthew: Without a doubt. Some products produced in China were never produced in the US and most likely will never be. We live in a global economy, and I have a deep respect for Chinese manufacturing. What we like to focus on are the industries that America is strong in. We see a lot of factories in the apparel space that are getting large contracts from big brands that used to be producing in China, so we know it’s a fluid economy and certain products will shift back to the United States. What we focus on is what we’re strong in and where we see strong indications that America production is more beneficial, especially for small to medium size business.
Q. Factories seem like big, old, slow-moving organizations. Have they woken up to the Maker Movement?
Tanya: Yes, that’s a big culture shift that we’ve seen over the last two years. Factories are now aware of start-up brands, small brands that have an idea and want to turn that idea into a business. A lot of the most successful factories on Maker’s Row have adapted to work with start-up businesses—which require more education on how a specific factory works, how the industry works. That’s why we started doing more “content,” because we saw there were a lot of Makers who didn’t have the business skills or the manufacturing skills, so we’ve spent a lot of time and resources telling stories of people who have been able to do it. Larger factories are going on Instagram, putting their profile on Maker’s Row. They’re trying. They see the Maker Movement is here to stay and becoming part of the culture.
Q. It’s often said that 75% to 85% of first-time entrepreneurs fail before their first prototype. What’s your advice on how to beat the odds?
Matthew: The more you understand the complexity and art of production, the better off you are. Learn as much as you can about the ups and downs of production.
Tanya: Before you produce the prototype, find the right manufacturer. It used to be so difficult to find a manufacturer to produce your product that some people just wanted to find a good manufacturer and start their company with whatever that manufacturer produced. That’s so backward. We’re trying to reverse that cycle. Whatever you ultimately want to create, start with that.
Matthew: One question we get a lot is, “What factory should I use?” Go to the marketplace, go to Maker’s Row. Look at the reviews. Factories are specialists. There are some generalists, but you want a factory that specializes in creating your product. Don’t assume because they work with leather, they will be the best handbag manufacturers. You want to find the best manufacturer for your specific category. How do you tell that? Look at the quality of products they’ve produced in the past, look at their catalog, ask them for some physical samples. You want to be sure the factory takes time to collaborate with you, and will correct mistakes with you. You want a factory that treats you with the respect it takes to develop a world class brand.
Q. What are the most common unexpected things that happen to rookie Makers in their first encounters with factories?
Tanya: That’s a long list! The hardest part is the iteration. Some people want it to be right the first time. Go into it knowing it won’t be right the first time. There’s going to be improvements. Also the budget, budgeting is key!
Q. Maker’s Row got its start in Brooklyn, when you discovered how many apparel and accessory factories were still in New York City. What other cities could be potential factory hubs for Makers?
Tanya: Many! We have a partnership with Newark, New Jersey, which is a tremendous manufacturing hub. We had a successful boot camp at the MIT Media Lab in Boston. And we’re partnering with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. We’re looking at cities with a strong manufacturing tradition and with universities, so that we can start bringing the two generations together. We’re working with students, the next generation of entrepreneurs, introducing them to local factories and each other.
Q. Matthew, you were a featured invitee at the first White House Maker Faire in 2014. What impact did that have?
Matthew: Maker’s Row stands for American production, and it was great to have that White House validation — their support around small businesses. There’s no price tag you can put on that. That’s not icing on the cake, that’s the cake itself.
Matthew and Tanya’s 6 Steps to Production (of anything!)
To help fledgling designers work with manufacturers, Tanya and Matthew broke the process down into six steps.
1. Ideation: “You need to gather up your sketches, reference images, and anything else that shows the factory what your product will look like.”
2. Pattern Making/Templating: “If ideation helps you define your idea, then pattern-making hammers down how you’re going to make it. Pattern-making is essentially creating the template for assembling your product. Sometimes it is made of paper, other times paperboard or cardboard.”
3. Materials: “Factories with materials capabilities can help you source the raw materials you need for your product, from fabrics to labels to hardware.”
4. Sample Making/Prototyping: “This is the first working model of your product, so it should be perfect. This is the reference point for every other unit of the product that you make. Think of it as a contract between you and your factory.”
5. Tooling: “Tooling consists of creating the tools or adjusting existing ones to make your production run as smoothly as possible. Common categories of machine tooling include fixtures, dies, gauges, molds, cutting equipment, and patterns.”
6. Production: “Finally, your products are actually being produced.”
4 Top Reasons to Manufacture in the US
Maker’s Row is known as a champion of US manufacturing. We asked Matthew and Tanya to list the most compelling reasons – patriotism aside – why a US-based Maker should use an American factory.
1. Distance Matters. “The best way to collaborate with a manufacturer is to be close to them,” said Matthew. “When I worked with companies that manufactured in China, they sent teams there to monitor production. Most small businesses do not have the budget to do that. So they are better off manufacturing closer to home.”
2. No language barrier.
3. Fewer time-zone differences.
4. Size Matters. “In China, the initial price is cheap, but the amount you have to order is large. As a small business, your largest order in China may be the factory’s smallest order. It’s very difficult for a factory to spend the amount of time you want them to spend with you — they have so many other clients. I want to work with someone that appreciates my business and wants to help me develop my business.”