Responses to an Informational Interview

damaged-office-chair_GJQ1FcSOAn informational interview consists of a list of questions that are posed to a presumed authority, by a student, regarding the status of one’s industry and future employment or business prospects. To save myself some effort since I get requests for these, I thought I’d post the answers to the questions with the idea it might be helpful to others. This could be useful to students but also entrepreneurs considering market entry.

The context of this interview is getting into this business as a business owner of a manufacturing company (DE, designer entrepreneur). The questions fall in these subject areas: Marketplace, Entry into Position and Job Specifics. As I’m not a DE myself, my reporting is likely skewed but I’ll do the best I can. You’re encouraged to contribute your thoughts and amend anything requiring such. Without further ado:

Marketplace [Questions]
What are your projections for this type of work or industry? Is it stable, growing, declining?
What are the key trends or issues? New developments? Key challenges?
What and where are the opportunities?
What are typical salaries in this type of job, entry-level to experienced? What are the opportunities for career growth?

What are your projections for this type of work or industry? Is it stable, growing, declining?
Minimally, it could be described as stable as people need to wear clothes (45% of the market) and furnish their homes and lives with a variety of sewn products (55%). As measured by total job numbers, domestic apparel manufacturing has been declining since the 1970’s. Production overseas is the largest, obvious reason but increased technological efficiencies are another. At this writing (2014), domestic production is calculated at approximately 4% of the US market, up from just 1% two years ago.

What are the key trends or issues? New developments? Key challenges?
The key trend consists of the effect of technological change. This is manifest in the retail marketplace in myriad ways. First is the evolving change in point of sale ranging from a traditional wholesale relationship with brick and mortars with internet consumer direct at the other end of the continuum. Another technologically related trend is increased consumer expectation of still more frequent replenishment which in turn drives the apparel end into monthly rather than traditional seasonal deliveries.

There are two types of challenges roughly split between offshore and domestic production. Offshore production relies upon adept sourcing strategies in an increasingly complex and sophisticated marketplace, as well as the vagaries specific to international trade and distribution. The domestic picture, while increasing of late, its growth is hampered by a lack of coherent industrial infrastructure. Simply put, qualified and experienced labor is difficult to find. This is true with respect to manufacturing generally in the United States.

What and where are the opportunities?
This isn’t so easily determined as it’s tied to organizational goals. The salient basic tenets of connecting with the customer to provide them with goods they wish to purchase, will never change. Personally, I think firms should tightly focus on their customer; they are the sun and moon of what we do. I think there is a lot of room in the marketplace for people who are good, smart, and care more about learning and listening than they do about doing things their own way. If one wants to be a large lifestyle brand sold in department stores, the planning and trajectory will be markedly different from someone who is running a domestic boutique brand. There is room for both but the business owner must be clear about what they want to do, what this business means to them and what it says about them.

A pivotal opportunity for domestically produced brands is to develop their own factory production (aka Lean Manufacturing). There is no better or faster way to serve the customer. If you can deliver at the drop of a hat, you’re more likely to get your price.

What are typical salaries in this type of job, entry-level to experienced? What are the opportunities for career growth?
Again, not so easily answered. 24/7 is an agency that publishes salary information based on industry individual responses so that is an option for research. Last I checked, most designers were earning between $35K and $70K with salaries up by 10% or so. The salaries for support personnel (such as pattern makers) can be quite a bit more; ranging between $40K and $125K. Business owner salaries are even more disparate. Some owners are happy to break even at the outset while others are generating seven figures in annual revenue.

To anyone who wants to start a business, I have one thing to say. As the owner, you get crumbs, a very small percentage of what comes in the door. The only difference between a larger and or more profitable business is that the crumbs are larger.

Entry into Position [Questions]
When and how did you get involved in this work?
What was your training and background? Is this typical for people in your position and in similar positions?
How important are specific credentials for entry or success?

When and how did you get involved in this work?
First a clarification; my business is providing engineering and consulting services to designers (manufacturers). Circa 1980, I went to a trade school and started working as a patternmaker shortly afterward. By 1984 or so, I decided I wanted to do something that would have a greater impact on the human condition so I went back to college to study Latin American developmental economics. I didn’t finish that degree (either) but quickly ended up back in the business, at times traveling to plants in Latin America and across the U.S.. My primary focus then was troubleshooting and plant turn around to increase efficiency and improve quality outcomes. By 1995 being remarried and needing to stay put, my career choices were limited in my home state of New Mexico. I was faced with the choice of moving to NY or being unemployed. My husband at the time suggested I should start my own business and not knowing any better, did that. I’m not an entrepreneurial person by nature but I had to grow and evolve to survive. Today, after nearly 20 years in business, I can’t imagine it any other way.

What was your training and background? Is this typical for people in your position and in similar positions?
As I’ve come to understand, my training was unusually rigorous. Still, schools can only try to prepare students for the workplace but success is often limited by opportunities. Then, there were more opportunities for one to learn on the job. It was typical for one to work in a factory, surrounded by cutting and sewing as much as design. Today, not so much. Support and even design personnel today have a much more difficult time of developing critical competencies because so few have ever been in a factory, much less worked in one. The skills of designers and pattern makers who have worked in a factory (25+ years of experience) are markedly different and better than those who’ve not had the opportunity to eat lunch with the stitchers. I don’t see this changing much since the domestic manufacturing infrastructure is in tatters. It will be up to today’s generation of entrepreneurs to dig in and recruit all of the skilled workers they can, and hopefully resurrect our formidable institutional knowledge base before it’s gone forever.

How important are specific credentials for entry or success?
Unfortunately, degree inflation is just as significant in this industry as any other. As is commonly noted these days, one practically needs a bachelor’s degree to apply for a job -as compared to a high school diploma in my generation. The field is so competitive that if one wants a job designing, they’ll need a degree in fashion -it’s a weeding method.

If one wants to start their own business then a fashion degree is less important -depending. In my experience, the people I’ve seen become most successful have previous business experience. Whether they should have business degrees is another issue. Undergraduate business degrees are desirable certainly as are degrees in accounting, engineering etc but the value of an MBA is negligible or maybe even a count against one as there’s a real backlash against them right now (lots of casualties, not pretty). The people who seem to do the best at manufacturing either have a background in manufacturing or are those who have rigorous academic backgrounds (engineering, sciences, medicine, accounting, law). I’ve seen people with fashion degrees become successful but they also have solid selling and marketing skills and enjoy it. Another marker of success is someone who rolls their own as much as they can (DIY) at the outset but hires competencies as quickly as resources permit it. This is the only way to scale; one cannot do it all.

Job Specifics [Questions]
What’s a typical day like for you or someone in a similar position?
What do you like most about your work?
What do you like least?
What talents or skills do you think are the most crucial to success in this work?
What attitudes or values are important?
Who doesn’t do well in this type of work?

What’s a typical day like for you or someone in a similar position?
As a business owner and service provider, my work life revolves around deadlines and crisis resolution. Everything that can go wrong, will. As a designer, one’s job also revolves around deadlines and crisis resolution. Perhaps five to ten percent of one’s time is spent drawing cute pictures and petting fabric. In real life, a designer is a project manager. It’s a tough job, not easy, not simple and last of all, rarely (if ever) glamorous. No need to take my word for it, designers describe it best. Pattern makers on the other hand, tend to work alone or nearly so. They must be thick skinned because anything that can go wrong is often blamed on us -and the blame is all too often justified. The key (other than perfection) is to not take criticism personally and be proactive at smoothing ruffled feathers while also resolving the problem quickly and inexpensively as possible. Even when it’s not our fault, we’re often the critical link to problem resolution.

What do you like most about your work?
Personally? I like solving problems -which truth be told, often amounts to showing off (I have my own cape). Most people think my job requires little if any creativity but I’m nothing if not creative all day long. Solving problems cost effectively requires a lot of analysis and skills to execute. I also enjoy the minutia of precision -I like doing work as perfectly as is humanly possible. It’s perfect for someone who is introverted and can work independently. Lastly, I have a real knack for it. You tend to like what you’re good at.

Being a designer is better for someone who needs more outside stimulation and is more socially oriented because they spend a lot of time working with a variety of personalities. I can only repeat what designers say about what they like most; it’s the same for us, seeing a perfect stranger wearing something we made.

What do you like least?
That varies by the day. Today I’m annoyed with a retailer cum manufacturer who thinks it’s my job to run after him for his business and do his work for him (unpaid of course). Mostly it boils down to a customer disrespecting partners and failing to appreciate the very difficult work and dedication that successful completion requires and of course, putting in the hours to do their part of the job. The constant need to educate customers (today more than ever) is exhausting. It wouldn’t be so bad if customers didn’t think it was something we owed them. I guess that what I like least boils down to a customer failing to take responsibility to educate themselves. We can only lead a horse to water, we can’t make him drink. If the horse collapses from dehydration, it isn’t our fault, it’s not our responsibility. Kill too many horses and anybody who is any good won’t do any more work for you. It’s demoralizing and a waste.

What talents or skills do you think are the most crucial to success in this work?
Most people think that talent and creativity are key -and they are up to a certain point- but I think both are over rated. Skills are what matter, in other words, developed or acquired talent*. To be sure, one must be able to recognize elements of design that generate revenue and be able to create that or hire someone who can. Critical analytical skills are important too; if one is an employee, they must understand research and define trends, as well apply them profitably. Developing a successful career as a designer or designer entrepreneur is much more than owning a color wheel and drawing cute pictures. Of all the needed skills, communication is most critical. If one cannot illustrate design concepts, they must find other means to express their vision and how it is to be executed.

What attitudes or values are important?
Intelligence. Clarity. Dedication. Commitment. An ability to delay gratification. A willingness to step into the burn. Being able to delegate and relinquish control. Working hard at things you don’t like. To act decisively and assume the responsibility for outcomes, both good and bad. Last but not least, a profound and deep seated understanding that you will also do more math than you ever imagined -and it’s okay. Math will not scare the art away.

Who doesn’t do well in this type of work?
The easy answer is artistic type Prima Donnas who think rainbows fly out their butts -and there are more of them than ever. Seriously, among young people, the desire to be famous is paramount so this advice could apply to any field that people associate with celebrity. People who aren’t willing to put in the hours into meaningful activities won’t succeed. People who can’t take responsibility for planning and execution won’t work. Those who tend to be people pleasers can struggle; somebody’s got to be in charge, and trying to get a buy in from everybody is never going to work. Running a business is closer to a dictatorship than a democracy -albeit hopefully a benevolent dictator who listens to advisers and treats people respectfully and fairly. People who aren’t comfortable with managing people and projects aren’t suited to this work. Someone who is not resourceful won’t work out because nobody is going to give you anything (after the second or third time). Last but not least, people who think they are the only person who can do the job correctly, should never go into business with the idea that they will scale. It is wholly possible that no one can do the job as well as they can so keeping expectations aligned will forestall disappointment in others.

_____

* I’ll tell you a secret. Most gifted people are lazy. You don’t realize it because their brains process so much better or faster so they get by with less effort. At the same time, many gifted people have a single laser like focus on the topic of their perseveration so the hours they put in, aren’t work.  Gifted people, being lazy, often don’t want to do something that is hard for them because they’re used to everything being easy. This is why being smart, talented and gifted isn’t necessarily an advantage.

Get New Posts by Email

2 comments

  1. mariana chopchik says:

    I feel very identified with this note while working and living in Argentina, shapes and people we work with are not very different

  2. Gisela says:

    Happy New Year Kathleen!! I am enjoying reading your imformative blog post once again! Please keep them coming!! Im also going to sign up once again to be a member, Im excited for 2015!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *