Overwhelmed? What to do when you don’t know what to do.

What do you do if you’re overwhelmed with competing priorities? Even established manufacturers are overwhelmed in this challenging environment of slower sales and new legislation. The solution begs an imperative to focus on the basics.

When madly searching for solutions, too many of you lose perspective, hoarding tips and tactics. If you have to collect and hoard information before you act, you’re not moving forward toward anything other than a slow death. The big picture should be strategy.

More specifically, since your time and money is limited, it’s sometimes better to decide what not to do. The question isn’t “how to” but “what to”.

First some positives; there’s oft repeated advantages to smaller size that bear iteration. At least in apparel, smaller companies are much more profitable. Paradoxically, it’s the success that larger companies have experienced that can be their undoing -but that’s the example everyone looks to when buttressed against a wall. Harvard Business Review published an article last March called When Growth Stalls that said in part:

…premium position companies have a long track record of success, so it is inherently more challenging to divert from what previously worked.

In other words, look less to large enterprises and forge your own path. The summary solution is strategy, moving toward developing core competencies. In lean times, analyze your weaknesses. This list are the things to focus on when you’re down to bare knuckles.

  • Only produce what you sell
  • Only buy what you really need.
  • Collect the money when you ship
  • Ship on time.
  • You most likely don’t do all of these well so pick one upon which to focus. If it is intimidating, adopt an attitude of playfulness and experiment with what-ifs. Don’t even try to do all of them, just pick one. Exclusive focus on one will free you to develop competency. Becoming better at one will give you the confidence and bravery to tackle the next one on the list.

    As an example with respect to sales and marketing tasks you can do now, our resident guru Miracle said on the forum:

    Approach retailers like strategic partners. They are. Anybody who buys your line is making you a part of their business. Think like it. Come up with ways to help the both of you sell merchandise. What you do to sell to them, do FOR THEM to help them sell to the end user.

    If you’re in stores, pick up the phone. Call them. How is it going, what’s moving? What’s not? Now that times are tough, what are you noticing, where are the strengths, where are the weaknesses, what is still selling in your store? Your competition will not do that. Even if they are reading this board, they will not do that, because they will be afraid or intimidated. WORK TOGETHER

    The concept that comes up repeatedly is becoming a lean manufacturer. The problem is, so many of you think you’re already lean. You’re not. Lean doesn’t mean cutting expenses to the bone. Lean means eliminating wasteful practices. Miracle continues:

    Take this time to get lean. One lasting effect of THIS is that it will be YEARS (mark my words) YEARS before retailers get comfortable ordering so far in advance again. They are locked into orders right now they don’t want and can’t move. Immediates are going to be the thing for a very long time. GET LEAN.

    She says “it will be years before retailers are comfortable ordering in advance” but after all this sorts itself out, I don’t think retailers will ever again want to order anything beyond immediates unless they have to. I think the current situation will be the final impetus for leaning the traditionally long cycle times in the industry. The people that make it through this shakeout will be the leanest ones. Anyone who can’t do immediates or something close to approximating it will eventually be weeded out.

    Another concept in the move to lean is your strategic partnerships. You can’t do this alone, most of you aren’t so you may as well embrace and make the most of it. The problem is, since most are LAME rather than LEAN, you look to cost cutting strategies that can hurt you quite a bit. What are the total costs of going to a cut rate service? Sure, you can use non professionals to sew your products who may charge a lower hourly rate but what are the total costs? You may find it to be much more expensive once you calculate the costs of wasted materials from too short tables, the costs of quality loss from non standard machines and lastly, the sewing time is doubled, tripled or more.

    Below is the standard product engineering paradigm, Good, Fast and Cheap

    In manufacturing engineering, it has always been held that:

    • You can have good and fast but not cheap.
    • You can have fast and cheap but not good.
    • You can have cheap and good but not fast.

    This isn’t true anymore if you’re lean. Look at companies like Fit Couture. Their products are made to order, so as compared to others, their money isn’t tied up in unsold inventory. They collect their money before they ship so they’re not servicing debt on receivables either. While they -like everyone else- is likely to experience a drop in sales, who’s better inoculated to withstand it?

    Still, what is execution? Its precepts are built on your product line. Does your line have continuity? Do your bodies mix and match? Can they be cross merchandized with other lines? Are you sharing fabrications across styles? Using the same bodies means lower pattern and grading costs. Sharing fabrications means being able to make purchasing minimums. As Miracle says, it’s time to fall out of love with styles that drag down sales and profitability because you just can’t afford it anymore, if you ever could. The issue of line continuity is the core of product development in my book. It is amazing how many designers ignore or are blissfully unaware of its importance.

    For those who’ve yet to launch, I found some guidelines this morning that might help you define what you hope to accomplish and how to go about it. As this author said better than I ever could:

    I suspect that too many startup business owners believe that the only thing holding them back is a lack of investment funds from “somebody.” This gives them the freedom to believe they’re really working on starting a business, but without actually having to do anything. They’re “waiting” for the day when money shows up.

    He recommends you start with a charter rather than a business plan. Much of it is obvious but for our purposes, these are pivotal:

    9. Assumptions – This is one that is often forgotten. What are your assumptions about the business, your customers, their needs, your abilities, the economy, you name it.

    10. Major Milestones – What are the big one, three, six, and 12 month milestones. These help you get your vision set and prioritize your work, “Is it taking me toward one of these goals?”

    Again, it is often less a question of what you should do versus what you should not do.

    If you’re convinced you need to make some changes and are looking for a philosophy you can live with, you really should read Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. All of these companies exemplify these core strategies I opened with:

  • Only produce what you sell
  • Only buy what you really need.
  • Collect the money when you ship
  • Ship on time.
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    1. Corky says:

      “Approach retailers like strategic partners. They are. Anybody who buys your line is making you a part of their business. Think like it.”

      Wow, this has been my mantra for 15 years. Here are some examples of being a partner.

      1) Capture consumer emails on your wholesale website using a service like constant contact and use it to drive sales to your on-line retailers. (corkyandcompany.com)
      2) Start a consumer focused blog to highlight your top retailers (Corky.info)
      3) If you have leftover stock that’s selling well for a customer, swap it out for something that’s not selling well for that customer. 4) Comment on your customers blogs, they love it!
      5) Ask your best customers to take a chance on the one thing you truly believe each season. Promise if it doesn’t work be there for them – take it back or give them a discount.
      6) Deliver early to boutiques it will give you a huge edge over your competition. Offer to date the invoice to the actual start ship date. Two weeks of additional full price selling when there’s little choice on the floor is huge.
      8, 9, 10…) I can’t tell you these some things I need to keep a secret.

      Great post K.

    2. liz mannette says:

      Great post. Very inspiring. I’m an accessory designer start-up and really like your advice on partnering with your retailers. I’ve found when I issue a press release in my local market, people run into the stores in the following days, which is good for the stores and good for me.
      I will certainly put some of your other suggestions into practice.

    3. Gidget says:

      This could not have been better timed. I’ve been gathering information for a business plan the last week and was already overwhelmed at the thought of trying to pull it together. The plan was to be just for me, but it was becoming very debilitating! I’m already making up the Charter! Thank you again for great guidance.

    4. Jody says:

      Thanks for this post. I think many of us, especially those of us just starting out, feel like we’ve been hit with a double whammy — first the economy tanking and now the CPSIA (particularly troubling for manufacturers of children’s apparel). It helps to have a calm voice rising out of the storm to remind us that all is not lost.

    5. Penny says:

      Thanks for this informative post Kathleen! Love the manufacturing paradigm. I think it’s important to stay flexible especially in this economy. The lean / mean approach is definately the way to go and I see customer service becomming much more important than ever before. People want to feel special. I say don’t get too discouraged by the economy and focus more on how you can better refine your goals and business practices. Stay focused, respect your customer and ship on time.

    6. Kathleen G says:

      Great advice at any time!
      Only one thing concerning immediates….How do you plan for immediate deliveries when you are a start up business, especially with regard to tradeshow(NY)schedules?

    7. bettina says:

      I find this post very interesting.I only just started selling my product to shops over the last 6 months. I know I have a good product but it takes time to get the word out. I am alittle concerned how to sell my product now that people are being very conservative with there money. I think the media should stop go over how bad the eceonomy is and try to focus on what is working at the moment. They are creating a bigger problem .
      thanks for the advise

    8. Julian Hill says:

      Great post! I think the business plan is another area where some of us with some knowledge of what to do get ourselves into trouble trying to do the “right things”. The importance of a detailed business plan with financial projections is overemphasized and any projections a startup makes are going to be pure fiction anyway. Love the idea of a charter. I just discarded my “business plan” and am working on my charter instead!

    9. Valerie says:

      Anybody know where I can find the updated link to the charter guidelines? The website has apparently been moved and I can’t find it. my biz plan has been drivining me crazy and the charter sounds like a dream!

    10. vee says:

      I have been reading your articles. I have sew since I was fourteen. I retired last year and want to focus on my own apparel line. I have my business name but at the moment I am selling only women’s accessories that I make that are unique and one of the kind and manufactured in Michigan designed by me.

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