Transitioning to in house production

I was talking to a friend of mine this morning about a potential new-to-me client that I would be sending his way. By the way, if you didn’t know, I send most people requesting services or consulting to other businesses that are closer to them or are better suited to their purposes. Anyway, this company has sales, marketing, business admin and fulfillment established. The only production related function they do for themselves is graphics application using blanks made to spec by their cut and sew providers. At this juncture, this company is interested in expanding into other product lines in addition to the one they have now. Their goal is to do their own design, patterns, cutting and sewing in house for the new products, while retaining their existing relationships for their flagship product. From what little I know, the idea is solid and pragmatic because they’ve defined the new product types very narrowly. Narrowly defining your product focus is pivotal if you’re thinking of transitioning to doing production for yourself.

If you should find yourself in a similar situation of wanting to expand to do more of the work yourself, you may be surprised to know that service providers think this is great. While no one is happy to have to find another customer to replace you, we support you in this decision. Here are tips on how to make the most of your transition if you’re currently using production services.

Honesty is the best policy
If your goal is to do perform the services in house for yourself in the not too distant future, say so. This is for two reasons. First, if a service provider is going to have a problem with it, it’s best to know now rather than later so you can find someone else. Second, I can’t speak for everyone else but I’d do things just a little differently for a client like this. If you don’t realize you want to do this until you’ve been doing it for awhile, broach the topic with your service providers once the idea has crossed your mind a time or three. It’s likely they’ll make suggestions for strategic changes you should consider making for a smooth transition.

If I had a client with this goal in mind, I’d be sure that anything I did was at a higher level of specification than I would if it were going to be passing it off to a trusted colleague (cutter etc) because I’ll be keenly aware that I am modeling the client’s future behavior and processes. In short, greater transparency of the process is required because this is training the customer needs. I’d need to know what systems the owner would be likely to start with (and would advise them to do). For example, if the client were planning to use hand patterns rather than CAD, I’d place more emphasis on having those 100% and train the client to use them appropriately.

It is unlikely you can juggle all of this (design, patterns, cut and sew) in one fell swoop so you need help sorting this out. It may be more appropriate to keep your existing pattern and cutting service until you have sewing nailed down. It’s best to transition in stages.

It’s not to your advantage to be closed mouthed about your plans for several reasons. One, it’s only natural that you’ll see your service provider’s facility and equipment and think that’s what you need too -but it may not be. If I know you can’t afford given equipment, I will either change your patterns to be sewn with equipment you will be using or explain how you should do it. Obviously, you will need the service provider to explain the range of available options. They know the most cost effective ways to save money and where your priorities should lie and you won’t know that looking at an established facility.

Second, you’ll need to hire some people to help you, they probably know good people who are looking for work. People they would hire but can’t add to the payroll. Let them advise you. If you’re being secretive about it, it kind of creates this whole other ambiance where you go outside of your realm of influence to hire someone they don’t know which could be to your detriment if they don’t work out.

Third, your relationship with your contractor is likely to be an ongoing one. It’s doubtful that you’ll go to doing it all yourself from one day to the next. It’s a transition. If you plan to bring work in house, give your contractor the heads up so they can make needed scheduling changes. In exchange for this very valuable courtesy, the contractor will recognize that you may need a hand in a crisis or to level things out. It would probably surprise you to know that most providers I know actually handle over flow from clients who already have pattern makers and in house cut and sew. In other words, you’ll be more like their/our existing customers than not, so this is not a threat. You want to keep the door open because you’ll probably still need them.

Fourth, if you think you want to bring it all in house, you have to be honest because it’s only natural to pump information out of others. It’s likely we won’t mind telling you but it’s disingenuous to pretend it’s curiosity rather than vested interest. Nobody likes to be used. Likewise, they may not recommend the vendor they’re using for themselves for you for whatever reason but you won’t know why until you’ve shut that door and are now left without a source.

Fifth, secrecy makes things awkward between service providers. For example, let’s say you’re planning on keeping your existing cutting contractor who would normally send the goods to your sewing contractor except you’re doing that now. Don’t leave it up to your cutting contractor to be the one to tell this to your sewing contractor. You’d be surprised how many do this. The cutting contractor will wonder two things. Obviously they’ll wonder if there’s a problem at the sewing contractor and second, they’ll suspect you’ll do this to them too. If they suspect this, they may take on other work that would normally fill your slot, slowly squeezing you out and leaving you without alternatives.

Ideally, you’d hire your existing service providers to advise you on how to set up your own operation. Like I said before, we’re happy when clients grow, we like to see people we’ve helped become more independent and successful. We had a hand in that, it’s a measure of our own effectiveness. Put it this way, assuming you wanted to, if you could never grow beyond the stage of depending on everyone else, we look bad. Think about it for a moment from our perspective. Or your own. Without getting all paternalistic on you, what kind of parent would you be if your children couldn’t survive without you? This also reminds me of my definition of leadership, I didn’t originate this concept and I don’t remember where I heard it.

Think of leadership in terms of a hole. Now imagine the leader dies or leaves, how big is the hole that he or she leaves behind? Most people nod sagely and think a great leader must leave a very large hole indeed, one that’s difficult to fill. But, the opposite is true. The better the leader, the smaller the hole. A great leader empowers everyone around him or her to fill in whatever gaps would remain if they should pass on. In summary, if we do our jobs well, you might only have to weather a few pot holes on your road to greater successes.

Learning by getting a job
A bit off topic (sorry) but this also reminds me to tell you a few things if you try to get a job somewhere because you plan to start your own company. You should be honest about that too. If the beans are spilled one way or another, it won’t look good and this is a small community. Word will get out, people will know and nobody will trust you. Of course I’d be concerned about somebody rifling my rolodex but my bigger concern is that someone like this is focusing more on what they can get out of the job rather than what I’m paying them to put into it which is an issue of integrity. If I know someone wants to start their own enterprise, I will be careful about molding them into being the kind of person who is a credit to our trade. I will be sad if someone leaves my employ and goes out into the world to do not-nice things.

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  1. Vesta says:

    If there’s anything I’ve learned on this road, it’s not to burn bridges. I’ve circled back to service providers over and over as the years go by. Be straight up and fair, and they’ll be happy to see you coming back.

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