Using interns or consultants for sourcing. Or, the blind leading the blinder

A new trend has emerged in that start ups and very small companies are using intermediaries like interns or consultants to make recommendations for pattern makers, technical designers, production etc. I understand that an owner may be using an intermediary to save themselves time or because they don’t feel qualified to assess candidates -but it is likewise a mistake to presume an intern or consultant is qualified to do it. At worst, it is likely that one is sending an unintended message.  Using someone other than the owner to source in this stage is a problem for at least six reasons I can think of:

  1. Leaves the impression that the owner has more “important” things to do.
  2. The assumption that interns (and often consultants) are qualified to assess skills.
  3. A failure in understanding the product development process.
  4. Leaves the impression the owner thinks service providers are an interchangeable commodity.
  5. Miscommunication in work assignment.
  6. And to service providers I direct the last -getting paid can be a problem.

1. That the owner has more “important” things to do:
As the Wall Street Journal said (paraphrased) once management decisions are made, the pattern maker is the single most important person in the factory with the greatest impact on costs and quality outcome. The matter of product development is so pivotal that the owner of a start up should make the time to do the research even if they’re not qualified to assess the skills of those they’d hire. It is in the search process that one learns to discriminate and acquire critical lessons that will affect every facet of their profitability.  Books and internet searches are useful to learn assessment skills. Better yet, you could just read this and this.  There is nothing wrong with getting help in locating services but the person who does the hiring should make the first approach.

2. The assumption that interns (and consultants) are qualified to assess skills:
When one is starting their business, they can feel overwhelmed so they think a design student is better than nothing. Maybe, maybe not. If your intern aspires to be a designer, worked in retail store, interned in someone’s shipping department or is studying merchandising, their decisions and advice can be highly problematic in a start up.

An intern -like everyone else on the planet- will favor someone like themselves or someone who fits the model of what they were taught in school that the job is like. If your intern is sending emails wanting “outgoing, talented and creative” pattern makers, you’ve got problems.  Sure we’re creative but you don’t want a mirror image of the intern, only upgraded with a few pattern skills. You don’t want to hire a social butterfly (scores around 16 points on this test); you’re hiring an engineer. You want someone who is skilled, diligent and extremely detail oriented (scores 25 or better on the same test).  As I said, interns like everyone else on the planet, tend to favor those who share their same personality profile because they can relate to them.

Consultants can be a problem because owners are often swayed by “garment industry experience” and credentials which may not apply to the needs of the start up. If the consultant’s background is in sales, marketing or merchandising, they are not likely qualified to source technical people or find a “clothing manufacturer” for you. Many consultants claim production experience but these days that often means one was in charge of the logistics of sampling, sending tech packs to the factory etc. For a start up, a better choice may be a production consultant with these skills.

3. That service providers are interchangeable:
Having someone else do your sourcing for technical needs lends the impression that you think there is an abundance and  variety of services to meet your needs. To us this means you don’t know much about production so it will be time consuming and costly to explain otherwise so most parties won’t respond to your intern’s emails. Even if it were true, there is no way around having ongoing contact with the person who signs the checks (below).

4. A failure in understanding the product development process
If you want to make it in this business, you’ll have to learn every facet of it. Having an understanding of product development is the only thing that will keep you (or vis a vis your intern or consultant) from making early decisions that will set you up for a fall once production rolls around. You have more control over the final outcome in the beginning of a project than at the end -which is where most people ply most of their attention because that is where the largest expenditures lie. It is better to temper your enthusiasm of getting underway by doing the homework first -even if you’ve been successful in another business previously. Delay your launch by a year or six months if you must. Most importantly, you won’t be able to attract the kind of service provider you really need unless you do.

5. Miscommunication in work assignments
Assuming an intern is asking the right kinds of questions in a solicitation (they usually don’t), becoming hired through an intermediary establishes a pattern in which the intern or consultant becomes the contact person, manages the contact and is in charge of making work related decisions they may not be qualified to make. The problem is that the contact person often does not understand the impact nor costs of these decisions and if a provider tries to speak with the owner directly, it is often cause for resentment -and for all concerned.

6. A service provider has trouble getting paid.
If a provider has been kept at arm’s length from the person who approves expenditures, one has no idea whether the intermediary has made complete and accurate disclosures to the person who is paying the bills. It is not unusual that the bill payer becomes unhinged over an invoice because they’re going by whatever they were told by the intermediary who most likely did not understand the implications of their decisions. Most commonly, the owner will say the intern didn’t have the authorization to make these kinds of decisions. In sum, get hired by the person who pays the bills or have them sign off on every work order (get a deposit) or you’ll regret it. Again, this is a mistake you should only make once.

I haven’t figured out a good solution to dealing with inquiries from middlemen other than to delete them. The only alternative is to respond that you only want to deal with the owner but that’s not going to score any points with the intern (or whomever) who is excited by the opportunity and in all likelihood, is determined to do the very best job they can so they’ll be justifiably resentful. I suppose one could say they only want to deal with the owner but first you should ask yourself: is this a customer you want?

An aside: Rocio once posted a comment about the various kinds of start up clients, one being “the mogul”. Namely, an individual who attempts to lend the impression their operation is so large they can’t make a decision without conferring with their “team”. This is not a good approach because this isn’t something we have to deal with in large companies. So, if we don’t have this problem (for the most part) in large firms which are notoriously bureaucratic, it is even more inappropriate to have to deal with it in small ones. I don’t know of any provider who will take a “mogul” -twice. Once is enough to learn that lesson.

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  1. celeste says:

    I never would have thought the patternmaker is one of the most important – totally makes sense – now thats its been pointed out to me.
    I did horrible on the test, but I do like how its more about engineering, but at least I did know that.

  2. Jen in NY says:

    A few words of caution regarding the multi-industry trend towards “hiring” unpaid interns to save costs. In some states (NY e.g.) this may run afoul of the labor laws. No one wants to face a complaint for wage theft. Unless the intern is receiving academic credits in exchange as part of an (official) program, they should be paid for the all of hours that they perform any labor. There may be some exceptions also for qualifying apprenticeships, but a prudent employer should thoroughly check this out and determine what their responsibilities to the intern/employee are in their state/locality. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a volunteer worker (at least in NY!).

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