Find An Idea

How to launch a physical product

I have this image saved on my home computer that I look at whenever I’m frustrated with my business. It’s called “happy.jpg” and sits in the upper right of my desktop.

It never moves and it’s always there when I need it.

At first glance, it’s not a particularly noteworthy picture. It’s just me, smiling.

Here it is:

happy 1

What you don’t see in that picture is why I’m smiling.

After five long years of trying to get my product manufactured, I was receiving my first large order from my manufacturer at my home in Indiana.

DSC 0815 1happy 2 1

Here’s the thing about happy moments in business: Even with the added context, what you still don’t see in either of those photos are all of the times that I wanted to quit. That first photo reminds me of the pure satisfaction of wading through all of the highs and lows, having created something that I could actually touch and hold.

It seems like, lately, all that people are talking about is digital products. And I get it. I really do. The margins are great. They’re easy to make. They’re even easier to sell.

But what if the thing that you want to make is a physical thing? What if, like me, you’re obsessed with creating something you can hold in your hands?

Here’s the thing about launching a physical product:

  • It’s difficult nearly impossible to get it manufactured
  • It’s expensive
  • Margins are tight
  • You might lose everything

Maybe you read all of these things and you still want to try it.

While you may feel lost in the wilderness now, I can save you all of the headaches that I went through building my $100,000 business, Ok! Kimonos. By the end, you’ll know the next steps to take to bring your physical product to life. And I’ve included links below so you can skip to the right section if you’re having a specific problem.

How do I find somebody to manufacture my physical product?

As the world’s largest marketplace of physical product exporters, China-based Alibaba is one of the best places to start looking for product suppliers. Alibaba is an online marketplace for sourcing overseas manufacturers and is best if the base product is something new, unique, or rare (like a kimono). But if you’re looking for something mainstream, like a t-shirt printing company, find somebody local or start with Threadbird (they’re the best I’ve ever worked with).

A short guide to finding suppliers on Alibaba

Alibaba can be extremely confusing when you first start, for lots of reasons. But mainly it’s impossible to figure out who you can trust. Mainly because it seems like they investigate the suppliers ahead of time … but they actually don’t.

For example, let’s take a look at these two potential jiujitsu gi suppliers:

ati international 1spotex international 1

See a difference?

Of course not.

What if I told you that one supplier is one of the best producers of jiujitsu gis in the world? The other is total garbage. There is absolutely no difference on Alibaba and no way for people who’ve had a negative experience with them to let others know (to see which supplier is which, keep reading).

This is how Alibaba works. They don’t make their money from you, the physical product maker, but from the suppliers buying badges and credibility. I had no idea about that when I first started and made extremely costly mistakes.

You’ll notice a bunch of badges and markers for each supplier. You’d THINK these would be helpful. But only certain ones are. Things to keep in mind:

GL ati international 2 1

  1. Remember that “Gold Supplier” means nothing in terms of your business, only how long they’ve paid Alibaba for being in their marketplace.
  2. Always check to see if they have “Alibaba Trade Assurance.” If your factory sends you the wrong items, defective items, or shorts you, you can file a dispute.
  3. Being an “Assessed Supplier” is a step in the right direction, but this depends wholly on Alibaba trusting a local agency to check them out, and to me, seems like it’s easily gamed.

GL supplier criteria 1

From here, I always check for a few key things as red flags:

  1. Do they pretend to be the supplier of the top brand in your space?
  2. Are their images stock or stolen from another brand’s website? Check through a few listings and see if any of them are using the same images. Also, beware if you find a supplier using photos from all of the top brands in your industry. It’s doubtful they’re the supplier for them all and are allowed to use the images. Odds are, they’ve stolen them to siphon credibility.

For example, in the image below, I know that “Alma” is a very high-end brand that’s one of the few made exclusively in Japan. Since this factory listing is based in Pakistan, the fact that they are using the Alma image is a giant red flag:

GL alma scam 1

Fun fact: What makes it even more of an epic-level red flag is that it’s actually MY image that they stole. I personally posted that image on my gi review website and they cropped out my living room carpet:

GL alma gi 1

Other things to look for in the photos:

  1. Do they only have junky flip phone photos?
  2. Are there any actual photos of the manufacturing facility?
  3. Are the keywords accurate or stuffed with a bunch of random things?
  4. Do they claim they can “do everything”? For me, this meant they claimed to be experts at gis, sublimated rashguards, boxing gloves, etc. No factory has the facility built out to be good at all of those things. Odds are, if this is true, you’ve found some sort of middleman. Run. Away.

How to find the best suppliers on Alibaba

If you’re determined to use Alibaba, I recommend contacting as many suppliers as possible to start.

When you first search for your item, use the phrase “OEM” in your phrasing. OEM stands for “original equipment manufacturer.” There are a LOT of middlemen making their way into Alibaba who will pretend to be a factory, but they’re just operating at a coffee shop around the corner from a factory, and once they get a large order, may disappear into the night with your money.

Once you’re comfortable with a few, it’s time to vet them and start building a relationship.

How to find suppliers WITHOUT using Alibaba

This was my favorite discovery that I only found much later (after I’d already built a relationship with my supplier), but would’ve been powerful had I found it earlier.

GL import 3 1

By simply Googling the largest brands in my industry with the added terms of “see US import data,” a number of third-party websites told me exactly who they were importing from, the amounts, and what the items were.

GL import 4 1

I was able to instantly discover the highly coveted supplier of one of my industry’s most sought-after brands.

GL import 1 1

I then checked those brands out in Alibaba and made sure they had a listing there.

GL pro safety 1 1

One gem that this also uncovered was a brand that wasn’t heavily promoted on Alibaba (no “Gold Supplier” rating) and had a terrible website. This is often true of many import / export companies.

GL pro safety 2 1

Why would this company need to advertise on Alibaba or via a marketing website when they’re already at capacity making items for some of the world’s biggest brands? It’s almost a trade secret that, for my industry (and maybe yours), the best suppliers aren’t on Alibaba because they don’t have to be.

Vetting suppliers and getting samples / prototypes of your physical product

Admittedly, this is the largest hurdle when it comes to creating physical products. From t-shirts, to table tennis bats, to jiujitsu gis, you absolutely have to vet your suppliers and not rush into production.

Don’t commoditize your supplier when you’re first starting out. They aren’t a line item on your expense sheet. They’re your partner. You will live and die based on whether or not they can deliver the right goods on time and communicate effectively. Treat them like your co-founder.

This is going to be a relationship, and while it might not seem like it, clear communication is a supplier’s most important asset. Even if they make mistakes, their ability to understand what went wrong, and explain how they’ll fix it, will save you. Here’s how to vet your supplier:

1. Have them create a full-production sample of your product. They may try to send you a generic “factory” sample of what they make, but don’t accept it. You want a 100% complete working sample that you could sell to a customer today. Have them send samples until they have it 100% dialed in. Factories may try to short you in production costs any way they can, so if it looks like they misunderstood your instructions, take note. If they’re taking shortcuts, be wary.

The best way to get a manufacturer your designs is simply to email them all of the files together (in a single email). If the design can’t fit into a single email, it’s too complicated and I’d recommend breaking it down into smaller parts, refining each smaller part separately, and then going forward with the larger project.

The best advice that I can give on getting samples made is to be as specific as possible and always include visuals whenever possible (even if they’re hand-drawn).

For example, here is a sample email mock-up that I sent to my manufacturer for a brand new product idea that I had:

shorts

You can see that I’ve used their measurement system (centimeters) and not mine (inches) to avoid confusion. Even after working with my manufacturer for years, things are still lost in translation.

Here are a sample email and mock-up that went out for new order samples.

ok kimonos order email 1ok kimonos order mockup 1

When the samples arrived and were not correct, I emailed my supplier back, again, with very specific directions.

ok kimonos order 1 1

The more places you can include information, the better. I included the same information in a PDF, an email, and even in the file names (naming a patch file “lapel tiger patch 15cm x 5cm.ai” to avoid any chance of confusion).

2. Create a small run. Once they have a perfect sample down, have them create a small run (10-20) of them and compare them to each other. How good is the quality control? How does one compare to the next?

Complete each of these steps across three to four different suppliers and choose who you work best with. Again, now that we’ve narrowed it down to suppliers who can create our product, who communicates the best? Who cared the most about you?

Please note, this will be expensive. And remember: this is the reason people prefer digital products. But paying more upfront gives you a strong foundation and it’ll save a lot of money in the long-run. I know, because I made the mistake of trying to save money upfront, only to spend more in the end.

When I started out, I thought I did everything right. I got a sample made from a few factories, chose the best one, and placed my order for the final product, the one I would send to my customers. My first orders had white and orange with a lot of custom embroidery. I was so excited. And when they arrived, I decided to do one last test: I took out two and threw them in the washer to see how they held up … and the colors bled everywhere. I ended up with white gis with orange all over them. I couldn’t send this to customers. I had just wasted my first real order.

How did this happen? My production gis from ATI International (the same one you saw above) were white and orange. My “factory” sample from ATI was generic and BLACK. Why did I wait until I had spent all of my money on my first order to wash the gi or see if the colors bled?

Because I’m an idiot.

Because I didn’t have this guide when I was starting out. Thoroughly test your product before putting it into production.

Making coffee cups? Use three of them for a week and take ten more and mail them to yourself or to a friend across the country. Do they make it through the shipping and testing phase in tact? Make sure your product can withstand all that you’ll be asking it to endure.

Negotiating price

When I started, I paid full price for everything. Only later did I realize that my Pakistani manufacturers inflated their prices 40-70% to account for the haggling that they expected to happen.

If you can’t negotiate on price, or don’t want to, a few other things you can negotiate are (more on each of these below):

  • Shipping costs
  • Lead time
  • Minimum order requirements

Not familiar with the customs of the regions that you’ll be doing business in? I highly recommend checking out Derek Sivers’ Wood Egg books on moving to and doing business in eastern Asia and his import/export guide.

Manufacturing and production

When you’re starting out, minimum order requirements are going to be really important to know. You might not be able to make a profitable product until you’re able to order 1,000+ at a time, and unless you’re willing to take on investment to scale, or be patient for the next two years, you may not make it that far. How much are you willing to sacrifice your margins to get to market more quickly?

Lead time also matters quite a bit. Not only do we have to factor in how long it’s going to take the manufacturer to produce your product, but shipping and import times have to be factored in.

If you’ve done the smart thing and proven your product by taking money from a few customers ahead of time, having reasonable lead times for your buyers matters. Faster shipping cuts into your margins, and should you not factor in the cost and time required for importing goods, you could destroy your customer relationship.

Importing / customs

I’ve used both DHL and independent importing services. DHL was able to get my items to me much faster but at a much higher price. When I scaled up my orders to 250+ gis at a time, it made more sense to get the best margins possible, with slower shipping and (unexpectedly) a more unreliable timeline.

Shipping by boat from China or Pakistan (where my items were manufactured), took 6-8 weeks (one shipment took almost 10 weeks), whereas shipping by plane took 6-8 days. Ship by plane as long as possible, and when you have enough cash flow and a sustainable business model, consider importing by boat.

Customs obviously varies by country (I live in the USA), but I’ve had product stuck in imports for weeks, only to arrive with the boxes cut open and some of my product destroyed (they cut my gis apart) as import agents “checked” for illegal substances. Preparing for the unexpected and setting your expectations accordingly will protect you from most of the rookie mistakes I’ve made.

For example, I took pre-orders to the tune of about $3,000 and gave them an expected lead time of eight weeks. It’s a great way to get money upfront to fund the creation of a product (think: Kickstarter), but there’s some unseen risk.

Everything lined up in my head, but I hadn’t considered that my product might get stuck in customs (it did) or that the final samples that were set to arrive would be wrong (they were). The gis ended up taking 13 weeks to deliver and a few people were furious. The ones who didn’t send me rage emails never shopped with me again. All because I didn’t prepare for the unexpected.

Remember: with a digital product you’re fully in control of its distribution. With a physical product, it’s handled by people who don’t have your interests at heart. Customs agents, mail carriers, factory workers … they are crushingly ambivalent about whether your business succeeds or fails.

Refunds hurt a lot more with physical products. You get your item back (typically in an unsellable fashion) and the customer wants a refund for their initial shipping price as well. The smartest thing that I did was outline my return policy very clearly in both the ordering process and the order confirmation process.

Taking money first is great, and so are pre-orders (taking money before production), as long as you set your customer’s (and your own) expectations accordingly based on the knowledge of what can (and will) go wrong.

Let’s talk

I’m a GrowthLab reader, so I know most readers sell digital products. However, I’d love to leverage my expertise for you: the physical product maker. I sold my jiujitsu gi company, Ok! Kimonos, at the end of last year, and I’d love to share everything that I learned along the way as it applies to YOU. SO here’s my ask:

  1. If you’ve already started getting your product manufactured – What worked for you that I left out? Was there something that worked for you that’d be a game-changer for other readers? Let me know in the comments below.
  2. If you’re just getting started – Where are you getting hung up? What phase in your business are you finding yourself stuck at? Let me know in the comments below.

I’m looking forward to reading your comments. I’ll answer every single one.

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There Are 46 Comments

Join The Conversation
STACIA HOWARD

Thanks for this awesome post!

My question may be too specific for my industry, but I was wondering if you had any tips on finding textile manufacturers, i.e. the companies that actually make custom cloth. I would like to custom design my own cloth to make household linens (curtains, sheets, throw cushions, etc.)

I tried your tip about googling the us import data but maybe my chosen company was too big because I just couldn’t figure it out. So, anything you suggest would be better than the nothing I have right now 🙂

Thanks!

First comment, Stacia! Legend!

I knew a few jiu jitsu companies have managed to get some really cool custom cloth does for gis. Have you seen what it costs to get it made locally? Is there anybody doing it on Etsy that you could befriend?

Dannielle MacDonald

Hi Stacie and Brendan- check out Spoonflower for a start. Then if you sell your linens easily, start looking for a big manufacturer. Spoonflower will let you do small runs and test your business I order fabric from them and it is easy and reliable 🙂

SPOONFLOWER is excellent! It allows you to walk before your run. Small runs and testing your product concept with your target audience is key. There are many quality fabric manufacturers in China & India, but that calls for quite a commitment in time as well as $$$. It depends on what you’re ready for. Also, a little side note to think about: Block printing and stamping on fabric is a great look and spot on for trends. Would you consider trying small table linens designed by hand, made by you or a local community? This is just another way to explore your designs and validate your customers style and needs based on smaller, lower price point items as well as the high ticket curtains. I’m excited for you Stacia! Good Luck & Have Fun.

How do I make sales without, the real deal? If you’d say email marketing how would I do that without quality traffic.
And also I’m not into Facebook or google ads. How did you do yours?

Hey Shony, thanks so much for reading! I think the first thing to note was that, for me, I didn’t start my own brand until I knew I could drive traffic to it. What kind of physical product do you want to make and what do you think makes it different?

Dannielle MacDonald

Shony, start a blog and promote it on Pinterest and using Neil Patel’s Buzzsumo trick. Then have a free promo or ‘lead magnet’ on your website that requires an email address (you’ll need Mailchimp of Convertkit or MadMimi to collect emails) Once you have emails and regular readers (or a “tribe”), you will have people and a way to connect with them to pitch a product. 🙂

Dannielle MacDonald

Also, in addition to my comment above, Brendan’s bio says he is an SEO expert- so there you go, you’ve got the right person already!

Really enjoyed this post and there were some great facts I hadn’t even considered (see US import data?! wow).

As someone that is commencing my own e-retail journey, Thank you for sharing.

Looks like you have a really cool product, Luke! Glad that ninja-tip is helpful for you. I wish I knew it when I was getting started. 🙂 Any question you have, just let me know!

Mark Morris

Thank you for shedding light on this mysterious process. It is really hard to find good information on the nitty gritty process of actually doing business on a transactional level. You have done just that.

I wish you the best of luck with your business!

Glad it was helpful for you, Mark! I hope this article is a bit of a benchmark for everybody looking to launch a physical product business. 🙂 . Anything I can ever help with, just let me know!

Katharina Siemens

Hey Brendan! Such a great writeup full of so much valuable info!

My hubby and I started working on our first physical product (a foldable market bag) at the end of last year. Without any knowledge on how to create a prototype etc. it’s been a pretty wild ride so far LOL! It’s included dozens of prototypes, complete redesigns, changing manufacturers, a trip to China, and getting much better at believing in ourselves 🙂

One of the biggest barriers in working with China has been miscommunications, because of the language barrier. Minor misunderstandings led to some pretty big discrepancies. After, we learnt this, we steered away from written communication and started recording videos instead. We’d create recordings of me holding up “crafty” paper versions of the bag, that we envisioned, demonstrating how it should fold etc. This was a game changer in properly communicating our idea.

Thanks again for sharing all this. I’ll be checking out your blog next 🙂

Cheers Katharina

That’s so cool that you actually went to China! So few people actually visit manufacturers and it’s SO IMPORTANT. Your tip about video > text is so smart. I couldn’t saved so much time with my bad illustrations. I hope people see this in the comments!

YES! I was a fashion designer for 20 years and have plenty of hilarious stories from China. Most factories only have 1-2 people who know English and work through agents who translate all the documents for them. These agents don’t always have the technical knowledge to translate correctly which I why I used to send lots of sketches and physical samples instead of relying on the written word. Video is a great idea too.

Thanks for these tips Brendan! I wish I would have found this earlier as I skipped the small batch step and found an error after delivery. Luckily it isn’t a big one, and I can deal with it, but it has cost me a lot of time during launch (when time is the most scarce resource).

Oh wow that’s such a bummer! I hope a few of the things that follow are helpful for fixing it. Also, check the comment above on sending video instructions as well. Over-communication is the name of the game. 🙂

Thanks for this insightful write-up, I appreciate your openness . . .

I am at the verge of doing something similar and would like to work with you for guidance on this . . . I am looking to import smart devices.

For shipping, you may want to consider some shipping agencies less prominent than DHL, FEDEX, sometimes they do more harm than good.

Where I live, they at times connive with customs to extort; you are better off with courier or shipping agencies that will do direct door to door, or you pick up at their office.
We can have some offline discussions . . . .

Eagerly looking forward to discussions with you 🙂

Hey Tosins! Thanks so much for reading. Shipping and import/export shipping can be so stressful and (potentially) dangerous. Hit up the contact form on my site if I can be helpful beyond these comments.

Jess Franco

Great post! Do you have any thoughts on importing from Mexico vs. China – I’ve been considering going that route for easier transport and communication?

Hey Jess, I’ve never considered Mexico because China and Pakistan are the only places that had the knowledge to create what I was looking for (also Japan, but the price was extremely high, and rightfully so). I think it really depends on your product.

I LOVED this article. The “see US importer” tip alone could have saved me thousands of dollars in getting samples made from a dodgy factory. The samples were awful, I cried, and I gave up on my idea. I hope this saves a lot of people from the same disaster. Look forward to reading more from you Brendan!

Great article Brendan. I started inventing and making physical products in 1976 and sold them to all the major retailers in the US and 24 countries. When I began, I had all products made by manufacturers in the US. Started making products in China in 1996, and eventually began using a US company called Pacific Rim Resources based in Denver, Colorado. They handled all the details, including negotiating prices, getting samples approved and importing. The owner’s name is Jay Cogswell. He knows Chinese suppliers inside out.

LOVE IT. My favorite things about GrowthLab is that the comments are equally as valuable as the article. Finding a sourcing partner was something that I considered (I knew somebody who did that for a few other jiu jitsu brands) but eventually decided not to further complicate things and sold the company.

Very interesting, thank you Brendan. For as long as I can remember, I invented things. I would sew prototypes when appropriate, but stay confused at how to go about the process when another type of manufacture was required. Once I had my then-husband drive me (reluctantly) to a village of pottery makers, and asked around for who could produce a sample of my designs. When we drove back the next week, two of my “manufacturers” were nowhere to be found, and the third one had made something that had nothing to do with what I’d asked. Anyway, I never really knew how to go about making those ideas come true. A contact who worked in design and to whom I showed mine said I had to take them to big firms under non-disclosure agreements. Other models talked about finding investors and founding a company. In the end I put them in a drawer, found GrowthLab and turned to digital products. But the itch is very much present. Do you have recommendations on podcasts or blogs that talk to this kind of enterprise?

Dannielle MacDonald

Bonnie, that’s at least got a happy ending but wow, hard to find good people. I know I have the same issue with my projects and end up doing it all myself. Do you have any info on Growth Lab? Is it all knowledge products?

Danielle, as far as I know, yes, GrowthLab is mainly focused on information products and services. But as you can see, this article is a great exception.

First, don’t be afraid to share it more freely. Sure, somebody could steal your idea but it doesn’t sound like it’s something you’d give up on. What’s holding you back from asking about the idea more publicly? I bet somebody here in the comments could help.

Dannielle MacDonald

Brendan it was so nice of you and Ramit to publish this- creating physical products is the number one challenge of most of the people I have met who dream of starting a business. You could do some wicked good consulting for a decent price, if you were interested! Warm regards-DM

Hey Dannielle! Thanks so much. I’m sure if anybody thinks my knowledge would be worth paying for, they’d get in touch. Right now, I’m focused 100% on sharing what I learned in the process in the hopes that it gives more GL readers to do exactly what I mentioned in the article: refuse to give up on their physical product idea and push forward.

Hi Brendan,

I think you have just saved me 6 months of work with your “see US import data” tip!

Just a quick one – did you ever bother with non disclosure agreements’s when dealing overseas (jurisdiction and enforceability aside), particularly given you were potentially pairing with a factory that supplied a competitor of sorts…or were you just like “whatever” I don’t want to make this hard for them to want to work with me…? Any advice appreciated.

No, in fact I knew the factory was probably leveraging some work they did for other brands to make my stuff better. I knew my factory made a few other brands. The thing that’ll cause a business to fail isn’t somebody stealing the idea or trying to get somebody on the other side of the world not to share your secrets, it’s to keep moving forward. It’s hard to beat somebody who you’re just trying to copy what they did last year.

I am just stepping into this pool so my question may shine the spotlight on being such a novice. Does anyone work with US based manufacturers for product that cannot be internationally sourced? I am curious about that route as well as those that set up some of their business through drop shipping for online companies not wanting to open a warehouse of stored product.

I just wanted to drop a quick and thank you for sharing that “US import data” thing. I’ve really been struggling finding the right sources for our product and with your trick, I’m able to find the direct source! No more middle-men! I owe you a beer!

Hi Brendan,
I’ve just found your article and have read it over, great tips thank you. I will try to apply this same knowledge to finding suppliers in Europe as I don’t want to mass produce to China. I am in the business of paper goods and specifically calendars.
Prototypes are great, and I read the comment about a video, that is super.

Thank you!
Olivia

That’s fantastic, Olivia! There’s some great folks working in China and, like everywhere else, some that don’t do great work. All of my experiences with China have been A-mazing. I’m glad the video idea is helpful as well! YAY comments!

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