When you sell goods or products, establishing a relationship with a trusted, reliable supplier is critically important. But it can be daunting to even find, let alone work with, a vendor who can supply packaging and printed materials or even manufacture the product itself. Fortunately, plenty of folks in this community know what it takes to navigate the sometimes-tricky world of suppliers – and how to build a long and happy relationship in the process.
1. I need a vendor. Now what?
When it comes to running your own business, nothing beats talking with other entrepreneurs to help you solve a problem. That’s certainly true when it comes to finding a supplier. Here’s how Basik Candle Co. founder Travis Troyer puts it:
“I love sharing information and ideas with other business owners. Bouncing ideas off of other ‘makers’ has been one of my biggest resources. For example, I spent months trying to find and source things like high quality, reinforced black cardboard packaging with white print. It wasn’t easy! When people ask me where I get my packaging or my labels, I’m always thrilled to pass along that information. It doesn’t hurt me to help someone else. It feels like a small way I can give back.”
When Dirk Franklin was ready to find a manufacturer for his innovative Drink Daddy, he knew it would be challenging to find a “prototype to production” factory overseas. So Dirk turned to his network.
“I reached out to my friends and my friends’ friends. I made phone calls, interviewed people and asked questions. I had to do my homework to find the right fit. Eventually, a friend of mine knew someone who had worked with a particular factory in China. That’s where Drink Daddy is now made.”
On the other hand, let’s never underestimate the power of the Internet. Danielle Vincent’s relationship with her supplier has transcended “strictly business” to become a real friendship. How’d she find her favorite source for Outlaw Soap’s labels, boxes and more? A good ol’ fashioned online search.
2. Should I find a local vendor or look overseas?
Many small business owners grapple with whether to work with vendors in their own country or overseas. There are pros and cons to both. In the United States, for example, stateside suppliers may charge more but tend of offer high quality goods and are easier to reach when something goes wrong. On the other hand, ordering goods and services from China (a common choice for supplies and manufacturing) may be more cost-effective, especially when you need a high volume of product.
Joanna Misunas needs boxes, packing materials and embellishments like ribbon and twine to create her artisanal Sojourn Boxes. She researched suppliers overseas, and, after careful consideration, decided to work with U.S.-based suppliers.
“There are so many perspectives on this subject,” says Joanna. “I love to keep our business costs down and pass along the savings to our customers. But if I order a new style of box from overseas, I can’t see or hold a sample first, so there’s a huge financial risk for me if I place a big order. I never want to compromise on quality, which I know my customers really value. Working with local vendors means if I have a problem, I can easily reach out and discuss an issue. For me, that’s really comforting.”
Travis Troyer has also weighed the dilemma of working with domestic vs. international suppliers. Here’s his takeaway:
“I'm kind of on the fence about this whole ‘Made in America’ thing. I believe we are a global society, and some countries are better at some things than we are, and that's fine. Probably 75% of my sourcing is within the United States, but I do buy my packaging overseas. I have very specific packaging needs, and I simply can’t find the right products here. I’ve spent months and months sourcing suppliers in Asia. Thankfully, my partner is Asian American and he speaks Mandarin fluently. He could call the factories in China and talk to them directly. If you don't speak Mandarin, well, good luck.”
Hair-product creator Celeste Ruberti is wrestling with the vendor conundrum right now, as she gets closer to finalizing her air-dry product for curly hair. Like many small business owners, she’s realizing compromise is the name of the game.
“Sustainability is a big issue for me. In an ideal world, I’ll be able to source biodegradable bottles made from vegetables and use eco-friendly labels and plant-based ink. But realistically, it will be incredibly expensive for me to honor those goals and put them into practice. I’m just starting out, and right now, I need to keep track of every dollar. It’s frustrating to know I can’t do everything perfectly at first. Hopefully I’ll be able to make adjustments along the way.”
Want to know how a stateside supplier views the benefits of ordering products domestically? David Stober of Guided puts it this way:
“We are seeing a ton of on-shoring right now with print packaging, especially with smaller customers and smaller quantities. The market is so dynamic that if you wait months and months to get your packaging from overseas, you may miss the opportunity to be relevant with your product or messaging. In addition to language barriers, there are fundamental communication issues that can come up with an overseas supplier. I mean, how can someone in China really understand what a bulldog entrepreneur really wants for their brand?”
3. Something’s not working. What should I do?
We’ve talked elsewhere about how hard it can be to find a reliable supplier who’s willing to work with your small business. But that doesn’t mean you should stay with that vendor or factory no matter what. In fact, sometimes you need to break up with your supplier in order to do what’s best for your company.
Joanna Misunas has unusually close relationships with the artisans who supply her with handmade goods for her Sojourn Boxes. But when a problem arises, she puts business first.
“At times I’ve had to deal with someone who doesn’t communicate or is difficult in some way. For example, one of my honey providers suddenly wanted me to buy and bring her all the bottles for the honey she was making for me. I simply can’t take on that extra level of management and responsibility – I have enough moving parts to coordinate! When something like this happens, I try to stay compassionate and neutral, not charged, in my communications. At the same time, I try to trust the outcome if I’m being pushed in a new or unexpected direction. Everything happens for a reason, right?”
Leslie Barber shares her version of the supplier “break-up” story. After finally securing a manufacturer willing to produce smaller-than-usual runs of her nutritional bars, Leslie and her cofounder were thrilled to have an order for 5,000 bars. That’s when things took a wrong turn.
“Our manufacturer couldn’t get the machines to work. We had this huge order to fill, so essentially they had to make and wrap each bar by hand. They did it – but the process that should have taken minutes took two weeks. This went on for months. Of course, the solution was impossible to scale. When we got another significant order from a new account, we knew we had to make a change. We told our manufacturer we couldn’t continue working with him. He looked at us and said, ‘Why did it take you girls so long to figure this out? I would have broken up with me months ago!’”
(You can read more about Leslie’s experience working with suppliers in this fascinating post.)
One more cautionary tale, this one from Danielle Vincent. She makes her top-selling Blazing Saddles products using a proprietary leather fragrance she’d sourced from a small company in the United States. Everything was great with this supplier, and Danielle was ordering more and more product. Right before Christmas, she placed her biggest order yet.
“I’d paid up front, in full, as usual,” Danielle recalls. “I didn’t hear anything from the supplier for a week. Then two weeks went by. I called the number – it had been disconnected. I emailed, I Googled, everything. Finally I figured out the building was up for rent. The company had gone under but hadn’t disabled its website. I’d sent them $700, and never heard a word back, ever. I had no way to track them down.
“I was bloodshot-eyes furious. Not only did we lose the money for the fragrance, we lost $40,000 in product we could no longer make. Were we going to be out of business by January? It was terrifying.”
Thankfully, you can’t keep an Outlaw down for long. Danielle says she learned some critically important lessons from this terrible experience.
“In a way, this was my fault because I didn’t have a backup plan. We were totally scrambling, ordering $100 samples from any company that had a leather-inspired fragrance and paying extra to have products overnighted to us. We were behind in everything. The silver lining? Ultimately, we discovered one of our existing suppliers had a new fragrance we didn’t know about. We liked it even more, and now we buy it by the barrel. This supplier is totally dependable, but now I’ve always got a backup if I need it.”
Before you go
Our members have even more insights to share about working with suppliers in these posts:
QB Community members, what’s your answer to these burning questions about working with suppliers? We hope you’ll share what you’ve learned to help others in our community move their business forward!