Thinking of Manufacturing Your First Product? Read This First…

How does an entrepreneur with a student-sized overdraft go about becoming a manufacturer? Is it possible to move from the concept or prototype stage to production without breaking the bank? This guide attempts to point you in the right direction…

Before you start: the basics

Fashion, ceramics, books, gifts, tech – e-commerce isn’t just for the likes of Amazon. Selling via your own website also happens to be a ‘student-friendly’ way of entering the world of business. You can start small, get going with relatively low start-up costs and fit the business around your course and whatever else you’ve got going on.

First things first: you need merchandise (‘stuff’) to shift. There are two basic ways forward here and you could either trade as a distributor (a seller of other people’s finished products) or you could opt to be a manufacturer (a producer) which means you’ll design, make and sell your own products. You may even find yourself becoming a combination of the two, for instance, you could set up a business selling yours and other people’s artwork. For this article, we’ll assume that you’re considering the manufacturer model.

A few points to be aware of from the outset:

  • Consider your market

One thing you can’t escape as a manufacturer is an initial outlay, paying upfront to produce your goods. Research is important if you’re going to avoid the situation where you are left lumbered with materials and goods because the customers you assumed were there simply aren’t. Use Google AdWords Keyword Planner to find out if what you are proposing to sell is commonly searched for online. Check out your competitors: can you identify a gap in the market for something similar— only better?

  • Get your pricing right

This is essential for assessing whether your idea is feasible. For instance, let’s say you intend to produce iPad protective cases featuring your original designs. You calculate that you will be able to produce them at a cost of £12 per unit. If it turns out that items of a similar spec and quality are being commonly sold at the £10-mark you will find it extremely difficult to compete.

  • You can outsource production

Broadly, as a budding manufacturer, you are faced with two possibilities: a DIY approach where you put everything together yourself, or a ‘find a factory’ approach where you pay for a third party to produce the goods according to your specifications. We’ll take a look at what’s involved in each case.

‘DIY’ manufacturing

The old phrase ‘cottage industry’ sums up this approach. For most of us taking out a lease on a fully kitted-out factory is a pipe dream (for now at least). In the real world, we’re more concerned with investing in the likes of printers, moulding presses, sublimation machines or garment making equipment to get us up and running on our own.

  • Cost of machinery

The big downside of setting up on your own is the initial hit you’ll probably have to take on buying equipment. Again, research is key and, rather than confining your search to suppliers’ websites, find out if there are any industry specific channels where second-hand equipment can be picked up. You may be pleasantly surprised.

  • Pool your resources

The chances are you’re not the only student or graduate on the block who’s thinking of going it alone. Put a call out via social media to see if there’s anyone else in the same boat who wants to club together and split the initial cost.

  • Look carefully at equipment/ machinery spec

Areas to consider include the lifespan of the machine, replacement cycles for things like ink and spools, running costs (especially energy efficiency), the number of units you can expect to produce before the unit requires a service and cost of servicing. How can you deal with repairs? Is there a quick and reliable call-out service? Or will you have to deal with long periods of downtime?

  • If possible see the equipment in action

Is it straightforward to use? Are the finished products up to the quality you require?

  • Don’t get on the wrong side of your landlord

No pets, no smoking, no running your own business… Your lease may be a problem here. Running off high-res photographic prints is one thing, operating a sewing machine in the early hours is another. Is there scope for housing your equipment at uni?

Outsourcing production

This might not be as out of reach as you may think…

  • Consider ‘close to home’ options first of all

Is there an injection moulding machine in your engineering department that lies dormant most of the time? Could you negotiate a press run, for instance, in exchange for volunteering on a conference or sixth-form induction day?

  • Seek out CSR-hungry local businesses

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) involves businesses getting involved in the wider community (including colleges and universities) to improve their image. Young entrepreneurs with fresh ideas make for positive news, so could you obtain an initial production run in exchange for a positive press write up for the company?

  • Consider manufacturer directories

For potential UK suppliers check out Let’s Make it Here. For simple, non-specialist products far-eastern options are likely to be the most cost-effective. Sourcing platforms for this include Alibaba and Made-in-China.com.

  • Be flexible

Look for companies that have a track record of working with small businesses. Pay attention to reviews, feedback and suggestions from small business forums. Rather than giving you a one-size-fits-all option for a huge production run they are more likely to offer a starter package that better suits your budget. Be clear on your budget it may be that the producer will be able to suggest modifications to the basic product to keep costs to a minimum.

Do you need investment to get your manufacturing idea off the ground? Check out our help centre for tips on drawing up a business plan and presenting your new business in the best possible light.

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