Zero to Hero Brand Evolution

Zero to Hero: Build a Brand series – Overseas manufacturing guide

I’ve probably written about this topic for as long as the blog is up (March 2015) but I’d like to give you a summary of the most important parts of manufacturing overseas in this blog series on how to build a brand.  

WARNING – LONG POST 🙂

So here goes: 

Guide on Manufacturing Overseas

There are a lot of statistics I could give you but I wouldn’t know where to begin. I want to break down China and its manufacturing in a few sentences.

Believe it or not, China is still the biggest production site by far. While there are several countries in the vicinity, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Bangladesh, they simply do not have the infrastructure that China does. Imagine you need sanitary items, furniture, household appliances, insurance, and a smart phone. You walk into a Wal-Mart. You can find practically anything you need in there and that’s within 10,000 square feet. That pretty much sums up China’s infrastructure. 

Factory A provides plastic and tooling, Factory B provides packaging, Factory C provides raw material and components, and Factory D assembles everything. They are all within a stone’s throw away from each other. 

Most of the factory bosses are related to each other. They set up a perfect system within their “community.”

I’ll give you an example, and I am not kidding you, 95% of the world’s supply of electrical multi-sockets comes from a small town in Cixi near Ningbo/Shanghai. When I say “small” I actually mean small for China. 

There are over 1.4 million people in this town. When you step into “Ningbo Kaifeng” (World largest factory for electrical multisockets) you are overwhelmed. And when you step outside of the building you see five competitors across the street. All the factory bosses are related to each other. And down the street they can find everything they need – factories that make packaging, tooling, plastic, steel, and so on.

The Chinese are so effective in terms of production and infrastructure that some first world countries could really learn a lot.

The big retailers figured out a long time ago that nearly every large corporation, retailer, discounter, or online shop has a buying office somewhere in China/Hong Kong. I know this because I have been in the industry for over 17 years. When you walk into a factory and look at the production line you see cartons of goods with famous names on them. Whether it is a fan from Home Depot, an audio speaker from Target, or a ceramic pot from Bed, Bath, & Beyond, they were all made in China. Most products are made in specific areas.

Here are a few examples:

  • Guangdong province (South of China): Electronics of any kind, especially consumer and household, toys
  • Zhejiang province (Shanghai area): DIY products, tools, metal and fabrics, lighting
  • Hebei province (Beijing area): Textiles, coal, steel, iron, engineering, chemicals, power, ceramics and food

These are the main areas for production. However, nowadays production is also shifting inland to take advantage of lower labor and production costs.

Certification

First things first. You need to understand that certifications are based on directives and legislations. So for example the GPSD in Europe (General Product Safety Directive Legislation) or the CPSC for the US (Consumer Products Safety Commission) says that a product needs to meet certain standards and need to be safe in general to import or bring to the market. Simple right? Unfortunately not. The GPSD has tons of directives under its belt such as the CE, RoHS, REACH directive). Which means that for each product or category there are further sub-categories that have directives which tell you exactly what your product needs to meet. Wait a minute, what exactly are you saying? I can’t read all this technical jargon…. 

Ever went onto Google to look what your product needs to meet under which directive? Found a site and then there’s a 200 page PDF that tells you in technical mumbo jumbo what the directive is about and after reading that you still don’t know what to do? Well this is where a lot of people struggle (I am actually working on a course as of writing this that will take the guesswork out and make you understand what you need to know)

So which certificates do I need and do I need them all? 

Yes and No

The good news first. No you do not have to have all tests and certificates done by third party laboratories (both the US and Europe). What would suffice in (almost) all cases would be a declaration of conformity. Wow really? Yes, and here is the “however”. If you trust your suppliers blindly that all raw materials are free of hazardous chemicals, comply with electromagnetic compatibility (electronics for example) or meet certain other standards then that would be very foolish. If your supplier can’t provide any certification and claims that he complies with everything you ask for thats a huge red flag. I also understand that you don’t want to invest in any certification not knowing if it will sell. And this is the most important part where you as a entrepreneur and business person need to come to a decision. A) Is my product potentially dangerous (can it explode??). B) Is my product relatively simple and can’t harm anyone (e.g. leather wallet)? Once you’ve figured out what you need for your product you need to evaluate what should be invested. Lets take an example. For the sake of it lets look at a simple and a complicated product. 

Simple product:

Solar powered garden light for 1.2$. Comes with nothing but a few cables, some plastic and a solar cell. Simple right? Technically I have to meet the following: LVD (EMC), ROHS, REACH & CE in general for Europe. Now if I were to test all of these the costs would amount to roughly 2000USD with a very cheap Chinese laboratory. If it was TUV or SGS the costs would be triple that. Now what if I am going to order 1,000 pieces and my testing costs would already cost more? That doesn’t make sense. In this case I suggest to get self declaration of the above regulations and save yourself these costs. Obviously you’d still want your supplier to declare that he can fulfil those requirements so look for suppliers who already deal with customers in the country you want to import to and have a good reputation or can back up their claim that the item is compliant with raw material certificates for example (from the raw material supplier). 

Complicated product:

Small Electric fan heater 5.9$. Comes also with a few cables, some plastic, a plug and a PCB. Simple right? No. You see, I need to plug this product into the socket (230Volts plus) and the potential dangers are very high. If the unit tips over or a child puts a cover on top, the entire unit can burn up (and the house with it). Also here technically I have to meet the following: LVD (EMC), ROHS, REACH & CE in general for Europe. Ideally I will also want a GS mark for Germany because this is a product consumers want to have with GS. On top of that I want abnormal testing from TUV for example. Abnormal testing means they would test what happens if you cover the unit with a blanket or if it tips over that the unit switches off automatically. A good supplier knows that there needs to be a tip over switch installed and overheating fuse included. This abnormal test alone costs 4-5,000USD. A GS mark costs somewhere in the same vicinity (2-4000US$). The other tests (LVD, RoHS, REACH & CE) are roughly 2,000USD. Now we are looking at 10-12,000USD investment costs. Would I do all these testings before purchasing? Yes, 1000%. I do not want to risk my business or anyone else’s life because I wanted cheap. You may say ok but I don’t have that kind of money. Then you need to find a supplier who either has these certificates already or is willing to invest the money for you. If you can’t find one then its simple – the product is not for you and your budget. You can still go for it without all the testing and certifications but I think we are on the same page here that that would be a very foolish decision in case anything happens.  

Now I can’t go into hundreds of products or case studies here, that just isn’t possible. But I think you see my point. First I need to evaluate if the trouble is worth it and if I even want to deal with complicated products. 

If the answer is yes then the strategy is pretty clear I think – test and get certificates. If you don’t dare to sell these risky (but profitable) products go the easy way and pick simple products or walk away. 

Products & components to avoid when starting 

Some items really don’t make sense to import (together with the antidumping rate items). These items are usually license-required items, large items or items that are manufactured in a low-income country near you. 

China is getting some competition from a few countries, not only because of labor costs but also due to government import restrictions (antidumping fees for example).

Products that are difficult for importing:

  • Anything related to gas
  • Cars
  • Supplements
  • Foods, drinks
  • Animals
  • Guns, weaponry
  • Hazardous material
  • and more

For the above items you would need to obtain proper licenses first and this can be quite difficult. So the above might not be your first choice of import. 

Contracts & Tooling Guide 

A lot of people are concerned when they produce their own design in China that the supplier will copy it and sell to other sellers.

First I would like to point out that in my nearly 12 years in China I have had almost only good experiences with suppliers even with my own designs and exclusivity agreements.

Let’s look at your options and what it actually means to have NDA’s or Exclusivity Agreements in China and how likely it is to enforce it or hold up in a court.

Lets look at the terminology first and what they mean:

NDA’s

Whats an NDA and when do you use it?

An NDA or Non-Disclosure Agreement is used when you have your own product design and want that developed by a factory in China. You basically agree with the factory that they are not allowed to disclose, share or produce your design (or even ideas) with any other customer or supplier. Neither local or overseas. In most cases if you have your own design a tooling is likely need to be made. The first step you take before you send any designs to a factory is to ask them to sign the NDA.

Tooling

To produce your design it is very likely that the factory needs to make a mould or tooling for you. With this tooling – parts of your product will be manufactured and eventually assembled into the final product.

(Categories like Textile or Food do not need tooling). Toolings are often included in the price quoted to you when you hand over your design. However you can also opt to pay for the tooling if you want to own the tooling as well.

Toolings can go anywhere from 1,000-30,000+USD depending on the size of the product. Yes, things can get pretty expensive.

Can I move my own tooling to a secure location?

Toolings are usually very large and heavy as they are made out of die-cast in most cases. Moving them requires quite some logistics.

So if you are unsure that your supplier is going to use them for other customers you should move them to a secure location (e.g. a rented warehouse). This can easily cost a few hundred US$.

And every time you would place an order this tooling needs to be moved to the factory and after production back to the warehouse. An expensive enterprise.

So having said all that if you feel you need to have your tooling secure somewhere else you should not work with this factory in the first place.

So whats the best way to go about having your own designs & tooling?

Two scenarios:

  • You are just starting out and have no factory contacts whatsoever.

My tip is to work with a sourcing agent  that can help you find reliable and trustworthy factories.

Don’t go onto Alibaba and randomly look for factories that could make your product. You don’t know them, they don’t know you and are unlikely to help you anyway.

Even if they tell you: “no problem, we can make it for you” they are likely to copy your product or sell the idea to other sellers the minute you place an order.

Just the other day a reader of mine told me he found a trading company on Alibaba for his design and placed an order of 300 pieces.

When he got contacted by the actual factory about labels and other things they needed from him he found out that the trading company placed a total of 500 pieces with that factory.

They ordered an additional 200 pieces (without the knowledge of the client & even with the clients logo) for themselves probably to sell it on Aliexpress or even Amazon themselves.

  • You’ve been placing orders in China for a while.

Work with the factory of your trust. Even if the product you are now looking to manufacture doesn’t fit into their assortment. Factories have a large network and contacts with other factories.

Ask them to help you source a factory that can make your product whom they trust. I’d he happy to pay a few cents more for this type of help if it means I get connected to someone trustworthy.

Ideally your existing factory can help you manufacture your new design.

Mutual Exclusivity Agreement

Let say you find a product on Alibaba or at the shows and you want to buy this product exclusively to sell on Amazon. Suppliers are likely not to give you a Exclusivity Agreement if you don’t purchase high quantities from them or if you haven’t had any previous business with them. FBA sellers are in general very small customers for factories. The 1000 pieces (if even) you & I are going to want to place as a trial order cause more trouble to the factory than you could imagine. Setting up production and purchasing raw material for only a 1000 pieces is an expensive endeavour for factories. Most raw material suppliers have MOQ’s of 5000 pieces (per raw material) and up. So getting the material for 1000 pieces can be quite expensive. While some factories may have stock left of material or might agree to purchase the larger quantity from the raw material supplier in order to produce your order it is unlikely to happen in reality. Having said that you could approach things a little different to get your exclusivity:

You could ask the supplier to sign exclusivity agreements for 6 months. Meaning you could agree on a quantity that you will place within those 6 months and if you don’t reach the quantity the contract will be voided.

Which will give you the time to figure out if the product is selling and the supplier on the other hand isn’t forced to sign a deal for a long time.

After this period of 6 months the contract/agreement can be reviewed and extended for a longer period. Even if the supplier does not agree to an extension you have at least a head start of 6 months on other sellers.

Validity of agreements & contracts:

In the FB groups I often see question like: “How are those agreements going to hold up and what are your chances of winning an NDA dispute in China if you find out your supplier has betrayed you?”

Well to be honest the chances are slim. Does it help to have an agreement in Chinese? No. Even if you hire an expensive lawyer in China and win the case by the time you resolve the issue your expenses will have ballooned into thousands of $.

So unless you have a patent it isn’t even worth it pursuing a law suit.

You will also have difficulties finding out if your supplier actually used your tooling for another client. An un-trustworthy supplier will find many ways to wiggle himself out of the situation.

For example he could claim a disgruntled engineer of the company left the factory and took the designs to the next factory he started to work for. You won’t be able to proof him differently.

So whats the point of having an agreement at all and whats best approach?

To ask a supplier to sign an agreement or NDA shows that you mean serious business and they will take you and your project more seriously. If he doesn’t agree to it in the first place move on to the next supplier.

Work with a supplier whom you trust and have worked with for many months/years already. You will still need to have agreements in place with that supplier but the understanding is entirely different.

If you work with a supplier and you let him know he can grow his business with you over the years he will honour your agreement. The contract is more or less a formality.

Either place orders with a factory for ODM (products off the rack) in the beginning and eventually propose your ideas and designs after you worked with them for a while or hire a Sourcing Agent who can help you get you in touch with trustworthy factories.

For example in my case study I actually got exclusivity for my product (for an initial 1000 pieces order).

And the supplier honoured it. How do I know that? As you know my case study is public and people who join the course can see contacts of my supplier within the course.

After I launched my product and case study only a few days went by and my supplier contacted me to tell me that he had received quotation requests from 2 different US sellers already. Those 2 people wanted to copy my process (they even used my email templates and quotation forms that I offer in my course). The supplier refused to offer my product to those 2 guys. Thats not to say that they can’t go anywhere else but at least I know I have a reliable and trustworthy supplier.

So its all about finding the right supplier and develop a relationship with him. You will want to have agreements in place even after a long relationship but again, thats just really formality and if you found a trustworthy supplier they will honour agreements and in 95% of the cases help you if you have to claim money for example (defect or returned goods).

The point I want to get across to you is not to worry too much about getting copied in China if you approach things professionally.

Getting copied will happen eventually because either:

  • Another factory copies/modifies the designs because they have seen it on Amazon.
  • Your competitor copies your product or modifies it.
  • Your approach was unprofessional.

Take the head-start that you have with your product and move on. Thats how this business is.

And remember the above goes only for your own designs. It is a different story if you are buying products off the rack maybe with small modifications from a supplier that you found on Alibaba for example. In these cases it doesn’t make much sense to have NDA’s or Exclusivity Agreements because it is not your design in the first place. It belongs to the supplier. However if you make significant modifications and are able to place larger orders it makes sense to have agreements.

Choosing a supplier

Most people start out on Alibaba because they cannot come to China. While I do recommend to come to China it doesn’t make sense if you are just starting out. If you are starting out, head over here to my Alibaba screencast which helps on choosing a supplier:  https://importdojo.com/alibaba-hacks/

Ordering samples & how to test each sample effectively

I ll cover three topics about sample management:

  • Sample costs
  • Communication
  • Supervision

Sample costs

Once you have settled on a supplier for your new product it is time to purchase a sample. Most suppliers will charge you for sending a sample. There is usually no way around this unless you have worked with the supplier for a longer time.

Even for me, being here and dealing with suppliers on a daily basis I can’t guarantee that I don’t have to pay for a sample.

Here are some Insider tips to “try” to get a sample for free.

  • Introduce yourself as an assistant of a large company. Suppliers tend to smell money when a large company is interested and are more likely to give away samples for free.
  • State that if the sample is OK you will place a large order
  • State that you have especially chosen this supplier to be your exclusive supplier for this product and he has the chance now to do business with you.
  • Ask him to put the sample cost on top of the official order that may follow if the sample is what you are looking for.
  • State that it is company policy that you/your company don’t pay for samples and if he wishes to do business he should agree to your sample terms.
  • Split the costs. Offer to pay for either the samples or the freight costs.

If none of these work I recommend you to agree with the supplier to deduct the sample costs from the official (larger) order. At least this way you save the sample costs if you decide to order from this particular supplier.

Be wary of sample costs in general

On one occasion I was sourcing for a textile accessory. The item itself can be made for approx 2 USD.

I screened around 10 suppliers and eventually narrowed my selection down to 5 suppliers. They were all in a similar price range.

When it came down to ordering samples one of the suppliers (who was also the most expensive) asked me for a sample fee of 100 USD to be transferred to his bank account. That didn’t make sense. I immediately knew it must be a trading company with no factory background.

They probably outsource the work to a factory because they have no own facilities. Eliminate suppliers that have high sample costs right in the beginning.

Samples are usually 10-50% more expensive than the originally quoted price. It is a common practice to charge more for samples, as many of the samples need to be handmade for the customer, especially if you have some sort of modification request.

Another reason why samples are usually more expensive than the quoted price is that they want to see if you are serious & sincere about placing a larger order later.

I can tell you that from my own experience as a manufacturer. I get about 5 sample requests per week and all of them want it for free. If a buyer is not willing to pay for a sample I won’t send it to him because I will be thinking he just wants to get a sample and there will be no follow up order.

Sometimes suppliers have stock of their items. If you do not need to have any modifications done, or you just want to check the quality before asking for more, request a sample they have in stock. If they have stock, they usually charge the regular (MOQ) price.

Communication

In my 12 years living and working in China I have learned to communicate with Chinese suppliers in different ways compared to communicating with Western companies.

What is being said or promised on the phone/chat or email is not always being followed by the factory or the supplier. Often you will find that something you said or agreed on is being done completely different.

For example you ordered a sample of a certain product in a certain color & quantity but what you receive is completely different from what you asked/paid for.

Unfortunately the chain of command in factories is not always direct. So when your sales contact gives your sample order to his sample or engineering team there may be 2 or 3 people in between.

In between often some information gets lost. So eventually the person responsible for making your sample will receive different instructions that deviate from your original briefing. Often there will be no meetings held on projects from clients (like we are used to in the western world), but rather a quick email to another person that has not fully understood what you actually want or need.

Often there will be no message or notification that your project may be urgent or requires special attention. That might be a simple instruction, for example telling the sample team to make the sample with a US plug or adapter. No one has told the sample team and common sense is unfortunately not requested when being a worker in the factory.

Which brings us to:

Supervision

I can’t stress enough how important it is to supervise & monitor your order/samples or other projects that you have with your supplier. Westerners work differently. We are more detailed and we expect people to have the same common sense that most of us have. Information will get lost. You need to plan for it.

After each discussion on the phone/chat or email you should follow up with written and agreed on-points. Try to think of everything for the supplier and make it as easy as possible for him to follow up & complete your instructions. Give him a “goodie” at the end of the email to advise him of the potential to be working with you.

For example (content in BLUE are my notes for you):

Hi Tony,

Thanks for the talk just now. I would like to summarize the discussed points:

– Sample to be sent to ……. (your address)

– Sample needs to be in working mode. A non-working sample is not accepted, as the sample will undergo quality tests by my third party laboratory. (this part doesn’t need to be true but he will think twice before sending you a sample in poor condition)

– Sample needs to have a US plug (attach him a picture of a US plug-make it easy for him)

– Please make sure the sample is tested on your side before being sent out.

– Please attach your model number & supplier name-tag to the sample as I am getting many samples and would like to know who sent which sample. (this way you will not lose reference of which supplier made your sample if you order from more than one)

– Make sure you mention “samples of no commercial value” to the Sample Invoice (in order to avoid customs tax on samples at your destination).

– Etc.

Please give me a written confirmation of all discussed points and your understanding.

If the sample works out well and everything is as it is agreed on, expect an order of… pcs.

Best,

…..

Here a few more tips on communication & supervision with your supplier:

  • Give deadlines to suppliers that you both agreed on.
  • Set yourself reminders on your smart phone/computer that will help you to remind your supplier.
  • Make simple sketches & drawings of your requests if the supplier misunderstands you.
  • Have him confirm each step of your modification or request
  • Keep emails clear and with bullet points to make your requests stand out

Once you have a feeling on what you need to pay attention to it gets a lot easier and your sample orders in China will be a lot smoother.

Inspections

I’ve been saying this forever and I still see people shipping their products from China without inspecting their products by professionals but my recommendation is never ever ship without inspecting your goods. 

Especially not if you ship directly to Amazon. If there’s a problem it’s too late to re-work the goods (in most cases) or ship back to China. 

There are several third-party inspection companies in Asia. Some of the big names are: Buereau Veritas, TUV-SUD, TUV-RHEINLAND, and AsiaInspection  (which I personally use) to name a few. The first three are usually expensive but also very thorough. AsiaInspection is a simple and cost efficient service that should work in the beginning for you. Register on their website and simply create an order with them. You can fill out all the details or even better ask your supplier to send them a sample.

Simple steps: You ask your supplier for a date when you can send an inspector (usually around 70-80% of the finished production), you book the inspection online and the Inspector will go to the factory on the arranged date. 

Once the inspection is completed they will send you an inspection report. Based on this report you can either:

  • Release the shipment to the supplier
  • Ask the supplier to re-work the goods according to your agreed terms and fix problems found during the inspection

Only when you are entirely satisfied should you release the shipment. In most cases there will be minor findings, such as scratches, dents, or packaging issues. If this doesn’t bother you then release. If there are major problems like faulty wires or wrong colours, ask your supplier to re-work the goods.

Trust me, he will re-work, as he is still waiting to get the full payment. Remember, NEVER pay everything up front. Once everything is as it should be you can give your logistics provider the order to pick up the goods and send them to the port.

You are of course entitled to skip this process, but it is highly recommended, especially for first-timers and for order amounts above 1,000USD.

Pheeww that was a long post but I hope that this serves as a refreshment or reminder on what to pay attention to 🙂

Next week in our blog series we’ll talk about eCommerce, what channels exist, how to build an audience, social media following and more so stay tuned 🙂

If you enjoyed this post please comment or share on your social media 🙂

All the best and happy sourcing,

Manuel

https://importdojo.com/importdojo-masterclass/

Zero to Hero Brand Evolution

Zero to Hero: Build a Brand Series – Product Industry & Demographics


This is the 7th post in our Brand Building Series and today it’s my turn to talk about this next blog post. 

In this post I’ll talk about private label versus your own design and why being unique (in the long run) is better.

I will also talk about Industry Research & Demographics (Who will be your customer?) because I feel this goes hand in hand with the decision on choosing a product. 

Before we discuss private label versus your own design I will dig into Research & Demographics first – who will be your customer? Is there enough demand? Your customers or target market can also determine whether you go for private label or your own design.  

Industry Research & Demographics

I’ve talked in previous blog posts on how to choose a product and do your industry research. So I won’t go too much into detail in this post, check out the post I did on this a while ago: https://importdojo.com/the-ultimate-guide-on-how-to-find-a-product/

Let’s imagine that you aren’t sure yet which product you want to sell in but you have a certain industry in mind. I always say follow your passion or something that you can relate to. 

After all it doesn’t make sense to start selling Bluetooth speakers when you know nothing about them let alone explain features or answer technical questions of your customers. 

So ideally you start with something that you can at least relate to or feel that you can improve on. 

Let’s pick an industry. As some of you know this from me already – I love hiking and trail running here in Hong Kong, so lets look at that niche 🙂

Me last week hiking/trail running in HK’s mountains 

1) I go onto Google and start my search. 

2) I check the first few links and I find a site that has a compilation of the top 10 products – makes it very easy for me. 

Here’s the Top 10:

  1. Jacket
  2. Shirt
  3. Pack
  4. Handheld bottle 
  5. Shoes
  6. Socks
  7. Poles
  8. Neck Gaiter
  9. Medical Kit
  10. Food 

3) Next thing I do is go onto Google.trends.com and enter “trail running”. 

It is a very trendy topic as you can see

4) Now lets look at particular states in the US:

Colorado, Utah, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina are the top 5. 

If I look into cities as you can see there is a very high demand in Denver, Portland, Seattle, Austin & San Francisco (& a few more). 

I know from living here in HK there is very high demand as well. Now if Amazon would have a store here that would be probably my first item to put up on as a listing. 

As an alternative I could also set up an eCommerce shop here in Hong Kong (there’s my next business idea). 

However I am going to focus on selling a product in the US now either on Amazon or my own eCommerce shop. 

Next thing to do would be to research the particular top 10 products and then focus on either the highest demand or the product I can affiliate myself with the most. 

After I pick a product I go onto Google keywords planner. I pick “trail running jacket” and as you can see there’s a very high demand (100,000 – 1Million monthly searches on Google).

If I were to go after shoes it would even be 1M-10M per month. Thats a lot of potential customers 🙂

What do I do now with all those numbers? Nothing for now since I still am far away from launching a product, but the point of this exercise is that I become aware of the trends, the search and interest volume of my potential clients and how I can take that to my advantage. 

E.g. I can set up my own shop or sell on Amazon and drive traffic via targeted Facebook ads (or Google) to my listing. And I can specify that by country, state, city and interest. I am not going into detail now (thats for later) but just a quick look at a Facebook campaign with these keywords and targets generates a audience of 790,000 people. Something for later when my product is live (or during the launch). 

Now obviously this is just a brief and short trip into researching demographics and interests. But as you can see from above, there’s literally a million potential clients for me. 

Obviously I would now have to do my product research, find suppliers etc but this will be a post for next week. 

What you can do from here on is to look up the competition on Amazon and how you can improve a product or even get unique ideas. See also our blow post from 2 weeks ago here. 

Lets assume that you have your product and industry well researched. What do you pick now? Private Label or having your own design? 

Lets look at the options:

Private label

2-3 years ago Amazon FBA private labelling became the No.1 way to start your new business with a small capital. Simple – find a lightweight product, fits in a shoe box and costs less than 2$. 

So many people jumped onto that train that today we have immense competition on Amazon. While there are still categories and products out there that have small competition, its getting more and more difficult for everyone. 

I am sorry to tell you but those days where you start off with 1000$ or less are over. I still see success stories with private labelling however starting capital should be at least 3-5,000USD. You are going to want to order a quantity (say 500-1000 pieces) that last you 1-3 months when you launch, especially if your product goes well. You will need capital for marketing (PPC, Facebook ads etc., influencer campaigns), logistic costs from China, inspection costs, photography and business set up costs. If you are looking at higher priced items from China – because they have less competition, 5000US$ are easily spent on product costs only. 

How does private label work? By now I think most of you how it works but basically you are buying a product off the shelve from a manufacturer, maybe improve it (see last blog post), put your own logo on the product or packaging and send it to Amazon. Obviously there are many steps in between but thats pretty much it in a nutshell. 

Does private labelling still work? Yes it does, but the competition is just immense right now that you’ll want to pick your product carefully with extensive research. Perhaps instead of making it difficult for yourself with limited capital you may want to look into other private labelling like wholesale private labelling. What’s that? Check out my good friend Will Tjernlund’s speech at the Global Sources Summit last year October in HK: https://www.facebook.com/globalsources/videos/10154597697889785/

So while private labelling in its different forms is still a viable option and will make you money you will have to have a good product that stands out plus extra capital for marketing and advertising since the TOS change from October 2016 in regards to giving away products and review services has more or less collapsed as a sure way to gain traction in your first few weeks.  

The most obvious downside on a private label item is that anyone can come in and hijack or have the same product up after a few weeks. Even if you are brand registered, a competitor can come in and modify the product with his factory, maybe even improve it and sell under his own listing. Within a matter of weeks you can have 4-5 competitors and the price gets driven to the ground. Think of the melon slicer that everyone tried to sell and within 2 months there were 30+ sellers of this product. Imagine you would have been the person designing this item, how long you’d been the only one making huge profits. All the other guys that came in after you had to fight for the price and customers. Basically a race to the bottom. 

What are the advantages on private labelling?

  1. Small investment costs (3-10,000USD+)
  2. Quick turnaround time from placing orders to selling the product
  3. Good starting point to make money on the side and learning the process

Don’t get me wrong, to start out and if you are concerned about capital and big investments private labelling is a great way to get started. You’ll learn the ropes, get your first experience in China and on Amazon and you’ll be set up with your business. 

Even I started with a private label but quickly moved on to create unique products. 

Your own design and why unique is being better

What’s your own design and what are the risks involved? What sort of capital do you need to invest? 

OK, so first off you might say – even my unique products can be copied at some point. Yes, thats true but you’ll have a head-start of at least 6-8 months and by the time the competition comes in you’ll have a lot of reviews (that he doesn’t have) and you’ve already made good money and ideally even work on your next product. Thats the business cycle anyway, you create a product, someone comes and copies you. Deal with it and move on.

Next question may even be how to avoid that anyone copies you – patents and trademarks. First you’ll definitely want to register your brand on Amazon so that anyone trying to hijack your listing has to ask you for approval – guess you won’t approve 🙂 Second you may even want to patent your design in the US (or wherever you are selling) So anyone trying to copy you has a very low chance of succeeding. You can easily report them to Amazon infringing your patents or design.  

Whats the downside with your on design? There are three things that come to mind.

  1. Long period of development & perhaps the feeling of missing out on action
  2. Medium to Large investment costs (10,000USD+)
  3. Risk of product not selling well (but you’ll have that risk with private label items as well) as it is new to the market and “no one knows it exists yet”. 

Whats the upsides of your own design? 

  1. You dictate the selling price and market. Out of experience your margins can be 100% upwards. Private Label usually has anywhere from 15-45% (which is actually not bad when you are starting out) 
  2. You can interest retailers and other businesses with a unique design. It’s very unlikely that Walmart is interested in buying a private label garlic press. 
  3. You have a USP (Unique Selling Point) that your competitors (private labellers) don’t have. If you keep coming out with unique products your customers will return. Just think of Nike or Adidas how they constantly re-invent themselves with new designs, material etc. If you are a one hit wonder there’s not really a momentum that you can build (e.g. improving the garlic press for the 50th time). 

CONCLUSION

I think it is pretty clear that a lot depends on your capital and assessing your risk tolerance. Investment more and get paid off (hopefully) or start small and grow slow. It is really a personal decision that I can’t take off your hands 🙂

Researching your demographics and possible target audience helps making a decision.

I hope this post has helped in some way and I look forward to your comments 🙂

All the best and happy sourcing,

Manuel

https://importdojo.com/importdojo-masterclass/

Zero to Hero Brand Evolution

Zero to Hero: Build a Brand Series – Product Analysis & Innovation Part 1

In the previous weeks, we went over Business Banking & Incorporation – where we explored different strategies on how to legally and financially enhance your business. As a way to start 2017, today’s blog post will be focusing on Product Innovation.

The ultimate goal for any business is to be sustainable in the long term. To achieve this, you need to have a Unique Selling Point(USP) that differentiates your business from the competition. This mini guide and case study is meant to get you to think outside the box in terms of product selection and launch cool & innovative products.

In terms of Private Label products, sellers normally follow one of these options:

  1. General items with unique logo and packaging.
  2. Completely unique product.
  3. Improvement over existing products.

Importing general items used to be profitable, but it’s not sustainable in the long term! When choosing products, you need to think from the Amazon customers’ point of view. How would you feel(as a customer), if you’re searching for a particular product, and find something like this:

2

This is a very bad approach as the only way to differentiate between each product is:

  • Listing
  • Photos
  • Price

Price is the most obvious one, so more often than not, it becomes a race to the bottom. This is not what we want as a brand. By creating something that the market wants & improving upon it, you will have control over your brand. This is also an asset if you plan on selling to retailers in the future – Retailers love unique, branded and in demand products!

Today’s case study involves picking an existing product and completely breaking down each aspect of it and try to improve it.

Note: This is only an example and the strategy should be applied for your product of choice.

The Product

For this case study I picked an Interactive Dog Toy Ball. Let’s have a quick overview of the product.

  • Number 1 Best Seller in Dog Toy Balls
  • 4,432 reviews
  • 2 Variations
  • Multiple Colors

Based on the initial data, these numbers may seem prohibitive, however:

  • Multiple reviews indicate the product is popular
  • Variations show demand for different sizes and colours

All that needs to be done is analysing the product carefully and see if we can improve it. So let’s go ahead with our product analysis.

Product Listing

 

Surprisingly, the listing for this product is very lacking. As seen in the above image I have pointed out the 3 main features I find lacking:

  • Poor Images & Very Bland – A product with this popularity/demand should have higher quality pictures.
  • Bullet Points – The bullet points are too short and don’t describe the product features in detail.
  • Listing Title – This, in my opinion, is the most lacking part. The title is not Keyword Optimized and they have the words “Colors May Vary”. As a customer viewing the listing, the question I ask is:  What colors are available for this product? Which color will I receive??

Product Description

 

The seller has Enhanced Brand Content/A+ Content, however, they are not taking full advantage of it. The description is short and the pictures show only the packaging instead of highlighting the product’s features. Furthermore, they included a picture of another of their products!

The description should be a keyword rich, informative section where you provide features and details to the customer.

Reviews

Moving on with the product analysis, it’s time to check the reviews – The item is a best seller after all! Reviews of customers are extremely important, more so after the Amazon Review change where all the giveaway reviews have been removed. Let’s see what the reviews tell us about the product:

The most notable aspect is that 24% of 4,430 reviews(1063 reviews) are 3 stars or lower. This already shows me that the product can be improved upon, but let’s look at the positive reviews first.

Positive Reviews

Looking at some of the positive reviews, I picked up these features customer like:

  • Fun Toy and most dogs love it.
  • Adjustable difficulty of the item makes it accessible to any dog.
  • A lot of the reviews suggest customers bought 1 or more. This is a very good sign.
  • The product makes their dog exercise more.

Positive reviews are an important aspect, as they tell you what customers LOVE about the product. If you are innovating or improving an existing product, you have to know what customers like about your competitors.

Negative Reviews

Looking at the negative reviews throughout the listing, I have noticed a common theme:

  • Cheap material – most dogs break it easily.
  • Dangerous – Some dogs have risked choking because it comes apart easily.
  • Boring – some dogs found the toy to be boring, this suggests that the toy is only ideal for particular breeds.
  • Functionality – Some customers found that the treats don’t come out properly.

When looking at negative reviews, focus on a common theme – if many customers complain about a particular feature, this can be improved!

External Research

 

After focusing on the listing, it’s time to search if there’s demand outside of Amazon USA. Remember, the goal is to build a lasting and global brand, so you need to expand your research further. I will look at this particular product and see how it performs:

Google Trends

When launching a product, it’s easy to only focus on that particular product. However, the goal is to see if there’s demand in the category. I made a Google Trends search for the keywords “Dog Treat Toys” and “Dog Toy Balls” to see if there’s any demand throughout the year for this product.

As seen above, the demand for the product is fairly steady all year round with some months experiencing high demand. This is good news as it shows that this product is not seasonal and their is interest in this niche.

Non-US Amazon

The idea is always to first launch a new product in the US market(higher demand) and expand into other countries. As you can see below, I have made a search for this product in the Spanish, UK, France, Germany, Italian & Japanese Amazon marketplaces. Although this product is listed in all marketplaces – not a single review can be found. This can mean:

  • No demand for the product outside the US – Highly unlikely considering the category(Pet Supplies).
  • The seller main focus is only the US, so releasing a better product in the other marketplaces would give you an advantage.

Amazon DE

Amazon ES

Amazon Japan

 

Re-Cap

Based on the initial analysis, my conclusions are:

Positive

  • Quality is an issue – We can make a better product.
  • Material is low-quality hard plastic and therefore we can improve the material quality or use a different material.
  • Certifications – No certifications are mentioned in the listing, by obtaining certifications we can make the product better.
  • Photos – Higher quality photos.
  • Listing – Better product descriptions & bullet points.
  • Variations – Include colors in the listing & offer 2-3 colors.
  • Packaging – With some effort we can make a better packaging.

Negatives

  • The product is extremely popular and therefore hard to get the #1 spot.
  • Large amount of reviews – However, 24% are 3 star or lower, so a better product can outperform it.

Warning: If going this route, it is extremely important to check if any products you take inspiration from don’t have a patent associated with them. The idea is to have a brand with unique products – So be unique!

What’s Next?

Once you have made significant research about a particular product. You need to make any improvements come to life. The way to do this is by either:

  • Hiring a product designer to design a completely new product based on the feedback you give them.
  • Sourcing a factory that produces similar products and see if they can make the requested changes.

I recommend hiring a product designer as they can completely experiment with different designs and you would get a unique product for your brand. When you’re happy with the result, you pass on the design to the chosen factory and a mold + sample is made.

A Note About Product Research

We are all familiar with product research tools such as Jungle Scout or Unicorn Smasher. While these tools are great, they shouldn’t be used to exactly tell you which products you pick, BUT to discover hidden gems within the marketplace & monitor sales volume. The best way to truly build a lasting brand is to:

  • Build a brand around a category/niche you’re passionate about. If you have a strong passion/interest towards a particular niche, you know what the market wants.
  • If you already have a product in a category, focus on building a list & interact with potential customers via social media. Once you build trust with your customer base, they will often tell you what products they love/want.
  • Release products which are both unique and better than the competition.

Moving Forward

Once you release a new product on the market it’s best to release other products related to the brand. This is done to:

  1. Cover many sub-niches in one category.
  2. Show expertise in your niche
  3. Build trust with your target market(if you consistently release great and innovative products)

Good places to look for new products related to your item are:

“Frequently Bought Together” section

As you can see with our product from the case study, Amazon is already showing you an item that is frequently bought by customers. 

“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section

Same as above, Amazon gives you all the data you need to make your research easier for your next products.

“Sponsored Products Related To This Item” section

This is very important as it shows PPC activity surrounding a category. If other sellers are spending money promoting their products, then, there is interest in the market. As you can see below, Amazon is showing a lot of products.

Category Magazines

Magazines(both online and offline) are a good source of inspiration. These publications only cater to an audience actively interested in the category so they can greatly help you. Understanding the market and your potential customers will help you gain authority within your niche.

Forums

Forums are a great source because audiences discuss topics related to a particular niche. Which is very helpful because:

  1. You can get inspiration for blog posts
  2. You can segment your audience( Gender – Age – Household Income etc)
  3. Advertising – Forums have advertising sections, see what type of brands and products are advertised and do your research on that.

Tradeshows & Exhibitions

This is by far the best way to source new products. Trade shows are a great way to see trending & upcoming products and find potential suppliers. Manuel will talk about this in more detail as he has a lot of experience in this field.

Reminder: Always do your research before investing time and money into a product – Your customers and business will thank you later!

Conclusion

I hope this mini case study was helpful and hopefully it can serve as an inspiration for new products in 2017. Moving forward, the next blog posts will be written both by Manuel & myself and will focus on Sourcing, Manufacturing & Certifications. These topics have been widely covered by Manuel, however, we have some great information on how to apply them to build a brand.

We hope you had a great holiday season and both myself & Manuel wish you a Happy New Year! If you have any questions regarding this blog post, kindly leave a comment below.

All the best & happy selling,

Duncan

https://importdojo.com/importdojo-masterclass/