This article previously appeared in IMPO's October 2013 issue.
Maker’s Row, a website and free service that helps facilitate connections between designers and the small-batch American manufacturers that can help them turn a sketch into a real product, is on a roll. The New York-based technology startup has recently secured $1 million in funding to help hire more developers, who will help expand the service and build in more features. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Matthew Burnett, has been featured on the likes of Fox Business and NPR.
The users are happy too — Tanya Menendez, COO and co-founder, was recently pleased to hear that an American manufacturer posted their company’s profile and had a solid lead and a meeting in just two days.
The company launched its website in November 2012, with a focus on the jewelry and apparel markets, plus a relatively simple premise. On one end, designers sign up for the site and can search through the profiles of American manufacturers for one that would be a good fit. And on the other end, these small-batch manufacturers can create a profile of their operations and capabilities, fill in all the appropriate contact information, upload some images of the plant and previous work, and begin to field questions and requests from interested entrepreneurs.
The service is completely free for those aspiring business people, and manufacturers have the option of paying a bit of money for an improved listing. And according to Menendez, this formula is already working: “This type of quick match-making makes it really fulfilling to continue working on Maker’s Row and we’re really hoping that we get more and more factories on, too, to continue the momentum.”
The Perils of Small Business
If there was anyone to begin a business like Maker’s Row, Burnett and Menendez may very well be the best choice — they both know the pain and complexity of having to work with foreign manufacturers. Burnett’s own history is perhaps the best type of story to tell, as proof of how using domestic – and even hyper-local – manufacturers can be an incredible asset to a fledgling company.
Burnett’s background is in industrial design, making watches for Marc Jacobs, DKNY and other well-known brands. In 2007, he started his own watch brand, but ran into a plethora of problems when dealing with overseas manufacturers, “from language barriers to time zone differences, and then importing costs. A lot of those costs, you won’t see.”
Production runs took months, only for shipments to get trapped in customs for weeks at a time, and because he’s not a supply chain expert, he didn’t know how to get that process expedited. And if there was an error in the production, he’d have to send it all back. Once, he had a run of 3,000 watches, $40,000 in cost, all show up defective. He says, “As a first-time entrepreneur, you can’t take that type of hit on your business.”
He was forced to fold the company, and started another, called Brooklyn Bakery, which specialized in leather goods. He wanted all the products to be fully manufactured domestically, so that he could visit the factory and meet the people who were going to be making his product. He sourced leather from Queens, and had everything produced in Midtown’s garment district. He says, “That provided extreme transparency. I knew everyone that was involved in the process. It was a lot easier to detect manufacturing errors, because there were a few, but I was able to catch them the day they went into production.”
One can begin to see the threads that now outline the mission behind Maker’s Row. When Menendez came onboard Brooklyn Bakery, they were still taking months to find the right suppliers. She was the one who proposed what is now Maker’s Row: a website where entrepreneurial people, who want to start a business and make a real product, can find the American factories who will make that happen with quality and price in mind. And based on the success they’ve had so far, it’s clear that Menendez’s idea was one many of those would-be small businesses were desperately in need of. They brought on Scott Weiner, who handles the service’s technical challenges, as the third co-founder.
Since launching, with that million in funding aside, Maker’s Row has helped numerous entrepreneurs make connections with domestic manufacturers, but Burnett says the interested parties haven’t been limited to one-person operations — much the opposite, in fact. He says some of the biggest apparel brands one might find in big-box retailers have been reaching out to “branch into new industries or create new products, or even if they’re just looking for a new type of textile.”
And Burnett says the Maker’s Row team is starting to work on plans to help these designers or businesses get the in-person help that they need to get their designs made — almost like a consultancy business on the side — but they’re not quite ready to make an announcement on that front.