3 Things I Learned While Sourcing Material

by maxcharge

A few days ago, I spent a day midtown NYC trying to find the kind of leather I want to use in my product. I have zero experience with leather, so this was a fun and somewhat stressful learning experience. Actually, that’s not completely true – it wasn’t my first time working with leather. I had my first crush on a girl in fifth grade, and she invited me to a leatherworking workshop. I, having read nothing but medieval romance novels at the time, obliged. Sadly, even after the class, she did not return my affections. But, I guess it wasn’t not my first experience with leather, then. Here are some things I learned in my recent day out:

1. Learn all you can about the material beforehand. I did some research before going out, and had a rough idea of the sorts of leather and fabric I’d be looking at. My research proved extremely useful, but also strikingly lacking. I got lucky, and the salespeople at some of the shops took the time to teach me. However, this was certainly above and beyond their job. Unlike a regular store where a salesperson can spend twenty minutes telling you why a particular watch is amazing, highly specialized material shops are by definition frequented by artisans and professionals. In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you. In fact, the last shop I visited demonstrated this. The saleslady, although nice, became increasingly annoyed with me as I asked basic questions. Normally I’d be frustrated, but in truth, I should have been more prepared. At some point, I remarked that a particular cowhide “felt cool to the fingers,” and in a heavy Russian accent she smirked that “everything feels cool” and walked away.

In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you.

My initial thinking was that I could only learn so much at home, and would really get a feel for things out in the shops. This may be true for some of you and maybe for some shops, but in general, do your research. I could have learned more. I could have read a book on leatherworking, spent more time researching, and prepared better.

2. Be confident in what you’re building. I’ve pitched my business to lots of friends, family, and others at networking events, but this was the first time I’ve ever gone out into the world to work with people that have no particular interest in the product.   I had to sell with confidence. And – I somewhat expected this sooner or later – somewhere between the leather shops and the many stores I visited that sell similar products, I stopped and had my first real bout of self-doubt: “what am I even doing?” I know next to nothing about the product I’m working on (but I’m learning a million things,) I’m not sure if I can see myself staying with the product for many years, and more importantly, I’m just not sure if I can picture my success. These thoughts are common among entrepreneurs, and I was expecting for doubts to creep in as my initial enthusiasm waned (it hasn’t!) But, when you’re trying to sell – or in this case, buy –  you can’t afford for that to happen. Your personal bout of insecurity will need to wait till you get home. Or at least back to the car.

Have your pitch ready. Know what you’re building, and screw anybody that doesn’t love it. Your ultimate judge is the end consumer – you’re trying to satisfy him (or her!) and if your microprocessor salesperson thinks that the robot you’re building is the cooki-est thing since Easy Cheese spray, then he can go to hell, as long as he can offer you a decent price on the electronics. And finally – you’re a business; act like it. Exaggerate and fill in corners as necessary. Sometimes you need to embody where you’re going to get there. Wait, I’m actually going to insist you click on that last link – it’s okay if you skipped the first couple. Biz Stone’s story is way more interesting than mine at this point. So, go out there and sell! Coffee’s for closers only.

3. Forget the established way and learn, learn, learn. Steve Wozniak of Apple famously remarked: ” All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever. Every single thing that we came out with that was really great, I’d never once done that thing in my life.” So, while you should absolutely follow #1 and do as much research as you can, don’t let how things are dictate what your product will be. You’re an entrepreneur  – by definition, you’re making something new. If you follow step 1 correctly, you should be knowledgeable about the many available tools, but that’s only the starting line. Now, how can you do things differently, better?

All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever.

~ Steve Wozniak

I got the following advice from this brilliant book, which I can’t recommend enough: find a thread that’s common sense to a product, and question why that is so. “Building should have distinct walls and a roof.” Well, should they? Frank Gehry wasn’t ready to just accept that. If you see a material and think to yourself, hey, this would look awesome if my product were made of that – follow that thought, no matter how ridiculous it seems! It doesn’t mean you should just make it that way, but thinking outside of the proverbial box will help you find exciting new ideas. Although making TV remotes from hard jelly might not make the cut, questioning why 99% of remotes are rigid, plastic, and rectangular may just get you thinking in a good direction. Another useful technique is to look at how things are done in other fields and try to integrate – but we’ll save that thought for a later post.

All that aside, perhaps the most important advice is the unspoken #4: just go out and do it. Get out of the building. Even if you’re completely unprepared and neglect my previous thoughts completely, you’ll be worlds away from the dreamers that steam in their ideas for decades and never actually get anything done. What about you, fellow entrepreneurs? What experience have you have in sourcing and selecting materials for your product?