How to Combat the Challenges of Production When You’re a DIY Operation


Everyone sells something. It's silly to pretend we don't. It might be a product, it might be a service or it might be yourself on a job interview. In some ways, though, selling a product is the hardest of all because there are so many extra steps that have to be taken just to conjure the product up into the physical realm. Where do you start? How do design it? The list of questions goes on and on.

For Adam Raby, his latest product was the CushPad -- a foam pillow for an iPad that turns Apple's tablet into an ersatz standalone TV. It was created in September 2011, and Raby also has experience with production dating back to 2007, when he started selling custom beer pong balls called -- wait for it -- Adam's Balls.

With his more than a half-decade experience of producing product ideas he conceived, Adam's a perfect fellow to talk to about the headaches and potential remedies for those headaches when it comes to production. That's why I gave him a call. 

What were some of the frustrations you had across the board, both with your balls and also with CushPad?

Adam Raby: There were a lot. There actually was a lot of overlap. I thought that maybe the passing of a few years might have eased some of them but it didn't really. I think especially in the manufacturing industry, the common underlying frustration is where it's most prevalent. Just, a directory with contact information. A lot of these old manufacturing companies are now old and are run by an older generation of people. It's usually older equipment and just old-school businesses that don't have email and everything has to be done over fax -- and they certainly don't have websites.


Adam Raby: Yeah, yeah. It started out as being kind of funny but at times after years and years of working with that, I don't work with people who require fax communication. It's almost like a red-flag giveaway because it's always something I have difficulties with communication-wise and production-wise. But it's scary how many people that that alone weeds out. You'll find when you're looking for some kind of manufacturing, obviously a lot of it's made overseas, but what you'll get if you just do a quick Google search is you'll find these business directories that you can tell have been scraped by Federal tax publications where you have to list that you're registered as a business or even sometimes property records, things like that. If you even call the phone number, it's going to be some title agency who managed the property or some tax attorney who filed that company's corporation paperwork. These types of companies were never really set up to have accessible communication paths. I've been thinking about this now, even more and more since you and I originally started talking, about the Kickstarter age of hardware startups, physical startups. They're just not prepared for that at all in pretty much every way.

What can people do to combat that?

Adam Raby: Honestly, I wish I had a couple of silver bullets. The one thing that if you find someone with an email address that will reply to you, don't forget about them. Pursue them. Even if maybe they're pricing's a little bit higher, if they're responsive over communication, that's going to save you so much time and money down the line.

Just anecdotally, if I have to run back to my computer, print something out, and then fax it or eFax it -- even just those added steps, especially if you're in an iterative design process, those added steps really add up over time. So, to give you an example: The guys that I set up my foam with for the original version of Cushpad on the South Side, I can email them. I haven't talked to them on the phone in a year. In a good way. Purely email communications. Everything's email. I know for a fact I can find people who will do the same work for cheaper, but I've stuck with him because I know I can just send him an email and it gets done.

Where do you recommend people go or do once they have an idea they know they want to take into production? What's the thinking they should go through to figure that process out?

Adam Raby: That's a good question. I would say, especially if they're a Chicago company, you're almost very fortunate. Having had to look at production and work with manufacturers in the East Coast, it's a lot more sparse. But in Chicago, the obvious first step is Googling. It's a great start. You can use something like Kickstarter or maybe even something smaller like Etsy, where you can sort people geographically and reach out to them and ask who their suppliers are for their materials assuming they're not making it 100 percent themselves. I think that would the biggest, best first step you can make. Find people who are making similar things and ask where they're getting it made. As long as you're not competing with them, I can't see why anyone would turn you down.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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