How Tech Startup Maker's Row Is Revolutionizing the American Manufacturing Industry

If the recent tragedies in Bangladesh have made one thing clear, it's that now, more than ever, it's important to know where–and how–your clothing is produced.

Strides are being made to ensure conditions in Bangladesh factories improve–most recently Congress passed a bill in support of the Bangladesh safety accord–but there's still a long road of reform ahead. Many retailers producing out of Bangladesh don't even know exactly where their goods are being made: Design teams, based halfway around the world, rarely see inside the factories, and, because of illegal subcontracting, even conscientious retailers can wind up entangled in a sub-par factory.

There are ethical implications to this conundrum, of course, but there are also logistical ones: Coordinating production and delivery amid language barriers and different time zones is tricky, and can be prohibitively so for young labels with small teams. An obvious solution, and one that more and more companies are beginning to explore, is to produce somewhere closer to home. Like say, here, in America.

But while many American designers want to produce in the U.S., they don't know how to go about it. That's where Maker's Row comes in. Founded by Mark Burnett (a former watch designer), Tanya Menendez (a sociologist by training, who formerly worked at Goldman Sachs), and Scott Weiner (a tech wizard who's been making websites and apps for years), Maker's Row strives to make the manufacturing process easier for brands that want to produce in America. The company has a comprehensive database of suppliers specializing in everything from zippers to denim and sample-making to tooling; it allows users to easily search the list and even write reviews of suppliers. Basically, it's like Yelp for designers and manufacturers. And it makes figuring out how to produce in the U.S. a whole lot easier.

We caught up with Burnett to chat about why he decided to start Maker's Row, and how it's working to help revolutionize the American manufacturing industry.

Why did you create Maker's Row?
The inspiration for Maker's Row arose from our own experience trying to find a manufacturer within the United States. It usually would take us up to two months to find the right manufacturer that will work with our order quantities, maintain quality, and meet our deadlines with consistency. Over time, we discovered that this was the dilemma that faced an overwhelming majority of companies, from small businesses to large corporations.

Before we created Maker's Row, we saw that sourcing was a multi-faceted problem: There are extremely limited resources for discovery, fragmented regional communities that are offline, and very little transparency. This made it so that it would take extensive periods of time to find a manufacturer and/or material supplier. If you are a small company, that detracts from indispensable time and effort needed for other aspects of running a business like sales and marketing.

Do you think it's more important than ever for fashion brands to consider producing in America?
I absolutely think that brands are acknowledging that domestic production within the U.S. is ramping up. We are at a point in time in which one of the most important issue to businesses large and small is becoming their speed to market. This means that American companies are looking to produce as many products domestically so that they can bring it to market first.

We are now in an "on demand" economy. Prior to this, price was king to everyone and American production was slammed by the price of overseas labor. This "outsourcing" production methodology put American manufacturing, and by transitive properties, the American economy, in serious jeopardy. More recently, the price of overseas production has risen exponentially to the point where American manufacturing is much more competitive. Dozens of America's largest brands, from Apple to GE, are now developing more and more products in the United States because of the advantages of speed, intellectual property protection.

Do you have any thoughts on the recent Bangladesh tragedies and subsequent safety initiatives?
It is a tragic event that affects everyone involved from the families of loved ones lost, to the brands that abide these sorts of conditions. The factory that collapsed in Bangladesh puts a lot into perspective about "low, low prices" and the true costs that accompany them. When brands look to compete on price alone, the byproduct often results in a race to the bottom on work conditions and ethical standards. Establishing and enforcing safety initiatives in these regions is certainly a step in the right direction. I would only hope that catastrophes such as this will not be the only catalyst for regulatory transformation in the future.

How do you think fashion brands could best approach the problem?
By and large, I think that this is a global epidemic that calls upon everyone to the table to demand change. Not one brand, retailer, or end consumer is solely responsible for these conditions–but by the same token, every organization and individual consumer can do its part to make a difference. Governments can create more import regulations, brands can develop consumer awareness initiatives, and individuals can be more mindful of the origins of the products they purchase.

What's your end goal for Maker's Row?
The long term vision of Maker's Row is to make manufacturing in America accessible, efficient, and democratic. Maker's Row has the potential to influence change in the way we produce goods in the United States. When we utilize our local resources to their maximum capacity, everyone benefits. Jobs are created, innovation is accelerated, and communities prosper on every level from the individual family unit to the national economy.

What are some of the benefits of producing in America?
There are a great number of advantages to producing goods domestically for American businesses. Firstly there are the benefits in time-saving. Producing goods domestically can take 60% less time than production overseas when taking into account shipping and customs. Often times the language barriers in overseas production can also add weeks or months in the manufacturing process as well. Time zone differences between different regions can cause daily correspondence delays which also adds on time in production. Creating relationships with manufacturers is essential for any business and naturally, the closer you are geographically, the better your chances are to create these relationships.

What are some of the drawbacks?
A few of the drawbacks of domestic production is that it is more expensive, and it can be difficult to find the right manufacturer for your business. That's where we hope Maker's Row can help.

What should brands know about producing in America?
Factory owners say that the new clients value the faster turnaround time and quality control advantages of domestic manufacturing. These advantages to domestic manufacturing are compounded by the fact that the price of labor in China has been escalating dramatically within recent years. Many companies were born in the U.S., having never even considered domestic manufacturing because of the inherent advantages of low-cost foreign labor. We are now, as a global economy, seeing that these business practices are not sustainable methods of growth. Foreign labor prices alone have multiplied exponentially since the advent of outsourcing.

The 'Made in America' label has had its ups and downs. Consumers seem to be more interested in having goods produced in the U.S. Why do you think that is?
American consumers have become more aware of the origins of the goods they purchase in part because of the increased prominence of manufacturing as a topic of discussion in media, politics, and retail. A number of industry leaders are gradually bringing their manufacturing back to the United States and that is signaling a small businesses to take pause and think about what the best production solutions are today and what they will be in the near future.

I see that Maker's Row is launching a guidance section. What kind of guidance do you hope to give?
We are very much in the beta phase of development of this feature and will be able to better explain at a later date. We aim to help small businesses, students, and emerging designers build their business, so we have launched Maker's Row Pros. Maker's Row Pros offers personal guidance in manufacturing, marketing, PR, production, and more.

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