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Jul20

When being "hands on" pays off

DiFerdinando with Oprah Winfrey

If your product is featured by Oprah Winfrey, you can pretty much say you’ve made it.

But as most entrepreneurs know, the road to success is often a winding one. 

In the case of handbag designer Danielle Nicole DiFerdinando, the road frequently takes her to Hong Kong, Paris and all over the world. The extensive travel is part of her hands-on approach throughout the manufacturing process – something she’s found to be critical to her growing success.

Being involved in every key stage of production can mean 16 hour days are the norm, but DiFerdinando believes that the effort sets her products apart.

 “Every little detail matters in this industry,” says DiFerdinando, who beat out hundreds of designers in October to supply 5,500 totes to an Oprah conference in Atlanta. Her Danielle Nicole handbags are currently sold by Dillard’s, Nordstrom and Piperlime.com and sell for between $48 and about $150. 

The 25-year-old DiFerdinando says she has learned in her seven years of business that hands-on involvement pays off. She recalls spending hours putting price tags on a big shipment of handbags after the factory didn’t and an employee had signed off on the shipment.

“Production is the main bulk of your business,” she says. “You can make a beautiful sample, but once a customer places an order and you’re shipping 10,000 pieces, those 10,000 pieces are what I care most about – that the quality, workmanship and functionality are 100 percent perfect.”

Here are four key stages of production where manufacturers can benefit from hands-on involvement, and how DiFerdinando handles each stage:

1. Sourcing. Materials play a big factor in how products are made, so getting that part right is the first step to a good product. DiFerdinando wants to ensure her products start with the luxury look and feel associated with her brand, so she scouts and identifies all materials used for her handbags. 

2. Creating prototypes. With a sketch of the handbag design in mind, DiFerdinando creates the specifications packet for factories and adjusts the pre-production prototype. Getting the prototype right is important not only to make manufacturing go more smoothly, but also to gauge customer interest and marketability.

3. Check with customers and adjust. DiFerdinando consults her largest buyers before production, often incorporating their suggestions for the final market sample. And she must give final approval before production begins to make sure the product is made to her specifications.

4. Production. Inspecting factories as they make the product and checking product quality is a big part of manufacturing. A quality control manager visits factories to make sure production meets Danielle Nicole’s standards, but DiFerdinando also often travels to visit the factory once production is about three-quarters complete. 

Sageworks Director of Consulting Services Nathan Myers says DiFerdinando’s approach shows some of the benefits and challenges for smaller business owners. 

One person giving final approval in many stages of production may result in a product for which customers are willing to pay more. But owners have to balance that with both the associated costs and the need to avoid bottlenecks in the production process. You don’t want so much involvement that production is capped or that profit margins are unduly pressured, he said.

Making hands-on involvement scalable is the trick, he said.  That’s tough, but it can be done.

“Although I’m no expert, I recall one notable figure with a similar ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ product strategy: Steve Jobs,” Myers said, referring to the late founder and CEO of Apple Inc. “He had his hand in most everything Apple did, and they are quite successful.”

This article was first published by The Washington Post.