How to find the right supply chain partners: RFQs, audits, and quality control

Manufacturing Partners

Picking the best manufacturing partner for your brand is sticky business.

There are countless factories and zero centralized resources for founders to vet options. 

That’s why we sat down with Puja Bhatt, a seasoned supply chain & operations consultant and the founder of Hello Operator, a platform connecting experienced operators with brands in need of support across all functional areas of operations. 

In Part 1 of our three-part series, we dive deep with Puja into how to vet and select manufacturing partners for your early-stage business. Below, we unpack topics like: 

  1. How to source the right suppliers from Day 1
  2. Managing the supplier selection process 
  3. The outsized value of factory audits
“There are a lot of qualitative factors that you need to keep in mind and suss out during your initial conversations with suppliers to get a sense of whether they’re going to be trustworthy and reliable partners to you.” 

How to source the right manufacturers from day one

Ultimately, it is integral to the success of your business that your manufacturing partners and suppliers are aligned with your brand. Your product is unique, so most importantly, they should be able to produce to your specifications within your budget.

Puja lists five traits you should filter for in your initial search: 

  1. They maintain best practices — Safety and working conditions are crucial.
  2. They align with your sustainability goals — They should reflect your company values. 
  3. They can scale with your brand — Their capacity shouldn’t be limited to producing what you need today. They should be ready for volumes to increase — in some cases exponentially. 
  4. They have robust QC systems in place — Quality issues can be extremely costly to your company on a variety of levels. Your supplier should be set up to mitigate and solve quality issues should they arise. 
  5. You align with their management & account support teams — You need trustworthy, reliable partners whom you actually get along with. You’ll be working with these individuals day in and day out.

Tips for tracking down the best manufacturers

Unfortunately there is no one resource that allows founders to see every single supplier out there based on capability, location, etc. So, you have to use a combination of resources to get the full picture of supplier partners. 

Your most reliable options include: 

  • Google — Search “suppliers who produce XYZ”. 
  • Alibaba — This is a great resource for manufacturers in China. 
  • Online directories — Some of these can be quite comprehensive. 
  • Referrals — Don’t be afraid to tap into your personal and professional networks. 
  • Trade shows — This is a great way to meet the suppliers you find online and gauge their product quality IRL. 

Using these resources, you can create a list of suppliers to RFQ based on capabilities, location, estimated pricing, and terms. Puja recommends that when you meet with suppliers you should read between the lines to get a sense of the supplier’s communication style and responsiveness. Do they seem actively engaged in your brand? Or are they harder to get a hold of as time passes? 

Those cues will guide you in the right direction when selecting the right supplier.

“Assess the manufacturer. Does it seem like they're interested in your product and your brand? Do they seem like they're looking for a long-term customer as much as you're looking for a long-term supplier?” 

Managing the manufacturing partner selection process 

Below, Puja outlines the steps for selecting the best manufacturing partner for your brand. 

  1. Send out RFQs (“Request for Quotation”) — This can go out to all suppliers who have the capability to produce your product. An RFQ will get you critical information about product cost, payment terms, lead times, etc.
  2. Create a supplier shortlist based on RFQ responses — Give suppliers 3-4 weeks to submit their RFQs. After reviewing their responses, create a shortlist that includes only suppliers who can hit your target costs and terms. 
  3. Evaluate the supplier shortlist — Consider the account support they’ll provide; their willingness to negotiate on price, terms, and lead times; their IT capabilities; their compliance, location, and prior experience; and factory audits. 

The two critical reasons to prioritize factory audits

Factory audits should be a high priority for your team — for two major reasons: 

  1. They allow you to confirm that your supplier can, in fact, produce to your specifications. 
  2. Once a third party visits the factory, you’ll have a proper feel for their equipment and capacity. Then, you can decide whether they can grow with your brand and represent your brand ethos. 

Overall, you want a factory that maintains best practices when it comes to safety, working conditions, and ethics. Whatever they do reflects on you and your product. 

In addition, ensure they have robust QC systems in place. That’s the other variable that will significantly harm your products and brand if it’s found lacking. 

“You want to really, really dig deep into each of your shortlisted suppliers in order to find the exact right partner for you.” 

Read on to Part 2 to learn to start manufacturing once you’ve selected your partner!

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