Collaboration makes us better at what we do. It can open doors to new audiences, inspired ideas and extra income, all while stretching your limits and helping you learn at a much faster rate than working alone. But all that limit stretching can be hard, too. There’s not a lot of information out there to help makers and small businesses navigate brand collaborations, and there’s always the potential for miscommunications and mismatches.
To bring transparency to the process, we talked to two experts. Alyson Fox has been collaborating with west elm for many years. As a designer, she’s developed prints and patterns for west elm textile collections. As a maker, she’s sold her artwork directly through our store and site. Mo Mullen, Director of Local Business Development, helps makers navigate the wholesale marketplace, stocks their stuff in west elm stores and advises small businesses on sustainable growth. Here, Mo and Alyson openly share their take on what it’s like to work together from the perspective of both a brand and a designer/maker.
1. What do you need to know about a business before you begin working with them?
Alyson: The story they tell. It’s important to know their customer and get a feel for what you can offer that’s aligned with their brand. Know all of their products. You may be a furniture maker, but you should be thoughtful about their other goods as well. At the end of the day, it’s everything collectively that makes a brand.
Mo: I completely agree. Ask yourself a few key questions to gauge if your product would be a good fit for a particular brand. Who’s their customer? What’s the store like where your product would be sold? How does your collection sit within their larger product assortment? Also make sure to familiarize yourself with the price range for other products in the same categories as yours.
2. What do small businesses need to know about pricing, costing and production with a brand?
Mo: If you’re selling wholesale to a brand, make sure your pricing structure covers your cost of goods—for the long run! Ask yourself: does your pricing work for larger orders? Is it sustainable? Are you taking transportation costs into account? Have you thought through packaging? Testing? Are there any additional overhead costs you should be loading in?
Alyson: As a designer, working with a bigger brand opens the door up to different production. For my own line, I’m used to making small editions of pieces that sell for a little bit higher. When I’m collaborating on the design of a collection with a brand, finding a middle ground between the two of us is important. I always ask the brand about their production capabilities, and I try to be thoughtful about what makes sense for me that allows me to keep the product interesting but within reach of a target price.
3. What makes a brand attractive to a small business? What makes a brand want to work with a particular maker?
Alyson: For me, it’s all about the combined voice and getting to work on something that you may not be able to do by yourself. I learn so much from collaborating with another brand about myself, and my design aesthetic. I’m attracted to brands that are fun and respectful about their production and storytelling.
Mo: For me, being organized makes a wholesaler really stand out. This may seem like a no brainer, but once the wheels are in motion, effectively keeping up with emails, invoicing, and orders can easily get out of hand. Having a clear plan and understanding how you’ll handle paperwork and bookkeeping will keep things smooth come crunch time, and will help navigate working with larger retailers. You’ll need to have a good sense of your cash flow. Being organized means that you’re invoicing on time so that you get paid. If you get a big order, you need to have working capital on hand to fund it.
4. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to makers and small businesses to make brand collaborations easier?
Alyson: It’s going to be a shared collaboration. If you’re not okay changing a color, or coming down on price or adding something to your piece, then maybe collaboration is not for you.
Mo: I’d also add: know your limits. It’s OK to say no. Be sure you know your production capabilities and lead times, and communicate them clearly to make sure you don’t over-promise. This will help larger retailers better understand your maximum production abilities, and have a clear idea as to what types of orders you can fulfill. Make promises you can keep, then over-deliver.
5. How do you recommend researching and meeting brands or makers you might want to work with?
Mo: Stay connected. Stay active on your social channels, and interact with makers and retailers who share a similar vision. Having a great Instagram feed and website is an effective way for retailers to find you. It can have a huge impact on their decision to stock your product.
Alyson: When you come across products you like, keep a list of stores and brands you’d like to connect with. Don’t be afraid to send an introductory e-mail. As a designer, it’s very important to have a clear website with nice pictures. I do think social media is important, but it’s still something I struggle with.
6. What’s one thing makers and small businesses can do to improve their chances of partnering with the brand they want?
Mo: Invest in good digital assets. Having good professional photography of your products, head shots, and workspace is important not only to add to your own social channels, but also for a larger retailer’s PR and Marketing departments to be able to share and distribute to the media. A beautiful product shot goes a long way in determining if it should be showcased or not.
Alyson: I totally agree, and I’d only add: don’t be afraid to take the first step and reach out to the brand you want to work with. What have you got to lose?
7. How can makers and small businesses best protect their interests when working with a brand?
Mo: Make sure you understand the expectations and deliverables of the partnership. What are your liabilities? Have a contract or written agreement. Have a lawyer who can advise you and who understands your small business and/or industry.
Alyson: Have a business plan with short-tem and long-term goals. Have a community you can approach with questions about things like royalties versus designer’s fees. And, like Mo said, it helps to know a lawyer to deal with contracts.
8. What’s one thing you’ve learned from working together?
Mo: Pick up the phone. Email isn’t the only or even the best way to communicate. The maker community is an amazing resource for sharing new products and ideas. People are generous. Ask questions and find out why. Be proactive with issues…the more advance notice the better. The biggest takeaway from the maker side I see is that the ones who are really making something unique are the ones who see the most success.
Alyson: I’ve also learned a lot from what I like and don’t like about a product we’ve made together. It’s great to love the product, but it’s also very healthy to say, Oh maybe this would have been better if we did [this]. All of that is what takes you to the next product or project.
Illustration by Kristen Soleckiwest-elm
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