Growing up in Detroit, Matthew Burnett knew two things. One, he wanted to be a designer. And two, he wanted to design cars. Years later, graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a BFA in industrial design, he knew he was hooked on consumer design, but interested in things smaller than cars -- he'd fallen in love with watches. Says Matt: "My grandfather inspired my interest in small shop manufacturing as he was a watchmaker by trade. He built a miniature workshop desk so my brothers and I could play with craft tools beside him."
He had ideas in his head, but didn't have the resources to manage both the design and production process - instead, he began his career designing watches for Marc Jacobs, DKNY and Diesel, at Fossil.
"When I was working for Fossil, and we were designing goods, first of all there was a whole hierarchy. I was at the bottom of the totem pole, but I was designing for a number of their license brands. They had factory reps flying from overseas to their corporate offices and showing them their goods." Matt learned one thing fast, big brands and big buyers got high quality service from offshore manufacturers.
But Matt wanted to do his own designs, and so he took his vision for watches and launched Steel Cake, his very own watch brand. Soon he was a small designer shipping his designs overseas to get them produced. It wasn't fun.
"People just thought you manufacture your stuff overseas because it's cheaper. But it's not that easy. I ran into a lot of problems. It took about two months to get the first samples of watches, and when I got the first set of samples it was the best feeling ever. I looked at these watches. They were perfect, and so I sent out for the mass shipment. Now, that took about three months to receive. It got stuck in customs in Alaska.
I had to wait for it for weeks, and when I finally got it I went through the orders. I was pretty happy with almost all of the watches that I got, but then one particular design that I had, that I never released, there was a manufacturing error in the case. And I saw it as soon as I opened the box, I got a ton of manufacturing errors in watches, and I was sitting on top of thousands of dollars of just trash as far as I was concerned. I was not willing to sell those to my customers."
So Matt was where many designers end up. He had a vision, and a product, but getting it to market was turning out to be very hard for the entrepreneurial startup studio.
Then something funny happened. Nordstrom's called. Matt's brand and the quality of his design began to take off. He knew he needed to do something to take charge of this trend, or he'd have a runaway train with costs and no control of overseas manufacturing. It was then he met Tanya Menendez -- and together they launched the Brooklyn Bakery, a small batch, high quality designer focused creator of high quality goods. Menenez had a background in economics, had worked at Google and Goldman Sachs, but her real passion was in automation and efficiency in processes. The first thing they did was decide to bring manufacturing home to the U.S. Very quickly they learned that local manufacturing had distinct advantages. With local craftsman and factories, they could literally be watching as prototypes and then finished goods came off the assembly line. And surprisingly, US manufacturing was actually cost effective. Given high quality, small batch work the ability to be turned from design to product quickly, with high quality, and competitive pricing. This isn't because workers are underpaid, it's because Chinese workers are slowing increasing their costs, and the complexity of off-shore manufacturing makes it impossible for smaller designers to get quality competitive work. U.S. manufacturing is actually a better deal.
Once Matt and Tanya figured this out, they decided to build a entire business around sharing what they learned.
Today they are less than a year into the fast growing web project called Makers Row. With MakersRow.com designers can use a six-step process to find local manufacturing partners, prototype, and produce finished goods all in their own back yards.
Matt explains "In the six-step process we start from the very beginnings of an idea where someone might have a sketch of exactly what they want to do, or maybe a couple of sketches in there taking these first seeds of an idea to a manufacturer that is willing to take time with this customer and show them exactly: "Okay. This design works, this design wouldn't work, and these are the types of material that you might want to explore to see what works well with your design aesthetic."
The "Maker" revolution is here. From Etsy to Kickstarter, you can can see the growth of high quality, small batch creation of beautiful design-centric goods. And these things are better produced in your back yard. "Today we're seeing a new day on the horizon where domestic manufacturing is very much comparable to offshore" explains Matt. "Manufacturing prices oversees are going up now. The factory that I used to work with when I was doing watches at Fossil is now three times the price that it was in 2007."
Using his experience as a designer who needed a way to source local factories and manufacturers, Matt says "Makers Row is the perfect opportunity for right now for small and medium-sized businesses because they're looking for these resources."
It turns out that manufacturing is the real pain point for everyone from the beginners to even small/medium-sized businesses.
"So we're trying to provide domestic manufacturing domestic opportunities for everyone from small/medium-sized businesses down to the very beginners, the people who just always wanted to produce something but have no idea how it's produced or who to contact in order to get things manufactured" says Matt.
Now, to be fair, the Made In America movement has gotten a lot of play in the media, as a key way to restart the economy. So, it's fair to wonder if Maker's Row is a real long term business or just a politically trendy idea. "It's not just a political thing because most businesses wouldn't do it out of the kindness of their hearts" says Matt.
Why manufacture locally? There are some key benefits to keeping production local.
Liability. Small businesses have very little legal power. Overseas designers have a hard time holding anyone accountable if the work is defective.
Language barriers. It's hard to communicate issues or problems across transations and miss understandings.
Time Differences. Waking up in the middle of the night to take a phone call, or waiting for emails from factories telling you about shipment is stressful and counter productive.
It is becoming clear, small batch quality is best produced where creators can touch their designs and the come off the assembly line.
Makers Row launched in October of 2012, and already has 1,400 manufacturers on the platform. They're part of what they see as a US based Makers revolution. "It's really all part of the ecosystem, Etsy, kickstarter, all of the other crowdfunding platforms that exist, it's all part of the ecosystem, and I think maker's row is solving a different void than they are" says Tanya.
And New York City is at the core of the phoenix-like rise in U.S. manufacturing. Says Matt: "Brooklyn is a really exciting place to be with maker's row because the maker's community is huge here. Manufacturing scene doesn't get as much appreciation as it should in the new york area, but it's a huge opportunity for us to be stationed here."
"The accessibility for everyone to manufacturing is going to make the world just a better place. The accessibility to local manufacturers is going to make the manufacturing process much more efficient. And really the innovation that will come out of designers being able to produce their ideas is going to be mind blowing."