A Digital Revolution is hitting the manufacturing industry: Interview with Joseph Heller, CEO & Founder of The/Studio – USA

joseph hellerJoseph is an American entrepreneur with a background in technology start-ups and experience in supply chain and manufacturing in China.  He discovered that there was a huge demand from non-profits, entrepreneurs and brands for small-batch, quick turnaround time orders that could not be met using the inefficient traditional manufacturing model. The/Studio uses technology to simplify the manufacturing process so everyone can easily order from factories, regardless of the size of their brand. As part of Beeleev’s community, he accepted to answer our questions, sharing his story, insights, experiences and tips with  us. Have a good read 

Hello Joseph and thank you for taking the time to speak with us here at Beeleev. What is your background and what inspired you to create The/Studio?

Hi, I’m an American who spent around ten years working in China providing end-to-end support for brands manufacturing products there. What is crazy about the entire process, everything from finding a factory to helping with quality support, is that it’s done with basically no technology. Even the largest brands order and manage products through email, phone calls, and factory visits. On top of being very inefficient, manufacturing is also tough because it is almost impossible to work with factories unless you’re already an established brand. There are many entrepreneurs and musicians who want to build their own brands, but struggle because the manufacturing is so difficult. In addition there are even established brands that aren’t able to produce products in other verticals because they lack the in-house expertise. I came from a software background and did start-ups when I was in college, so I kept thinking there must be a better way to do this. The idea behind The/Studio is to democratize manufacturing and make it more accessible, so we created end-to-end software that allows people to easily order from factories. You can think of The/Studio as a marketplace and software platform that allows you to custom manufacture products and manage the entire process through software. We’re specifically focused on small-batch and quick turnaround time manufacturing, basically on-demand manufacturing.

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“You can think of The/Studio as a marketplace and software platform that allows you to order the product and manage the entire process through software.”

 

Do you target manufacturers in specific locations and are some areas more difficult to work with than others?

We are agnostic in terms of where the factory is located. Most of the factories we are working with right now are in China, we focus on fashion manufacturing and factories there are more sophisticated in this space in terms of price, turnaround time, and quality. The other important factor is the ability to do small-batch and quick turnaround time orders. Using those metrics China dominates, but we are working with a few factories in India and have tested some factories in the USA. The reality is working with factories everywhere is hard, even in the USA. Manufacturing demands a skill set that must be developed over many years and if you haven’t already worked in supply chain, how do you learn where to start and how to communicate with the factory? This is the problem we are trying to solve with our software. Eventually the goal is to have factories all over the world, but we’ve concentrated on China for now because I have a lot of experience there and because we’re focusing on fashion manufacturing. In the fashion space, China is the best place for what we are trying to accomplish.

 

What sets you apart from traditional manufacturing?

Software is a huge piece of it. We also curate our factories so that only specific factories make it on our platform. Our goal is to address how painful, if not impossible, it is to manufacture something if you’re not specifically set up to manufacture that product. For example, Celine Dion’s brand recently used our platform to order 5000 pieces of several keychain styles. How do you do this without The/Studio? It’s possible to go through middlemen, but this process is rough because different steps take too long and often they require massive quantities that create huge inventory risks for brands or entrepreneurs. We have simplified this process through our software, a curated network of factories, and by allowing customers to order in small batches.

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  “Entrepreneurs think they can go to Silicon Valley, make an investor fall in love with their idea, and get a check, but it doesn’t happen like that.”

 

You have recently secured several million dollars of investments for The/Studio, could you tell us about it? Where did the funds come from and how you’re planning to invest them?

Sure, it was a Silicon Valley investor and we are going to be investing in making our technology better.  Our Chief Product Officer has a very strong background in technology after working as a senior level engineer for Google and Ariba, we want to utilize that expertise to improve our technology. We will also invest more in sales and marketing.

Do you have advice for other beeleevers who are looking for investors in the United States?

It’s very difficulty and you need to be patient and persistent. You also need to properly target the type of investors you should be talking to. Generally, investors are theme-focused, so find the investors that invest in your space. Unless you have an amazing business, like Facebook, investors won’t invest in you if they don’t know who you are. Even in Facebook’s case, one of their initial advisor investors had connections. Entrepreneurs think they can go to Silicon Valley, make an investor fall in love with their idea, and get a check, but it doesn’t happen like that. It takes a long time, it’s hard, you have to meet a lot of people, network, and eventually you can get it done… and that’s if your business is good.

What do you think American investors are looking for in new entrepreneurs?

First, I think they want to know you. That was more important than I thought it was. Our investor was introduced through a friend of a friend that strongly vouched for us, without him it would not have happened. This surprised me because I thought that if you had a great idea and traction you could get an investor, but It’s not actually like that. American investors are looking for some type of signal, this could be people on your team or around you who are known to the investor, otherwise it’s close to impossible to get their attention. There are obvious things that can help you, investors want to see you have a big market, some traction, and the ability to build a good team. The people you have on your team is very important. Investors also want to see that you have expertise in your field so that when competitors come in you have the advantage.

 

What are common mistakes to avoid when trying to raise funds for your company?                                      

People think it’s going to take a short amount of time, that’s wrong, it takes a long time. I believe you should always be fundraising and putting yourself out there. There’s a perception that you should raise money when you need it, but the job of the CEO is to always be positioning the company to raise more money if you want to grow fast. A big mistake is starting to look for money when you need it, it’s probably too late or going to be too rushed. Also, investors invest based on themes. Look at investors track records and don’t waste time on ones who have never cut a check in your sector, on your size company, or in your region.

 

What are the biggest challenges you face when trying to grow your company and search for new factories?

That part is actually not too hard. Factories get where the world is moving and it’s moving toward nimble, on-demand, and quick turnaround time manufacturing.

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You have offices in Los Angelos, China, Romania, Philippine. Could you speak to some of the challenges you have managing and communicating between different offices around the world?

It’s a challenge because there is a loss of context from one place and part of the business to another. I take that for granted because I’ve seen every piece of the business and sometimes forget that people might base their perspective on the 25% they see. I try to bridge this gap by having managers travel to different offices around the world. For example, our chief product officer was just in the Philippines and now he’s in Romania. Getting the different teams to travel is important. I also personally spend lots of time with all the managers to make sure that I have found talented people who are committed to the idea and vision of The/Studio. That’s helpful in spreading my ideas.

 

Human to human contact and networking seem to play an important role in the development of your business, could you share how networking, meeting the right contacts, and getting your name out there has helped your business.

Actually, I want to do a better job at PR and getting the company known. One thing I always do is give people at least 15 minutes no matter who they are, you never know what you may learn. For example, I met a guy in Canada who introduced me to someone else, who introduced me to someone in LA. I didn’t have to take the meetings, but I did and it turns out that this little matrix of people has made it easy to get in touch with an athlete we’re trying to work with. It’s not always obvious how relevant it is to your business, but I think you need to try and help people out and be open to meeting different people. You can’t be so liberal with your time that all you are doing is taking calls, but as a CEO it’s your job to be helpful and meet with people. It gives you a broader perspective on the world.

“One thing I always do is give people at least 15 minutes no matter who they are, you never know what you may learn.”

Is there something you wish you had known before building your business that you know today?

Yes, a few things are:

  • Talk to investors early. I wish I had started talking to investors from day one. It’s a lot easier to ask for money once you’ve built a relationship and they’ve seen your company grow. Looking for investors once you need the money is much harder.
  • Spend time on networking. I’ve gotten good at it now, but I wish I had spent more time earlier. You shouldn’t spend all your time networking, but a lot of entrepreneurs are too heads down. Do some networking at the beginning, then spend more and more time on it as your business continues to grow.

 

 

Thank you for sharing your story and experience with Beeleev. Do you have any last advice for beeleevers trying to grow their companies in other countries?

One thing I’ve learned is that I feel very comfortable running businesses in different countries. I’m running offices in China, the Philippines, Romania, and the USA. Even though these are very different cultures, it has not been much of a challenge for me because I believe what’s most important is that you set a strong vision and conduct business fairly. Fair can be subjective, but I think there are some universal ideas around fairness related to transparency. Being transparent about expectations, what employees can expect from you and what you expect from them is very important. Running teams in different countries is really not that different, human beings everywhere like having a vision that is greater than themselves and want to be treated fairly.

Thank you very much for your time and valuable insight!

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“Running teams in different countries is really not that different, human beings everywhere like having a vision that is greater than themselves and want to be treated fairly.”

Interview by Kassandra McCleery for Beeleev

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