This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.
Editor: This True I.D. Story comes to us anonymously, from an up-and-coming designer ready to hit the trade shows. All he needed was a little manufacturing help...
I'd been working on this one [tabletop item] design for a while, I think Core77 even covered it. After a long development time, I finally got it to a point where it was time to industrialize it, get somebody else making it. Before that point I'd just been cranking out prototypes myself, with my little shitty little Craftsman router table—in other words, I was not set up to do any kind of real production.
So I'm looking around for someone who can get the job done and I hear about this one older dude, I'll call him OPG for Old Production Guy. He's a friend of a friend of a friend, within an hour's drive of my shop, and is by reputation a fantastic woodworker. He came highly recommended with years of experience in the furniture industry. The word was that he'd eventually moved on into a tangential field related to woodworking machines, but was now reportedly itching to make stuff again. With all of his experience, he sounded like a good fit, and having worked in the industry, he presumably knew all about the importance of deadlines.
So I pay him a visit, and this dude has a gigantic warehouse with access to like every woodworking machine under the sun. Table saws, bandsaws, router tables, shapers, planers, joiners, and all of these crazy contraptions for performing multiple operations at once. He grabbed some scrap wood and demonstrated the tolerances of some of the machines for me and they were pretty impressive. You could tell by the way he handled the wood and the machines that he'd been doing this his entire life.
I figured with a warehouse full of equipment like that I might be too small-potatoes for him—I just needed a small run of these [objects] that I could bring to a trade show—but after I pulled out my drawings to show him, he seemed excited by my design and eager to make it, and my low numbers didn't faze him. I got the vibe that he just wanted to make sawdust again.
So he asked me to bring out two prototypes, as I had designed both a smaller and larger version and he wanted to see them both. I brought them out there and we had lunch and talked about it while he looked the prototypes over. At the end of the meeting he goes "Okay, why don't I try to make a couple of these and we'll see how it goes? And then we'll go from there."
I was like "Wait, don't you need like a deposit? Or to like, give me a quote?"
"Nah, don't worry about it, we'll just test it out," he says. And I'm like "Oh, sweet!"
So this was my first misstep.Well, OPG holds onto the pieces for two weeks... then a month... then two. I check in with him every now and again, but I'm trying not to rush him, because I'm not paying him anything yet. I figured, "This guy knows what he's doing, I'll just kind of let him mull it over and work out the kinks," et cetera.
Now the tradeshow is coming up in a month. I've got a couple of extra prototypes I can bring to display, but as a designer you've of course got to be ready to follow up on any potential sales. So I call OPG and ask him "Hey, so I'm taking the two prototypes I've got left to a trade show, next month, do you think you'll have something ready by then?"
"What're we talking?" he says.
"Do you think you'll be able to do an order of like 25, or maybe 50 units, in case I make that many sales during the show?"
"Oh yeah, totally, definitely!"
I'm psyched, so I take my two pieces to the show—and they're a hit. People are digging them. I didn't take a ton of orders, but I got firm orders for fifteen, and a bunch of business cards where I could potentially chase down more sales from folks who were on the fence.
I got back and contacted OPG. "Well, here's the thing," he says, "I don't really want to do anything under 25 because it's just way easier to make a bunch of 'em at the same time, for production reasons."
So I'm like "Okay, that's fine—I'll bump the order up to 25 and I'll just have some inventory." I was confident I could move an extra ten units no problem. "So can you give me a quote? I can put the deposit down anytime."
"Nah, you can just pay me when I deliver," he says. And I'm thinking Awesome!
Jeez—as I'm telling you this story out loud and hearing myself saying this, I'm thinking God, you fucking idiot. What was I thinking?
I guess I've got no excuse. OPG was a super nice guy, really smart, big talker, talked about all of the big things we were going to do, and I fell for it.
So my lead time for these pieces was 4 to 6 weeks. And Production Guy says it's totally doable, I think the exact word he used when I asked if he could have these ready for delivery was "Absolutely."
Over the next few weeks I check in a couple times, and each time I get answers like
- "It's going good."
- "Yep, workin' on it."
- "Running smoothly."
In other words, always vague answers. It was never like "Your [objects] are halfway done," it was always like "Well, I got this piece of the machine on order and when I receive it it's going to make operation X that much easier," or "When I get this jig set up right, we'll fly right through these things" but there were never any specifics in terms of how far along the production actually was.
So I was starting to get worried. At one point, about three weeks into the drop-dead six-week deadline, I said to him "Look, if these are not going to be done, if you're going to have trouble getting these completed in the next three weeks, then you just need to tell me. Because if for any reason it's not going to happen, I need to get on it right now in order to make the 15 pieces myself to meet the order."
"Nah, don't worry about it, things are underway," he said, all confidence.
So that was three weeks out. So I check in with him the next week, and it was the same exact talk, as it was the week after that, and then finally it got to the week that he was supposed to deliver. He doesn't call. I call him. Again and again and again, but he won't pick up the phone.
Finally I get a text message from him:
Great. I try calling him again but he still won't pick up, so I text him back.
He texts back.
Nothing. He didn't have anything. Three weeks earlier I'd even given him an out, and he didn't tell me, and he just left me hanging. The sick thing was obviously horseshit.
So I had to email the retailers that had placed orders and say "Hey, it's going to take me a week or two longer to fill your order, there's been a manufacturing hiccup," yada yada. And then I got to work with my shitty Craftsman.
It took me three weeks of constant labor to produce these [objects]. I ended up getting them all out, but not without fielding a lot of frustrated emails from new clients—not a great way to start off new business relationships.
So the big lesson is, always have an agreement on paper, and always put money down.
Here's the worst part: I never got those prototypes back from him. I called, I texted, I e-mailed. No response.
So that's that, and now I'm shopping around for new manufacturers. I had to make an additional four prototypes that I can send around to the shops, because with this particular design, drawings aren't really good enough to demonstrate how some of the pieces go together. It would have been a little easier if I could've gotten my prototypes back, but the guy's not returning any of my messages. So it's like he's still wasting my time.