By age 25, Taylor Llewellyn had wanted to start a company for years. So when the light bulb went on with an apparel-sales idea, he quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to China. Within a month, he'd met with dozens of manufacturers and factories. He estimates that making the trip – largely without guidance or planning – saved him at least four months in finding a factory and getting production underway.
Today, his needlepoint belt and accessories line, Tucker Blair, is being sold through online retailer Bonobos.com and in Sperry Top-Sider stores. Llewellyn told his story to Inc.com's Christine Lagorio. What follows is an edited transcript.
I was living in Washington, D.C., and working for a San Francisco-based private-equity buy-out company that was buying up individual party-equipment rental companies and consolidating them. It was a great thing for me to be working for this start-up company, but I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and knew I really wanted to do my own thing.
When thinking about what kind of company to start, I kept coming back a unique piece of clothing I already owned. I had a good friend whose mom made me a needlepoint belt when I was young, and I've always liked it, and thought it was such a cool product. It's preppy, and bright, and fun. In the past, a girlfriend or a mom had to make you one, and it would take like 40 hours to stitch. There was so much labor that would go into it. And, if you do happen to find a finished one on the market, it is so expensive. That was the genesis of the idea. I realized that for other accessories, for neckties or even for polo shirts, there's so much competition. But here, I felt like I had a fondness for the product, and could enter the market really competitively.
At 25, I knew how much I didn't know. I needed a company that would be small, niche and simple, so I could really control and understand everything from the start.
I looked at the U.S. for production, but then really kept getting turned back to China, both for the advantage in cost, and the quality was high.
I essentially just talked to my boss one day and said: "I'm quitting, and I'm going to take a one-way flight to China and find people to make this product." Just cashing in some retirement money and hopping on a flight to China, I mean, it worked for me, but I had no idea how naïve that was.
So I set off to head to some factories and trade shows in China. I started off in Beijing, which is kind of northeast China, and worked my way down Guangzhao, where I was primarily. That was a huge manufacturing town. I also spent time in Szenzhen, which is also not far from Hong Kong. The crazy thing is these are cities I had never heard of, and each of them has like 8 million people. There are literally a million factories in that region, the Guangdong province, and the enormity of that is crazy. One day I was at Guangzhao, just walking around and eating a dumpling at a street food stand, and feeling pretty comfortable. Then I thought, "This is crazy, what am I doing?"
I was there in that first trip for a total of three-and-a-half weeks. I had the belt with me that was made for me when I was younger. I was at a trade show, with hundreds of vendors and manufacturers. Some of the factories were like, "We need to keep the belt." I didn't want to leave it, though. But with more and more possible manufacturers requesting a sample, I ended up cutting the belt into about 20 pieces and doling them out. Only about six followed through and came back to me with samples.
There was one company I found that had the most experience working with U.S. brands, and the quality was very good. A mentor of mine put me in touch with them, and I signed on for their factory in Guangzhao. I was going with my gut a lot. It's definitely a perk that it has offices in Hong Kong. The stitching portion of our product is done in the northern part of China, and Dongguan is where the leather factory is where the product is assembled.
I certainly made a lot of mistakes on my initial approach, but you don't know what you don't know. And it worked out for me. The only way you're going to make it work is to go full bore.
A lot of people try to work with China without actually going there. But just going there for me cut at least four months of e-mail delays and communications lags and time difference out of my manufacturing. It got the ball rolling a lot faster.
At the beginning, it was expensive, but really simple, to ship things back and forth. You just get a FedEx account and two days later you have samples in your hands. Now that we're up to shipping a larger bulk, we're working with a third-party freight forwarding company, which is trickier, but less expensive.
I try to get back to Hong Kong frequently. One of the most interesting experiences I had, I was sitting in Hong Kong at an American expat bar called the Chinnery, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, eating a cheeseburger or something. This American came and sat down next to me. His company was making little caps for improving the efficiency of beer taps at stadiums. He was coming over to source a product, too, only one more mechanical and technical than mine. It just showed the possibilities of working in China, where two Americans who don't speak the language, dealing in two products that couldn't be any more different, there's just this sense that you can get anything done there.