#IMakeaLiving is a series of free, traveling events powered byFreshBooks that focuses on bringing together an eclectic group of small business owners for a lively, candid, and often hilarious, conversation. In light of the series’ second year, we’re interviewing business-owning designers on how they brought their companies to the next level.
While studying photography in college, 27-year-old designer Dori Pankowska decided to start her own blog, Dori the Giant, where she would feature the many small side project she worked on outside of class. Her professors as well as creative directors that discovered her blog took note of her uniquely creative mind and advised her to consider advertising as an alternative to the specialized field of photography. Pankowska eventually took their advice and has now been in advertising for two years in addition to continuing her own small creative projects on the side.
Pankowska’s side projects always have multiple meanings, and they are always standalone works. Instead of focusing on building a specific aesthetic for herself, Pankowska puts more effort into developing individual ideas. But manufacturing small product runs of one-off designs comes with its challenges. After a few years of experience dealing with overseas manufacturers to have everything from micro-erasers to hand-shaped binder clips put into production, Pankowska reflects on the trial and errors, mishaps and miscommunications that have lead her to become the confident designer she is today:
C77: Can you tell me a little about your design background?
DP: I kind of consider myself a creative mutt. I went to college for photography because I’d always liked creative things, but I had never really pursued them myself. I wasn’t informed about all the different career options out there, so photography was my main creative choice at the time.
During photo school, I would always experiment with different concepts and ideas anytime we were given an assignment. I kept getting feedback for these little ideas I didn’t think anyone really cared about, and that’s when I began to understand the power of creative ideas. Photography school was where I learned that ideas do matter, and that people really are attracted to and appreciate creativity. That’s when I decided to fully embrace my creative side and make that my thing.
My professors kept telling me that I should get into advertising because I was so creative. I was always making projects on the side—photography projects, craft projects, writing projects, anything. I also started my blog, Dori the Giant, which is where I started putting everything I worked on.
Over time, some creative directors found me online and told me that I should get into advertising, which seemed to be a recurring theme in my life. They mentored me for a while, and then I had a graphic design job and then an overall creative job at another agency. But in the end, I still ended up in advertising. I’m actually working in advertising now, and I have been for about two and a half years.
“Even though I don’t have a business background, I’m always thinking about how I can hack the world with creativity and still have profitable results in the end.”
That’s my full-time thing to pay the bills, but it’s also fulfilling because I get to be creative and see my ideas come to life, which is my main passion. Each of my side projects are totally different from one another because I put a lot of value on concepts and ideas rather than keeping with an aesthetic. I do like aesthetic types of art, but I’m just a lot more excited about an actual idea.
I’m trying to push towards bigger projects now. When I first started my blog and experimenting with things, a lot of my projects were really small—some would even take me just a half an hour. Over the years, I’ve been trying to take on bigger things to challenge myself more and to see where they’ll take me.
My latest side hustle, Wask Studio, is where I’m going to be putting product ideas that I design and create in the coming years. I just launched it in December, and so far I have about three and a half items. I’m starting small, but basically I come up with an idea and do everything I can to make it happen. I’m a one-man team, so it’s just me using my own skills, using the Internet as my main tool and networking if I have to.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a business person when it comes to trying to make profits. For me a lot of it is about creative fulfillment. Even though I don’t have a business background, I’m always thinking about how I can hack the world with creativity and still have profitable results in the end.
All of your projects are different materials, and they’re all very different concepts from one another. What has the materials/manufacturing sourcing process been like?
It’s definitely been a learning experience. The first time I ever challenged myself to actually manufacture and sell one of my designs, I jumped right into the deep end.
It was this product called Something, and it’s this plastic block that’s pretty bulky, and it has the word “something” engraved on it. It comes in a nice box with a nice sticker and presentation. I tried to go all out because I wanted to learn about all the little parts of the process. Many things went wrong, which was a big learning experience. There were quality issues, timing issues, budget issues—everything kept coming back with more and more problems.
How do you usually go about finding your manufacturers? Do you have any advice for people looking to manufacture their first product?
For the most part, a lot of the little items I’ve made so far required a specific manufacturer. Usually I can find someone on alibaba.com, which is one of the biggest websites that connects you with manufacturers in China. You can find manufacturers all over the world, and they all specialize in different things.
The biggest challenge when it comes to connecting with manufacturers in China is communicating exactly you need, whether it’s design specs, sizing or materials. I’ve experienced a lot of miscommunication where I thought everyone was on the same page regarding some sort of element of the project, but what I ended up getting was not exactly what I wanted. This happens a lot I find, so when dealing with manufacturers in China it’s best to take things slow and only ask one question at a time. That way you know they’re not missing certain questions and that they’re not responding to you thinking they’ve answered all of your questions when maybe they’ve only answered one.
After I learned how difficult that process can be, I scaled it down and made a couple smaller items. Small items like lapel pins are a lot easier to make, and the molds are cheaper. Making lapel pins isn’t crazy hard, but the new items I’ve been trying to make, like the binder clip, the paper clip and the little erasers, were a challenge.
A paper clip isn’t as huge of a challenge as the other ones because it’s hard to go wrong with a paper clip. Its only job is to be able to clip paper, so you can really make it whatever shape you want. Binder clips are trickier because they use a thicker piece of wire, so making the curves and the bends was difficult. My original hand design ended up being impossible to make, so they don’t look as realistic as I wanted.
“I don’t know all the cheats or hacks or all the ins and outs of these industries. With everything I do, I just have to figure it out and learn little things as I go.”
The tiny erasers were the most difficult because I probably reached out to at least 20 manufacturers who specialize in erasers, and most of them came back to me saying that they couldn’t make erasers that size. A lot of manufacturers had minimum eraser sizes, and I also had manufacturers come back to me saying they could only do it if I ordered five million pieces. I’m not exaggerating—a lot of these numbers are ridiculously high.
Sometimes you just have to communicate to a lot of manufacturers at once because you never know when you’ll get lucky. I was super determined to make those erasers happen, so I just kept messaging and messaging and messaging people, and eventually I found a manufacturer who was able to do exactly what I wanted. I was really lucky at that point because I was so close to giving up on that concept.
The whole process is definitely challenging, especially for someone like me who doesn’t come from a product design background. I’m a jack of all trades, so I’m good at a lot of different things, but that also means I don’t specialize in any one thing. I don’t know all the cheats or hacks or all the ins and outs of these industries. With everything I do, I just have to figure it out and learn little things as I go.
What’s the process of negotiating costs like?
Getting proper quotes is complicated because sometimes you’ll be quoted for a project, but it turns out there’s extra costs in the end with some sort of shipping or further packaging. Sometimes they’ll tell you they can do your design, but it turns out they can’t and you’ve already paid them 30% up front. There are a lot of little hidden surprises that always pop up.
How long does it usually take for your manufacturers to get back to an email?
It really depends. Some of them are pretty fast and will take about a day or two, but a lot of them are hit or miss. Usually when I’m looking to get a project made, I’ll reach out to a bunch of manufacturers. It really depends on what the project is, but sometimes I’ll aim for at least 10 and I keep track of every single one that I’ve reached out to.
Within the next three days, I usually get a bunch of replies. There’s always going to be a few manufacturers that don’t reply because maybe the project specs I already gave them are not what they’re looking for or maybe they already have enough business for the month. I don’t know all the reasons, but there’s always going to be manufacturers that won’t reply to you, so you always have to count on that and make sure that you reach out to a lot of different people if you want to find the best quote for your project.
Do you have any manufacturing horror stories? Has anything happened that’s just absolutely ridiculous?
The very first time I did this was kind of a horror story for me. I actually ended up writing an entire blog entry about it (Editor’s Note: Read the full story here, it’s packed with good insights). When I made that item named Something, the product I ended up getting was so much shittier than the sample product I got, so I ended up hand-finishing all of them. The price ended up being so high because I ended up using a CNC. I was avoiding using injection molding because the price was so much higher, but in the end I realized that if I had done the injection mold, it probably would’ve been the same amount of money considering how much I had to end up spending anyway.
It was my first time ever working with overseas manufacturers, and it was just hilarious. But I don’t regret any of it because I just jumped right into it and even learned a tiny bit of 3D modeling just to get it done. Other than that, I always have small problems here and there, but that one was probably the worst because I had to spend so much money on something that was so disappointing.
At this point, have you gotten pretty good at figuring out if someone can really produce your product, or is it still up in the air most of the time?
I feel like I’ve learned from so many mistakes already, but there’s always something that will catch me by surprise where I’ll think, “Oh, gosh, why didn’t I think of that?”, “Why didn’t I clarify that?” or “Why did I assume this?” If you’re always creating lapel pins and you’re just changing the design each time, maybe you can really get to know that system and perfect every aspect of it, but because I’m always doing random things, there’s always going to be that learning curve.
I’m definitely more confident when it comes to asking more questions or asking things that I was too shy to ask before. If there’s a minimum order quantity, I used to just accept it. But now I push back and will ask for a lower minimum quantity. If the design is a little wrong and I really want to fix it, I’ll try to push for it a little bit more even if there’s some sort of implication involved.
But there’s still a lot of room for improvement on my end. There’s so much I want to do better, and there’s so much more I want to learn—especially in the future when I have higher budgets for products. I want to learn how to do things more properly and maybe even get a quality assurance person on the other end in China. That would be someone I’d hire to actually go to my manufacturers and make sure my products are being made properly. It probably costs a lot of money to do something like that, but it’s definitely something I want to learn about for the future.
Interested in listening to more start-up stories? #IMakeaLiving Powered by FreshBooks will be hosting their next event on April 25th in New York City. Learn more and register here, and in the meantime you can listen to the #IMakeaLiving podcast here.