Charlotte Carter is the founder of Carter Bags, a UK brand of premium ladies laptop bags made with recycled materials. Combining custom product development together with sourcing in China meant that Carter laptop bags can be offered at an affordable price point.

Charlotte was my guest on episode 12 of International Expansion Explained & we talked about her baptism of fire in the world of developing products and sourcing from the other side of the world during a pandemic. Right now, Charlotte’s product range is only available in the UK (due to the complexities and high prices of international shipping), but hopefully that will change in the future.

What lead up to the launch of the first Carter Laptop Bags?

Charlotte Carter, owner of Carter laptop bags with ethical sourcing in China and custom product development

Charlotte launched the company because she was so frustrated with the lack of ladies laptop bags on the market.

As a single mum working in sales she had a great salary, a company car yet still couldn’t afford to fork out £300/400 on a work bag! All of the affordable bags seemed to be designed by and for men – which is crazy when over 50% of the UK workforce are indeed WOMEN. 

So she set herself a goal to reimagine what a ladies laptop bag looked like, something which reflects OUR needs and wants & worked with a designer to create bespoke designs with the consultation of women in business.

Designed by women, for women. Charlotte then went one step further and commuted to sustainable fabrics meaning all of her bags are made using as many recycled materials as possible as well as being vegan friendly.

Sourcing in China wasn’t the first choice initially

Based in the UK, Charlotte first searched for potential UK manufacturers. However it soon became clear that it’s virtually impossible to find a producer in the UK who can produce at scale. Yes there are artisanal bag makers out there, but most of the big brands, even if it looks as if they might produce in the UK, have outsourced their production to Asia.

Up until probably the 70s, it was possible to find a range of skilled workers in most regions serving smaller shops and brands. Now in Europe, you may find a lot of skilled seamstresses in Poland, Romania or perhaps even Spain or Italy but that comes at a price. Many larger brands have tried to nearshore their production again during the pandemic maxing out capacity in Europe as well as driving up prices hugely.

However, China’s Guangdong province has a huge pool of skilled workers who are able to produce reliable quality at scale (after all if sourcing in China is good enough for the likes of Prada and Armani, why not Carter Bags), but how to find the RIGHT partner?

Custom Product Development on the Opposite Side of the World (in a pandemic) Needs the Right Partner!

At this point, before we go into Charlotte’s particular story, you might want to check out the interview I did with Laura Cortes on this topic a while back, where we cover many of the same points that Charlotte mentioned.

Sourcing in China is a minefield and you hear so many horror stories of people thinking they’ve got a great deal, but when the products arrived they didn’t meet expectations. I asked Charlotte how she’d avoided that and she explained that at the start of the pandemic, she’d been doing some content creation work for a number of founders, some of whom were also purchasing in China so she was able to “watch & learn” as well as ask questions.

Then of course there’s internet research. LOTS of internet research…

Made-in-China.com is a great resource

If you go to the link above and search for almost any kind of product, you will find hundreds of companies offering those items, many however will be resellers and not the manufacturer themselves.

There are a few advantages to working directly with the manufacturer if you are sourcing in China for custom product development items such as the Carter laptop bags:

  • You build a relationship directly with the producer and can discuss exactly what your requirements are
  • You’re not paying margins to middlemen
  • The producer is accountable to you, making it easier to get your wishes met (you’re less likely to get made unrealistic delivery promises)
  • It means the producer has an export licence so may have more experience of working internationally which can make things a lot easier that going through a couple of layers of resellers only to get a product you’re not happy with. (See where maybe the game Chinese whispers got its name??)

How can you do that though? One way is to check what other items that company is offering. If they have a wider range than an average corner shop then you can be pretty sure they’re resellers. If however they have a specific limit range of products (eg ladies bags and wallets) then they are more likely to be a producer themselves & have staff skilled in making the items you’re searching for.

Do the Due Diligence to Reduce Your Risks as Far as Possible

Whatever you do. don’t just focus on getting the cheapest price possible. The days of China being “cheap as chips” are long gone, at least if you want any kind of reliable quality, so don’t squeeze your partner like a lemon until dry. They might still agree to produce at the price you demand, but you can be sure they will have found a way to cut corners in order to meet your price.

What you should be doing though is asking lots of questions to tap into their expertise. Make sure you’ve done your homework up front though so that you know what to ask and you’re not dependent on your producer. If they think you’re clueless, they may easily try to take advantage of you!

You have to have your wits about you

Charlotte Carter

Get references for your producer (from someone you know and trust if possible), ask for certifications and carry out audits. At the time we discussed, Guangzhou was actually locked down due to a covid outbreak but now that the borders have opened then this should be much easier.

Remember that an audit or certification is just a snapshot in time though – unless you have a team in country watching what goes on 24/7 then you can’t have 100% security. You just have to do your best with video walk arounds and sending external 3rd parties to do audits for you. It’s also why it’s so important to spend time to build a relationship with your supplier.

Be clear which certifications are relevant to your business and take some time to check which organisations are allowed to certify for this in China (or wherever you’re sourcing). For Charlotte, it’s BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) ensuring that workers are not being treated unfairly.

The Biggest Challenge with the First Production?

SHIPPING!

The first production run of the Carter laptop bags had been entirely pre-sold & paid for (to ensure the demand was there). So when shipping lead times went from 6 weeks to an estimated 6 months practically overnight and prices literally exploded, Charlotte had tough choices to make. Her solution was to airfreight at least part of the product, even though it meant a financial loss, but she could at least look her customers in the eyes.

The transparent communication on social media about all of these difficulties (remember it was 2020 & the news was full of “shipping crisis” and “airlifted PPE”) was appreciated by the clients almost as much as the bags themselves. This lead to a lot of word of mouth marketing, meaning that even with hindsight, airfreighting stock was worth it for the long term brand equity & customer satisfaction.

Building Relationships with Suppliers

Starting out it’s important to recognise that your supplier has a completely different cultural background and set of expectations from life than you do, and that includes finding it really hard to say “no” directly. It takes time to build a relationship to the level where the feedback becomes more direct.

That means that you need to learn to read between the lines and recognise when you get resistance from your supplier. Try to build an environment where they feel safe to tell you their opinions openly, but learn how to keep your cool when that doesn’t always happen.

eg. Charlotte got frustrated recently when she wasn’t informed in good time about a delay, but instead of losing her temper, she asked herself how she could have noticed the warning signs earlier.

Ask yourself, “what could I have done better to pick that up before it became a problem”?

Charlotte Carter

Lots of communication is important here, be it phone, video calls, WeChat or emails. Main challenge for you if you are new to this kind of custom product development is learning what questions to ask and when is the right time to ask them.

Ensuring Quality Control

This is tricky and has to be really baked into your process from the beginning. When you are managing this kind of a project from a different country you need robust systems in place even when there’s not a pandemic (hopefully none of us will ever experience that again!).

It’s essential that you take ownership of ensuring the quality of your products because nobody will care more than you do if things are not right. That means that you need to communicate a lot with your manufacturer and keep making feedback loops to ensure that everyone is “singing the same song” despite the language differences.

Be confident when dealing with your manufacturer and learn how to assert yourself in a nice way. You have to be really clear about what you need and want.

Quality begins with the design

Sounds obvious but make sure you invest in professional help here. Your design doesn’t have to match the vision in your head, but has to be technically usable so that someone who has perhaps never met you in person can reproduce your product. (Charlotte works with Rebecca Stevenson). You might be great at drawing, but can you use CAD well enough so that a product can be manufactured from your picture?

Prepare a Detailed Brief

Your specifications have to be as detailed as possible. Consider each little detail and write down how they should look, feel and function as well as the quality standards you expect.

The more detail you can clearly communicate in your briefing, the smoother the process through to production should be.

Samples are one of the most essential steps

Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the samples!

You need to have samples of all the materials and components and be certain about the feel, colours, weight, thickness etc. Don’t leave your manufacturer alone with the decision about what to use. You need to know what’s going into your products be it lining, the thickness or softness of materials or the resistance on closures. Ideally you should have at least had some contact with the manufacturers of all the relevant components.

When you receive your sample, rip it apart – LITERALLY. You have to test it rigorously to ensure it meets your expectations and the experience you want to offer your customers. Don’t move on from the sampling stage before you have a product in your hands that you are 100% satisfied with.

It may seem expensive at the time, but will pay off in the long run.

Once you have a sample that requires no more changes, you can give the go ahead for the production.

Keep your eye on the ball during production

Keep in contact with your supplier also during the production process with factory video walk throughs and independent audits (remember you have to give the audit company clear instructions about everything that they need to check).

Make sure that you arrange for a 3rd party inspection also prior to shipment and supply the company with a clear checklist of quality points to check. The minute the goods leave China you will have very little leverage on the supplier for anything that isn’t right so invest in the peace of mind. Like with samples, it seems expensive at the time, but is worth it.

Do unto others…

It’s inevitable at some point that unexpected delays may come up, but keeping your clients informed & being open goes a long way to keeping them loyal.

Once your products arrive, it’s worth doing a thorough check as there will always be a small % that either don’t meet your personal quality standards or which have perhaps got slightly damaged in transit.

Offering an immaculate customer experience will have your clients singing your praises and spreading the word far & wide.

Improving the Process for the Future

Moving to scale the business in 2023 means broadening the marketing base and also discussing with mainstream retail, ways of expanding distribution. It’s a long process from new design through to the customer holding a product in their hands so you have to consider how to manage that without being in a permanent state of flood or famine.

That means moving from the firefighting, survival mode that was required so far into a more regular flow of business. Listing in retail requires a continuous flow of stock to be available which requires more long term planning and investment into future orders. This is quite heavy pressure on cash flow as you have more stock to cover, higher storage costs, money tied up in stock and also potentially a 2nd manufacturer who also takes time and energy to manage.

Managing the cashflow well though is one of the key factors for brands starting out, especially if like Charlotte, you don’t have big investors to hand. Charlotte presently takes a deposit from clients to secure their bag – this helps her with the planning without the weight of having taken all the money if there’s a drastic delay. (Although Covid lockdowns should now be a thing of the past)

Basically taking as many steps as possible to protect oneself and reduce the risks as far as possible is the way forward.

Hopefully all the solid ground work will pay off, and I’d love to see Carter Bags expanding internationally in the future!

If you start a products brand, go into it with your eyes open

You have to have realistic expectations – it’s certainly not a way to get rich overnight but if you’re prepared to put in a lot of hard work, developing a product brand can be rewarding. Top tips from Charlotte:

  • do loads of research
  • ask lots of questions
  • ask other people for help where relevant
  • accept that whatever can go wrong, probably will
  • embrace the super steep learning curve
  • be prepared to take a risk
  • do a lot of self reflection along the journey to make sure you don’t repeat your mistakes
  • keep your wits about you

Enjoy the process & be in there for the long haul!

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