It's been nearly 1 year since we started this Youniverse – the wacky factory where we make clothes in Missoula Montana. After a decade of working with contract factories across the U.S., we thought we could do it better (I know, ballsy) and so far we have been able to do it in a way that’s definitely better for us.
When we started this, I vowed to write a weekly blog summarizing our learnings of building a factory because I couldn’t find any of this info when I was looking. I wanted it to be a resource for other small businesses who might want to do the same thing. Writing every week was totally impossible to keep up with. But over the last year I’ve had so many calls and conversations with others who are trying to do this too, so I’m back at it – documenting what we’re doing, but this time just once a month. If you’re interested in getting deep into the details of how we’re starting and scaling a factory with no prior experience working in a factory then read on!
Here's what we learned in The Youniverse in January 2024
Every January we start the year off with a full day of leadership development and goal setting so Sarah, Vicky, Olivia and myself (Mallory) hit the ground running right after that with some big goals for the year.
Goal #1 is to get our damn flatlocks operational. We bought them 6 months ago and since then they have been mostly sitting in the corner collecting dust because we have struggled with building our team to having enough fulltime employees to invest training into.
But we just booked the training for this summer! We found what seems to be a fantastic mechanical training program for us through America’s 21st. Because there are no industrial sewing machine mechanics in Montana, we will have to be our own. So this program involves a trainer coming to our facility and our team getting mechanic certified on all our machines by the end of the week of training.
The main thing that happened this month is that we had to write a new production language. This time last year, we were figuring out what language to write our production in – like, how do we talk about it, track it, record it, measure it. We created a series of tools that worked well for us for the year, but now it needs to evolve. We’re a team of 7, and we have 4-5 people working in production on a daily basis so we all need to be able to understand what’s going on with as little effort as possible.
Main change is making Vicky our new Production Floor Supervisor (she’s working on a more interesting title, don’t worry). We’re growing to the point where we really have ‘departments’ and ‘teams’ within our team. So Vicky now communicates production stuff to our product team (Me and Sarah) and we work collaboratively to problem solve.
We still heavily rely on our Maps to start any production. They’re a calendar roadmap that tells us how long it’s going to take to make a production run. And they were single-handedly the most challenging thing to figure out that we needed. I’m really not sure how other factories track stuff, but here’s how we do it.
Our Product Lead (Sarah) sews a sample with our Production Lead (Vicky) and they time each seam and make tweaks to the construction if needed. Those times then get communicated to me, and I use them combined with the number of products we’re making to build out our Maps. Vicky then manages these maps to keep the team on schedule with sewing and finishing. If we get on track, I simply adjust the date and excel will spit out a new completion date for us.
The Map is kind of a big bite – a high level idea of timing. So we use WIPs (work in progress) daily to track performance of each team member and understand our speed and completion on a daily basis. It’s pretty manual, but it’s working for now until we’re larger and can use an automated system. We were using a production software for a bit, but it was expensive and ultimately more data than our small team needed. We adjusted our WIPs this month so that each team member is writing their start and stop times/dates alongside the step the completed with their initials and quantity produced. Weekly, we take this info and break it down to see how our actual timing is comparing to our projected timing from sampling.
This system actually recently helped us catch a pretty persistent problem with one of our machines before pieces got to inspection.
Speaking of inspection, IT HAS WITHOUT A DOUBT BEEN THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRODUCT MADE AT OUR FACTORY AND PRODUCT MADE AT OUR PARTNER FACTORIES!!!!!!!!!!!! Yes, I’m shouting. Because being absolute detail snobs about our own quality has resulted in our ability to repair literally anything (also Vicky has an insane ability to repair anything).
this looks like a mess, but this is what inspection looks like - Lauren is putting cords in hoodies and inspecting and packaging.
The main motivator behind opening The Youniverse was getting loads of shitty product from other factories that we paid tons of money for and couldn’t sell. We’ve lost a ridiculous amount of money due to these mistakes. That could have been avoided if more attention had been paid at inspection!!
So, at our factory we now spend several minutes per garment inspecting. It takes a long time, and eats into our profits, but not nearly as much as having unsellable inventory does. The fact that is takes so long is seemingly why other factories we’ve worked with have spent so little time doing it.
This is getting long enough, and if you’re still here then I hope you learned a bit and it was worth your read. The project for February? Really try to dial in costing. When we work with other factories, they give us a price quote per piece. But it’s kind of hard to figure out how much it costs us per piece to make stuff in house so I’m working on the right equation. We have labor, rent, utilities, tools and machines. But amortizing our equipment costs over our pieces is tricky. And our space-related costs are shared by other parts of the business too, BUT what is very clear is that it is VERY expensive to make clothes in America (we knew this) and that many factories who we’ve worked with were likely not covering their costs. Also several have gone out of business so that might be the truth. So, I’m signing off now. But here’s to another day in business, and staying in business!
-Mallory and the team at Youer-