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Q&A: Sourcing Products from Manufacturers in China

With a family history of breast cancer, Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, a radiation oncologist and mother of four, decided to have prophylactic mastectomies in 2006 to reduce her risk of developing the disease. While recovering from the surgery, she realized the garments and surgical accessories for patients were out of date and not very useful for the modern woman.

That prompted Thompson to start her international business, Best Friends for Life, in 2011. The company sells about 25 kinds of post-recovery and maternity products like cheerful duffel bags and comfortable bras. Thompson's customers range from hospital and retail wholesalers to foreign customers who make purchases directly through the business's website.

In the past year, Best Friends for Life has been featured in major magazines for its maternity bags and other useful products. In addition to Thompson, the international business now has two full-time employees and two additional employees being paid via profit-sharing, in addition to a variety of contractors.

Have a least one member of the business team that is indigenous to the population you are manufacturing in.

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Here, Thompson talks about the path she's taken from doctor to international business owner.

After the surgery what surprised you the most?

Thompson: When I was recovering, I realized all the mastectomy bras were designed in the 1970s, and not much has happened since. When I looked at surgical bras nothing matched the surgery I was having. It evolved from there and became a catalyst for starting a business.

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Did you try to do your manufacturing in the U.S. before going overseas?

Thompson:  I was so committed to trying to do everything in the U.S. It was really important to me. I tried to stick to my principles, but it became impossible. I traveled all over the East Coast to have samples made. I couldn't even get the right samples made. To make anything at a reasonable price, it had to be made overseas. So I went to an American fabricator who has factories in China.

What are some lessons you've learned from starting a small international business?

Thompson:  I've learned so much. When I first started, we were working with another American business to purchase duffel bags from China because we didn't have any experience sourcing from China. We placed our first order. We ran through that stock very quickly. It was December, so I told the other business that I needed more duffel bags by Feb. 1. I was told that's impossible and we wouldn't be able to get them until April 1. I told them I would go out of business if we waited that long.

So what did you do?

Thompson:  We tried to source the products on our own and quickly realized why. The third week of January to the second week of February you can't get anything out of China because there aren't any boats because of the Golden Week holiday. Luckily we found another factory, and we were able to get the stock on a boat before that holiday deadline.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

Thompson:  Have a least one member of the business team that is indigenous to the population you are manufacturing in. If you are manufacturing in China, have someone who is Chinese, at least as a contractor, so you don't ever walk into these situations unprepared.

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