The article very neatly summarizes some of the motivations and key learnings I have heard often from MC Entrepreneurs:
(1) Set up operations first: Blank Label shirts are sewn to customers’ specifications and delivered anywhere in the world in about four weeks from Shanghai. Before opening the business, he really invested in setting operations up, and also travels personally to the factory to oversee manufacturing (indeed, it seems from the website that in the moment he is living in the factory). This is, in my experience, a key success factor of mass customization start-ups: Focus on getting the stuff produced, not just sold! And this also at times, when the business picks up and you have to scale it.
(2) Start very lean: "We’ve focused on being very bootstrap, very lean," says Fan Bi in the NYT article. This is important to finance a slow start: In the article, he says his business has sold about 450 shirts. Recently, it has seen a big bump in traffic, with orders of about 10 shirts a day. He says the company makes money on every shirt – but at $50 a piece, you need to sell a lot to really make a decent income.
(3) Focus on the the emotional value proposition: "how expressive something is": Fan Bi learned:
"People really like a Blank Label shirt because they can say, ‘I had a part in creating this". On the blank label website, this is called the "Co-Creation Custom Revolution" (just another fancy synonym for mass customization).
(4) Don't trust in venture capital: They first tried to get outside investments, but did not succeed. "To be honest, we couldn’t," Mr. Bi is quoted in the article "We were two very young guys who had no track record." So Fan Bi financed the site with about $10,000 in savings. But even if you have a track record, in my experience it is very difficult to attract venture capital to a manufacturing-based product business. So focus on other sources or private funds. And stay lean (see above).
(5) Be very customer centric: Communicate directly with customers is a number one goal at Blank Label. This sounds obvious, but is not: Only about 25% o all mass customization companies on the web offer direct customer support. Depending on the time of day, Fan Bi answers customers' calls himself. And the article reveals another very good practice: "When he is awake, he also activates a feature that sends instant messages to customers who have been on the site for more than 90 seconds. Need help?, he asks. For several hours a day, he and his partners chat with customers about what they like and don’t like on the site.
Other success factors I would add which were not covered in the article:
- Get the market positioning right. What is the differentiation of your product ? (hint: just that fact that it can be customized is it not).
- Make a great web-interface that is easy to use and represents your final product. We now have so much academic research about mass customization configurators. Put it in practice!
- Think about a clever brand name that really sticks. While the majority of mass customization sites have a "my", "personal", or "custom" in their brand names, all category leader have not.
Read the full article here, or come to the MIT Smart Customization Seminar to meet 100 other entrepreneurs and managers doing mass customization!