Smashing Stereotypes: Most of What You Know About American Manufacturing Is Probably Wrong

When you smash atoms, physicists tell us, you get a whole lot of energy. Could smashing stereotypes do something similar?
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Maker's Row, a new platform that aims to humanize local factories and make them easily accessible to entrepreneurs, is hoping to reinvigorate American manufacturing by smashing stereotypes.

When you smash atoms, physicists tell us, you get a whole lot of energy. Could smashing stereotypes do something similar?

That's the idea that PITCH SF 2013 Startup Competition finalist Maker's Row is testing out. The New York-based company is aiming to shake up American manufacturing by building a platform where designers and small businesses can find the factories they need to turn their ideas into finished products right here in the USA, upending outdating perceptions of the industry in the process.

Founders Tanya Menendez and Matthew Burnett first joined forces to produce a line of leather goods, with Burnett handling the designs and Menendez tackling the business side of things.

There was only one problem. They found locating a factory to actually produce the products was a nightmare, and the idea behind Maker's Row was born (this summer at Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp tech guy Scott Weiner joined the Maker's Row team).

"We built it because we needed it," Menendez told Women 2.0, but the company is aiming to achieve much more than simply making it easier to get some leather goods made. By breaking down stereotypes of American manufacturing, Maker's Row hopes to invigorate rebounding factories and empower entrepreneurs selling physical goods.

Entrepreneurs Need to Go Abroad to Get Stuff Made?

Ask any woman on the street where most of the stuff she buys is made and she won't hesitate in her answer: overseas. Entrepreneurs usually agree. "A lot of small businesses, before they even consider manufacturing, the first thing they ask is: 'where's the manufacturer overseas that I can work with, because American manufacturing is dead," explains Burnett.

But this idea that outsourcing is always a necessity is now colliding with changing economics, leading to the first shoots of a rebirth in U.S. manufacturing. This resurgence "is definitely something we've been reading about in tons of articles, especially that recent Atlantic issue, but this is something we've seen firsthand for the past year and half," says Burnett. "We've been speaking to a lot of factories and they're getting a lot of work that normally would have been shipped overseas."

Maker's Row hopes to accelerate that movement back towards U.S. factories by breaking down perceptions that there simply aren't any left or that they're too expensive or hard to find.

"We definitely see us playing a big role in changing the landscape of American manufacturing, making sure that every manufacturer has a home and is able to reach their target demographic," says Menendez.

Manufacturing Is Guys in Overalls?

Unleashing the potential of American manufacturing isn't just a matter of challenging the stereotype that overseas options are always better, it's also a matter of opening up perceptions of who can be involved in making physical goods.

Think factory and you'll probably picture grey haired guys in overalls, an image that could be off-putting to younger people or women with an idea for a product. Which is shame, as modern day manufacturing does not actually resemble this stereotype.

"A lot of the factories that we see are family owned and a lot of women are taking over. It's pretty exciting to see," says Burnett. Menendez concurs that the real people behind factories are often surprising: "We're giving people a chance to see the people behind all these manufacturing firms. We're realizing that our assumptions have been wrong. There are young people."

In light of this, the team designed Maker's Row to bridge the gap between younger designers and the factories they once thought were a literal or cultural world away. "We definitely had a focus for building it for our generation," says Menendez of the sleek, modern site.

Manufacturing and Tech Are Separate Worlds?

From iPhone apps to social networks, tech gets most of the buzz when it comes to entrepreneurship, while manufacturing retains a reputation as largely stodgy and staid. But the two worlds are colliding, according to Burnett.

"Technology is disrupting every other industry," including physical products, he says. "There's a lot of innovation to be done, especially with physical goods," agrees Menendez, who believes that tech will not only make help manufactures reach new sorts of clients, but also enliven entrepreneurship around physical products.

"Once people have the freedom to manufacture their ideas, I think we'll see a lot more innovation within products in general," she says.

Maker's Row will be pitching at the Women 2.0 Conference on February 14, 2013 as a finalist of the PITCH SF 2013 Startup Competition.

About the writer: Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.

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