Joseph Heller Wants to Help 100 Million Entrepreneurs Master Their Supply Chains

Joseph Heller.

Starting a new business comes with myriad challenges, including manufacturing custom products economically or ordering existing products wholesale in reasonable quantities so you aren’t stuck with a massive amount of unsold inventory. Joseph Heller, founder of The/Studio and Supplied, believes he has solutions to both of these problems that could revolutionize how small business owners handle their supply chains.

Heller has been an entrepreneur since he was 13. “I was collecting and reselling baseball cards and eventually moved onto buying wholesale candy and selling it in competition with the school cafeteria – which got me suspended,” he says. He later moved to China and started a trading company that helped large companies manufacture goods there. At one point, he also imported luxury food from Europe into China. “I’ve run startups throughout my life, and I realized that I didn’t enjoy working with large companies,” he says. “My true passion is working with small companies because you can feel the impact you’re making right away.” 

Living in China not only helped cultivate his love for startups, but it also provided valuable experience working with factories and learning how products are made from start to finish. “With the advent of Shopify, many advantages that large companies traditionally had were being eroded, as it allowed pretty much anyone to start a website or Instagram to market and sell their products,” Heller says. 

Although Shopify and Instagram “truly democratized business,” working with factories was still quite cumbersome. “I believed that if we could democratize access to factories and manufacturing, we could unlock a lot of value for small businesses,” he says. “I had a vision that through providing easier access to manufacturing for small businesses, I could create a positive impact in the same way Instagram and Shopify did. The vision for The/Studio was to create more entrepreneurs and successful small businesses by making it easier for them to work with factories, which expanded into my vision for Supplied.”

Manufacturing Made Easy

The/Studio, founded in 2013, is a manufacturing platform that offers an easy way for entrepreneurs to custom-manufacture specific products with no risks. It curates and works with high-tech factories around the world to provide the best expedited manufacturing process possible. This network of factories and a proprietary infrastructure combine to deliver high-quality products again and again. To use The/Studio, you simply choose a product from an extensive inventory of accessories, apparel, and promotional items. You then use the website’s online product creation tool to customize every aspect of the product, including details like stitching and packaging. If you already have a design in mind, you can upload the artwork to be used for the final product, or you can work with The/Studio to create a design based on your specifications. After that, it’s simply a matter of approving the mockup. The product will be created from scratch, and orders are filled and shipped within the US for free. 

In founding The/Studio, Heller went after some big fish – particularly Alibaba, one of the world’s largest business-to-business and business-to-consumer ecommerce companies. However, despite its name recognition and market share, Alibaba has significant weaknesses that Heller thought he could exploit. “Alibaba makes it very difficult to be successful when working with the factory, specifically if you want to produce in small quantities, which is all that most small businesses can afford,” he says. 

Although there are a lot of product customization websites out there, almost all of them “focus on screen printing on blank t-shirts or caps,” Heller says. “We allow our customers to custom-manufacture their products from scratch, which means there is an unlimited amount of customization options that our customers have at their disposal. When larger brands manufacture products, they aren’t screen printing on T-shirts, they are manufacturing products from scratch – which is what we offer but for smaller-scale businesses as well.”

Cheaper Wholesale for Small Companies

Supplied competes with Alibaba as well. However, Supplied caters to the particular needs of small businesses when it comes to ordering pre-made products for reasonable prices and in reasonable amounts. More than 2 million unique products can be mixed and matched at will, and there are no minimum order quantities. 

“We also realized that our customers needed help beyond just buying the wholesale products,” he says. “We’ve created an entire support network that allows our customers to easily buy products wholesale, but also software to help them with social selling, a community of entrepreneurs to help support our customers as well as an online university to train our customers to be better business owners. Alibaba and other wholesale platforms do not provide their customers with this level of robust support and community.”

What if some of Supplied’s customers end up selling the same products? “Even if customers buy the same items, the retail market is so massive and there is room for thousands of companies to sell the same products,” Heller says. “A little-known fact is that Target, Walmart, and Kohls often use the same factories and even luxury brands share the same factories. It’s all about how you market, brand, and communicate to your customer the products that you’re selling.”

New SaaS Tool

In addition to launching his two companies, Heller and his team have launched the beta version of a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool that will make it much easier for small companies to sell their products on Facebook Live – which includes about half of his own customers. “We assumed they would be selling on Amazon or Shopify, [but] when we started interviewing our customers, we realized that they felt that Amazon stole their customers and reduced their margins,” he says. “Shopify made it difficult for our customers to compete because they needed to build an attractive website, which is really hard to do. And they had to get traffic to their site, which is even harder and very expensive.” Selling on Facebook Live allows customers to “really leverage their natural ability to build a community, connect with their customers and understand their needs in a way that is not possible on Shopify.”

After realizing that there aren’t many SaaS tools for customers selling on Facebook Live, Heller set out to create one. “With our new software tool, we make it easy for our customers to process invoices and collect [automated] payments,” Heller says. The software also lets business owners offer free shipping and returns, which can increase revenue by more than 50%. It’s also easy for customers to track their inventory and order more products, plus a monthly subscription brings significant discounts on wholesale inventory from Supplied.

Eye on the Ball

Heller advises new entrepreneurs to “hyper-focus on one customer instead of trying to boil the ocean” without making unwarranted assumptions of what that customer wants. “Many entrepreneurs start a business with a very vague idea of who their customer is and the problem they are solving for their customer, and make far too many assumptions,” he says. “By the time they realize that their assumptions are wrong, they’ve wasted valuable money and time.”

He says a much better approach is to ask yourself what problem a specific customer has and come up with a way to solve it. “Instead of investing a ton of money and time into the business, figure out the least expensive and quickest way to validate whether your assumptions are true.”

Big Plans for the Future

Over the long term, Heller is thinking big. He wants to create a network of 100 million entrepreneurs that use The/Studio and Supplied to help their businesses succeed. Although that may seem like an unachievable goal, he remains undaunted. “Right now, with both businesses combined, we’ve had about 500,000 small businesses that have ordered from us and about 10,000 factories that work with us,” he says. “We will reach our number by continuing to provide real value for our customers. To date we’ve raised a Series A, but we will need to continue to raise and invest in marketing to drive brand awareness inside and outside of the US market.”

In the shorter term, Heller’s goal is more modest: to take The/Studio public. “I also want to create real impact in the world by building a brand that truly supports budding entrepreneurs,” he says. “I want to create a brand, infrastructure, and software tools that will allow anyone to be successful if they are determined to do so. I believe that entrepreneurship is the pathway to solving inequality in the world.The power of starting a business gives someone dignity, and a shot at a better financial future for themselves and their family.”

Adriaan Brits

An analyst of global affairs, Adriaan has an MSC from Oxford, with diverse interests in the digital economy, entertainment, and business. He is a specialist trainer in advanced analytics and media.

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