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Making ‘Made in America’ Cool Again

It’s not just about microbrews or locally sourced tacos anymore. Meet the entrepreneur who is using the Web to help fuel a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing.

It may seem like a long way from the shop floor of Detroit’s auto plants to the front lines of the e-commerce economy, but for Matthew Burnett, it was a surprisingly straight shot.

A Detroit native, Burnett had planned to follow in his grandparents’ footsteps and join the ranks at Ford after getting his degree in transportation design from the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City. Instead, as the auto industry fell into decline — and Detroit along with it — Burnett stayed in New York and became an accessories designer, and then an entrepreneur. His latest venture, the website Maker’s Row, is not just the product of his professional career, but may also be the fulfillment of his familial aspirations as well.

In 2012, Burnett and two colleagues founded the site, which helps small businesses and fashion and accessories designers find domestic manufacturers who can produce their goods. Interested parties can sign up and search for each other on the site for free, but for fees of about $200 a month, companies can up their level of functionality. Manufacturers can add elements like video to help showcase their facilities, for example, while designers get access to a searchable database and a place where they can review manufacturers and compare bids. In the year or so since its launch, Maker’s Row has signed up more than 2,000 factories, designers and small businesses.

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The formula is a win-win at every step of the production chain: Designers save time and headaches finding manufacturers, while manufacturers and suppliers increase their business. Jonas de Varona, who runs the Seattle-based pattern-making company Sewn Goods, says he’s been contacted by about a hundred potential clients since joining the site a year ago. His business used to rely on word of mouth, but now sees a steady stream of customers from all over the country.

Maker’s Row grew out of the specific problems that plague small businesses, like Burnett’s first solo venture, Steel Cake, a line of wristwatches that he created after finishing Pratt. Burnett remembers having to wake up at 2 a.m. to communicate with his manufacturers — in China. And once, a shipment was held up for a month in Alaska. When it finally arrived, Burnett discovered that a fifth of the watches were damaged. With no recourse, he had to swallow the loss.

His next venture, the Brooklyn Bakery, co-founded with Tanya Menendez, a Goldman Sachs alum, was a line of leather goods produced entirely in the United States. That effort proved problematic from the start. “It [was] a very dated method to find domestic manufacturers,” Burnett says. He remembers having to use time-consuming, old-school methods, like thumbing through a giant, paper-printed directory, to track down a factory. “It didn’t make sense to me that you could find a manufacturer on the other side of the globe in a matter of hours, but not one in your own city,” he says.

Thus, Maker’s Row was born. Burnett, Menendez and another co-founder, Scott Weiner, whom they met at the startup-incubator Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp, aim to make “Made in America” cool again. There’s a core group of young consumers and DIY entrepreneurs who care where their stuff — whether it’s a microbrew or a locally sourced taco — comes from. But Maker’s Row’s founders want to cultivate the ethos and expand it. They want to, as their recent partnership with Cotton Incorporated proclaims, “Bring back ‘Made in USA.’”

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Last summer Burnett partnered with the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, N.J., to highlight the role that manufacturing plays in Newark’s community and local economy, and hopefully to boost the city’s profile as a place where factories are humming. Booker spoke enthusiastically about Newark’s past and future as a manufacturing hub, calling the sector, which employs some 12,000 Newark residents, “one of the most dynamic parts of the Newark scene.” Booker continued: “Manufacturing jobs are strong jobs. They’re jobs that help empower thousands of my residents right now, and are in fact also creating wealth in this region that’s extraordinary.”

Nationwide the manufacturing industry is on the upswing: In 2012, it contributed $1.87 trillion to the U.S. economy, up from $1.73 trillion in 2011. In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama underscored the progress, calling it “our first priority” to make America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing. “When we utilize our local resources to their maximum capacity, everyone benefits. Jobs are created, innovation is accelerated and communities prosper on every level,” Burnett says.

The major hurdle has always been cost: It’s still cheaper to have products made overseas. But in recent years, the cost-benefit ratio has become less stark. Shipping and offshore production costs have risen. And in many cases, Burnett says, there’s a distinct uptick in quality and oversight when you manufacture in America. Indeed, even huge corporations like Apple and General Electric have recently announced that they would bring some manufacturing back to the U.S. — a move that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

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And there’s a moral case to be made. Last April, a horrific garment factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 people and, once again, brought the issue to the fore. “It put a lot into perspective about ‘low, low prices’ and the true costs that accompany them,” Burnett says. “When brands look to compete on price alone, the byproduct often results in a race to the bottom on work conditions and ethical standards.” In the U.S., by contrast, manufacturing jobs remain among the better paid, with the average industry worker earning $77,000 a year, $17,000 above the average across all industries.

Burnett says that part of his company’s mission is to change the conventional wisdom about manufacturing. Through videos on the site and through the public narrative it’s constructing around itself, Maker’s Row emphasizes the people and families who make up the story of American manufacturing. (Neither the platform nor its founders take a stance on labor unions or their role in the industry, however.) “There are a lot of misconceptions about manufacturing as a whole,” Burnett says. “A lot of people think of it as just this black box and out pops a shirt. We’re trying to humanize the whole process.”

It’s a big vision for a kid from Detroit who’s not yet in his 30s. And he’s making his parents and grandparents proud. “Them seeing where I’ve come from and now in this space where I’m dealing with manufacturing on a whole…without a doubt, from the factory floor to where I’m at right now, it [was] a long way coming.”

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Jesse Ellison, a former staff writer and articles editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is a freelance journalist living in Maine.