How I buy things when Lightcone wants them fast
On occasion, for my work at Lightcone I have been able to buy things faster than their advertised lead times. For example, I once got…
10 sofas in 2 days when the website shipping speed said 5 days to 3 weeks
10 custom beds from Japan in 1 week when all suppliers initially said 2-3 months
A custom bookcase in 1 week when website said 5 week lead-time
1000 square feet of custom hardwood flooring in 3 days even though the salesperson initially said it would be 2 weeks
And a bunch of other stuff. The first times I did this were a bit of a desperate scramble. Now, however, I mostly have a handful of helpful tips and tricks that I keep reusing. When working with new colleagues, I’ve found myself explaining these a lot. So I figured I’d just write them up as a shareable document. I’ve numbered the tips to make them usable as a checklist.
21 tips I find helpful
When I want to buy something fast, I start by asking the seller:
“How soon can we get it here?”
I’m not asking this because it’s that helpful in getting things faster. It’s mostly just a conversation starter to get some helpful information. In particular, sometimes the seller will say something like “You can pick it up today” or “In 3 days”. If so, then great! All is good! The project can move along! No need to bother with the rest of this essay. Don’t spend time optimising what doesn’t need optimising.
Usually, though, they’ll often say something like “2 months”. Uh oh. Now there’s work to do.
As a next step, let’s think about it from first principles. Suppose you want to buy a table. What steps are required before it can get to you? In the easiest case, the table is in stock with the seller. So the molecules making up the table need to be transported from where they currently are to where you want them to be, while preserving enough of their structure that you can get a table back out of them. This is “shipping”.
If the table is not in stock, a new table might have to be manufactured for you. And depending on how busy the table maker is, before they can make your table, they have to manufacture the orders of other customers who were ahead of you in line but whose products have not been finished yet.
So all in all, to buy an item from a producer, it has to go through at least these three steps:
These numbers can vary pretty wildly
A burrito from UberEats. Completing other orders: a few minutes. Manufacturing: a few minutes. Shipping: a few minutes.
A hyped-up Tesla. Completing other orders: ~1 year. Manufacturing: 3 days. Delivery: a few weeks.
Commissioning a custom art piece from a retired local artist. Completing other orders: none. Manufacturing: 1 month. Delivery: 1 day.
So the next question I ask is usually:
2. “How does the timeline break down into completing other orders, manufacturing, and shipping?”
Knowing these numbers is helpful for knowing where most speed can be carved out. Below are some assorted tips for each category, followed by some miscellaneous tips.
Completing other orders
3. Sometimes companies offer you to pay a fee for rush orders or premium processing. This entirely cuts out the first step of the timeline. Sometimes companies do this even though their websites don’t mention it(!) So it’s worth asking something like “I’m not sure if you usually have these arrangements, and absolutely no worries if not, but I figured I would at least ask: is there any chance we can pay a rush order fee (say, +X%), for you to move our order to the top of the queue?”
4. If the company has different branches, and one of them has a big backlog of orders, check if there’s some other branch that’s less slammed.
5. (The airport queue method) Once I was late for a flight, and had to walk through the entire security line asking each person “I’m so sorry, my flight is already boarding, is there any chance I could sneak ahead of you?” Everyone said yes. In any situation where you are blocked by a queue of identifiable people you can actually talk to, you might be able to do the same.
When it comes to speeding up production, there’s actually a whole separate post I want to write, called “How to move fast together with external contractors”. But I’ll include some bits as a teaser for now.
6. Make sure you’re talking to the right person, like an account manager.
Many of the below questions would just bounce off a lot of customer service, who have no connections to the people who make decisions or do the production at their companies, and merely rehearse answers from a standard FAQ. However, companies that sell to business clients will often have an account manager you can talk to, and can connect you to a supervisor at the factory if necessary. One sign that you’re talking to the wrong person is that they keep giving irreducible answers, even though you’re trying to ask questions that reduce the problem into components, like this:
“How soon can we get this?”
“Our delivery times are 6 weeks right now”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how does that break down into you guys completing other orders, manufacturing time, and shipping time?”
“Yeah it will take 6 weeks for you to get your order”
“But how long does it take to manufacture the widget at your factory?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, but we usually meet our 6 week times quite well!”
“Okay, thanks! Is there any chance you could connect me to someone who would know the answer to that question? Like a supervisor or account manager?”
7. Ask if the workshop or factory is continuously producing your item until it’s done, or if it produces multiple items at the same time. If the second, ask if they can sprint your item all the way through the process instead of waiting on others.
For example, imagine someone making tables. One way of doing it is to first make the table top in the morning, then the legs in the afternoon, and finally screw them together in the evening. Another way of doing it is to spend three days making 10 sets of table tops, another three making 10 sets of legs, and then starting to assemble things. From the perspective of a single table, the former method delivers the first fresh table in a day, whereas the latter delivers it in a week. So if you could get a place to switch methods for your order, you could cut lead time a lot. Once I was going to order a custom steel fence, and I found that the person who came to our property to discuss the job was also the guy who ran the production workshop. He was very open to discussing how to orient the workflow to meet our timelines, and occasionally sprinting an order through to the end, instead of batching it with other orders, was a thing he occasionally did.
8. Ask if you can pay the workers a good overtime rate to finish your item sooner.
9. Ask if the producer could finish sooner if they brought in more workers to parallelise things, and if so offer to pay for the extra labour.
10. Find out if the producer themselves are actually blocked on some part or component, and recurse this checklist on that part.
11. If the order is far away, ask if they can ship via air freight.
12. Ask if you can pick up the order yourself.
I find it helpful here to break things down to their bare physical components. If I want to ship something from Los Angeles to San Francisco, that is no harder than putting the item on a truck and then driving that truck from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which takes about 12 hours all in all. Any shipping timeline longer than that has to be doing some kind of extra step. That step is probably meant to save me money, but it’s not helpful if I’m going for maximum speed and have the money to spend on this boost. Overall when is something is getting shipped to you via a freight company, the driver probably has a number of other stops en route. And sometimes the shipping company wants to call you to “schedule a delivery appointment”, which I find reliably slows down order arrival by a few days. If you want something fast, no better way than picking it up yourself and going straight to the destination. This is how I got those 15 sofas in 2 days instead of 2 weeks. The dialogue was something like:
Customer service: “If we sent it out in the next available slot in a few days, it would only take a few days to a week for it to get to you, so you could have it in 10 days from now!”
Me: (thinking through how long it actually takes to get an item from Los Angeles to San Francisco) “Any chance we could pick the order up ourselves?”
“I’m sorry, we only sell online”
“Could I come directly to your warehouse?”
“Well it’s a big order, I’m not sure how you’d transport it”
“What if we rented our own truck?”
“That could work!”
A sleight of hand
A magician’s trick that looks impossible from one angle, might be perfectly trivial and understandable from another. It’s just a matter of questioning your assumptions.
When I got the Japanese custom beds in 1 week instead of 2-3 months, it wasn’t because I 10x’ed the whole production process and rented a cargo jet to fly the stuff over from Japan (though just you wait, one day…). It’s because I was searching for solutions with the seller, and they told me they actually already had a massive order that had arrived at a warehouse in San Francisco, that was put in 4 months ago. And now that my team was under more time pressure than the other client, they might be able to send some of the other client’s units our way, and then replenish those of the other client from Japan. Which gives rise to a host of tricks:
13. Check if there’s an order already enroute to a different customer, that could be rerouted to you instead, and for the company to replenish the other customer. (Who might have a much more tolerant time preference, and so be fine with this.) Legally, there might also be cases here where the sending company still technically owns the product until they’ve fully shipped it to the customer (at least that’s what the Japanese custom beds company told me.)
14. Check if there are any orders that another customer already made, but that were cancelled after production and so are ready to ship. (This helped me get a special bookcase in 1 week instead of 5 weeks. The company happened to have three outlier orders lying around from previous customers. I couldn’t fully customise the bookcase I got the way I might have by waiting the full 5 weeks, but they still worked very well.)
15. Check if there are returned orders (maybe they’ll work for your use case?)
16. Check if there are defects they weren’t planning on selling (again, maybe they’re good enough for you if you care about Speed?)
17. Check if there are used items on e.g. Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
18. If not, check if the company knows of any customers who might be open to selling their item to you. Who knows, maybe they’ve been fighting with a customer who they refused to refund, and you could appear to save the situation?
19. If you only need the item for a brief period of time, check if you can rent the item.
General communication tips
Finally, here are two general communication tips that I found helpful:
20. If possible, give a specific deadline tied to some real event.
For example, “We’re running a company retreat in 2 days and our previous space heater supplier bailed on us last minute; so we’re urgently looking for someone who can fill the gap”. I find this in practice to mean suppliers try to move a lot faster than just asking for things to happen “as soon as possible”
21. If true, mention that you’re working for a client or a boss who really cares about speed. For example, “I’m working on a project with a very short timeline and the client just asked if we could get X, so I’m trying to see if there’s anything we can do”
Making weird asks in pursuit of speed gets a lot easier if you appear as a poor underling scrambling to fulfil your boss’s desires, as opposed to some kind of demanding magnate. (I often can’t say this because usually I am the client, that accursed source of urgency)
For the record I never actually ended up buying them, because my team didn’t like them after we tried them. But we had the option.
This all works on different timescales as well. Sometimes they’ll say “tomorrow” when you need it in one hour. Many tips in this essay still apply.