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[1]
  • 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: 

  1. “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”.[2] 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.

Production

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.  

Shipping

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)
  1. ^

     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. 

  2. ^

     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. 

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21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:05 AM

Curated. Beyond the immediate advice of "how to get stuff fast", I think this expresses an important spirit of instrumental rationality: the willingness to not accept the standard way of doing things, to push back, and hunt for non-standard solutions until you succeed.

An element of this is not taking reality as irreducible but instead saying yes, 6-weeks delivery time can be broken down, and then you can optimize the parts, and then you can do better.

I also like that this advice doesn't come down to "don't take no for an answer" or "be pushy" which might be what you expect. It's more "search the solution space better than most other people".

And I think there's a lot of good transfer of the underlying spirit here to other domains, e.g. solving medical problems and other stuff.

This is a great collection of tips! I think it's also worth explicitly noting that most of these strategies involve slowing down other people's orders, and many involve more inconvenience/stress for the sellers, so it's important to weigh this tradeoff.

One thing I've found useful is to make sure I identify to the supplier what specifically I need about the product I'm ordering - sometimes they have something similar in stock which meets my requirements.

Interesting. Can you give us a sense of how much those asks (offer to pay for the extra labour) end up costing you?

You mean money or social capital? 

Both would be interesting. 

I was thinking of money. :)

Hard to give a general answer, but I think 2x someone's normal salary (especially if it's cash) is usually quite sufficient to get the job done, and kind of reliably has helped me in the past when I've try to find people happy to work night shifts

This is why less wrong needs the full suite of emoji reacts.

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.  

Neat, I'm surprised about this part. I'd have expected places that parallelize to generally have a process for making things that's not easily converted into "sprint". Cool example of it actually working.

I think it depends on scale. If Ford produces cars in batches of 100(? 1000? more?) they probably can't rejigger the factory. In this case it was a local ironworker who probably had 10 or fewer guys working his shop, so a bit more flexibility. 

I used to work in manufacturing. The vast majority of lead time in most manufacturing processes is parts/jobs waiting to move on to the next step (for a variety of reasons). So all you have to do to rush things is to move the rushed job to the top of the queue on step 1, then when it's done move it to the top of the queue on step 2, etc. It's somewhat common practice for manufacturers to employ people whose job is to expedite certain orders, basically by shepherding them through this process. 

In other words, most manufacturing lead time isn't stuff that seems reasonable and predictable by someone outside of that particular system, like "this machine takes batches of 1000, so we're building up parts before starting". It's mostly stuff that seems dumb from the outside but intractable from the inside, like, "we've always done these in batches of 1000," or "Alice does this step, and she's on vacation, so we're waiting for her to get back [even though we all technically know how to do this step.}" Most of "Lean Manufacturing" is about cutting down this lead time at a fundamental level instead of having to rely on employing expediters.

Thanks for these tips, I can probably put them to good use! I'm curious though, what's so special about custom Japanese beds that you needed them quickly?

I was setting up a retreat venue, and they were pretty weird and special beds -- such that if they would've actually worked, it would've pivoted our strategy for setting up the space in a somewhat major way. 

Do you have a link to the bed in question?

Great article, Jacob! Can attest to witnessing the results of yours/LW team's outperformance of service provider timelines many times. 

Other things I might add (having done these myself): 
1. Find about the current status for each of the steps in their respective staffing and inventory logistics / system. You might find out the specific bottleneck in their fulfillment process and work together to solve directly for that. For example, the solution for #12, the issue could be the drivers / fleet are not available on their routes (presumably always predetermined) and you just offer to use a private courier/pay their on-site staff overtime if it's going to be picked outside of business hours. 


2.  Continuing on point #6: Escalating to someone beyond the first person with customer service (the mgr/supervisor typically has more institutional knowledge about the company and decision making power to perform workarounds like tip #13 here). 
2b. If you're able to get a hold of a manager, you can sprinkle in that you'd go to a competing brand - potentially even name drop them (eg: I've said "LG" to Dell for expediting a monitor purchase). They're incentives are lined up to fulfill your order for business and you can leverage one's loss aversion.   

  • There's bit of tact/grace required here to prevent things becoming adversarial: By doubling down on your state of duress for urgency/delivery (even being apologetic about it), you can claim that you prefer their brand/products but would have to go with a competitor that offers a similar model in the timescale you want. 


3. "Sleight of Hand" styled-tip: Some manufacturers have many retail partners that they sell to.  These are usually private/small businesses that advertise the same model/unit under a different label and customized SKU # such that querying for either of these two (also things I do) wouldn't return in your local options. They might be able to give you the names of store partners (browse online catalog / just call them). 

4. Start with bigger brands/companies first. Bigger companies/brands are more likely to have retail partners or the fixed assets to support expedites (eg: real estate and OpEx for distribution centers). Since they're a larger organization, the tradeoff is to expect to deploy more communication strategies to escalate through call respondents until you get to the decision maker or person that is in a position to help you in real-time. 

  • I've personally seen the most variance on the manufacturing step.  Making the thing is usually a lot more variable than delivering it.  A model that is only made-to-order for a brand (often smaller/luxury businesses) where the model is produced overseas is kind of a hopeless gambit to get to your doorstep quicker. 

Overall excellent writeup! Identifying bottlenecks is something I will consider in the future. I disagree with method 2b.) because, by my best estimate, it's a tactic that has the most effect on two types of managers whom both already want to complete your order if possible: manager A that will be unduly stressed by the sales loss, and manager B that are not stressed by it at all but see the sale as an easy way to make money personally. For manager A, the stress that makes loss aversion so effective may come from anywhere, whether it's a tight performance goals that determine their continued employment, desire to maintain their organization's reputation, or general pride in their work and desire to help. Manager A already cares whether you can get your product and will likely work with you if you explain why the order is particularly urgent (read: more urgent than everyone else's urgency, because we're all in a hurry). I consider reducing stress & suffering for people an axiom, so I don't want to add the additional pressure of loss aversion even in very urgent situations.

Meanwhile, there is also Manager B whom really wants the sale but doesn't care about satisfying you personally. If pressed, Manager B is willing to deliberately cut corners on the product (which may result in a loss of quality exceeding an acceptable margin) and is also liable to push employees to work unpaid overtime, cancel pre-existing plans, or other stressful conditions which can have a significantly negative effect on the employee's mental health. Even setting aside the increased stress and health concerns with Manager A and B, those of us reading this forum should be very aware that leveraging loss aversion results in more poorly calculated decisions than if we rationally work out a fulfilment plan collaboratively! If you're in a hurry, you have even less room for pure calculation errors!

Note 1: you will also often encounter some good ol' Manager Cs that don't particularly care whether the sale is lost or not. 

Note 2: these people aren't theoretical. I have worked for many Manager As and 2 Manager Bs that have been in this exact situation, though notably I stayed employed with Manager As for significantly longer. I'm sure you can make a reasonable guess why! One of my family members is also a Manager A that regularly works out sales contracts for expedited airplane work, to the point that she's developed a standardized process for her organization. You certainly don't need to apply emotional pressure or other confidence tactics to convince her to help!
 

I'm very curious what type of data set led you to advice 4, since my own observations and every anecdote I have gathered have strongly reinforced the generalization of small distributors being more reliable for expedited orders.

Thanks for sharing these! I can also attest to witnessing you hustle for items fast :) I especially like your point 1

I appreciate these concrete strategies! My family has always encouraged us to “just ask, the worst they can say is no” and not feel bound by existing conventions: for rush ordering/shipping, custom orders, venue or property access, flexibility of deadlines, etc. Some examples I’ve had success with:

  • getting customizations to costumes or art pieces- if the product is not advertised as customizable but already being custom made, this can be done pretty easily and sometimes without additional labor or parts. (Customization increases time, but I bet the production and shipping tips you provide could work well if some degree of urgency is still in place!)
  • Access to private property for birding, including residential and business. People are very flexible, especially if you make it clear what you want to look at! Folks with extensive birdfeeders setup especially love to show off their success at attracting wildlife to random strangers. (You’ll have to generalize this very specific example yourself.) Aaand if they aren’t sure, offering to buy them a beer goes a long ways (Literally going to get them a beer at a bar after, giving them a $20 and saying it’s for beer, or having a beer on hand. I theoretically comprehend why this method is so effective, but dang the stuff is foul.) DISCLAIMER: I live in the North US, and it’s pretty normal here for people to enter each other’s property. If you live in a location where entering a property with permission from one party that isn’t communicated to other parties on the same property will endanger you in any way, please reconsider!!! It is not worth your safety.
  • Regarding deadlines, I am a bit unorganized and perpetually cursed, so there are many many forms, requests, and assignments I have submitted late. This isn’t a good strategy to rely on, but in a pinch, if you see a deadline, ask yourself why it is in place! For standardized forms, almost all of them exist so that staff have a reasonable amount of time to complete processing of the forms before (whatever the next step is). Depending on the timeframe, squeezing in one more to process won’t change their workload significantly the way that moving back the official due date would, so they’re often happy to take your late forms even if the online portal or other standard submission method is now closed. (iirc procrastination statistics suggest around 90% of people overestimate their ability to complete a thing on time, resulting in bulk submissions on the last listed official day. This generally agrees with my experience managing anything with a deadline, with the exception of items people are genuinely internally motivated to complete (This is how I got into a habit of making humorous forms, which provide a small amount of additional motivation)).

All this being said, I haven’t had a ton of luck with production, so I’ll consider these strategies. Thanks!!!!!!!

Side note: being able to afford ten sofas at once would be great. I got mine third-hand for free and had to repair the supporting beams from a previous owner’s drunken bodyslam.

Should there be an "advice for new orgs" tag?

For the record, my sense of the biggest single problem with new orgs is that they don't know that they should read Paul Graham's essays, and more importantly they don't know that they should watch the YC video lectures. I feel in my conversations like I just don't have a shared referent for what a 'functional organization' looks like, these people keep talking about hiring as though it's a good thing, about looking professional, and so on. No, top priority is small number of people, and getting the key thing done impressively fast, whilst letting everything else be on fire.

If people knew they'd be judged for not having read that stuff, I feel like a lot of problems would just go away.