Some things to consider when you have a new product and need a mold

Someone came to me with a new product the other day, an artistic and fanciful light fixture that they want to have made in China. They have tried to find someone to manufacture the product here in the US but, as you would expect, the cost is prohibitive.  The person has had some rough molds and prototypes made here and suggested that he could send these to China and have someone there run some samples for him and then maybe a small production order.  Not a good idea, I said.  There are a few things to consider here.

  • The molds this person has made might not be compatible with machines in China In fact, I bet this would be China vendor response were he to send the molds to China.
  • Compatibility of machines notwithstanding, vendors in China stand to make a good profit if they make a mold for a customer and they do not want to forfeit this profit.  And this is why when you get quotes for molded products the mold costs can be all over the board, so to speak. If you ask three vendors to quote on a mold, chances are their quotes will be off by thousands of dollars, because someone is making a hefty profit from the mold. I had project a few years ago for which I needed a mold and the quotes, for the same mold, were anywhere from $3,000.00 to $20,000.00.
  • If you send a vendor in China a mold you may not be able to get the mold back. You never know who you are dealing with and the vendor may just take the mold and start using it themselves.

If you do get your mold made in China make sure you know who you are dealing with because sometimes a factory will claim they own the mold, even though it is your design and you have paid for the mold.  There have been so many disputes like this over the years between SME’s and vendors in China that you just have to expect it to happen.  Just go over to the China Law Blog for some stories. To protect yourself you should have everything spelled out clearly in writing, as to who owns the molds and when they will be returned to you, and you should also be sure you have legal rights to your design before you ask someone in China to make the mold for you.

Finally, really the best way to do a molded product would be to have the CAD work done here in the US, including drawings and 3-D renderings, and then to send these to China so a mold can be made for you. In this way, you can project to vendors in China that you are serious about your product, for drawings look official and will show all proprietary information. Should any dispute arise with them you will have a record of your designs, what you would not have if you asked the vendor to do both the CAD and mold for you.

Needless to say, these are all costs you have to expect to incur if you have a unique product that you want to have manufactured overseas.  But if you can do it, it is worth it.

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Attending the Canton Fair for the first time ? Prepare, prepare, prepare.

The Fall Canton Fair is coming up next month.  I have not been to the Fair in a couple of years and I do miss it, from the excitement as we get on the shuttles to the fair every morning to a cold beer in the hotel bar with other traders at the end of a long day.  It is kind of like being on tour with the Rolling Stones.  I always prefer the fall fair to the spring fair because the spring fair usually coincides with the onset of rainy season and with May Day which can make travel in and out of China pretty uncomfortable.  The fall is much nicer weather wise and the major fall holiday, National Day, occurs well before the fair. So if you are planning on attending one of these fairs, by all means go in the fall.

I had an email from someone the other day who is headed over to the Canton Fair next month. He will be attending Phase 2 of the fair looking for toys for his online business. This will be his first visit to China and he is understandably nervous.  I told him he needs to prepare, prepare, prepare.  This means putting together a list of the vendors he would like to meet with, contacting them prior to the show and then mapping out his visits beforehand.  The fair is too immense to just ‘wing it’ as they say.  If I remember correctly Toys take up Hall 14 1-3 and some space in adjoining halls 13 and 15 meaning there are probably between 1200-1500 toy vendors.  Needless to say, no one can visit that many vendors in a few days’ time, and by not spending time on the CF website before the show, contacting suppliers, you may miss some perfectly good vendors if you walk the show unprepared.   Additionally, there is a psychological benefit to contacting vendors prior to the show, for you go to Canton feeling that you know someone.  And when vendors know you are coming they are usually very welcoming. This will make you feel more relaxed and give you more confidence as you walk the show.  You need that confidence because not only are there so many booths to walk past but everyone is Chinese. If you are coming from Boca Raton Fla is the person who emailed me is, then you are probably going to feel like a fish out of water in China.  Whatever you can do to minimize this feeling you should do. The more relaxed you are in China, the more positive you will feel about your business there and the better will be your chances for success back home. And it all starts with preparation.

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How to get started in China sourcing

I had a call yesterday from an old client of mine, a company that sells a very popular line of kids bags ( I see them all around town here). The woman who started the company sent me to China several years ago to attend the Canton Fair on her behalf and now her husband, Richard, has joined the company. This company is typical of many small companies and start ups I have met over the years. They start their business with the aid of a China sourcing agent and the scope is small for the first few years. But then as the product starts to take off the company becomes more sensitive to quality and cost and they begin to outgrow their sourcing agent. And it sounds like this is what is happening with this company.

Richard will be in charge of sourcing and vendor management and he called to pick my brain on China. He said that that the company now uses just one supplier and although that supplier has been pretty good in terms of quality and pricing, there have been issues. One issue is they really know very little about the supplier as the orders are handled by a middleman. I sensed in listening to Richard that this was a typical scenario as I have outlined above; the company is growing and wants to have more control over pricing as their orders get bigger. Using a middleman, however, means they have less control. Still, I advised Richard not to bite the hand that feeds you. This middleman has helped grow the business to what it is now, a very successful company that is on the verge of national brand recognition. But, I said, if the frustrations are growing in the relationship it is time to start looking for other vendors. There is nothing wrong in doing this and, in fact, you never want to limit yourself to one supplier or one agent.

Richard asked me if it was a good idea to put together a list of vendors in China and to make a trip there. This sounds good but it would be hard to make such a list using alibaba and global sources. These sites really don’t tell you much about vendors and you really have no way of distinguishing who is a manufacturer and who is a trading company. I would add that unless you really know China I think it would be hard to draw up an itinerary for a sourcing trip where you are visiting vendors for the first time. One vendor might be in location A and another in Location B. The distance on the map may look close but in fact it may take a full day to get from A to B because of traffic and poor roads. I speak from experience. I used to make itineraries for China trips but they seldom went as planned. There was always the unexpected to deal with, a road that was under construction forcing you to take a lengthy detour, an un-scheduled power outage, the unannounced unavailability of a vendor you had gone to visit, inclement weather esp in the summer. When you travel to China to visit more than one vendor, you should give yourself plenty of time, building in at least 2-3 days per vendor visit, not including travel days. For a first trip to China putting together a list of potential vendors and attempting to visit them would not be the way to go.

Instead I told Richard that he should go to the Canton Fair or the Hong Kong Sourcing fair which are held concurrently twice a year, in April and October. These fairs are the best introduction to sourcing in China for small businesses. The value in attending the Canton Fair, for example, is that you don’t have to trapise all over China to meet vendors. They are all right there in Guangzhou for you. Of course there are many vendors to avoid at these fairs, vendors you just do not want to deal with. But there are good vendors as well. At the very least you get a lot of feedback on your product and you will arrive at a truer understanding of your product design and cost by virtue of talking to so many knowledgeable people about it. You will also be able to see many other products on display which will aid your company’s own product development.

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How to schedule new vendor visits when in China

I got an email the other day from someone who was headed over to China to inspect an order and wanted to find out how they could perhaps meet some new vendors while they were over there. They were not leaving themselves much time as they were set to leave in 24 hrs when they emailed me. I told them that the best thing to do was to line up these visits well before their trip but as that did not happen this time, there were still two things they could do as follows:

1.) Do a vendor search by province and city on the Canton Fair website.  The website allows you to do this and it is very helpful if you want to locate vendors in a specific city, as this person wanted to do.  You can then type in the keyword for your product and you will get some results.  For example, when I typed in “toys” for Dongguan City in Guangdong Province I got 14 results. I think you can do the same on Alibaba.

2.) Work through the concierge at the local hotel. Depending on which hotel you are staying at in China concierges will do everything for you and this would include looking up factories that might be of interest to you. Of course they won’t be able to do much beyond giving you a name and number, but really that is all you need to begin. If the vendor has booked the hotel for you then you don’t want to ask the concierge for help with a project of this nature. The reason is that the hotel would most likely report to the vendor that you were looking for other vendors and your vendor would not be happy. I have seen this happen before. Vendors get possessive with their customers, especially if your orders are big, and they always want to keep an eye on you to make sure you are not running off to the competition on your off day. However, If you have booked the hotel yourself it is probably safe to ask the concierge to help you locate other vendors while you are in China. You can also perhaps ask someone in the hotel business center to do this for you but you would probably have to pay them for this.

Finally, it is a good idea if you are spending any length of time in a city or going back repeatedly to get to know some locals, perhaps a student who is looking for some translator work. This person can then help you on inquires of this nature and may be able to do things for you such as booking hotels and transportation. In fact when you go to the Canton Fair you will see hundreds of students outside the main hall looking for translator work during the fair. Knowing locals like this can be extremely helpful as you develop your business in China.  Just remember that if you do hire someone to help you out on a regular basis then you need to do so in accordance with the labor laws in China.

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A letter from a start up that wants to source in China

I had an inquiry from a person in Australia this morning. I get so many inquiries like this so I thought I would publish the inquiry and my reply accordingly. I think it will be useful for others who are experiencing the same frustrations in their China sourcing.

Hi,

I have read quite a number of your blogs and I wanted to ask you for some advice. My name is Robert and I am in the process of forming a startup active wear label in Australia. I have a pattern maker here in Australia so that part is covered but otherwise I am not sure how to progress forward to having my line manufactured. I have found the process to source a quality manufacturer in China who is willing to work with me both time consuming and very difficult. To start my runs will be small as I don’t know what will work for my target market and what wont. Over time this is something I hope to develop obviously, but I see the need right now to work with someone who understands China and how best to bring a product from design to production. I am hoping you can help me out or point me in the right direction.

Any help or tips are most welcome

Thank you

Dear Robert.

The first step before you do anything is to finalize your designs.  Then based on one of your completed designs I would make a special mock design for a prototype and start sending this out to vendors for feedback/ quotes. Please note that you have to be very specific about sizing and material specifications, as well as packaging. Don’t neglect any product detail. In other words, you really have to know your design and product needs inside out (no pun intended). Where most people have problems is that they have not finalized their design, and don’t understand their own product. And then they leave it to their vendor to educate them. Not only does this add considerable time and cost to a project but it tells potentially good vendors that you are an amateur.  That is not the kind of message you want to send to someone whom you are about to enter into a contractual agreement with.   Here is a little synopsis of what you need to do.

1.) Finalize your designs.  Pantones, sizing, material specifications.  Testing requirements if applicable (children’s clothing).  All packaging as well down.

2.) Project your first order QTY and target cost. Remember that the cost of your product will go up with packaging and shipping so be aware of this when you try to come up with a target cost.

3.) Reach out to vendors. Start with 20 vendors.  You can use alibaba for this or I can help you working from my file of vendors, which is substantial and generally does not cover the same landscape as alibaba.

4.) See who gives you the best price and who leaves you with the best impression as far as quality of response/feedback goes.  Watch carefully and eliminate two types of vendors as follows: those who are very slow to reply to you or those whose cost is simply prohibitive for your needs. Aim to have 6-7 vendors after this weeding out process.

5.) Go down to your local discount chain and buy a product that has similar material/packaging specifications as your own. Send pcs aka swatches of this material along with one of your designs to the 5-6 vendors you have targeted.  See what kind of revised pricing the vendors come back with. Once again eliminate vendors whose response is feeble or whose revised cost is simply too high.  At this point, maybe you have 3-4 vendors who look promising.

6.) Request samples but watch out for excessive sample fees. If a vendor overcharges you on a sample it will likely mean that they will over-charge you in production. Stay away from vendors like this.

Good luck !

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When sourcing in China, find yourself a China expert

Most of the small businesses or micro businesses aka startups that come to me are on a budget. When I tell them what I charge for a sourcing project, a fraction of what other sourcing agencies charge, I am sure they are thinking “why should I pay this guy to put together a list of vendors for me when I can just go on Alibaba and find some vendors on my own. “ If I were starting a business that is probably how I would think as well, for Alibaba is just so easy to use when you are trying to find a supplier in China. In some ways I have no problem with this because when you are just starting out you need to be prepared to do everything yourself, to wear many hats as the expression goes. But let’s say I was sourcing something in Brazil. How confident would I be looking for a vendor in Brazil when I did not speak any Portuguese and could not even say so much as hello in Portuguese. The answer is not very. I would be limiting myself to a handful of vendors who spoke some English not to mention the fact that I would be doing business in a country whose language and culture I did not understand, which, common sense tells me, would lead to big problems sooner or later. I would have absolutely zero confidence placing an order with a vendor in Latin America without the expertise and advice of someone who had done business in Latin America. And figure that China is a hundred times more difficult a place to do business than Latin America. But I think the best analogy is buying a house. Buying a house is a complicated process and is often the single biggest investment in one’s life. And even if you know a lot about real estate it is probably not advisable to dispense with the services of a Real Estate agent when buying a new home. And most certainly not if you were a first-time home buyer. So if you want to start importing from China, find someone who knows China. It will cost you some money but it may end up saving you a lot of money over the long term.

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If you are confused when you hear OEM, you are not the only one.

One of the more confusing terms you hear when you start to source in China is OEM. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer. It was first used widely in the computer and automotive industries where component parts (numbering in the thousands) were supplied by many different manufacturers and these manufacturers were referred to as OEM suppliers. OEM was simply a term coined to designate the manufacturer of the component part as opposed to the manufacturer of the  product as a whole. Apple Computers for example, manufactures computers made up of thousands of parts. Although Apple may manufacture some parts themselves e.g. computer cases,  most parts, for example. motherboard components are provided to Apple by outside companies which specialize in the manufacture of these parts. These then are known as OEM suppliers.

These days however OEM pretty much refers to any supplier in China, whether they are selling parts or finished goods, In fact most companies you see on Alibaba advertise themselves as OEM suppliers, even those that are really no more than trading companies. So that is one change: Whereas OEM used to refer strictly to a parts it now refers to a part or a finished product if that product is going to be rebranded or sold under private label.

Another change in the meaning of OEM is that it now as often refers to a buyer as it refers to a supplier. If, for example, I buy some toys from China and resell them under my brand in the US I am engaged in the OEM business. In fact, the term OEM, it seems, has really come to be synomous with sourcing in China.

In short, OEM is at once so widely used and yet so confusing that I do my best to ignore it whenever possible. If you are confused then do as I do and pay no attention to OEM.  Using the term adds nothing to your conversation with your supplier and often just comes across as jargon.

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How to choose a Trade Fair in China

This morning I received an email from an American, “Jake” living in Krygstan, a small Central Asia country bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan . He and his wife have a business there selling women’s apparel. He has been buying product from China from a middleman there in Krygstan but he finds prices are too high and that he would be much better off going to China directly. I think he has the right idea. When I lived in China in the 1980s-90s the Silk Road was thriving. Whenever we would go to the wholesale markets in Shanghai we would see we would see traders from all over Central Asia including many of the Soviet Bloc countries (In those days the USSR was intact). And this is still the case today.

Jake told me he is going to Shanghai next month to attend a trade fair and that this will be his first time in China. He was asking me what advice I could give him. The name of the trade show he will be attending was not familiar to me and so my first piece of advice to him was that he should make sure he picks the right trade show, because there are a lot of shows in China, some good but many probably not worth attending. There are shows in China that are full of 3rd tier vendors, usually small cottage industry vendors, and these are probably not the kinds of vendors you want to deal with if you have a design driven product. Yet these shows are well-publicized and you can easily be led to believe you are attending one of the biggest shows in China. You show up in China to find a massive exhibition hall with just a couple hundred trade show booths and no foreign customers in sight. I have seen these shows many times. It is like seeing a watercolor exhibition in the Georgia Dome. So the first thing is to carefully research the fair you are thinking about attending. There are ways to research the fair, reading online reviews of trade fairs in China, asking about the fair in a Linked In Group specific to your industry, and sometimes just asking a handful of Alibaba vendors which shows they attend and see if the show you are interested comes up. It is also a good idea to call a local company that sources overseas and ask them which shows they attend. As long as you have a non-competitive product they should be perfectly willing to share their insights with you. A general rule is this, if you cannot find anyone who has been to the show you are thinking about attending, then don’t think about attending yourself.

I told Jake that he made a good decision to focus on Shanghai as Jiangsu Province, bordering Shanghai, is where so much textile production takes place. But he probably should have waited to attend Intertextile Shanghai, the biggest textile fair in China. The bigger and more established the show, the better vendors you will have a chance to meet, and the more likely it is that you are going to meet someone who can help you build your business. And this is the virtue of the Canton and Hong Kong sourcing fairs as well. These shows are well known in all corners of the world and although there are plenty of vendors you probably do not want to do business with, and although they may not be the best fairs if you have a high end product, you can usually find someone who can teach you a different way to look at your product and thereby help you grow your business.

In short going to a trade fair in China is a good first step. But research the show carefully and find the show that is best for your needs. Or as they say in China 量体裁衣. Cut the garment so that you can wear it.

Here are some more posts on Trade Fairs in China

Canton Fair 2012

Preparing for the Canton Fair

Don’t go unprepared to Trade Fairs in China

Canton Fair 2011

Some valuable lessons from a China sourcing project

I just finished a project helping a start up apparel company find a supplier in China. This company is showing at a trade show this month and they just received the show samples which they were very pleased with. The vendor I set them up with, a vendor I met in China a few years ago, has been great to work with. They have been very responsive and worked effortlessly to get samples to my client in time for her show. It was close though. My client did not communicate her show sample needs to me immediately the result being that we had to grapple with month delay because of Chinese New Year and ran the risk of not getting the samples in time.

Reflecting on the order yesterday I told myself, yes there are valuable lessons to be learned on almost every order it seems. Accordingly here are the lessons on this order:

1.) As soon as you know your show schedule and your sample needs communicate those to vendors or agents or anyone you are working with on the order. In general you should give vendors three months to get samples ready for you. That may seem like a long time but remember vendors are busy people and have other customers as well.

2.) Check the calendar of the country where you are sourcing and look for major holidays which might mean hiccups in production or delivery. In China, for example, you do not want to schedule anything, samples or bulk production, around CNY or National Day. These are not garden variety national holidays but major holidays that usually result in 2-4 week work stoppages. In the West, or Japan, a holiday means a few days off. Not so in other parts of the world.

3.) Don’t stop when you have found a good vendor. The client I refer to here is a small business. The vendor I have set her up with is a big factory that can count Disney and the Gap among their customers. I would not normally set up a small business with a big factory but this vendor is very responsive, professional and can give my client a good cost based on economies of scale. I have also met them and have established some rapport with them over the years. This is not the first project I have run by them. Having said all that I have told my customer that in order to keep the vendor’s interest she will have to increase her orders over time and establish a good working relationship with the vendor. Hopefully the samples she just received will go a long way in helping her do that. But at the same time she should be looking for other vendors in the event she is not able to increase her orders to the satisfaction of her vendor.

And this is the model you follow when you source in China. Always.

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Evaluating a potential supplier – more tips

I have been thinking more about this over the last several days and I have come up with a couple more tips that you might find useful when trying to determine if a prospective supplier is right for you. These are as follows:

1.) Consider how far your vendor lives from the factory. You are going to be communicating with your vendor on a regular basis and will be expecting them to pass on all of your instructions and concerns to their workers. It is imperative, therefore, that the vendor lives in close proximity to the factory and is there at least a few times a week. “Mr Huang” in my previous post lived three hours from his factory and relied on his brother – who lived nearby – to manage the workers. When I was at the factory, I asked one of the workers how often Mr. Huang or his assistant came to the factory and was told once every two weeks. Vendors do not like to go to the factories because the roads are bad causing significant wear and tear on vehicles, there are sometimes significant bottlenecks with the traffic meaning a three-hour trip can take all day and, most importantly, there is an abundance of down-time at the factory and nothing to do.

2.) It can sometimes be insightful to meet a vendors family. I will never forget making a trip to China to talk to a couple of suppliers, one from Anhui and one from Guangxi Province. I spent a few days with each and in that time had occasion to meet their families. Mr Zhang, the Anhui vendor, had a son whom he seemed to be having significant trouble with. He was attending a private school in Beijing but, from all appearences, was not very motivated. Well, as it turned out, Mr. Zhang’s son was just like Mr. Zhang. Even when we dangled promises of lucrative orders in front of him, Mr Zhang moved with all the alacrity of a snail. He was always behind on the production and shipping schedule and this caused significant problems with our customer because we were delivering a seasonal product. In fact at one point our customer had to stop their order processing just to wait for our deliveries. After just one year we cut ties with Mr. Zhang.

Mr. Ma, the Guangxi vendor, on the other hand, was an impeccable vendor. Although he could not boast first-rate production facilities he always delivered product on time that was according to specifications and very clean. But this was not surprising to me after meeting Mr. Ma’s son, a sharp kid who was studying engineering at a very good university in Beijing. He also spoke great English. In fact, Mr. Ma’s other two sons were also attending very reputable universities. That a rural vendor – Mr. Ma lived close to the factory, five hours from the nearest city – would be able to send three children to good universities spoke volumes about Mr. Ma’s work ethic and values. Of course, you are not going to select a vendor just because he sends his son or daughter to a good university, but how he/she runs his/her family can be a clue as to how he/she runs his/her business.

These, then, are some of the little things that can help you to evaluate a vendor.