Shenzhen speed dating
The Silicone Valley in the East; the electronic manufacturing hub of the world; the startup Mecca. Call it what you want, Shenzhen is a visual feast of fast-paced industrious companies eager to help you accomplish your production goals.
Having recently returned from Shenzhen scouting out suppliers for a client project, I am bursting with knowledge of electrical consumer products and the manufacturing process. This post sums up some of my observations as a young designer on his first trip to China.
From my experience, being able to travel out to Shenzhen or the nearby Guangzhou or Dongguan is vital in order to secure a high quality manufacturing partner, who can not only bring your idea to life but also deliver it on time. From the various startups I have been able to work with here at Morrama, the most successful have put the time in to either travel to China themselves or send a team from Morrama to establish their links with manufacturers in the East. That is not to say all manufacturing has to be done in China but for mass produced consumer products, it is difficult to find competitive prices elsewhere.
The average day of Shenzhen speed dating requires a lot of energy and motivation, especially when combined with a dose of jet lag and a very humid climate. Below is my top tips for anyone intending to travel out to China in order to find a manufacturing partner. This advice will enable you to make the most of your time there as well as getting the most information from the manufacturers you intend to visit.
Begin your research at home into the companies and manufacturers you wish to speak to in Shenzhen. Finding all you can in advance about the companies will allow you to compile a shortlist and prioritise your time for each there based on factors like the size of the company, how long they have been established and what products they currently produce. Opening a conversation with the company before jumping in a plane will enable you to arrange logistics (don’t forget your visa!) and establish their level of communication in English which will be necessary for your future relationship. This will also help determine whether they are actually a manufacturer or just a supplier, something that can be hard to distinguish between in China.
It’s easy to overlook the potential complications of a language barrier in project management. It is essential that your Chinese manufacturing partner has a an English speaking liaison and you should request them to be present at all of your meetings. They will then be able to communicate with the engineers to answer technical questions and aid with gathering estimations of cost and timelines for your project. One of the most helpful things you can do is prepare a list of questions or topics you wish to cover and send it through beforehand. This will give the company time to prepare responses or a presentation for you and allow you to work methodically through your project during your meetings.
Also, one of the first things that became apparent surprisingly was the need to be constantly connected in order to get by. Everything is done on a smartphone in Shenzhen. From ordering food and taxis to booking hotels and sending payments, you will be completely reliant on your phone, especially if you have no understanding of Mandarin or Cantonese. The city has accepted that it’s citizens and their devices are one and the same, to the point where signs on the metro remind you to look up from your screen when walking through the tunnels.
If you can get a Chinese phone number and use WeChat (the communication app used for everything in China) I would recommend so, otherwise you will be limited to your WiFi in your hotel and communication will become very difficult once you step outside.
The second observation was the friendliness of the people. Many people will warn you of the apparent rudeness towards foreigners in China but in my opinion, this is confused with focus and diligence. Everyone I met was always courteous, often extending both an arm and a leg in order to help. There was also a great sense of pride for their business and their products shown by the companies we visited and they were eager to show us around their offices, staff and factories in order to help secure business. This is the most interesting and useful part of the process as it allows you to see the size of the team you may be working with, meet the engineer or technicians face to face, and also see the working conditions and quality control procedures of factories and assembly lines.
In China the working day begins at either 8am or 9am (if you are lucky) and they are very strict with their work schedules. Make sure you have a good breakfast and plenty of coffee as I can guarantee you will be tired by the end of the day. During their long lunch break from 12pm - 2pm you will often find them sleeping at their desks, preparing themselves for a long afternoon of work until 7 or 8pm.
Allow at least two hours in order to thoroughly discuss a project, so, with travel in between you can expect to visit two companies per day. If a factory visit is also part of your schedule, you may have to set a whole day aside for them, as sometimes they are on the outskirts of the city and you’ll need to factor in lunch first before travelling out to the factory.
Plan out your days in advance before you travel to Shenzhen, as once you are there it will be more difficult to arrange time for meetings. Arrange to be picked up from your accommodation - 90% will be willing to send a representative to meet you there and pay for a taxi or even send a driver to collect you. This will save you a lot of time trying to find their offices, as the addresses in China are impossible to decipher and you can expect nothing to be written in English. One company even sent a Rolls Royce to collect us! That being said if you need to take a taxi they are relatively cheap, as well as having a very good metro in place in Shenzhen.
Human After All
One thing to remember is that even on the other side of the world, everyone is still human and many of the representatives you speak to will also be excited to hear about your life and where you come from. Being in Shenzhen is not a daunting experience and the people who live and work there are often the best people to speak to about what to do with your free time while you’re there. I was fortunate to meet a Sales Director from one of the manufacturers we are working with while she was in London. She was on her holiday and insisted on giving up her time to have a quick meeting with me, which I could not be grateful enough for. I was even able impart some wisdom on what to do and see in London while she was here.
Hopefully this advice will allow you to reap some of the rewards of travelling out to China if you have the opportunity to do so. It is important to realise that finding an established manufacturer and creating a lasting partnership will nourish your business and allow both your company and your manufacturer to benefit. Getting a foot in the door can be difficult at first but with experience and perseverance it is possible. Often manufacturers will even refund tooling cost once you reach a certain number of orders, as it benefits them for you to be selling ten thousand units a month and they will want that repeat business. You are entering into a business agreement with them, so a good relationship is healthy for both parties. In an industry where people move quickly and goods move even quicker, it is important to establish your business with someone you can trust and rely upon to help deliver your product to your eager customers.