But it’s not okay to say “I love ______ but I’m not willing to do ______.”
Let’s stop saying things we don’t mean and start doing things that terrify us. Because the world desperately needs the unique and particular love that only you have to offer.
But, of course, whichever you choose is okay.
(dedicated to Ruth and Glen)
For those that think the path to making your true love manifest is too terrifyingly difficult, I recommend reading What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin, which I’ve never read. But why test all the beers when you know the brewery? (Just for fun, of course!)
While learning the manufacturing process in China this past year, I found a massive reservoir of information on the website Chinaimportal.com. I ended up purchasing what they call The Starter Package, which is a start-to-finish guide for someone like me who was attempting to design, manufacture, and import a product from Asia.
I asked Chinaimportal.com’s co-founder, Fredrik Grönkvist, to answer a few questions based on his assisting me produce the DrawBag in 2017. Chinaimportal.com also ran a nice little feature on the DrawBag this past month, so I wanted to return the favor.
Fredrik has offered a 30% discount to those who find out about The Starter Package through this post, so read on down for the promo code.
John: Hey Fredrik. Or can I call you Freddy? I feel we’ve talked so much over the past year I should be more informal. Or do you have another nickname I can use?
Fredrik: I’ve had many nicknames throughout my life, whether in Swedish, English, or Chinese. Most are (in a friendly way) a lot less flattering than ‘Freddy’ so let’s stick to that.
John: Haha, okay. What’s the simplest way you would describe The Starter Package?
Fredrik: The Starter Package is a set of online tools that enables e-commerce businesses to import products from Asia (not only China), from their home or office. It provides:
Tutorials, videos, and task lists (to guide you through the process)
Supplier lists (PDFs)
Booking system (to arrange quality checks, lab testing, and shipping)
Basically, our customers use the tutorials to navigate the process, and request support from us whenever they get stuck. When you get to the point that you need a quality check, lab testing, and shipping, you can request free quotes from our service partners. We’ll take you from A to Z through the entire process, all from one account.
John: I actually found out about you when I was well into the early stages of manufacture with the DrawBag. I had designed the prototype and chosen two manufacturers. I’d communicated a product specification to them and we had produced a sample or two.
How is The Starter Package useful for someone who has found you halfway through their process, or perhaps has been through the entire process before?
Fredrik: I would say that the majority of our customers actually have already tried to manage the process on their own in the past. For example, they may have contacted suppliers, or they might be at a stage where they need help to check out one particular supplier before they go ahead and place an order with them.
We have always received inquires from companies with very different needs, from early to later stages in the process, so we created tutorials that cover the entire process:
Part 1: Creating a Product Specification
Part 2: Supplier Sourcing
Part 3: Product Samples
Part 4: Production & Quality Check
Part 5: Shipping & Customs
Part 6: Product Safety Standards
You can either start from the beginning of the process, or use it midway through. It took many hours for us to make The Starter Package so comprehensive, but I’m happy we didn’t settle for less. A decent portion of our customers already have suppliers. But they often have questions about product regulations in the US and Europe and how they can improve their quality assurance processes, as you did.
John: You have a newsletter I receive perhaps once a month with information on emerging trends in the manufacturing and importing industries. How is it that you keep up with these changes? And how did you first decide to get into this and create Chinaimportal.com?
Fredrik: I think I spend too much time in front of the computer, haha. But on a more serious note, e-commerce and international trade are a big interest for me.
In 2008 I started importing watches from China. That was during my first year of university. At that point I had never traveled further east than Turkey. Yet, I could already sense an energy coming out of mainland China and Hong Kong. So one year later, in 2009, I signed up for a language course and moved to Shanghai.
Long story short, a dispute with my partner back home forced me to shut down the watch business. I was stranded in Shanghai, short on cash, and with no income. I had no experience working with complex sourcing projects, but I had more than enough inspiration and energy outside my window to get started. I registered our first website, ScandinAsian.se, and outlined the details for our first “Sourcing Package”. We had no traffic and no customers. But through sheer luck, I managed to get featured on a large business portal, and we got our first customers just weeks after setting up the website.
This was 2010, and I didn’t even think about targeting customers internationally. At this stage, we only had a Swedish language website. It was only in late 2012 that I started thinking about Chinaimportal.com. I wanted to do something bigger. Something that could scale. Also, I was fed up with dealing with Chinese suppliers and angry customers. I had never been so stressed out in my life. It’s hard to manage one or two suppliers, so just imagine what it’s like to manage 30 suppliers at the same time. It’s a nightmare and I will never go back there. But I didn’t create Chinaimportal.com on my own.
I first met Ivan Malloci at a dive bar in Shanghai called Windows Too. Ivan had just left his job as a researcher at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou. He had traded this career to launch an affiliate blog about traveling. This blog is now known as Saporedecina.com, and is one of the largest of its kind both in Italian and English. But back then, he wasn’t making a cent.
Still, Ivan knew how to get traffic from Google. I had some experience with this, but Ivan was (and still is) a scientist. So I pitched my confused ideas about what Chinaimportal.com could be, and we got to work. At that point we didn’t have a clear product or service. We only knew that we could potentially make a lot of money if we could get a lot of traffic to our blog about importing from Asia.
John: So, I’m manufacturing the DrawBag in China, and it’s a product that falls into a few different manufacturing categories. It includes a backpack as well as markers, and can be sold to different age groups. I originally purchased the “Apparel & Textiles” package but later utilized the “Children’s Products” package as well. How does a customer know which package to purchase?
Fredrik: For most of our customers, it’s easy to decide which version to choose. But in some cases, like yours, the product falls into several categories. Then we simply give them access to both.
One thing I realized early on was that importers don’t actually care about China itself. Blog or media posts about China don’t really do anything for them. They see China as just a strange country that’s far away. What they do care about is their product and their industry. They want to create a watch brand or an apparel collection, or they have an innovative idea, like the DrawBag. So we focused on really providing essential information in The Starter Package on all categories and industries.
John: I feel I had a lot of questions to ask during that span of about two months midway through my process. You were really quick in getting back to me using the ticketing feature of the Starter Package. How do you keep up with managing questions from your customers? Do you drink Red Bull or espresso shots?
Fredrik: I do drink espresso shots. Two to three double espressos every day. I used to drink Nescafe all the time, but our office has a good coffee machine. It’s even included in the rent!
But, to answer your question: I reply to customer tickets every morning. It takes awhile, but it’s a core part of our service. From my viewpoint, our customers don’t really pay for the tutorials, but for the consulting features.
John: I’ve had manufacturers in the past just disappear with prototypes for other products of mine I had delivered to them to test manufacture. How can Chinaimportal.com help in finding and establishing trust with manufacturers in China?
Fredrik: We provide suppliers lists. Our customers fill in information about the product, design type, and then upload images. Based on this, we can then identify qualified suppliers based on the following:
Product compliance documents (i.e., uploaded test reports)
Quality Management Certification (i.e., ISO 9001)
Social Compliance Certification (i.e., Sedex or BSCI)
Year of Registration
Our goal is to find 5 to 6 “high end” suppliers that specialize in the customer’s product. That said, this supplier list is useless unless the customer follows the tutorials as well.
China is still a developing country. There are no “great suppliers” with fantastic customer support and free design services. If you don’t know how to manage the suppliers, and the overall process, you will fail. A decent supplier is a critical component, but 90% of the outcome is decided by how you manage the process.
And by “process”, I’m referring to the following:
Create a spec sheet
Find out which regulations apply to your product
Order product samples
Sign a sales contract
Get your products quality checked and lab tested
Some importers have the idea that a great supplier will take care of all these things for them, but it doesn’t work like that.
John: Are you running any promotions currently, or can we offer something to my blog readers that won’t be found elsewhere?
We can offer a 30% discount to all readers who order the Starter Package. Simply enter the code THEDRAWBAG during checkout.
The China Import and Export Fair (or Canton Fair) occurs twice a year in Guangzhou, China in both the Spring and the Fall. Most of its exhibitors (officially: “Sellers”) are Chinese, although there are also countries represented from outside the mainland. Some are strictly factories, some are design teams, and some are a combination of the two.
Established in 1957, The Canton Fair has the longest history of any international trading event. It also boasts the largest scale, the most complete exhibit variety, and the largest and broadest buyer attendance. For those looking at manufacturing in or importing from China, it’s worth a visit.
It was while attending the Spring exhibition of The Canton Fair in 2017, that I was inspired to create the DrawBag. I had picked up a kraft paper bag in one booth and immediately thought, “Why hasn’t someone drawn on this thing?” Thus began my own journey into product design and ultimately manufacturing from China.
Most of the Canton Fair’s attendees are foreign importers (officially: “Buyers”) looking for new products to bring to market in their home countries. Others, like myself, are designers looking for manufacturers to collaborate with and for inspiration to work from. However, pictures are typically prohibited around exhibitors’ new products, and business cards are gently demanded. This is so that sellers know who they are dealing with and have a means of follow-up whether you show interest or not.
Using The Canton Fair To Find New Ideas
Because I’ve already settled on my two manufacturers, I go to the Canton Fair now primarily for inspiration. I live just a little way down the metro subway line from the two stops that access the fair, so it’s not hard to drop in.
In a previous blog post I break down the process by which I find new ideas from looking at multiple existing ideas or problems. I recently I went back through my old notebooks and found some ideas inspired from previous attendance at the Canton Fair. Here are a few of them:
Cat habitats with themes (James Bond hideouts, Yoda’s hut, bridge of the Enterprise, etc.)
Old skool physical amplifier for smartphones — like a brass trumpet
Magnets instead of zippers/buttons on clothing
I had the inspiration to create these (at least in my imagination) from looking around at what was being exhibited during the Fair, and doing a mental mash-up with other ideas already in my head. I haven’t actually taking the time to do a google search to see if product like this have been made yet. I don’t actually know if they are even “good” ideas! But they are interesting ideas to me.
Using The Canton Fair to Find a Manufacturer
A friend and early partner found the manufacturer I eventually settled on for producing the DrawBag at the Canton Fair. I’ve been quite pleased with them, and our relationship has expanded to include personal conversations and discussions over dinner about things like the state of education and art in China.
I didn’t meet my marker manufacturer at the Canton Fair, so I’ll discuss that story in a separate post.
The Dangers of Manufacturing in China
I’ve visited five different factories in the past year while developing the DrawBag and two unrelated products. Three of these factory visits resulted in healthy and profitable relationships going forward, while the remaining two factories did not. Instead, these two held onto my designs and prototypes while progressively dropping communication to zero within half a year’s time. Whether these other prototypes are now gathering dust or being produced under some other brand name… I know not.
Background checks are absolutely essential on any manufacturer you are considering working with. Although I learned this the hard way (by getting swindled) I recommend you arm yourself with knowledge before sharing your ideas. Also be aware that a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is only like a bike lock: it’s a useful deterrent, but not an effective means of recovery.
During my learning of the manufacturing process in China this past year, I found a massive reservoir of information on the website Chinaimportal.com. I ended up purchasing what they call “the Starter Package,” which is a start-to-finish guide for someone like me who is attempting to manufacture and import from China.
In a future post, I’ll chat with Chinaimportal.com’s co-founder, Fredrik Grönkvist to discuss a how he assisted me in producing the DrawBag in 2017.
I think many would say (and I don’t necessarily disagree) that you should start a business from something you already love, are already doing, or are already good at, but I’m going to propose an alternate path that may work just as well– that youstart a business based on a new idea from outside of yourself that connects with things you love, but are not necessarily doing yet, or even very good at.
Looking for starting points was a playful time for me, where a train I was riding on or a street I was walking down became a creative field to harvest. What words, sounds, or music attracted me amidst a crowd? Were there any curious materials or designs in the clothes of others on the subway that appealed to me? What problems or challenges were apparent around me?
I tried this out for a number of months, and besides from being quite invigorated, I was able to harvest several notebooks full of ideas. Below are a handful of them:
Umbrella shafts that can be adjusted into angles so the umbrella rests naturally on one’s shoulder and relaxes the arm. (2)
Grips for standing passengers on the subway that light up and play notes/different instruments when pulled a certain way. Encourages riders to make music collaboratively as well as give their seat to others. (1)
A backpack made of kraft paper with an attached marker pocket in the shoulder strap for students’ friends to sign like a yearbook during graduation week. (3)
One obvious thing to point out here is that ideas are free! How great is that? The world, as they say, is your oyster… if you’re willing to fish.
One of the keys for me during this idea-collection stage was to be completely non-judgmental, and to quickly record elements and ideas that tickled me— ones that were attractive in themselves apart from any other meaning or considerations.
As mentioned, I also needed to take note of all of this so that I wouldn’t later forget. For this reason, I carried a notebook with me at all times as well as my phone with its voice recording app.
Later, I would review my notes and put the ideas into one of several categories:
A fun idea, but not realistic or practical to pursue at this time.
A fun idea worth starting immediately.
You can look back at my first list above and now see how I categorized each idea upon review. Notice that I didn’t assign them to categories in terms of being good or bad, but rather based on them being fun, practical, actionable, or not. Even category 1 ideas remain in my notebooks—they aren’t ever deleted. And category 3 is in no way a finished idea… but it is a starting point that by my estimation is worth pursuing.
Believe it or not, within a month and a half I had had filled up more than two notebooks with words and sketches. Most fell into category 1, while the others were fairly balanced between categories 2 and 3.
In a future post I’ll talk about what I did with my category 3 ideas.
Where do ideas come from? Ideas come from all around us.
How do you find ideas? You find them by opening yourself up fully to the world around you. You look, listen, and otherwise invite ideas in freely and without judgment.
How do I record ideas? You can record ideas with a physical notebook you like, on a tablet, or with a voice recording device at the moment of inspiration.
How I do know if an idea is good or not? Don’t worry about this at the beginning. “Good” and “bad” ideas always come together, like an extended family on holidays. All you need to do at first is record the ideas you find interesting.
In proceeding blog posts in the It’s Your Business category, I will share the process of how I went from complete ignorance to some competence and aspirations toward mastery in designing, manufacturing, and marketing an original product in 2017. If you have an idea for something to manufacture (or even if you don’t yet!), I hope this is the year you take the plunge, as I did, and learn how to bring it to life and share it with the rest of the world.
First, I highly recommend you read or listen to Seth Godin’s Linchpin if you haven’t already, as it was a catalyst in pushing me to commit and launch the DrawBag this past year.
Less than a year from the end of 2017, I wrote Seth Godin a brief email (my first to him) thanking him for the inspiration he had given me through his his writing and talks online. And in turn, he wrote back a lovely three-line haiku of a response, which made me want to glaze and frame my laptop screen.
Yeah, I’m a bit of a fanboy of his.
Currently, there aren’t many subscribers to this blog as I’ve just launched in December and I’m running this show of getting the word out basically by myself, but I hope in time I might also become a source of inspiration and encouragement to others in what I write here. For that to happen, I’ll have to take risks, continue learning things valuable to both of us, and find ways of sharing them with you.
When I was a kid, my mom packed a homemade version of Fruit Roll-Ups in my paper lunch sack. It was called Fruit Leather. It seemed about five times as thick as a Fruit Roll-Up and you could probably knock someone out with it if you were to whip them in the back of the head hard enough.
The paper from which the DrawBag is made is also pretty tough. It’s tear-proof, won’t easily break under load, looks great, and with a good soak in water and a drip-dry, it’s back to its original shape and look. Technically, it’s called kraft paper, and the process by which it’s made was invented by a German named Carl F. Dahl back in 1879.
All variations of kraft paper are remarkably strong, with elasticity and tear-resistance thanks to the process by which it’s made. Due to its versatility, kraft paper has a number of applications, such as the packaging of deli meat, providing a base for sandpapers, and lining cartridges for hunting ammunition.
It should be mentioned as well that kraft paper is eco-friendly.
Not all wood can be used for traditional paper-making, although the kraft process allows for some wood that can’t be used otherwise, including bamboo and resinous pine. Almost all of the chemicals used to produce kraft paper are recovered and reused in the same process, and the two main byproducts which are not recycled (turpentine and tall oil) can be reused in other manufacturing processes. Kraft paper is not extensively bleached, which maintains its strength and decreases manufacturing costs. And, being a mono-material, kraft paper is bio-based and bio-degradable, and is easily recycled.
What a champ, right?
Most papers are made from wood, although they can be made from other fibers, too. Wood is composed of lignin and cellulose. Lignin isn’t very good for making paper, so it has to be removed during the paper-making process while the cellulose is preserved. However, during Dahl’s kraft process, the way in which these two are separated is unique and leads to the special properties of the paper.
Kraft paper begins as long-fibered softwood which is shredded into chips. These wood chips are steamed and then boiled in a mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide which chemically break down the bonds of the wood. Once these bonds are broken, the lignin can be separated from the cellulose. However, this particular chemical breakdown is slow enough that it maintains the strength of the wood’s connective fibers and helps to create a very strong and durable paper at the end of the process.
Kraft means strong in German, and that’s why the paper was originally given the name. In China (where I currently live), I found that kraft paper is called niu pi zhi or “bull-skin paper” because of its natural brown color as well as its toughness. But I felt it still needed another common name that conveyed its character and qualities when used for the purposes of fashion.