Designed for German alpine troops, the original Gebirgsjäger is recognized as a classic bit of military gear. In recent years, it’s been replicated and manufactured in China, with original packs harder to find.
I bought my first Gebirgsjäger rucksack as an undergraduate art student, and then sold it nearly two decades later to a mate in Sydney after traveling with it all over the world. It had barely aged.
About a year ago, I purchased a second from (the famous) Jim Korn of Kaufman’s Army & Navy in Hell’s Kitchen. This one became the source material for my re-envisioning process.
Why is the Bundeswehr rucksack a classic? Here are three of my favorite features:
Firstly, (thanks to some clever stitching) the side pouches allow for skis or poles to be inserted vertically behind them. Not a common feature on a civilian pack, but maybe it would be of use when returning from the Home Depot with a pair of baseboards.
Secondly, the internal sleeve at the rear of the pack accepts a folding sleeping mat which also doubles as back support when inserted. This seems a spiritual predecessor to the now hip FjällRäven Kånken, which was originally designed for students. The Kånken No.2 includes a siting pad placed in a similar position.
Thirdly, the overall style is similar to the packs my G.I. Joes used to hump around the battlefield of my bedroom floor in the eighties. And that’s pretty dope.
In July of 2018 I took the first prototype of a paper version with me to Bali for a bit of field testing.
It was a good first outing, and provided some useful insights. My plan is to refine the pack in the next few months, and then give it a second field test over four weeks in August while patrolling on my Santa Cruz Chameleon in SE Asia.
I also drafted four lines that explain what the pack ultimately represents in its re-envisioning:
It’s not about what you have, but what you leave behind. It’s not about seeking comfort, but embracing the tension. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but being where you are. It’s not about what’s currently trending; it’s about what is ultimately timeless.
Once I had manufactured the DrawBag in late 2017, I needed to integrate my WordPress/WooCommerce website with a fulfillment service to get it out to customers in the US and Australia/NZ.
I had considered both Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) as well as other third party logistics (3PL) companies in North America, but ultimately for reasons of small volume, cost, and manageability, I chose a fulfillment company just next door to where I lived in Guangzhou called ChinaDivision.
As part of a series of blog interviews with individuals who helped me learn and launch the DrawBag in 2017, I recently messaged back and forth with ChinaDivision’s Tony Yu, who was my point-man in dealing with website orders and samples sent around the world.
John: So, Tony… tell us a bit about ChinaDivision’s history.
Tony: ChinaDivision is a business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) brand of CNstorm Co. created in 2011 to deliver solutions for clients worldwide. As e-commerce has continued to grow, we’ve developed the experience in fulfillment and technology to support such global expansion.
John: Where is ChinaDivision located, and what kind of services do you provide for your international clients?
Tony: We are a dedicated local office in China where clients around the world connect, both online and offline, to source, stock and ship international goods directly from China to whatever global destinations are required. Our facilities are located in Shenzhen, near the international parcel processing center of Hong Kong.
In addition to these broader services, we also offer some value-added ones like customized packaging, brand upgrading, and marketing inserts to customers before products go out. Basically, we want to partner closely with you to be sure your customers are satisfied!
John: How did you personally got involved with ChinaDivision? Is your background in supply chain management?
Tony: I’ve been in foreign trade for some time. But two years ago, I found out about Chinadivisison and its place in this brand-new order fulfillment industry, which really attracted me. So I decided to join.
John: Cool. I partnered with you to provide fulfillment services for my first manufacturing run of the DrawBag, which consisted of only 1000 units. How does ChinaDivision work with small startups like mine with limited capital and resources?
Tony: Our main rule in doing business is that we must succeed together!We don’t have minimum order quantity (MOQ) limits but basically accept all clients who want to use our fulfillment services. We partner with you in managing this process as your business grows. So we are quite startup friendly.
John: What are the advantages of doing warehousing and fulfillment from China for sellers shipping to North America or the EU?
Tony: There are actually ten reasons we believe make the case for doing fulfillment from China and with ChinaDivision, which we’ve laid out here.Basically, we focus on greater efficiency, lesser cost, and complete control.
John: Have you traveled a bit outside of China yourself? What do you do when not working?
Tony: Not yet. I have to admit that during the weekend I like to purchase on Amazon or other international e-commerce platforms. I enjoy the shopping process myself!
John: Have you bought a DrawBag yet for your kids?! 😀 I know you’ve shipped out a few of them.
Tony: My son is only two years old, so I’ll have to buy one for him later.But I showed a photo of the DrawBag to my wife (she’s 24 years old ) and she told me she liked it and wanted to share it with her friends.
John: Do you have any special offers or discounts for new clients?
Tony: Yes! We offer our new clients three months free storage in our warehouse facilities for up to 3 cubic meters (CBM) of goods. This is useful for startups who may not be doing high volume in the early days.
John: That was actually almost exactly how much space my 1000 DrawBags and markers took up, wasn’t it?
Tony: Yes, that’s right. And after the three months, the charges are quite reasonable.
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.