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Cherry picking suppliers in China

I’ve just spent a few weeks criss-crossing China, visiting exotic sounding cities and villages, in the hope of selecting the right supplier/manufacturer for the final assembly of LifeinaBox. I felt like Paul Theroux, riding the iron rooster through China.

Choosing the right manufacturer in China is of paramount importance. As some of you know, I have made some disastrous choices in the past, resulting in poorly run businesses that tended to inflate and then burst. This is partly due to a problem that I call “quality fade”. We, in the West, running our branded businesses, selling concepts as much as selling products, have put so much pressure on prices from manufacturers in China that an entire sector of the industry is walking on the edge of a knife. It is normal every now and then for one of them to slip and fall on the knife.

“Quality fade” is an analogy. It’s about the same thing as if you leave a photograph in a window in the sun. Every day, the sun leaches out the colours imperceptibly. Every day, you walk past the photo without actually looking at it and without noticing the gradual loosing of the colours. Then one day, you look at the photo and notice that all the colours have leached out.

With many manufacturers in China, the first production run is perfect. So you love it… And you trust the manufacturer to continue in the same vein. And you re-order a second, a third, a fourth time. And with each order, unbeknownst to you, there are small modifications going on inside the product. Instead of using 1mm gauge wire inside the product, it has been switched to 0.8mm gauge, because it’s 50 cents cheaper a ton. Then on the next production, 3 screws are used instead of 4, and then the screws are replaced by a glue gun, etc, etc, etc. Every change is so imperceptible that you don’t notice it, but when one day you open the device, it is all just crap inside. That is quality fade…

More often than not, a product that has gone through more than 5 or 6 production runs in China is just a pale imitation of what it should be, because of quality fade.

Another problem is management of innovation with Chinese engineers. I have been innovating my entire life, constantly trying to think out of the box. I have a habit of asking students for their opinions. The reason I do this is that I feel that for certain products I have an industrial baggage that stops me from thinking creatively. Basically, if you ask me to design a blood pressure monitor, it will look like a blood pressure monitor, because I have been involved in the design of about 100 different models of blood pressure monitors over that last 20 years and I know that this is how you make a blood pressure monitor. But if I ask a student who has never designed a blood pressure monitor to design one, he will maybe do something completely stupid, but he will also maybe do something completely new, opening a door, because he does not have my industrial baggage that tends to curtail innovation.

Everything is impossible, until someone else does it...

Meetings with engineers are great because they allow you to understand the limitations of technology, but that is also dangerous. A couple of times during this trip in China I had situations where I was trying to explain a new idea to engineers in a meeting. Sometimes just off-the-cuff creative thinking (“but if we use a hot curling iron and 4 live racoons it might work…”), and I was faced with a Great Wall of Chinese of refusal. “No, it has to be done this way, it’s the way we’ve always done it!!!”. And trying to explain to these engineers that everything is impossible until someone else has done it is not an easy task.

One of the suppliers I visited invited me to the mountains during the weekend to pick cherries with staff. A truly wonderful experience. For Lifeina, I also have the privilege of cherry-picking my suppliers, to ensure that quality of production, and quality of communications remains perfect. And this is for me one of the most important facets for any startup that is involved in developing hardware.

Hardware is hard… Everybody knows it, investors are afraid of hardware because of the much larger capital required to make successful hardware. But if hardware is done well, with the right components and suppliers, and also has a built-in plan for software, it has a much more intrinsic value that simple software. So the battle is worth is…

But you really have to cherry-pick your partners…


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