Irina Alexandru has been an integral part of the hardware startup Vector Watch, and she has accepted to talk with us about the manufacturing system of China, its ins and outs, about the cultural obstacles, and how to chose your partners when thinking about production in China. Irina is now Program Manager at Fitbit, and previously she held the same position at Vector Watch, Romanian startup that has been recently acquired by global wearable giant Fitbit. This story is part of our ongoing interviews with tech entrepreneurs and innovators sharing their experiences. See the whole series here and subscribe here to keep you updated on the next interviews that we’ve prepared for you.
What should you know about manufacturing in China — Lessons from Irina Alexandru, Program Manager Vector Watch
Irina — when should a start-up go to China?
Well, I noticed that most of the hardware startups are intimidated by this moment of going to China: it’s a faraway country, it’s a language that no one knows to speak, so we find a lot of reasons to delay this moment. It seems that finding a close manufacturer to us sounds like a good idea and less stress and effort but let’s face it: China is the manufacturing hub of the world since 20 to 30 years. There are industries where we cannot find manufacturers in any other place than China so it seems logical to go there. So, I would recommend all startups to find and define their idea first, gather the team and after that start prototyping the idea in a local prototyping studio. After several iterations of this idea, you find that is validated. So after you validate, this is the right moment to go to China. And when you go to China you should prepare your files; you should do your homework very well, you should have from CAD models to 3d models, schematics all this information about the product.
You should also have things like examples of materials, examples of similar products that will help you explain your idea, and then all this project is ready. So you can now, you can actually go there. Don’t expect to have all the answers to your questions before arriving in China! It’s very important to counter on your partners, and they will probably help you with a lot of things. And you will only understand how manufacturing works after you visit a factory in China.
How do you build a network in China?
You cannot just buy a plane ticket and go to China, you need someone to introduce you to the right factories, to the right people. In our particular case, we worked with our team network who recommended us certain factories to go and visit them. But I also had very good examples of companies, international companies that have offices in China as well and can help startups finding some factories that may help them with the production.
But what I don’t recommend is to count on someone who intermediates all this process. So if you go to a company and they tell you: we will have all the contacts with the factories, you don’t have to speak with them at all, then something is wrong. All these consulting companies will, you know, take out from your margins and delay the process. Because no one knows the project better than you and your team, so you should be the one who goes there with a trusting partner to check the factories and to find the right company for you.
I think that one of the obstacles that entrepreneurs encounter when they go to China is not only related to cultural issues but also about or related to language. Does this apply in your case as well?
Well, I was lucky from this point of view. I had cultural contact with China since my university so I was, I knew what to expect but if you, if you are not familiar with the culture, if you’re not familiar with the language I can give you some advice if you have to go to China and talk with the manufacturer.
So first of all, if you have a real Chinese town nearby just go there and grab your lunch and try to speak with Chinese people, genuine Chinese people. They will probably know how to speak English but they will have a particular accent so you have to understand how they talk and what is their meaning. You’ll also see them speaking loud probably. You don’t have to be afraid; they are not fighting they’re just, you know, talking normally. This is the way they behave.
Also, they enjoy a social life food and, you know, they like gathering around the meal so if you go visiting a factory there expect to have lunch and dinner with your business partners. You will have to share meals on big round tables where everybody eats from the same plates. But once you get used to this is a nice atmosphere and they love to see that Europeans or Western people are enjoying their food and customs so make sure that you let them know anytime you find something tasty.
What can you tell us about shipping? How do you choose the best way, the best methods to ship your products from China?
If you have to manufacture in China, you have two ways of shipping: one is by air, and one is by sea. And it’s just a math process. You will have to see what type of product you have, if your product is weight a lot and has a big volume, you’ll probably have no chance to ship it by plane. It will be too expensive. But if you manufacture small products I’ll suggest to put them in small packaging as well so you might earn a lot of time by shipping them by air. The difference is like from 1–2 days to 30 days. So depending on how urgent the delivery is then you should, you should take the decision. It’s just the math!
What would you advise early stage entrepreneurs maybe first-time entrepreneurs that are now thinking to build a tech product, a hardware product in fact?
I would not underestimate the cost of manufacturing, and how much money you need to make a hardware startup, you need a hardware startup. Also, if you are building a product for consumers you really need to understand how much money the marketing will cost. Having some experience in guerrilla marketing techniques also helps. Because if you want to fight with big brands, you’ll have to find different ways to approach consumers.
But I think most of the failures in hardware startups are because the founders cannot say how much money they need from the beginning and they cannot anticipate the unpredictability of the R&D cost and manufacturing costs and so on. So try to make your budget and put at least fifty percent more.
If you have extra questions for Irina about her experience of working with China or any other business related aspects, you can get in touch with her at email@example.com and get your answers.