What I learned from hacking the hardware capital of the world

Margaux Pelen
May 4, 2017 · 5 min read
Wandering around (photos: Margaux Pelen)

It was the summer of 2015, and I was standing in the middle of a factory floor around Shenzhen, China. I handed David, the factory manager, my business card. It read: Margaux Pelen, Prototype Chief Officer at LearningScan. Except for my name and my interest in the hardware industry, everything was fake. But it didn’t matter. David smiled and nodded. Our factory tour was about to begin.

What exactly was I doing in Shenzhen?

Here’s the official story: I was visiting the city to create and test a new device that optimized how students learned by reading their brain waves. Of course, I had no scientific evidence that this technology was even possible. The real story was that I was in Shenzhen to learn. I wanted to see how hardware components were sourced, prototyped, and manufactured. For a week, I adopted an extreme learning mindset to hack the hardware capital of the world. Here are my top six takeaways.

1/ Getting into a Chinese Factory is easy

On arrival, I knew I had to use Alibaba’s B2B website to ask for the hardware quotes. The morning after my 1st email, I was invited to meet a factory manager so we could talk about the components I needed for the Electroencephalography (EEG) prototype. Three days after, I eventually reached my goal of being offered a sample device that could be implemented.

Example of suppliers you can contact (phone + email) and addresses on Alibaba’s pro website.

2/ Lean on strangers and body language

The factories I wanted to visit are scattered in the remote Guangdong industrial zone. For a Westerner, addresses are confusing to find. For a Taxi, clients are hard to locate. The first few days, drivers couldn’t find me, then they would call me and eventually yell something in Chinese before leaving me without a way to get around. Yet, as close to absolutely lost as I was, I could still create a human connection to navigate. It turned out I didn’t need to speak Chinese to explain the next driver where I was. I just had to “recruit” a Chinese person in the street and give him/her my phone in an energetic move so they could talk to the grumpy driver. No English involved. Just body language.

Bonus tip: Think about copying and pasting the Chinese characters of the addresses you want to go to in the day as you still have access to a VPN & Google Maps.

3/ OEM is the key to massive tech merchandising.

If your product is just a variation of an existing model, it only takes four weeks for an Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) to produce, package and ship it to Europe with your logo on it. Yes, shipping is included. No wonder we are surrounded by so much crappy tech merchandising or co-branded cheap phones.

Example of phone you could use (left) and phone you could produce (partnership between Archos & Quechua)

4/ The “Bon Marché” of raw products and manufacturing is a big deal.

To source raw material and very simple and cheap components, your go-to location is the international hardware market. From the outside, those buildings in Hua Qian Bei looks like department stores. Inside, the navigation system is codified: lowest floors provide the rawest materials and as you go up, pieces are more and more assembled. Here’s a movie by Wired if you want to know more about it.

Hua Qian Bei neighborhood. Left: Ground floor shop — Right: a View from the 5th floor (photos: Margaux Pelen)

5/ “Fake it until you scale it”

Even for sensitive topics such as DARPA’s headless mechanical dog, China isn’t really the land of intellectual property. Nevertheless, I was fairly astonished to witness how much of an non-issue IP was when a company was willing to enter the Chinese market - even in meetings where the founder of the company was in the room! In Shenzhen, intellectual property is theoretical and you’ll be competing with the manufacturing speed and capacities of people copying you (likely powered by a local Chinese company).

6/ The Genetics industry is developing around factories.

I discovered Beijing Genomics Institute (a research institute) was also located in Shenzhen and had invested one billion dollars to uncover the “intelligence gene”. With the powerhouse of the top-performing industries down the street, I felt quite weird about it. What if we could use the Lamb embryo experiment unveiled a few days ago at Shenzhen scale?

My week in Shenzhen was a fairly radical learning experience.

I don’t think I would have been able to grasp 10% of those learnings from my living room, even armed with the best digital and analog resources. Instead, I designed a learning environment relying on the dynamic of this region and trusted my peers to guide me to the next and somehow unplanned steps.

In this regard, I was definitely outside my comfort zone as I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese and was depending 100% on my VPN for most of my digital habits. My brain was permanently under stress and none of my usual landmarks were around: I had no option but to learn super fast so I could reconstruct a model I would feel safe in. I’m guessing that’s how babies learn that fast: they have no choice!

Thanks to Radha Mistry

Margaux Pelen

Written by

Head of Community at CodeControl.io, the best on-demand freelance talent platform.

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