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Selling Ice to Eskimos and Chopsticks to the Chinese

We’ve all heard the term “he could sell ice to Eskimos” to describe the consummate salesman who is able to convince someone to buy something for which they either have little need or likely have ample supply on hand.  Or perhaps we’ve heard “he could sell them the shoes off their feet.”  In either case the idea is that for those with the gift of persuasion, it is possible to convince someone to purchase something based less on need and more on charisma and charm.  There may soon be a new term in our vernacular that could describe one U.S. company, Georgia Chopsticks—“They can sell chopsticks to the Chinese.”

In a town ironically named Americus, Georgia two hours south of Atlanta, that is precisely what Jae Lee has set out to do, producing 2 million Chopsticks each day destined for Japan, Korea and yes, even China.  In May of this year, the Americus-Sumter County Payroll Development Authority (PDA) made a formal announcement that Georgia Chopsticks, LLC would open a production facility in Americus that employs 150 people.  According to Lee, China with its 1.3 billion population lacks ample natural resources to support demand for chopsticks and on Tuesday, May 31 a formal ribbon cutting ceremony was held to mark the opening of their plant.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution Lee who started his chopsticks business in Cochran last November, sent a couple of samples overseas, and within a few months needed to expand.  Said Lee, “I knew there was a need and I thought I could make a profit.”  Imagine that.

“We tend to think that the Asians take care of that pretty well,” said David Garriga of the Americus-Sumter Payroll Development Authority, the economic agency that owns the plant that Lee rents in the city’s old industrial park. “For Americus, the chopsticks factory represents a flashback to its days as a manufacturing center,” Garriga said. But as many companies shifted work overseas, many shops shut down.

So why aren’t more companies strategizing to include China in their plans?  In an October 6, 2010 Bloomberg Press report it was estimated that China market was valued at $150 billion in potential goods and services or a top ten global opportunity for U.S. companies. “U.S. companies have experienced tremendous commercial success in China’s market and the prospects for future growth are significant,” says Erin Ennis, vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

China has become the U.S. third largest customer for things like Greentech, machinery, luxury items and even wine.  China’s expanding consumer market clearly has an appetite for Western brands.  Thanks to the gateway of information available through the internet, television and other media there is almost built-in demand for products from the West.  As long as companies are focused on things like quality and safety the market is stronger now than in the history of our trade relationship.

“The Chinese appetite for fashion has become voracious,” says Farooq Kathwari , chairman, chief executive officer, and president of Ethan Allen Interiors.   “The observation that ‘we first dress ourselves, then we dress our homes” applies equally in China. For years, French, British, Japanese, and American clothing designers have taken China by storm. It was a natural evolution that consumers so immersed in couture and inspired by the biggest names in fashion would turn next to fashion for the home. The demand is there and growing.”

Kathwari should know.  He’s been in China since the 1970’s when he began buying arts and crafts there.  Today they are marketing Ethan Allen —a quintessentially American brand—in 53 locations in major cities across China. They ship 60 percent of what they sell there from their well-established U.S. manufacturing base and in turn buy Chinese products to be marketed in Ethan Allen Design Centers in North America.

The U.S. exports about $100 billion annually to China in goods and services, supporting about half a million American jobs.  According to the White House new deals in the works with China will support up to 235,000 new jobs in the U.S.  In addition to major players such as General Electric, Honeywell and Navistar, there are opportunities for companies of all sizes to exploit increased demand by the growing Chinese middle class.

For now, the man who would sell chopsticks to the Chinese quietly goes about his business of working toward a goal of producing 10 million chopsticks per day.  As of June he’d received 450 job applications.  For many of those Americans out of work in the little Georgia town, the Chinese market for their products could soon mean the good fortunes in their cookies may very well come true.

Using a China Agent vs Going Direct

As companies weigh the pros and cons of working directly with a factory vs. dealing through an agent for their China sourcing needs there are many points to consider.

Top 10 Pros and Cons

1.  The scale or dollar volume purchased annually. (I published an article in M&A Magazine which argued it requires $40-$50MM in throughput for any ROI on a direct sourcing office.)

2.  The number of varying categories and SKUs being sourced.

3.  The complexity of products being sourced. Cotton socks are a lot less difficult to make and package than electromechanical items with sophisticated firmware and specialized components.

4.  Experience levels, competence and proficiency with the language of the country with whom they’re dealing.

5.  The  sheer number of factories the buyers/agents have worked with including access to the owners or very least factory bosses and relationships with those individuals; the length of time and history with those factories and dollars of business placed with them; the ability to get production bumped forward in the schedule;  the ability to receive favorable payment terms which impacts cash flow of any business.

6.  Competency with provincial government regulations and requirements. (How would a New Yorker fare in an Alabama factory or vice versa?)

7.  Ability to travel to/from factory within one day for urgent matters, product/packaging changes, and production oversight.

8.  Quality Control-Generally considered the most critical.  The standard process for measuring QC and the depth of practices such as random and in production sampling, testing equipment and facilities, reports, photos, and now video.

9.  Experience with logistics, freight terms and all export documentation and activities.

10.  Does the agent or factory (for direct) share your sense of urgency and same philosophies and principals?  Are they vested in the outcome and long term success of the business?

New Product Development and the Adaptation Curve Part II

In our 4 part series dedicated to new product developers, innovators and inventors, we explore the 8 top considerations when developing a new product.  Whether a seasoned marketing professional or first timer, these eight critical components include aspects related to product design, positioning, manufacturing, distribution and financing.

What You’ll Need to Start: Ample Capital  

Beyond personal savings, innovators look to family and friends, explore small business loans and even tap into retirement accounts to raise money for their startup products. The initial outlay of inventory capital—that which could be tied up for months is often the greatest obstacle to overcome. Minimum order requirements (MOQs) by factories usually cause a lump in the throat for the first time product developer.  Even if you have the greatest gadget in the world, how do you plan on financing that first big P.O.?  You’ve likely invested significantly to develop your innovation—a figure that has hopefully been taken into consideration for ROI and overall budget.  While established corporations have ample cash flow for typical starting inventories, this may be the greatest initial hurdle for those new to the process.

Inventory Financing / Purchase Order Funding / Factoring

There are a half dozen inventory financing groups (IFGs) in the U.S. who provide bridge capital, purchasing and taking title to inventory which goes to a third party distribution warehouse. You then pay the IFG as for the cost of goods plus any in and out fees required by the warehouse as you sell merchandise.  Purchase order financing is a new twist on Factoring, an older practice in which small businesses sell invoices at a discount for faster recovery of cash, providing the factoring company with a substantial fee.  The caveat is that the invoices must be to reputable clients, i.e. Walmart to be considered.

Advantages

These can be good options that allow you to purchase greater quantities thus commanding volume discounts.  Another benefit is that you don’t have to give up equity to outside investors.  Many times the factories’ terms require money down at the time of placing the purchase order.  IFGs make it possible to abide by these terms.  These companies will want to know:

  1. Your sales and marketing strategy (refer to Part I of the series) and about your team
  2. The quality of the products produced
  3. Your margins
  4. Inventory turns
  5. Your credit worthiness and track record

Disadvantages

Personal guarantees and background checks are almost always standard protocol which usually means demonstrating some form of net worth whether savings, retirement funds, property, creditworthiness and no criminal records.  They may also not take a chance on a new client—one who has no real balance sheet to speak of.  Another downside is that these lenders charge interest rates that can be as high as 40% annually.  Lastly, there is always a time requirement (term) for making good on these loans which are usually around 60 days. If you are unsuccessful in meeting your sales plan, stiff penalties may be imposed.

 

Crowdfunding

In just the past few years companies like Kickstarter have created tech based forums which bring creative projects to life and are open to investment by the general public.  To date, over five million people have pledged over $800 million and funded more than 50,000 projects to date on Kickstarter in categories such as films, music and the arts, video games and inventions.

Advantages

Crowdfunding is catching on and becoming more accepted as a means of raising capital.  Investors do so at their own risk and there is little to no governance or regulation meaning no reporting or other administrative overhead.  Crowdfunding is really an eco-system for philanthropy and those playing in this space have an entrepreneurial spirit.  Mostly, investors do not generally require any form of equity or preferred stock so your ownership is not diluted.  On April 12, 2013 the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business) Act, was signed into law and is designed to increase job creation and economic growth.  The good news is that it eases fundraising regulations imposed by the SEC enabling more entrepreneurs to raise capital.

Disadvantages

Because blocks of investments can be minimal—as low as $1,000 or less, investors may be less motivated to provide insight or contribute to the long term success of a project.

Seed Capital / Angel Investors

Advantages

The difference between Seed Capital and Venture Capital is that Seed money comes from individuals vs. institutional investors. Most angel (seed) investors have a wider appetite for risk and a savvy track record for assisting startups with building their businesses.  These professionals are also versed in providing feedback on pro-formas (financial targets for top line revenues and margins; cash flow models and debt.  Generally seed investors are less hands on in the day to day running of the business once they have a sound idea of your business plan.  Seed investments are less administratively complex with less formal corporate contracts and governance.

Disadvantages

Seed capital usually comes at a cost—Equity. There is risk on both sides.  The investor may never recover their investment or you may give away too much ownership.  Usually the latter results because it is just so tempting for the inventor to commence their dream.

Read Part III of New Product Development

New Product Development and “The Adaptation Curve”

Nobody has an ugly baby.  The same goes for new product developers.  Whether an independent entrepreneur or seasoned marketing team, once a new product concept is developed and months, even years in some cases are invested, our babies become prettier every day.  The same unconditional love and support that builds as our children mature and develop transfers into the professional mindset of innovators.

Calling All Product Developers

Creating a viable and robust market for a new product takes enormous resource, planning and resolve.  The sheer capital to unveil and furthermore generate brand equity is often the most overlooked aspect of getting a product to market.  Take the Segway for instance.  This emission free, efficient mode of personal transportation has been around for over a decade.  With some quick, simple training even children can master riding this marvel.  Reaching top speeds of 12.5 mph it has a range of up to 24 miles on a single charge.  Still commercial acceptance has been scant.  Why wouldn’t every warehouse and airport have a fleet of them?

Recently two Swedish designers have developed an entirely new concept for biking safety in the form of the Hovding, an airbag which deploys vies-a- vie algorithmic intelligence protecting riders from head trauma in the event of a fall or crash.  This revolutionary “bike helmet” is worn around riders’ necks and actually becomes a stylized accessory.  At $520 prospects for commercial distribution of any scale in the next five years may be slim.  However according to Forbes writer Jeremy Bogaisky this startup has already taken in $13 million in venture capital.  He cites bicycle industry analyst Gary Coffrin who gives a great summation stating “The adaptation curve for such a unique product at this price point is not likely to be rapid.”

Taking the tech factor down a notch, in my own gym sits a clever form of a door stop called “James the Doorman.”  I would imagine the designers, Black+Bum had their “Eureka” design moment and the wheels started spinning.  Honestly I have never seen such a cool variety of a door stop and  without knowing much about how they developed this unique version of an age old application, I can’t comment on what lengths they went to in commercializing their product.  I do know that the one in my club is the only that I have ever seen.

Every week we hear from inventors and product developers who have put great thought into products which offer unique solutions to every day needs.  Often though there are many missing pieces to their overall strategies.  Below are the Top 8 Hurdles to Successful New Product Launches.  In the coming months, I will be writing a series which individually expands on each of these, why they are often overlooked and how they are important for taking new products to market.

1. Product Development Costs 

Most inventors underestimate the cost for designing a manufacturing ready product.  Tools and molds can easily run into the five to six figure range and can dwarf first year profits.  Developing engineering drawings—those that translate into production and material specifications  require time and money.

2. Distribution Channels

Some products are ideal for Big Box retail but unless you know how to navigate this space, most category managers are not going to take a chance with a single line item vendor.  It creates additional administrative work for the system, and most inventors don’t have the capital to market their products.  Specialty and on-line retailers generally are better proving grounds for a products’ acceptance but you still have to generate interest and traffic.  Oh, and did you get a UPC code yet?

3. Inventory Capital 

Minimum order requirements (MOQs) by factories usually cause a lump in the throat.  Even if you have the greatest gadget in the world, how do you plan on financing that first big order?

4. Educating the Masses 

How will you announce the arrival of your new product to the world?  Magazines?  PR campaign?  Put an ad in the paper?  Direct Response Television (DRTV) is a great but often expensive form of advertising and one of the best ways to demonstrate a new application or use as well as building brand equity.  It’s great to have a video on your web site but again, how will you drive viewers and a following?

5. Price vs. Value 

In the initial phase of your product’s life-cycle there will likely not be the scale (volume) to drive down production cost.  Unless you can convince consumers they should pay a premium retail price, break-even may be longer off than you expect.  Plus, buyers will tell you whether your SRP (Suggested Retail Price) is in line with their category. 

6. Regulatory and Testing Requirements 

With your product in the public domain, most retailers will require some sort of regulatory or product safety testing and compliance with groups such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and others.  Depending on what industry you are in, your item may require testing and certification by default.  To you this means additional time, red tape and money.

7. Patent and Intellectual Property Protection 

This is perhaps the most critical and misunderstood area of product development.  In many cases developers could have saved themselves months of work simply by doing some basic research and analysis.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office site has become more navigable and efficient thanks to improvements in their search functions.  There are three ways to begin your inquiry using key words, designs or a combination to see if someone else has registered a similar product.  Even if they have you may be able to make some functional changes to distinguish yours but again, many underestimate the time and capital required to protect the investment of your innovation.

8. Aftermarket Sales and Support

Now that you’ve got a patent pending, finalized your business plan, raised early stage capital, have product on the warehouse shelf and are starting to generate traction don’t forget the basic administrative requirements.  If you hit the lotto and are selling to Wal Mart, using retail link is a requirement.  This entails sending a staff member for training and ultimately using their on line tool daily or weekly.  Is someone manning the phones for product questions and concerns?  How robust is your web site?  Oh, we haven’t even discussed how much this will cost to build.

While these hurdles aren’t surmountable, it is critical to factor in all the critical and time consuming elements of bringing a product to life.  Even this list is not comprehensive enough to account for the unexpected turns in the pathway to new product development.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Read Part 1: New Product Development and the Adaptation Curve

David Alexander is president of Baysource Global and has a decade of experience with new product development and contract manufacturing.

Will China Remain a Strategic Manufacturing Destination?

We continue to hear about the dynamics affecting China’s place as factory to the world. Increased labor costs, currency fluctuations, and shipping cost increases have affected decisions about whether or not offshoring strategy makes sense. Certainly there are products that simply aren’t feasible for contract manufacturing scenarios. Here are the top five reasons China is still an ultimate destination for products that are highly labor intense or are in the startup phase.

Labor vs Other Countries

Labor costs may be up to 30% lower in other countries like Viet Nam and India. However this is offset by superior supply chain advantages such as roadways and utilities. Skill levels are also higher thanks to Western training and a little osmosis over the past 15 years. This means China’s productivity continues to rise other countries in Asia are less efficient overall.

Flexibility

Because China’s manufacturing base tends to be cellular, meaning a production or assembly line can be producing one thing today and another tomorrow, China workers are frequently adaptable to ever changing tasks. Much of this can be attributed to the highly seasonal nature of Western retail needs such as Christmas lights or plush toys. China also presents many options for qualified suppliers whose initial minimum order quantities are less than traditional manufacturers. Often a China manufacturer will begin with molds having less cavitation than is generally required until volumes reach a critical mass. This all translates into less startup cost, quicker return on investment and greatly reduced risk.

Availability of Materials and Manufacturing

Because China now makes a fifth of the world’s manufactured goods, there is a ready source of supply for various components, parts and necessary materials. China is also home to thousands of industrial parks thanks to investment by not only the Chinese government but also foreign direct investment by Western firms. Shanghai and Guangzhou are known manufacturing hubs and have some of the heaviest investment and infrastructure along with some of the largest workforces in the country. Special Economic Zones created by the PRC have attractive tax incentives for FDI and are given more independence on international trade and economic activities.

China Innovation and Investment

Because as we mentioned China’s skill levels have vastly improved, China is now focusing more on innovation and creative manufacturing practices. Also, with labor increases have come increased capital investment in the form of automation—something that used to be last resort if a task or function could be completed manually. So what does this all mean?

Ideal Product Development

China continues to be an ideal partner for new product developers and innovators. While labor costs have increased over the past five years, China’s productivity has increased tenfold. China offers the flexibility required to take on a variety of new projects and with lower minimum order quantities. There is a steady supply chain for materials and different manufacturing services and China continues to invest in technology, facilities and innovation. While China may not be suitable for some manufacturing due to increasing freight costs and currency fluctuations, every project must be carefully weighed and evaluated on its own merit.