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Recording China Business Cast

Discover the podcast China Business Cast with Matthieu Bodin

Who hasn’t heard about the podcasting trend yet?
We can say that Podcasting is a lot more than a trend, considering that there are 700K free podcasts available. The average weekly consumption for Americans adult is 6 hours and 37 minutes as per this article on a16z. While I doubt that Chinese listeners are as passionate (short videos are the thing in China), I can see how many community leaders and KOL have started interviewing people and recording their opinions.

We also tried something with Upstart, and I’m looking into ways to get it off the ground once again. Over the coming months, there will be more interviews from local entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.

From time to time, I have a chance to get interviewed and share some of my thoughts and stories. A recent one got published on En Eclaireur (in French) and the latest one has been with ChinaBusinessCast.

China Business Cast’s goal “is to help entrepreneurs who want to learn how to do business in China. The podcast features conversations with experienced entrepreneurs and business people who’ve built their businesses in China.”
I met Jons a few years ago at a Startup Weekend in Chengdu and got to see him again at TECOM earlier this year. That was an excellent opportunity to join his show and talk about “Entrepreneurship, Accelerators, and Unicorns in China.


That episode was recorded when I was still with Techstars (since then, I transitioned to XNode) but the content is still very much relevant. Beside some observations, it got me thinking about the way we perceive innovation in China. And how, as a global ecosystem player, we used to share it.

A big thank to China Business Cast team for making this happen!

China Business Cast with Matthieu Bodin

Experience with Chinese service industry

There is something fascinating for anyone that shipped parcels from Greater China, it’s to watch the development of the homegrown carrier SF Express over the last decade. Unlike its competitors (DHL, UPS, Fedex) SF didn’t develop a powerful back end to handles the parcels, but relied a lot on manual labour, a lot of parcels are still sorted manually by the last mile delivery men. 

This reliance on manual work is pretty common for Chinese company. They also often pay employees on a commission basis (Uber before Uber), while it’s far from being ideal on the side of the employees the unexpected side effect has been an incredible service. The delivery man has to be efficient and has to know internal processes, if he wants to be well paid. In return the customer gets a very good service, especially compared with traditional career where one has to deal with multiple layers of admin to get things done. This pretty unique mix of manual labour reliance and commission-based income put the Chinese service industry on steroids. 

Unfortunately, this time is coming to an ends quickly with the development of the recent Hey Tea and Luckin Coffee, where WeChat mini programs replace the efficiency and warmth of the faces of those companies.

The challenges of managing partnerships

Structure is the short path to managing partners

Working in the innovation field in China means receiving an unusually high amount of requests to partner up. Over the past four years, I came to dread receiving a message with the words “collaboration,” “partnerships,” and “let’s sign an MOU.”
While it is most definitely half my own mistake, I don’t recall any actual outcomes from sealed partnerships. The chances to fail are even higher if we’ve never met the counterpart in real life or done work together before. And if there is no cash exchanged one way or the other, the odds are indeed against this collaboration’s success.

So why would people reach out and sign MOU? I sometimes assume that people might collect paperwork and pictures with smiles or handshakes on them. It probably keeps them busy.

In a way, though, there is an opportunity to bring two organizations together to deliver something more significant than each could execute separately.
But to make this correctly, the process has to be monitored carefully. And several best practices served me well to avoid too much waste of time.

All it takes is a bit of discipline.

Push back on signing documents

First, best refuse to sign any document if there’s no cash or a short-term client available. Instead, suggest waiting until one of this two scenario happens. That has always helped set the serious partnerships apart from the PR-focused ones. That won’t make everybody happy and satisfied, but it is well worth the trouble. And if you’re like me, reading a legal document is something we gladly skip.
In China, the only exception could be with government bodies. They wouldn’t concretely lead to sponsorship or client work, but they are worth the attention in the long run.

Build a system

Second, create a system that is reliable and complete. I rely on tools to scale my action, and managing partnerships is a great opportunity to leverage digital services. My choice this time is with Notion.so and its database system. It is seamless (and free for the lowest tier) to create a Workspace, then a Page, and then create the View that suits your needs. In this case, the “Table View” works fine to prepare and maintain a long list.

At this stage, the fields (called “Properties” in Notion) that have been useful are:

  • Title of the organization
  • Status (Lead / Contacted / Active / Passive / Lost)
  • Internal point of contact (from your side)
  • Name of partner’s contact (from their side)
  • High Priority (y/n)
  • Last Activity (date)
  • Title Last Activity (short description)

Notion is built in a way that you may add as many Properties as you’d like. But it’ll be as many fields to fill in and keep up to date. It’s a balance to find and test.

Notion is built in a way that you may add as many Properties as you’d like. But it’ll be as many fields to fill in and keep up to date. It’s a balance to find and test.

Start fillin’!

Third, you may want to start adding the partners that are on top of your head. But I usually don’t worry too much and instead wait for a new touch point. Doing it step by step rather than in one go is less overwhelming admin-wise. Similarly, it’s essential to update the Table regularly rather than waiting for the backlog to get longer. Remind yourself to take a look at it every couple of days, 5 minutes once in a while will be worth the time. Plus, looking at the list can give you some new ideas with opportunities to reach out.

Don’t drop the ball

Finally, have the discipline to reach out to your partners every quarter or so pro-actively. Pinging them will go a long way and it could create some interesting conversations. It is for that reason that I keep the Property “Last Activity” well up to date. Whenever I have 15 minutes, and I see that I’m falling behind on partnerships, I will send a gentle nudge. Even if we weren’t the ones creating that collaboration, it is warmly appreciated – and a good signal of excellent customer service.

Some organization and light touch discipline – managing partnerships isn’t so hard after all. And instead of being frustrated by a handful of unsuccessful ones, we can scale this system while keeping it close to our attention.

New Tech-Community-Building 101 (under 300 words)

new community getting formed

Creating a new tech community from the ground up is an exciting journey. There is a lot to figure out, and your first decisions can seem difficult to take at an early stage. But with some strategical thinking, it doesn’t have to be complicated. When looking at the creation of a new community, three parts have to be considered early:

Mission & Values
Activities & Density
People

The mission and your community’s values are the foundations on which the group of people can agree on and scale. That can be started as an experiment but don’t change the mission or values lightly. Keeping the mission and values broad is an excellent way to welcome new individuals. Have a much clearer focus will encourage higher engagement and sense of ownership.

Activities are opportunities for community members to get together and form meaningful connections. There can be activities taking place online or in real life, but a combination of both often works best. With the right support, it makes sense to host landmark events, with broad appeal. And between two of these, have frequent and smaller gatherings or get together. Density can also be increased by actively engaging members on a digital platform. To avoid too much lurking, reach out on an individual basis after each group post.

Finally, gathering the right mix of people to support the community is critical. Beyond embracing the mission and values, supporting activities, they should be on the lookout for new members. To grow the movement further, look at mechanisms to find and “test” your next generation of community leaders. That always takes longer than hoped but creates the highest opportunities to scale.

Want to read more about creating a new tech community? Discover this white-paper written by Techstars on the 5 Ingredients for a Thriving Startup Ecosystem

First steps to prepare a public presentation

Public presentation

Public speaking is a challenge for most, and it is easy to understand why. You get 20 to 30 minutes on stage, and everybody will be looking at you. Most are genuinely interested in what you have to share, but some in the audience didn’t want to attend or feel like they have better things to do. Instinctively, we’re all well aware of the possible danger involved with stepping on stage.

Public speaking has been a big part of my professional life. To learn, I studied experienced public speakers and read books extensively. I discovered a method to optimize the preparation of a talk – while making sure that it resonated with the audience.

It starts with an idea.

When asked to give a new talk, I come up with a title (often asked early so the organizers can confirm their agenda). The most straightforward trick has been to combine two concepts that I’m familiar with, for example, Happiness + Community or Startup Founder + China. That gives me enough wiggle room to find things to share. I don’t dig deeper for a little while, instead, giving my subconscious some time to absorb that new title.

Give it a structure.

By the time I start working on the presentation, I spontaneously come up with thoughts for the performance. It often comes in the middle of a conversation, in the shower, or while reading a book. These moments have always been conducive to my creativity. I would write these thoughts down and give it a couple more days. That will be the signal that I’m ready to work on the presentation.

Find the core message

The first part might seem random, but what follows is very much structured. Once I have the title and some thoughts, I would lay everything on paper and start the deep work. The goal at this stage is to identify the “one” point I want to make. It doesn’t have to be rocket science but will help anchor the rest of my presentation.

I’ve heard some speakers being frustrated to cut some of their content out. But, I’d rather leave an audience wanting to know more than having listened to too much.

Introverts are leading Communities

Community Builders are introverts

Panels are high chances to engage with a broader audience and throw some new ideas to steer debates. At a recent one with Community Builders, we wanted to test an assumption. We paused our conversation and asked the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves as an introvert.

This idea became important to me over the past few years. I have been reading these sorts of articles for some time now (here and here). But I’ve also met hundreds of Community Builders from different countries and cultures.
The idea that “introversion actually helps people build strong communities” became a sort of theme in my head.

Our guess was right; most of the room raised their hands. We weren’t surprised, but they probably were — each of them assuming that they’d be singled out among others. I enjoyed seeing the organizers, my fellow panel speakers, and myself – all having our hands in the air.

We were a room of introverts, talking about building community. The one activity that forces you to speak with people and get them excited about your projects!

I have been thinking about this evening many times since and trying to understand what to make of it.
If Community Builders are introvert like me, how do I make their journey less painful than mine was?

Self-structure as a mean to balance our energy.

Talking about mental health.

Creating platforms for Community Builders.

Manufacturing in China – Podcast

This is the fourth podcast in a series that started with Best Practices on Mentoring, starting businesses/communities in Shanghai, and our favorite books with impact.

My fellow Carnet.cc author Vincent accepted to endure a live recording with questions on his experience in manufacturing in China. We’ve had long discussions over the past few years, always very lively. I am so glad that we could seat behind the mic and record 45 minutes of hands on content.

Feel free to listen to the recording on Anchor.fm, Spotify and Apple Podcasts) or read the transcription. Any questions? Comment at the end of the post.

Vincent, please introduce yourself

I am one of the partners at Pinn.hk. We are a product development studio located in Hong Kong. We are mainly developing products for our owns brands Huzi and Infinity Pillow, toys and travel accessories. We design, manufacture, and sell online. I have been in Hong Kong for the past eight years, and I have been enjoying life there so far!

Where do you find a good manufacturer to prototype your product?

That’s the tricky one! It is about understanding what the product requires in terms of expertise. We run the first round of due diligence based on skills needed – most often through recommendations.

For our simpler products, we’d look broadly, via traditional sourcing channels. We attend fairs and exhibitions – meeting with manufacturers that show up. We’ll follow up on these contacts as projects start coming up.
We then contact them, trying to understand if the description matches. That helps us shortlist the one we’ll be visiting on-site.
We mainly work with factories from the Guangdong area, so it’s an easy day-trip there.

What are the key considerations when selecting manufacturers?

There can be some particular production skills required. Picking a manufacturer that wants to learn from us helped find a win-win situation.
We are on a premium segment, with high-quality requirements, often stronger than most companies. Some factories (especially in the Guangdong area) are interested in improving their processes to avoid manufacturing cheap things only. The prospect of working with brands like us is appealing to them!
That gives us the confidence that we can build a stronger relationship with them. Helpful in urgent situations.

Other benefits that the manufacturer might perceive from working with you?

It is a case by case basis. One might be interested to learn about great design. Another one might want to improve their processes based on our experience together. We can also use our experience of selling with online platforms to justify working with us; there is a lot to learn here.

What are the milestones to have with the factory?

As a project grows in complexity, we will validate the costing and technical elements. A pre-production test would typically happen shortly after. It helps us make sure that both parties well define everything from pricing to small details.

Are manufacturers more willing to work on small batches of production?

Ultimately, manufacturers want big orders; they want to keep their production units going. Lower quantities can work if products and tooling requirements match.
We’ve worked with hard and soft products – each requires different methods. With soft products, you can order fewer pieces because it often doesn’t need new toolings.
In practice, small quantity orders will end up at the end of the schedule, at the bottom of their priorities.

Then, if it’s more interesting for you to produce in bulk, how do you deal with production and forecasting your orders?

Large companies have tools and a history of sales to help them forecasting orders a long time in advance. It’s not perfect, but that gets the job done.
For us, we try to scrap information on small trends. We are carefully looking and anticipating where markets might go up or down. It’s not rare to end up with too much or too little stocks. Someone in this industry for long would end up stocking a little more than ideal, to be safe.

What are the typical minimum order quantities?

For our products requiring specific toolings, we would have troubles finding a factory in Guangdong willing to work for less than 1,000 pieces.
For soft products, it’d depend on the fabric you need – some have high minimum order quantities – but you can negotiate down to three hundred pieces.
Beware, it might not be about the manufacturer; you need to look at the entire chain. If you have to order a part that has a much higher minimum order quantity, you can rapidly get stuck on really high numbers.

How did you learn what you know now about the industry

Mainly experience.
You can learn from theories and reading books, but you need to experiment. Most learnings come from each opportunity. Every batch you run will provide another round of insights. Over the years, you’d hope to get better at it.
After some many bruises though, you’d want to remain agile and not get overwhelmed by processes – that’s often a false sense of protection or security. The goal is to find a balance that you’re comfortable with.

Can you describe how the supply chain of a product manufactured and sold in China would work?

China is not one of our primary market for expansion. We don’t have something specific for the country. Typically, if you produce and sell in China, you have to pay the sales tax early.
The scheme that most international brands use is to export a product immediately upon production completion, hence avoiding to pay sales taxes. We stock up in Hong Kong and ship orders from our warehouse there.
So let’s say, somebody in Mainland China purchased one of our product, we’d ship it from Hong Kong rather than from our factories. In that scenario, the customer pays the sales taxes.

Some factories can help you set up the sales tax part, but it requires additional controls. Taobao and JD.com have global solutions as well, assisting foreign brands in selling products on the Chinese market.

Who are the stakeholders involved in this process?

You can get help from designing firms, a certification agency to validate products, import and export licenses, distribution channels, and then the marketing and PR support.
We’ve realized that manufacturing the product is just a part of the overall process. And it’s not because your product is available on Amazon that you’ll get it purchased. You want to outline and execute a marketing and PR strategy. That might require some additional support.

How do you compare Tmall and JD.com systems with the Amazon warehouses systems?

Selling in China is a lot more complicated. In that regard, dealing with Amazon is more straightforward, more open.
But it is not all rosy, Amazon still considers that most sellers out of Hong Kong speak Mandarin, they wouldn’t try English or Cantonese with you. Nonetheless, they can do wonders to support your logistics needs. They have a license to do ocean freights, which means that they can pick up your products directly from your factories in China.
Picture a well-integrated process from the manufacturers to the end customer.

On the other hand, for a foreigner to sell in China without a base in the country – there’s no equivalent to Amazon. Tmall global exists, but it isn’t broadly used yet, partly due to an invitation-only system.
Without an entity in China, the seller will have to fulfill the order and be pretty much on their own.

A few years ago, we discussed Amazon supporting customers to send products back. In general, the fact that it has a lot of power over its sellers. Do you feel that the Chinese platforms have the same angle or will support sellers a lot more?

Well, in China, you do have the seven days return policies. But this is more restricted than the 30 days of Amazon.
The significant difference might be down to customer habits. American consumers are a lot more used to returning products. One might order every color of an item and return all of them but one, the favorite one. That’s not very common in other market places.

You’ve used Kickstart several times to launch a product – what’s your opinion on the platform?

Many exciting projects are happening on Kickstarter, and it’s still a great way to validate a product’s potential. If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, it can help you test if you’re heading in the right direction.
But there are also many stories of how some people took advantage of the platform. So in many ways, you have to do your due diligence and understand if using Kickstarter will have real benefits for you.

For example, some websites don’t publish news about the on-going Kickstarter campaign because of the high failure rate in the execution and shipping phases. That might hurt your PR strategy.

How do you get your product into your customers’ hands when you don’t sell via Amazon?

We leverage fulfillment centers. We work with a center in Hong Kong and the US plus considering one in Europe. It’s effortless to find providers allowing you to outsource most of the worries associated with fulfillment.

There are two types of fulfillment centers for us: the B2Cs, that are connected to our selling platforms via an API and would ship an order as soon as it’s settled.
The B2B warehouses that will specialize in much larger volumes. Typically getting palettes for retailers and wholesalers.

How much time do you spend on reviewing that system that you put in place?

Roughly every quarter or semester, we review and make sure it is supporting our needs. We will also look into customer feedbacks as a way to anticipate updates to be made.
For example, Germany recently changed its customs policy: customs are getting paid on every single item arriving in the country.

With Amazon, things used to be in a grey area where the platform nor the seller were including taxes. Many countries have since changed their policies and made it mandatory for the platform to collect taxes on behalf of the seller. Things are now a lot clearer.

We are officially registered with the German VAT system, but postal services don’t offer “Delivery Duty Paid” services. It requires a specific courier that makes the total price expensive in comparison to the product’s value. That forced us (and many other sellers) to look into different fulfillment methods.

Have you considered stopping to sell in Germany altogether?

Not really, what we did is indicating at the time of checkout that our products were shipped from Hong Kong, hence inquiring additional fees.
But we are looking at alternatives that would allow sending the product from Europe (hence making shipment quicker). The strange situation that we’ve encountered is that shipping from Hong Kong to Europe is significantly cheaper than from Europe to Europe.
And currently, it’s just a few days faster to ship within Europe compared to from HK to EU. Look at a map, and you’ll see that it’s crazy!

How are you charging Mainland Chinese customers and which platforms you’re using?

I can share some of my experience, but I’m also looking for suggestions on a great setup! Right now, we charge Mainland Chinese customers with Alipay (via Stripe). But it’s only in Hong Kong, so customers would need to be ok with paying in a different currency (HKD).
We found that it was more convenient for them than paying with a credit card in USD.
WeChat is not correctly set up on Stripe, so we haven’t offered this option yet.

You can’t charge in RMB if you don’t run operations in Mainland China.

But then it means that your Chinese customers need to do that extra work: getting to your website and being willing to pay in HKD.

The conversion in Alipay from RMB to HKD is simplified, so it doesn’t require much effort from them. But it’s less than ideal.
It’ll be the same if you want to sell on Tmall, Taobao or else, you got to have a business set up officially in China.

Have you looked into setting up in China? What would be your typical channels of distribution?

We are looking into this. Several leading online stores cover the vast majority of the market. If you have a presence on Taobao, JD.com, Xiaomi, Sunning, and several more, you cover 90% of the e-commerce market in China. That’s unheard of in most countries.

What we found is that having a presence on these platforms require a tremendous amount of human resources. Your customers reach out to you at any time, and they expect immediate replies. The challenge that we’re facing is finding the right partner willing to commit to our highest standards of quality.

What would be other adjustments to be made if you wanted to sell on Chinese platforms?

There are more and more Chinese entrepreneurs looking for brands that they can develop in China. They believe in leveraging the massive size of the market to justify bringing prices down massively.
That poses a fundamental question to us:

  • Some brands have different pricing strategies for Western markets versus China, where it’d be substantially cheaper. We aren’t comfortable with this strategy.
  • We make sure that our brand is consistent worldwide, pricing and customer service wise. That might come at the expense of not moving on a popular platform.

What are the top reasons to sell on Taobao or JD.com compared to setting up your own WeChat store?

It’ll be the same situations as posed by Amazon: “the bottom line is the reach of these platforms.”
Customers want to find what they seek. It’s not about your opinion as a seller on the platform. You got to leverage the best places to sell your products.
With a larger market share, you hope to leverage new business opportunities, develop new products, increase the quality, and more.
It means making your own informed decisions – being independent is a lonely path.

Would you say Chinese customers value “China-made” products?

On our segments of products, it doesn’t make a difference as far as we’re concerned. We design and manufacture in China, and we haven’t seen an impact. But it is plausible that our niche market has specific desires and expectations.
Our Chinese customers are mostly in first-tier cities. Most definitely households who have been over the purchasing-craze and are now looking at few but thoughtful purchases. It’s unclear if they pay a lot of attention to Design/Made in China.

Have you considered manufacturing elsewhere than China and possibly in Europe and the US?

Not really, we take pride in the work we do from China. It is a clear advantage to work with factories close to us. We don’t produce in China because it is the cheapest option, we produce in China because we live here and found everything required to be successful.

What a ride! Three years at Techstars

Matthieu facilitating Techstars Startup Weekend PolyU

April Fools day in 2016 – Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. A special day: I stood up on stage to host their second Techstars Startup Weekend. Plus, I announced to everybody that I was going “Professional.” Three years ago, I joined Techstars as the Regional Manager for Greater China. It was the first day joining the organization that I had supported as a volunteer for over four years.

What followed has been a ride of epic proportions. Nothing could prepare me for it, and I did my best to embrace the new life full speed ahead. Amazing colleagues, empowering mission, and extraordinary programs to help more communities around us!

If you’ve known me over the past three years, you most definitely heard me saying these things below. It is fun to reflect on these sayings and write them down here:

Time gets experienced in “Dog Years.”

That’s my way of describing what I feel every period as seven times longer than it is. If we met two months ago, it would most definitely feel like over a year. There is no science behind this and no bragging rights. It goes beyond the long hours on the job or a large number of travels. It is my way of describing the intensity and depth of conversations and projects we experience. Instead, it highlights the high energy required always to be positive and constructive. Working in the tech/startup community building in Greater China is a significant time-shifting experience!

Have confidence

One of my self-deprecating jokes is how much of a black sheep I am. Who would hire a Frenchman to work for an American company, trying to nurture tech communities in Greater China? How strange is that?
Building legitimacy to make the most out of this role was important from day 1. We work with the best corporations, partners, conferences, entrepreneurs, and investors. And by “we,” I mean the hardcore Felix and Bronze who joined me to support a vision that few believed in initially.

It is NOT about me

Even if the entire post has been about me, this adventure isn’t. We support thousands of entrepreneurs on their journey to create new projects. We share the best of our experience and work with hundreds of Community Leaders in the region. We keep scratching our heads to find the highest positive impact with limited resources. We work to make our volunteers shine. So many people #givefirst and fight for what they believe in doing.

The past three years haven’t been simple, and there is no reason for this role to be. It was presented to me as an “18 months job before you burn out or move on.”
As shared during my talk at TECOM, all I try to do is “thriving to make this little corner of the world a slightly better place. That’s all there is.”