Lessons I’ve learned doing business in China.
I travel to China a great deal to make sure our team on the ground understand and feel their contributions and hard work are equally as important to our journey. We are here to build a great company. Hence my travels primarily include new product development, vetting new factories, ensuring quality standards, and generally getting to spend time with our team.
And let’s be clear. Find your intentions for why you want to do business in China and if you have to travel to China. In most cases, surprisingly, the answer is yes.
- People matter. First and foremost people matter – above everything else and much like everything else, the people that are part of your team, do business with and you surround yourself with, matter a great deal. When you find the right people, treat them as if they are your boss. Treat your people as if you were working for them and I promise you, the rest will follow.
Very early on we found an amazing team and we invested in them and invested in their futures. The stability and success of your company is entirely dependent on how you treat your people. Investing in our team for the longterm was something that we committed to long time ago.
- Communication is the key to your success. Be deliberate about your intentions, be succinct and precise with your instructions, and follow through. What I mean by this explain everything when it comes to developing your products. Anything left for second guessing may lead to loss of productivity, loss of sales, loss of money and a waste of time.
We develop spec sheets for every single product we put into production. This way we can eliminate mistakes from product composition to sizing to materials to color ways, etc.
- Embrace and appreciate the differences in other cultures. Learn to adapt to a different way of doing business, eating and conversation. This very well could have been number one on this list. I can’t stress enough that you accept when doing business in a foreign country that you show respect for their way of transaction.
We had a wonderfully talented and highly analytical VP of Product Development who would travel with me to China and he constantly found it irritating that our factory was not prepared or didn’t know the answer to a certain question right away. For example when he would ask for the price of silk per meter, the answer always changed and it was difficult to nail down why. He later realized it was mainly dependent on government price fixing, weight of material currently in stock, conversions to USD from RMB, ever shifting local taxation, and so on.
- Translations are not always dependable. Something always gets lost in literal translations. Try to pick up on body language, tone, mannerisms and other such nuances to get a full understanding of what is being presented. It goes without say that Westerners are very direct in their communication and worry less about offending for the sake of ensuring clarity of intent. Asian culture and China is no exception, value human emotions, saving face and generally are not as direct.
Learn to decode immediately what is being said. I always ask the same question a few times and usually at different points during a given meeting to make sure I am getting the correct answer or the most efficient solution to a problem.
- Be a man or woman of your word. Stick to what you say you will do. In the Western world being someone who sticks to what they say is a virtue. In China it is a way of life. . I am just about finished writing a more detailed blog post about this topic. From time to time, when people find out about my extensive travels to China and hear about our operations on the ground, I’m often asked about what is different about business.
- Know the nuts and bolts of your product. The more you know and understand your product the better the end results will be. All too often entrepreneurs try and depend on their manufacturers to be the experts. And yes of course your factory has to know the product intimately but the more you know about your product the better.
It was only after we really started to look at the composition of the raw materials we were using that we finally figured out how to make our products better. We would have never gotten there if we just focused on marketing and selling more – don’t be just an arbitrator of marketing.
- Be persistent. While this is a more universal trait, as it pertains to traveling to China it really means not being pressured into accepting the status quo. Again, this might be cultural but you’ll get a lot of “we can’t do that” or “that’s not the way it is done”. If you really want something for your product that has never been done or your supplier cannot manufacture, don’t give up. Instead find someone who is willing to work with you and helping you achieve your goals.
When we set off to make our Alynn Brand socks it took us 9 months to get it exactly how we wanted. We spent a ton of money, sleepless nights in anguish trying to get just the perfect composition of thread count, type of material, the makeup of the thread and finally coloring options. In the end we’ve produced a great product but we could have very well fell short and accepted a lot of “no we can’t do that” or “this is as good as it gets.”
- Stop and smell the roses. China has an incredibly diverse of a landscape. Geographically and topographically it has a wide range which makes for some incredible natural beauty. I definitely recommend that you get out of your hotel in that big city that you’re in and go explore.
Perhaps one of my biggest self critique is that I spent the first 4 years traveling to China confining myself to the bedroom in a hotel. This was a huge mistake. Now, when I travel, I make time to visit new placed. take photos, and get to know the culture, food, and the people a little bit better – from outside of the office.
- Appreciate the power of the collective. The US (in particular) and China value individualism and collectivism differently. We celebrate individualistic endeavors and applaud the lone wolf. Conversely in China it’s all about the power of the collective. And this is an important component to note as this major cultural difference affects everything from how business is transacted by a Chinese company to standing in lines, driving on the roads to ordering food.
If you’ve traveled to China, you may have experienced some of these things and if you haven’t, I hope you find these short lessons useful.