Visiting factories in China

I’ve just spent a couple of days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, visiting some of the factories that will be supplying Below7 products. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this before and I’ve learned a lot. Now it’s time to reflect on what I did right, what I did wrong and what I’ll improve upon next time. These visits came off a long series of research and communications that I conducted on Alibaba to find a shortlist of suppliers of suitable lightweight products that we could start selling on Alibaba.

Presenting Below7 to management

What I did right

  • I was accompanied by a local. I couldn’t imagine having done any of these visits without Jenny Wu, who I’d hired a few weeks prior to the trip. She helped with translation, was able to build rapport with the suppliers, organise transportation (this was critical) and simply get stuff done using the Chinese internet systems that, as a foreigner, would have been impossible for me alone.
  • We presented our business, our values and the needs of our customers to the suppliers through a 10-page slide deck. I have the feeling that many of these factories get treated as order takers and just get told what to make. We took the time to explain everything we could about our business and our customers. I spoke in English and Jenny translated into Chinese. We’d translated the slide deck itself into Chinese. They loved it. We always received a hearty ovation at the end of the presentation. It got them excited about what we were doing and made them see their role in the Below7 story.
  • We planned our itinerary on a map. Shenzhen is a huge city and to make sure we weren’t traveling all over the place we marked out all the factory locations on a map and carefully planned travel times to make sure that we could get from place to place in time. Two different factory visits are the most I could imagine doing in a day. One in the morning and one later in the afternoon. We made sure we had time in case the morning visit resulted in a lunch invitation, and in both cases for us it did. We also picked a hotel in close at the mid-point between the factories and close to the Metro.
  • I used the new 144 hour Visa free access for spending 6 days in China/Guangdong. While it was a hassle to get the relevant documents together, evidence of a ticket to show I was leaving China, it was still miles easier than getting a formal visa from the Chinese Embassy.
Inspect USB torches at a torch factory

What I did wrong

  • I should have bought gifts from Australia. Small bottles of Australian red wine would have been perfect as it’s quite well known here and works for men and women.
  • I didn’t come prepared with enough questions, particularly around freight, packaging, how the logo would be printed, export invoices and future product designs plans. It’s important to come across as a sophisticated buyer and I’m afraid in some cases I didn’t.
Interviewing a worker who makes digital scales

What I’ll do next time

  • Prior to the meetings communicate clearly with the suppliers on Alibaba about what the purpose of the visit is and what preparation they need to make. For example, it would have been great to have them present something about their company to us, and show other samples of products that might be of interest. Some of the local salespeople in these factories are creative and smart people but need a nudge to go beyond their role as an order taker
  • I’ll come with a very clear printed specification of what it is that we need, including the price and quantity, written in Chinese & English and presented as a formal document. Our contact details will be included on the document, along with a section for an approval signature. Most orders are negotiated through an Alibaba conversation, followed by a rough order form on the Alibaba platform. Often details are lacking and the nature of using a chat session to negotiate leaves room for ambiguity. This document won’t replace a Alibaba Trade Assurance Order. Rather it will accompany the order to ensure that both sides understand exactly what has been ordered and where responsibilities lie.
  • Organise my own packaging supplier prior to visiting the product factories. Getting packaging done by a single company in China and printed boxes sent to the factory with each order seems the sensible way to take care of the challenge of getting items packaged consistently across many different suppliers.

Overall the single best thing I did on this trip was going to China in the first place. It’s quite possible to fulfill an order on Alibaba having only made contact through a chat window. For ordering samples, this is likely enough. However, if you’re going building a partnership with someone it’s important to establish a durable relationship as early as possible and this does involve meeting them. So, if you’re planning on importing from China (or anywhere for that matter) I’d wholeheartedly recommend paying a visit to the folks who’ll be making your products.


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