Getting Your Stuff Built: How To Shop, Conduct Business, Stay Alive, And Eat Your Way Through Shenzhen

This is [Bob Baddeley]. He’s an EE with an idea that started as a fun project until someone said “hey, that’s cool”. He started thinking about what it would take to launch it commercially and before he knew it he was involved in a startup accelerator to help him assemble what he needs to make his idea into a business. He spent several weeks in China learning about manufacturing and posted copiously about it.

We’ve seen other engineering trips to Asia, but [Bob’s] experience living there provides a different perspective than a quick trip would. He posted about the thing’s you’d expect, like touring a short-run prototyping facility. But he also talks about the rigors of being a pedestrian in a place where legged transport is marginalized by the gas and pedal powered vehicles that are crammed into every square-inch of the city. In the image above he’s walking on the highway (for some inexplicable reason; deathwish?).

He also got to do a lot of fun stuff. He met a ton of folks, like [Bunnie Huang], [Ian Lesnet], and the team over at Seeed Studios. He even took his protoype to the local Maker Faire. It’s a scoreboard which can be controlled from your smart phone. [Bob] tells us that he didn’t get much interest showing the face of the device as seen in that post. But when he turned it around to show off the point-to-point wire porn he was mobbed by interested hackers. Guts!

29 thoughts on “Getting Your Stuff Built: How To Shop, Conduct Business, Stay Alive, And Eat Your Way Through Shenzhen

      1. They make a wireless chastity device addon for men and also develop software and some kind of internet connected key safe device. China doesn’t seem to mind what you are making, they are happy for the business.

  1. I’ve been to Shenzhen 5 times on business for a previous company. Never saw much of the city except for inside offices/factories during the day and my hotel room(s) (where I was on Skype most of the night to my team in the U.S.). After a bad day at a customer’s site in Guandong, they took me to a hotel where there was only a boxspring (no mattress) and the walls were black with mildew. Ugh. Interesting to see how they mass assemble devices in some shops – several tables pushed together with bins of parts and 10-15 ladies around the table snapping bluetooth earpieces together and then packaging them. At one factory, the techie I was working with had his workbench hanging half inside the workspace and half out on a balcony – 15 floors up. Interesting experience.

    1. I have a couple more posts I’m working on that do more touristy stuff of Shenzhen. That boxspring you were on WAS the mattress. In China they think that sleeping on hard surfaces is better for the body. It took me a few months to stop hurting when I woke up. And the hacks you see in factories is normal, too. Everything is hacked together because everything is put together so fast that hacks are all you have time for. If it works, it doesn’t need to be pretty or even safe.

      1. I think the hotel in Guandong was customer retaliation for not getting their product up and running the first day. I had much better experiences with hotels in Shenzhen proper.

        I will agree with you that there is a jerry-rig mentality in China. I also see it here in the Philippines. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to serve the purpose.

        I wish I had been able to go out and see ‘China’ while I was there instead of hotels and factories. Maybe my wife and I will take a trip in the future for enjoyment only.

        I love the food (okay, I saw the insides of restaurants, too). The cars are interesting, too – the first vehicle I rode in China was a Chinese copy of my Chevy Minivan I had in Arizona. Gave me a weird deja-vu vibe.

        As far as point-to-point wire porn – they do that a lot in the development areas (where I spent a lot of my time). Especially the programmers – boards with tons of wires and flying parts, so they can get their code into the product and test it out. Scared the heck out of me, and my fears were realized on one trip when we spent 3 hours trying to get the product working and it turned out to be a broken wire causing the troubles.

        I thrived on the culture differences. I would just sit back (when I had a chance) and study the people and environment. I guess that what lead me to eventually moving to the Philippines. Every day has one or two surprises. Keeps life interesting.

  2. I read some of his post and I don’t think he has said a single good thing. I went out for lunch and I kept bothering me what a whiner this guy is. I had to say something.

    I don’t know if you guys have read his posts, but this guy complains about EVERYTHING!.. He is going to a foreign country with different cultures and manners, what did he expect? for everyone to roll their red carpet for him. He reminds me of the show an idiot abroad. Things that seem odd to him are normal to them, get used to it or stay home getting pampered.

  3. “It’s a scoreboard which can be controlled from your smart phone”

    I’ve been working on the same thing for a couple months to refurb an old manual scoreboard in a neighborhood park (with 7-segment or LED, still in the “sketches on the back of an envelope” stage).

    Re-purpose an OpenWrt/DD-wrt wireless router with a serial port mod and a few other off-the-shelf hacks controlled by an Android frontend – seems doable. Weatherproofing and general lifetime expectations being the immediate concerns.

    Never occurred to me that this was funding-worthy or an excuse to travel the globe :)

    1. Not to bash your design, but you might consider using the thermo-forming to make light channels and use a cheap semi-opaque overlay.

      I only say this because 22 years ago, I built a few dozen of the same product. I used a Z8 chip programmed in basic (and then an 8749) and a cheap mylar overlay. It was more or less daylight readable.

      The Z8 was connected via serial port (as common then as USB is now) and my prototype was made using masking tape on frosted mylar. I didn’t sell many, as the world wanted BIG displays.

      Anyway, I had a zillion LEDS at first, but then somehow I got the idea to make a mold out of wooden trim, formed in the shape of 7 segment LEDS.

      I’ll bet there’s five or six vacuum forming articles on hackaday. I would never prototype this kind of thing in china – your product will appear for $14.95 on the secondary OEM market about 10 days after you get your first shipment.

      The difference is that what you get shipped to you will be the seconds that die within minutes, while the ones that actually work will show up at harbour freight, costco and sports authority for $30.

      Don’t take my word for it, though.

      1. To clarify, the mold created channels arranged as the legs of a 7 segment display. These were backlit using either a single or double LED, and greatly reduced the number of LEDs and hence the assembly work required to build the units.

        It was no problem to get five and a half digits plus indicators. You can’t get very fancy with corners, but you can use triangles instead of arrows.

        A bit of white paint on the inside of the back and a sheet of frosted mylar completed it. It took a weekend to get the mold made and drilled.
        I tested it with aluminum foil (awful) and then wet cardboard before I started using real plastic.

        It looked pretty nice.

        PS – The guys at sparkfun did something with florescent bulbs and styrofoam that worked pretty well as well, giving them 2′, 4′ or 8′ tall digits.

  4. A lot of us think we’re somehow exempt from culture shock, but doing business in china will wipe that smug pangloss attitude from you pretty quickly.

    China is a throwback to the go-go industrial boom of the 1920’s, albeit with high tech & plastic.

    If you’ve grown up in a net enabled world, you probably don’t remember that it was the same here, once upon a time but not that long ago.

    In the 1980’s, the USA still had plenty of manufacturing operations consisting of women sitting around and hand assembling stuff – just as they had sat in mills in the 1880s and daydreamed while they ran the machines.

    When china announced that it was open for business in the 1990s (actually much earlier, but MFN status sealed the deal), many american manufacturers secretly opened plants with the help of party officials and generals in the PLA.

    At the higher levels of aristocracy and power, there isn’t much difference between american, russian, chinese or even iranian movers and shakers – but that has little to do with culture shock. In fact, the culture simply provides a framework for the alpha dogs to hack. Politicians and the folks that pull the strings are hackers just like us, only they work with people, favors and money instead of resistors, wire and arduinos.

    The days of showing up in china and getting feasted with hookers and anonymous cash are long over. These days, you’re just another monkey getting checked out as a potential source of revenue, inexpensive IP to rip off or contacts.

    They will copy your laptop, papers, usb keys and anything else that isn’t nailed down. You’d be surprised at how often they’ll record your actions and conversations in every “foreigner permitted” hotel. Sadly, that includes you accidentally banging your translator, which happens at least 85% of the time, if you’re not ugly or too old.

    All that aside, it’s a marvelous place.

    Things to know:
    – It isn’t really cheaper.

    – A lot of those impressive buildings are empty.

    – Lots of people have two or thee apartments bought on speculation. Most of them were built to steal investment money, and are structurally defective.

    – Don’t eat the salads. Don’t even swish the water, or get it in your eyes. You can shower.

    – Most chinese beaches make San Diego’s rich mix of medical waste and discharged toxins look pristine in comparison.

    – purchase a lot of immodium and take your first dose of two tablets as you get off the plane. Max out for the first day or two, then just take one in the morning and one at night. You’ll thank me the first time you see what a non-western toilet looks like, and discover that they NEVER have toilet paper.

    – If you’re lonely and want to hang with another slightly obese westerner, go to mcDonalds.

    – Don’t put ice in your drinks. The ice is basically instant petri dish mix, and wants very badly to colonize your stomach and intestines.

    – As every western guy with an FOB chinese pickup/girlfriend/wife/babysitter has learned, you don’t need an STD to be unhappy. Every shared breath, every contact of mucous membranes, every gentle caress is actually an impressive scene of alien life form invasion.

    – Your body’s defensive systems are no match for 50,000 years of isolated rural life in close contact with bugs and animals you’ve never even heard of. Chinese colds and flu bugs are invisible to you, and the tiniest amount of fecal matter is like a fully equipped invasion fleet.
    And if there’s one thing you can find everywhere in china, it’s fecal matter. The lack of flies (aka Africa) may fool you, but it’s there.

    – Your hand gestures mean nothing. You cannot mime. Learn a little chinese before you go, just 25 words can make all the difference if you accidentally get away from the western adapted areas.

    – It’s not really cheaper than the west. They have terrible inflation problems.

    – No really, just build your crap here by hiring illegals, low income women and community college students under the table. You’ll get better results for about a 20% cost increase over what you’d pay to get it done in china.

    Then again, an english corner in Beijing or drinking beer along the strand with a bunch of slightly spastic 30-something bar flies in chiffon dresses that try to pass themselves off as being 17 is not to be missed, and there are a few rare gems in their late 20’s to be found in the sales/executive/business pools of most large firms.

    Shenzen and most of south china is where the food action is – I miss the import/export era. And the noodles. So tasty. So good to eat under the open sky.

    Good luck!

  5. I can’t help wondering how this “hacker revolution” is going to help our failing country when all the manufacturing is still being done in China. I thought outsourcing was one of the reasons we didn’t like the big corporations?


    1. Good point, Mike. I haven’t signed any contracts yet; my trip was more about learning what it takes and what to expect so I can make an informed decision when it comes time to do manufacturing.

      I learned a lot, but mostly that it isn’t a simple equation, and it’s changing rapidly. Wages in China are cheaper, but rising quickly. If your product requires a lot of manual assembly, it makes sense to manufacture in China still, for now. But for designs that are easily automated, the difference is less apparent, and other things like logistics and tariffs make the decision more challenging.

      The big companies often have staff living in China to monitor and work with the factories to maintain quality and production, which isn’t always an option for small startups. There is also the expectation of large volumes, which doesn’t work for startups either.

      For some things China makes a lot of sense, but I suspect the hacker revolution might be the opportunity American factories need to recover and service the growing number of startups making smaller batches of complex products.

      1. I appreciate the reply Bob,

        I’m sure your trip was definitely eye opening, and I appreciate the blog that you’ve been keeping. Please don’t think that me using this opportunity to rant was personal. Manufacture your product wherever you think makes sense, obviously.. and keep having fun doing it.

        My personal experience with small scale manufacturing in a former north american automotive town has been very hit and miss to be honest. Some companies have embraced the ‘little guy’ and have been great to deal with, while most others appear to have a chip on their shoulder about dealing with small quantities (and small amounts of money) because it isn’t what they’ve been accustomed to.

        I do hope the hacker revolution creates an opportunity to give our community jobs, but at the same time I think even calling it a “hacker revolution” is putting too much weight on the shoulders of what very well might be just a marketing slogan for magazines and 3D printers.


    2. Mike,
      We’re not failing. We’re just returning to the norms, and like five year olds crashing from a sugar high, we’re cranky and need a nap. And maybe a spanking for effect.

      Yes, the people running the joint decided to swipe your 401k, earnings growth and pensions, but that was gonna happen eventually anyway. It has happened repeatedly, and is a long standing american institution like mom, baseball and apple pie.

      Go ahead, read some old newspapers from previous generations – nothing has changed. Well, we have angry birds on the ipad, and people living in little internet connected cocoons, but other than that, it’s the same as it ever was.

      They overdid it and got greedy, just like they did in the 1920s, and now life will be a drag for a while. We’ll find a way out with an exciting new war, as we’ve done for the last 2000 years.

      I feel your pain – I spent some time in the 80’s trying to get a largish manufacturer to produce products for me, and there wasn’t enough money in the world to make it worth their while. They went bankrupt a few years later from lack of new business. Go figure.

      The traditional method is to get disgusted, buy or borrow some second hand gear and start manufacturing it yourself on a shoestring.

      You might go bust, and you might not make a dime, but every successful manufacturer got started that way. About the time you start siphoning off their business, they’ll take you seriously.

      It worked for the two steves.

  6. I don’t want to sound mean but doesn’t seem like this dude learned anything you couldn’t learn by reading up online. I mean if he wanted a tax-deductible trip to China I guess I understand. I’d be curious to see it all for myself too. The other thing he didn’t mention is that place is a real wild west where you need to watch everyone like a hawk and only deal with trusted partners. I live in Vietnam and I very interested in trying my hand at a start-up out here if I can think of good idea or meet someone interested in the same.

    1. Actually, going to china with a half-baked idea probably means he has a future in business.

      It takes a certain kind of obliviousness in a person to succeed in business. Imperfect information is what makes markets strong.

      I’m all for Ready, Fire, Aim. It’s what keeps America strong.

      1. I agree that business people often need a headstrong belief that makes them try what other say is not possible, but not availing yourself of the commonly held perspective is silly. I won’t even buy a vacuum cleaner without doing a bit of research.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.