The First Question to Ask a New Chinese Supplier

When contacting a new supplier in China, you will naturally begin with the most elementary questions first.

These questions will revolve around the supplier’s technical ability to produce your design. After that you proceed to discussions about business terms such as order quantities, prices, and lead time.

But before you start this dialogue, there is one question you should ask of every prospective supplier. It is so elementary it might not even cross your mind to ask, but believe you me: you will regret not asking should you discover later on in the process that the answer is “No.”

The first question you should ask of a new Chinese supplier is, “Do you have an export license?” You will be surprised by how many would-be exporters do not even have a license to export.

You might take it for granted that, if a supplier were attempting to do business overseas, they must have a license to get the goods out of China. Well, that’s an assumption you have made, and in the world of China sourcing, assumptions are your worst enemy.

There is a great likelihood that many of the suppliers you are contacting cannot handle the paperwork needed to ship your goods. So assume nothing about a new supplier, and start every conversation by asking each would-be exporter whether they have an export license.

In many cases, you will find that they do not have this license. Now aren’t you glad you asked at the start?

Taking Responsibility for Mistakes in Small Business

Big business has its lawyers, contracts and intellectual property, but small business has neither time nor money for such abstractions. The work must get done, the product must ship on time; hence, deals are done in small business on the basis of reputation.

Now nothing in this world is perfect, and problems invariably arise. Being that your business lives or dies on its reputation with suppliers and customers, you must take swift action to correct mistakes and compensate partners when you are the responsible party.

It doesn’t matter whether you lose money in the course of fixing the mistake, because the money involved has little value compared to your reputation — which is your most precious asset. Like a Japanese samurai performing harakiri, or a medieval knight falling on his sword, you must take the hit in order to protect your honor in the relationship.

Recently I was deeply disappointed when a supplier made a mistake and acknowledged the fault as theirs, yet they asked me to pay to fix their problem. The money involved was paltry and after much thought I decided to pay for the supplier’s mistake for the sake of expediency.

But I am always saddened when I discover a business partner is not as trustworthy as I had thought, since it invariably signifies the beginning of the end of the relationship. Like a romance turned sour, the breakdown of a business relationship is often painful to both sides concerned.

On these occasions, you must be prepared to let go and move on, because if your partner will not take responsibility for a small mistake, you can be sure they will throw you under the bus when an even bigger problem arises in the future. Since they have taught you that they cannot be trusted, they are now a risk factor which you must mitigate and, ultimately, eliminate from your business.

The silver lining is this particular instance is that I got to test the moral character of my supplier for a very small sum. This is cheap insurance against future risk.

Designing Products That Tell a Story

Product design is tricky business. On one hand, you want to appeal to as many end-users as possible; on the other hand, you don’t want your product to be so bland that it appeals to nobody.

Yesterday I spent an afternoon discussing design with Lara Stephenson, designer and founder of Ann & Arayata. Lara creates beautiful clutches and handbags woven from raffia, a fiber from a type of palm tree.

Over lunch and multiple rounds of Americanos, Lara and I talked about how to design products that are not only beautiful but also meaningful. In short, how do you design a product which tells a story?

Ann & Arayata has a great story: the weaving technique is a specialty of rural Filipino artisans, who use only 100% natural materials and water-based dyes. By supporting this indigenous craft, Ann & Arayata is contributing to local development in these communities while also donating funds to infrastructure, food and education projects via charity L.I.F.E. For Health.

Storytelling has always been one of my strengths but product design is another matter. Talking with an expert like Lara really helped me clarify some of my thinking about design.