How to Create a Product in China (And Make $100k in a Week on Kickstarter)

Last April I decided to take a trip to China and see what kinds of opportunities I could find for myself over there.

I had three potential markets in mind that I wanted to explore:

  • Wood Watches
  • Backpacks for the “flashpacker”
  • Opportunities to import into China.

The one I was most excited about at the time were the watches.  My girlfriend Tate has a wooden watch that looks pretty cool, is a unique idea, and is a magnate for comments.  Everytime she wears it she gets at least 1 or 2 comments asking about it.

There was a ton of potential in the market, as few people had really started looking into opportunities with making watches out of wood.

I enlisted a couple friends of mine who knew more than I did about manufacturing and doing business in China, and headed to one of the world’s largest sourcing events: The Canton Fair.

Here you can literally find someone to make you anything you want.  Diapers? Check. Sex toys? Yep. Tractors? Mmmmhmmm. Saunas? You got it.

So obviously there was a plethora of watch companies that will make you exactly what you were looking for.  I even found the factory that manufactured Tate’s watch and bought a sample of essentially the same model at a 90% discount.

Well, for various reasons I decided it wasn’t the right time for me to start manufacturing.  I simply had the other things that I needed to focus on more.

Enter Ryan Beltran.

A good friend and travel companion, he also had a huge interest in watches and saw the same potential as me when we first showed up at the fair.

The difference between us?

He ran with the idea, and has made almost $100k in his first week on Kickstarter for his latest line of wood watches, Original Grain.

Ryan is one of the coolest guys I know and has worked his ass off to make this business a reality.

Few people are out there providing really good information on what it takes to not only create a product in China, but to be successful bringing it to market.

Sean Ogle and Ryan Beltran in a Tuk Tuk

Ryan and I Tuk Tuk'n in Cambodia last month (notice that sweet watch of his)

Because of this I wanted to do an interview with him talking about the process for developing the watch, raising the money on Kickstarter, and ultimately, providing a roadmap for others considering doing something similar.

I emailed him some of the most pressing questions I had, below are his answers:

Where do you even begin looking for people who can actually make a product for you?

Once you’ve determined the product you’d like sell, knowing where to look for suppliers can easily seem like one of the most overwhelming tasks on your list. Thankfully for me, the largest trade show in China (The Canton Fair) was just a quick train ride away. Spanning over three weeks with three different phases, you can literally find any and all products there.

If you do decide to invest in a trip to attend the fair, the key is to have a well established game plan prior to going. I can still vividly remember the first time I walked into that massive complex and having no idea where to begin. However, if you come prepared with specific products in mind you can get started from day one meeting with suppliers and setting up visits later that week. I’d highly recommend attending The Canton Fair or similar trade shows to find manufacturers and inspire your product ideas even further.

If I can’t make it over to a sourcing fair, where should I go? Can I still do this?

Absolutely.

For those without the start-up budget to travel and attend a sourcing fair, other alternatives do exist. I’m sure most people are aware of websites like Ali Baba, where you can virtually search for any product and find more suppliers than you’d ever need. This is great place to start. But you’ve gotta be really careful, quality control is really difficult when you’re not on the ground, and you never quite know what you’re going to get.

This is why going to someplace like the Canton Fair is so nice, because you can feel samples of other products and get an idea of the quality.  Sean and I went through literally dozens of watch manufacturers and only found a handful that were up to my standards for Original Grain.

If you’re really serious about doing this without going to China, you’re best bet is to get in touch with someone on the ground there who knows what they’re doing.

I have a couple American friends who do nothing but sourcing for a living, getting in touch with someone like that will ensure that you enter the process with your eyes wide open.

So, the initial idea was for a wood watch. You took it even farther than I could have envisioned,  how did you evolve it into something so unique?

This initial idea goes way back to my original research into the watch market and stemmed from the fact that there was minimal competition. Once we left the fair and I’d determined there truly was a need in this niche, I knew there was one more thing to do…niche down even further and come up with something that hadn’t been done before.

After talking with consumers, we learned some of the big problems with other products out there were a lack of durability, little reliability in the cheap Chinese movements, and a lack of “day-to-day” wearability.

So I went to work, and the result was a hybrid design that features 100% all-natural wood and stainless steel. The evolution was definitely a little more complicated than that, but at the end of the day my goal was to offer an innovative and simply better alternative to the current wood watches available, that you could wear day in and day out in any situation.

How did you design it? Can the factories pretty much do anything you want?

The design process was easily one of the most exciting parts about taking the watch from concept to physical prototype. If you want to create it, you can find a factory to make it. I’m by no means a professional designer, but my previous background in product development definitely made things easier.

Factories are generally very helpful when it comes to developing your product. In my experience with these watches specifically, they had an in-house team of designers that were able to help refine things prior to making a prototype. As a side note, having someone who can speak the native language is essential if you need a lot of help with this.

This is also another benefit of being close to the manufacturer, I could hop on a train and meet in person with the team that was actually creating my watch.  We made a lot of changes in the early going that I simply don’t think would be possible if I wasn’t there in person.
What sets you watch apart from other similar watches? (Inspiration, high quality materials etc)

The number one thing that sets my watch apart from others is the design. It truly is unique. Second, these watches offer a much higher quality feel than their competitors. By incorporating wood and stainless steel into the design, I was able to give it that natural wood look, with a more classic and “real watch” feel.

We source the majority of our materials and parts from around the world, and the factories were a huge help in facilitating that process. For instance, we didn’t want a cheap movement. We wanted the watch to be reliable, and still affordable. So we went with one of the most well-regarded Japanese movements out there. In terms of perceived quality, it’s second only to Swiss movements, which cost many multiples more.

We also sourced our own wood from various countries. We don’t alter the wood’s natural color, but simply give a protective polish that will maintain it’s original look. 

How much time did it take from idea to having a working prototype? What big changes took place?

I had the initial idea back in May of 2012 when Sean was in China, sat on it for a while, and then decided to really make it happen in July.

Once you find a reliable, quality supplier to manufacture your product the timeline really isn’t that long to have a working prototype. You have to understand the fact that these factories are extremely good at what they do and can pump things out in a hurry. Once I had the initial designs ready, it took about a month to receive a prototype. 

The majority of your time will be spent tweaking designs and finalizing everything. For example, I had to purchase new molds for the case and band, I shaved off fractions of a millimeter from the wood bezel, and slightly altered my face designs. All of which takes time.

Are there minimum order quantities you have to have to even get a factory to work with you?

The minimum order quantity (MOQ ) levels will vary depending on the product.

Of course the cheaper your per unit cost is, the higher the MOQ and vice-versa. When I first started to manufacture products in China, I thought there was little wiggle room to negotiate the minimum order with factories, but what I’ve found is they are actually pretty flexible. This is yet another reason why it’s beneficial to visit the factory in person, as they will be more likely to work with you on this if you do so.

Very rarely is the initially quoted MOQ going to be a deal breaker if you can’t meet their requirement.

What are all of the costs associated with the manufacturing process? (Design, Proto development, QC,)

This will vary by the product you’re dealing with and from person to person depending on skill set, where you live, and personal preference. If you have the ability to do the design yourself then you can factor out that cost. Prototypes can add up quickly if you need to make a lot of adjustments. For example, I had to purchase molds for my watch case and band in order to get the exact specifications I wanted. Then purchase samples to test color combinations and different face designs.

Quality control comes down to your preference, time, and location. For me, I was able to be on the ground from start to finish.

But for most I assume this is not the case. I would suggest for those who are not able to either go visit the factory at all or do quality control, hire out someone to do this for them. Absolutely do not try and do this from your home country and outsource with no help from someone on the ground. And I strongly advise you make a visit to see your factory at some point.

If I were to put a rough estimate on the amount of money one should expect to spend starting a similar type of project, I’d say $5,000…on the high end.

That would easily get you through the design stage, into factory samples and prototypes with more precise specifications, and a final product with packaging. I’d even go so far to say this much initial capital could get you to China for a factory visit. At that point, you’re going to be a little strapped for cash to market your product/business or get a super baller website, but that’s why platforms like Kickstarter are so great!

Original Grain

Now let’s jump into the fun stuff. Kickstarter. $25k in 24 hours, going on closer to $100k now after almost a week.  What do you think led to so much fast success?

As I’m sure most of you know, the key for success with any online business is generating traffic.

So, prior to launch that was my number one priority. I reached out to everyone I knew. I told them all about my project and launch date, and really tried to get as many people to contribute in the first few hours of going live as I could.

No one wants to be the first person to join something, so if I could get the people that had already committed to donating to do so early, I knew that could be a big factor in building momentum.

One of the biggest unexpected factors was receiving enough momentum to land on the front page of Kickstarter in their “popular” category – which generated even more traffic.

I had my goal of $10,000 reached in less than 5 hours and I truly believe it was huge for creating a buzz around the project. Who doesn’t want to hop on a fast moving train?

Your video looks sweet, how’d you put it together? Did you have any experience?

This question makes me laugh for a number of reasons. First and foremost, let me come right out and say that I literally had zero hours, minutes, or seconds in video editing experience prior to making the Kickstarter video. That being said, I too was pretty amazed with the finished version.

Like all things when you’re starting your own business, it was yet again another great learning experience…frustrating at times, but invaluable in the long run.

One piece of advice I can give when it comes to making a video for Kickstarter, is do your research. Watch countless videos, especially projects similar to yours (that were successful), and see what they did. Take bits and pieces from their videos and craft a unique story. People want to connect with you on another level beyond your awesome product.

With the money you’re raising, what’s next for the brand?

I’ll be honest and say prior to the campaign my answer to the “next steps” question was a little different…for obvious reasons! With the success I’m having and the money I’m raising, knowing where to allocate funds is crucial as I work to manage the growth. 

Continuing to build my online presence will remain a priority, however I now have a lot more leverage in finding retailers to carry my brand. Being able to fall back on the fact I’ve received so much demand in only a few days since I launched, immediately establishes a new level of confidence, and more importantly, credibility with my product. With that said, I’m crafting an in-depth sales and marketing strategy to sell my watches beyond an e-commerce platform and extend my reach into as many physical retail outlets as possible.

Exciting times for us at Original Grain and we can’t say thank you enough for all of the support. I welcome an questions people have about the manufacturing process or strategies surrounding the Kickstarter campaign, and will get back to everyone as quickly as possible.

You Ready to Get Original?

I’m stoked to see how the rest of this year plays out for Ryan and Original Grain. We spent a lot of hours on Tuk Tuks and in the back of buses talking about how he was going to approach this launch, and obviously he did a lot of things right.

Ryan was also cool enough to give me a prototype of the maple design, and I get compliments on it every time I wear it.  The owner of the highest end watch shop in Portland even said “oh wow, this is a really cool piece” when I took it in to get the links resized.

Interested in watches or any other aspects of making products in China? Just drop a comment!

Check out the Original Grain Kickstarter Campaign to donate and grab your very own OG watch. 

R.C. Thornton March 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

Awesome story. Ryan, do you know Chinese, or did you work with an interpreter to help navigate the Chinese factories and the Canton Fair?

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Sean March 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

Most of the representatives for the factories at the Canton Fair speak English. I never had any issues communicating when I was there. I’m sure Ryan can go into more detail, but I’d imagine the people you’re working with at the factories are also pretty fluent as well.

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Payman March 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Hey Ryan,
I’m extremely happy for you brother! I know you worked your butt off and you more than deserve this. Now go out and make this into a worldwide brand success. To your massive success!

Let’s chat soon!

Thanks for posting this Sean!

Payman.

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Allen March 4, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Great article Sean. Got some ideas going in my head from it.

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Tristan King March 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Woohoo, go Ryan! Great article and massive congrats on the success of the campaign.

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Sarah Li Cain March 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Awesome article. You are right that there are not many sites written about this. Many of the friends I know who live in Guangzhou or Hong Kong tend to export existing items already. As for importing items, I hear that foreign wine is increasing in demand. I know someone who is starting to do that if you want a new contact in Guangzhou.

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Sean March 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm

What’s their name Sarah?

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Sarah Li Cain March 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm

His name’s Eric Arroyo and I think he’s now working with a company called Torres China Wine Company. I can shoot him a message on facebook and your email address if you want.

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Harrison March 5, 2013 at 12:35 am

Wow Ryan! Congrats on the quick success. Such a great story.

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Trav March 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Sean, thanks for sharing this and congratulations Ryan. You’ve really killed it with Kickstarter. I really appreciate you sharing actual numbers (ie. You’d expect it to cost $5,000 max to do the same thing) since most of the time these types of articles obscure those facts.

As someone who is looking to try to break in to this arena, this post is an invaluable blueprint. Thanks for the inspiration and expertise!

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Alan March 5, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Incredible story – thanks for sharing!

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Toyiah March 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

Inspiring. I’d followed Ryan via Tim and Nick for some time as well. You guys are truly doing your thing. We just left China in October and to say the least it was absolutely AMAZING!!! We’re going back soon.

Toyiah

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Benny March 7, 2013 at 7:40 pm

A great article! Always wondered what the process was like so it’s awesome to get a behind the scenes look.

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Jose March 16, 2013 at 2:29 am

This was a really eye opening article. Is there an American equivalent to the Canton Fair?

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Orysia Buchan March 19, 2013 at 8:15 am

Great story! I have been wanting to have a product manufactured in China – basically, Ukrainian magnetic alphabet letters you can put on your refrigerator. Do you, or do you know of anyone who can work as a “fixer” who can assist in finding the right company in China to manufacturer? I don’t own my own company or anything now… I’m just a mom who wants my children to have such a product.

Thanks!
Orysia

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rafael April 29, 2013 at 5:19 am

Thanks for sharing!
My question is what about the copy or imitation. Once you launch your product what would happen with other people or suppliers that can replicate your idea. What did you think about that?

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chauey May 28, 2013 at 12:55 pm

nice article.. I just came back from Thailand. Vacation and showing around a cousin and visiting my uncle doing charity work. All the while, I was dreaming about how to launch my KickStarter project.. I’m going through and learning a lot of the same things.. and it’s a marathon with so many hurdles!

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stephanie clair October 1, 2013 at 4:04 pm

AMAZING article! I have a product I’ve gotten super excited about but not quite sure how to start.. I have a solid sellable product but wasn’t sure who or where to contact for manufacturing it. Inspiring to hear your story and see how you accomplished it step by step! Thanks so much for sharing your story!! :)

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Ryan November 2, 2013 at 8:56 am

Great article! Truly inspiring to see your hard work paying off and I wish you all continued success. I will be attending the next Canton fair and looking for manufacturers for a product I’m developing. Where would you recommend living for 2-3 months to work directly with the factories? Are most of them located in the city of Guangzhou?

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emmanuel December 23, 2013 at 12:52 am

great job sean, please do you no any electrical company that can produce a socket out-let that funtion automatically.

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Michael January 31, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Great article. Just found it, as you can see I am about 10 months late. Have a similar dream. Can’t seem to find a good person to help me with the manufacturing that is “on the ground” in China. Could you give me a name of someone you know?

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Roberto March 16, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Hi,
I yave a great idea about portable speakers and was wondering if you knew any reliable factory that could make my idea into product? Thanks!

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Tina May 4, 2014 at 11:27 am

Great read,,,,just starting out with my invention waiting for patent,,,then hopefully full take off….thanks and great job

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Ologbenla Adedeji May 11, 2014 at 2:25 am

Thanks for the educative piece, please, does anybody know about strategic partnership, a way one can get a top quality product from china at the cheapest price available.

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David June 28, 2014 at 4:08 pm

This is one of the best articles I have read about finding the right contract manufacturer in China.

As a North American contract manufacturer based in China, I can offer some perspective from the ‘other side’ of the process: connecting with the marketplace of clients, qualifying their needs match our capacity to perform, collaborating from concept through design-prototype-production-QA / QC, protecting intellectual property in China, logistics and shipping, and scaling production up or down as necessary.

There are challenges to overcome on both ends of the relationship.

Buyers, Business-Owners and Inventors: Production & Shipping Costs, Intellectual Property, Design & Prototyping, Quality Assurance / Quality Control (QA / QC), Delivery Schedule, Seasonal Market Demand, Customs.

Manufacturers / Suppliers in China: Capabilities and Limitations of Technologies and Materials, Production Capacity of Facilities and Equipment, Seasonal Factors such as Holidays and Client Demand (Chinese New Year has a major influence on production and shipping activity – before, during and after).

And both parties must manage communications over significant time-zone differences. This simple difference not only makes real-time phone calls difficult, it causes lag in email response times, and creates opportunity for confusion when scheduling calls. For example: Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. is 12 hours behind China. 8 am EST = 8 pm in China. Another example: 8 pm EST on Monday = 8 am Tuesday in China. Scheduling events proves difficult, and several fail, due to this one factor.

Now, what about the unique challenges faced by the buyer?

Production & Shipping Costs: Funding is always tricky, especially when introducing a new product where demand has not been validated. The initial processes to develop a prototype a product can be costly – professional designs and production-quality injection molds are expensive. Then there are Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ), which can be dictated by the manufacturer or other realities. Besides the manufacturer, MOQs may be dictated by downstream wholesale or distributors required / desired stock quantities, color-feature-size varieties for merchandising, production thresholds for volume cost / discounts as they relate to desired / required retail pricing.

Intellectual Property: This is one of the greatest concerns we address with our clients, especially those developing new products. Because we are owned and managed by North Americans living in China, this is also one of our greatest advantages in securing ‘Western’ clients. Just like the U.S., there is a system for filing patents and protecting Intellectual Property in China. It is not an easy or straight-forward process, which is why we began selectively offering the service a considerable time after we opened.

Design & Prototyping: Designs can be easy or hard. They can be complex or simple. Where the rubber meets the road is taking 1. Concept to Design, 2. Design to Prototype, 3. Prototype to Production. We have worked with inventors and creative minds who are incredibly brilliant and articulate. We have also worked with absolute geniuses who cannot easily articulate their concept for others – drawings, words, CAD or digital design, etc. The farther along design can be meaningfully moved forward without outside help, the lower your costs. However, taking a design too far forward without outside perspective can prove wasted effort – impossible dimensions, materials, movements, cost-to-price, etc.

Quality Assurance / Quality Control (QA / QC): Oh boy…where to start? This is another major concern of those sourcing from China. I am past the point of being disappointed or surprised by the number of contacts and clients who have been burned. As a buyer on the wholesale / distribution side, I have worked with sourcing companies who are also ‘Western’ owned and managed, but do not manage their business in-country. There is no replacement for ‘boots on the ground’. I count myself lucky to have not witnessed them myself, but there are bizarre and terrifying stories of factory visits from colleagues that exemplify ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.

Cautionary Tale From A Colleague
Buyer X worked for a ‘Big Box’ U.S. retailer. They visit a vendor factory being considered to produce a line of brass door knobs. The facility looks great – immaculately clean, meticulous organization. The machinery and staff is moving, producing, packing and storing similar product. Buyer X thought it was “too good to be to true”, and made a surprise follow-up visit 2 days later. The same facility had been reconfigured to look as if it was producing sterile plastic products for medical / clinical application. In 2 days, a factory working with metal stamping, turning, extrusion and assembly had transformed into one producing ‘sterile’ injection molded plastics. Where would the door knobs have actually been manufactured? Under what conditions and by whom? What would the first shipment have looked like, and when would it have shipped? Why did they show them a fake factory? What would the ‘real costs’ have been if they had gone with this manufacturer?

There are so many things to consider. Whether a first-time inventor or long-time Purchasing Manager, there are things to protect beyond the bottom-line and quality. But the cultural and legal issues around producing in another country can be difficult or impossible to plan for, and thus avoid. However, the advantages of outsourcing can still be had when done correctly.

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bankaly August 14, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Excellent post! Thanks for sharing the knowledge and experience Sean.
I found your article while I was looking how to manufacture a watch.
Planning to visit the next Canton fair.
Can I have a quick chat via email or over the phone?

Thanks

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Shedrick August 21, 2014 at 11:50 am

i invented the Patented Tennis Watch it keeps scores and stats and im trying to find a manufacture in China. Can you help? thanks Shedrick

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Chris August 27, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Shedrick, I’m on the ground hear in Shanghai, China and I’d like to help you out. Send me an email chrismcdermut@gmail.com and we can start a conversation.

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Shedrick August 21, 2014 at 11:51 am

This has been very informative thanks.

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aaron garcia August 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

I’m starting a project on kickstarter but just started contacting manufacturers on alibaba. I haven’t made the prototype yet.. just some drawings and hoping to put a digital prototype so they can see it better. Should I wait to launch my kickstarter project until I have a real prototype? Also what were your sales funnels? Amazon FBA, ebay, ecommerce? Also how did you build hype? FB, twitter, youtube? Thanks a lot for your help in advance

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Jean-Philippe September 23, 2014 at 10:34 am

Hi, First of all sorry about my english, it´s not my first language,
I want to know if someone have some goods manufacturers to propose. I have many prototypes of a new watch collection and i’m supose to go in china during november, i found 3 manufacturers who looks good and i wanna know if someone have a good recommendation for me thanks you for your help !
Jp

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