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. 

Shanequa Smith January 22, 2016 at 6:07 pm

Great article. I have my own business and I’m looking for a legit good quality company in China to make my beauty mirrors(vanity) and jewelry. Possibly my own polish and make up line as well. Can someone help me?

Reply

Bill April 22, 2016 at 12:28 am

Hi, Shanequa, Shenzhen, the place near HK, is one of the famous places making and exporting jewelries. There are hundred of factories at Longgang district. I may share with you more info if you are still holding the ideas.

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Srk February 15, 2016 at 11:49 am

How did you deal with the problem of everyone in China trying to counterfeit you product? I hear it’s a major issue.

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Danial February 17, 2016 at 1:56 am

First of all, this is a great article. I’ve learned so much in just a single page and I might be going to the Canton Fair this coming April. But what I’d like to know is that say I’m coming up with my own watch design and I want to turn my sketches into a prototype so that I could list it on crowdfunding sites, will it still need a MOQ even when building a prototype? Hope to hear from you soon!

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mykola March 30, 2016 at 10:45 pm

how can i get in touch with an agent on the ground who can find a supplier? I am having trouble with alibaba since the exact material I need is nowhere to be found. Or perhaps I don’t know the correct name.

Reply

Bill April 22, 2016 at 12:47 am

You may let me know, Mykola. I and my friend may help you to find it. There’s another site name Taobao, affiliate of alibaba, however, it’s a national e-market at present.

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Pinar April 20, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Quick question!

When it came to design, what kind of designs did you provide? Was it just hand-sketches or CAD drawings? Or can the factory design it in CAD/Blender based on your hand drawings?

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Bill April 22, 2016 at 12:57 am

Hi, Pinar, if you consider the Chinese factories, as I know, they are happy to design it in any formats based on your hand drawings. The most important is to start with a right person, otherwise you may find the communicate is quite inefficient.

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Josh Austin May 3, 2016 at 10:13 am

Very helpful & cool article. I have just finished highschool (so have very little contacts in regards to people who are of use in helping with advice), and am looking at manufacturing my own watch (so I want a factory/factories to make my product), but I am unsure where to find help on this. I have searched on Ali Baba and all I can find is people trying to sell me pre made watches. To cut things short, I was curious as to whether anyone can help me out with: 1) A good website where I can find a list of reliable watch manufacturers in China preferably.
2) Is it likely the watch I want to produce will be able to be manufactured at one factory alone (example: I decide on a factory and I give them my designs and what components I would like used, will they manufacture it themselves and directly deliver to me? or will I have to work with multiple manufacturers in order to receive the product I am after?
3) If one factory alone can not make my product, do I then have to get multiple factories to manufacture different things and send it to me then assemble it myself? or is there a way I can somehow get all the components sent to a factory where they can assemble for me? (if possible)
4) What do I need in order for someone to manufacture my product? (designs… etc?)
5) Do I send my design to a factory and they make it? or do they just send me the parts and I have to assemble it myself?
6) Do manufacturers allow for you to get a finalised custom product without having to go through the whole minimum units order process (Elaboration: I would like to eventually order from the correct manufacturer in bulk, but not until I’ve finalised the product in physical form. I have seen online that many require a minimum unit order or else you can not purchase from them?

Any help would mean the world,

Kind regards,

Josh Austin

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