Lessons from China for Kickstarter creators

Some products are almost impossible to manufacture in the USA – just to give you one small example, it took me 60 days to get my first phone call returned by UFP Technologies, a large US foam manufacturer. So we need our Chinese partners. But working with companies 7,000 miles away from radically different cultures can be hit or miss. I’m going to show you how a match seemingly made in heaven can go sour (keep in mind that I have three other factories performing well).

First boondoggle: I was proud to have found a very reputable looking manufacturer for the Neck Track through AliBaba.com and didn’t pay careful attention when my sales rep’s email address changed. Unbeknownst to me she left the company to work for someone else and then faked an invoice using her old company information. I sent her $900 by PayPal  for a mold and samples. When my sales rep stopped responding promptly to my  Skype messages, I wrote to a different contact in the company and learned the truth. Fortunately PayPal refunded my money!

Second boondoggle: The first manufacturer that I chose for the Body Track promised me everything I wanted and offered to make a prototype for $360 when I was uncomfortable with the $2,600 mold cost necessary to get a sample. I had decided to shell out the bottom of the Body Track to reduce material costs and use injection molding in place of compression molding which could be faster.

But, since this new design was untested, I was nervous about committing to making an actual mold as a first step. I decided to order 2 prototypes with different hardnesses. They were to be translucent polyurethane, one in orange and one in green. After I sent the money by Western Union, the bad news started rolling in.

First, I was told it was impossible to use translucent polyurethane, it would have a yellowish tinge. Next, I was told the prototyping process would be changed from a carved model/molding/pouring process to a stereolithography (SLA) print.

The final nail in the coffin came — both prototypes would have the same hardness which was a hard brittle plastic. That made the prototypes completely useless to me and of course I told them exactly that. They would not refund my money, however. They did make the prototypes which presumably are lying in a storage room even now.

Third boondoggle: Stung by my first two misadventures, I chose a larger manufacturer for the Body Track and  insisted on speaking with US customers for references. Everything looked great! But, I started noticing a pattern of Skype messages that started like this “Dear eric, I’m very sorry to tell you that…”

They turned out to be slower than a three-legged turtle and nearly 60 days after beginning work on my mold, they broke it without ever sending me a sample.  The wire transfer was on September 3 and on October 29, I get this “Dear eric,I got a bad news just now.I’m shocked,I was told that the mold we are using is broken,not good to make perfect parts any more.” 

Below, I’ve excerpted some samples of our Skype communications  so you can see what a slow-motion train wreck looks like. Fortunately, because I was dealing with a large reputable firm and made contacts with their US customers, they were very gracious about doing a refund.

What can you do to prevent boondoggles?

  1. Minimize damage: Pay with PayPal whenever you can. Pay an initial invoice for a mold and a sample and see how they perform before you pay  for multiple molds and production units.
  2. Spread your risk: Set up a horse race by trying out several manufacturers at once and cut the poor performers loose.
  3. Check references: Ask to speak with US customers but understand that it’s not very reliable because everyone’s products are different. Some are easy and some aren’t. Some fall within the manufacturers expertise and others farther afield.
  4. Listen to your Spidey sense: Pay careful attention to anomalies – if something seems weird, investigate! If you can’t reach your rep within minutes on Skype (except when he or she is sleeping) and you aren’t getting good problem-solving, think about switching horses.
  5. Be a good partner: Reward the manufacturers that give you great service and reliability! Pay for samples, be reasonable and kind and respond promptly and carefully – the golden rule!

Here’s a sample from the trail of tears from my third boondoggle:

[9/3/2014 7:46:11 PM] Michael: dear eric,thanks for your bank receipt
[9/3/2014 7:46:56 PM] Michael: I’ll do the arrangement today,have a nice day.

[9/11/2014 4:57:06 AM] Michael: dear eric,I’m very sorry to tell you that our engineers made an wrong estimation for the mass production of body track.Pls check the detail in email and kindly tell us your ideas.
[9/11/2014 7:30:38 PM] Eric : can you be more specific? have you finished one of the molds?
[9/11/2014 7:31:59 PM] Michael: not yet,we began the molding yesterday ,so it still need some days
[9/11/2014 7:33:24 PM] Michael: the holiday occupy some days,and our schedule waiting need several days
[9/11/2014 9:41:36 PM] Eric : Michael, if you can assure me you’ll fedex the first sample before your holiday week begins, we’ll go forward with your plan…
[9/11/2014 9:44:34 PM] Michael: let me check with our factory department
[9/11/2014 9:44:46 PM] Eric : Ok
[9/11/2014 9:44:49 PM] Michael: wait for a while pls
[9/11/2014 9:49:46 PM] Michael: eric,it’s ok,when it’s urgent,we’ll working 24-hours on it.We confirmed that.
[9/11/2014 9:50:50 PM] Eric: Ok I want you to call the mold factory for an update everyday… Can you do that?
[9/11/2014 9:53:26 PM] Michael: in fact,we will keep tight with all our projects every day,and update it for our clients for 2-3 days a time,but if you need I do update every day,I’ll try to
[9/11/2014 9:53:55 PM] Michael: that’s no problem
[9/11/2014 9:56:43 PM] Michael: don’t worry about the delay,we will update before 3 days when little delay may occur
[9/11/2014 9:56:55 PM] Michael: and that’s in control
[9/11/2014 9:59:38 PM] Michael: we are a long history company in China,we know how to handle  a project from 10,000USD-1000,000USD
[9/11/2014 10:03:23 PM] Michael: I’ll make the new PI for you to confirm it after,my friend

[9/14/2014 6:50:32 PM] Michael: dear eric,the mold is still in rough machining,we forcast it will be ready next weekend

[9/21/2014 8:16:40 PM] Michael: dear eric,good evening.We are doing the mold tightly.There comes a little question here,could the logo on the two sides be removed?
[9/21/2014 8:21:56 PM] Michael: my engineers suggest us to remove the logo on the two sides,because they may not be perfect on looking,not as good as logo on the bottom.Due to the pressure,it’s may not foam sufficiently to look perfect.
[9/21/2014 8:22:31 PM] Michael: Is that ok?
[9/21/2014 9:20:27 PM] Michael: yes,I’m sorry for this,my engineers don’t tell me about this before
[9/21/2014 9:20:44 PM] Michael: I’ll check with them now
[9/21/2014 9:47:35 PM] Michael: dear eric,we’ll modify it to make it perfect.this week,the mold will be ready if everything goes well.

[9/24/2014 8:29:42 PM] Eric: Hi Michael, how is the mold coming along?
[9/24/2014 8:32:20 PM] Michael: hi eric,it need another two or three days to finish,a little hurry.I’ll check it tomorrow.

[9/25/2014 9:25:42 PM] Michael: dear eric,I’m sorry that it seems very difficult for us to send the prototype before the holiday now,the mold need another two days to complete,we will plan one day working on the weekend,and it will be ok on next monday.I’ll go to the factory and take a photo for you soon.

[9/29/2014 9:33:58 PM] Michael: dear eric,we will having the holiday from Oct 1st to Oct 5th,will back on 6th,the prototype should be ready then,I’ll check it and discuss with you. We are again very sorry to be not on time as you wished.I hope the prototype be perfect so that we can save time then. Talk soon~

[10/6/2014 6:32:27 PM] Michael: my factory fellows said it need another 2 or 3 days
[10/6/2014 6:32:57 PM] Michael: yeah,I’m very sorry
[10/6/2014 6:33:57 PM] Michael: they asked if it’s ok to make the prototype in black,so that it can save some time to mactching the color
[10/6/2014 6:34:26 PM] Eric: so is the mold finished?
[10/6/2014 6:34:47 PM] Michael: yes,mold is ready

[10/10/2014 11:47:16 PM] Michael: hi eric,I will get the prototype on Monday.I’ve tried to urge the guys be quicker,and they are working on the weekend.I’ll check it then.I’m sorry for the delay.Hope you have a good weekend

[10/20/2014 8:18:40 PM] Michael: I see,let me discuss with them,we are not using extreme high resiliency PU because they told me that the surface of it will not be smooth previously
[10/20/2014 8:19:00 PM] Michael: so I’ll check with them again

[10/21/2014 6:39:44 PM] Michael: eric,I’ve discussed with my people,we are going to try high resiliency PU
[10/21/2014 6:46:09 PM] Michael: eric,today I find a new little problem,the length of the track is 5mm short than the 3D design
[10/21/2014 6:47:00 PM] Michael: is it a big problem?
[10/21/2014 6:55:47 PM] Michael: it’s 255mm,it can be modified,but I’m afraid it will cost several days.
[10/21/2014 7:00:28 PM] Michael: oh, my factory fellow are already modifying the mold yesterday after our QC find the problem

[10/23/2014 9:05:25 PM] Michael: hi eric,I checked with the fellows,the mold will be ok this weekend,we will make the high resiliency PU prototype on monday

[10/26/2014 9:07:52 PM] Eric: Wondering if you finished the mold?
[10/26/2014 9:08:35 PM] Michael: yes,the mold is ok,we are making prototype today

[10/28/2014 6:40:38 PM] Michael: eric,I’m very sorry that they don’t finished the prototype yesterday
[10/28/2014 6:42:31 PM] Michael: I got there and they are working,I don’t know why they often be late,I have complained they a lot

[10/29/2014 8:30:59 PM] Michael: hi eric,I got to factory yesterday and I’m disappointed with the result,we didn’t get a nice prototype

[10/30/2014 7:08:02 PM] Michael: dear eric,I got a bad news just now.I’m shocked,I was told that the mold we are using is broken,not good to make perfect parts any more. 🙁
[10/30/2014 7:41:51 PM] Eric: Michael, this is too much… I think you should refund my money at this point! I’m shocked too.
[10/30/2014 7:44:22 PM] Michael: I’m sorry eric,I understand your angry.I’ll talk with our manager about your request.I’ll try to get a good result for you

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