Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
Dealing With China
By Mike Gould
Ah, China: the biggest nation on the planet, home to billions and billions of our species, and, currently, the manufacturing hub of the known universe. I’m not going to discuss the current global economic issues or other such topics for which I am spectacularly unqualified; this is just a tale about one guy’s adventures doing business with companies on the other side of the Earth.
10 Cents Worth of History
I grew up reading Fu Manchu pulp dime novels. I’m not that old: these came out in the 30’s but I read them as paperback reprints in the 60’s. They were written during the racist era that considered the vast hordes of Chinese as “The Yellow Peril” which was going to overwhelm us, take our women, and enslave us all. Fu Manchu was a fictional super genius and bad guy with Genghis Khan issues. Boris Karloff played him in Asian drag in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” in 1932, co-starring with Myrna Loy. He had a pretty cool death ray that looked sorta like a laser, but I digress…
Then World War II happened and we were friends again against Japan, and then the communists took over and we were enemies again, and now we are trading partners big time, and uneasy friends again. Inserting mandatory Orwell “1984” quote here: “We've always been at war with Eastasia”.
In a nutshell: China put in an enormous effort to modernize its factories, was successful, and due to the West’s failure to keep up, China now rules the fabrication landscape. You want cheap manufactured goods, you go to China. I, and most of us in the US, am not happy about this and many Americans are working on turning this around, but currently, that’s the way it is here in the technical vastness of 2013.
Cut To a Basement Near Ypsilanti
OK, I build laser lightshow devices. No big deal, I assemble laser modules and small parts from around the world, machine aluminum supports for them, embed them into lunch boxen or PVC pipe in a suitably artistic manner, attach the electrodes, and exhibit them in museums (soon) and festivals. (More info at URLs below).
I buy specialized prisms and mirror supports from Australia, imported mirrors from a guy in Connecticut, and lens cleaning goo from England. And lasers from China. (Or Canada, where they import them from China.) I’m also talking to a guy in Denmark who makes laser controller circuit boards. At least the software that controls all this comes from Florida.
Enter The Internet Dragon
The above all came about when I started getting back into lasers in 2009. Google searches on “laser modules” kept coming up with Chinese companies, so I dived in. One annoyance is that most Chinese web sites don’t feature pricing; you have to email them for prices which makes comparison shopping a major pain. I list one of the exceptions below. Here are some general observations about being a small businessperson dealing with a very big country filled with factories:
Language is not that big a deal
Each company seems to have several people on their staff with fairly good English skills, certainly better than my Mandarin, anyway. That person will adopt a Western name, so we Westerners are not confused by Chinese names. This I don’t understand; what is so hard about remembering Lin Liang Lon, instead of LaserSusie?).
Dealing with lasers, we have our own jargon: nanometers, galvos, analog modulation, etc.. Everybody on both sides of the transaction understands these and the essentials are covered. Every once in a while, things can get a bit garbled, as when the vendor confused my Request For Quote for laser modules with completed laser projectors:Hi Mike ,
For the projector USD2700 with DT4 wide, R and B single 2W, if combination by 2 1W, it is USD1700. Which one you want ? Whether you also need to make it with RGB projector ? If you want to add Green laser diode in that projector ,I need to install the projector for u with bigger case .If not ,just make the better one for u is ok .How do u think so ?
A little iffy, but we worked it out. Note the lack of spacing after periods; I see this a lot. But everybody is very friendly and we all get along. Sometimes they send me little presents: good luck knots, cut paper decorations, and such.
Speaking of paper, learn to live without it. For a culture that invented paper (Cai Lun, 105 AD – I just looked it up), the Chinese are remarkably reluctant to part with it. In the course of a project I will order a bunch of parts from several manufacturers, and when the packages arrive, there is no invoice or other tracking paperwork therein. This drives my accountant and me crazy, as I religiously save all my receipts, etc. for tax time. I have resorted to marking up the shipping labels with contents and price to track this.
And to make things even more interesting, the company whose name is on the label is often not the company I bought the item from. And the PayPal statement refers to an individual at the company, or some other company, or no company.
The customs forms are also interesting. I have seen lasers referred to as “flashlights” and are always declared at under value. There are legal restrictions on complete laser lightshow projectors that don’t follow US federal safety regulations, and as most Chinese projectors don’t meet the regs, declaration shenanigans ensue. Or so I’ve read; I build my own projectors so I don’t use these.
PayPal to the Rescue
Fortunately, the wheels of Internet commerce run on PayPal. These are the small wheels we’re talking here; I’m sure bigger companies have other banking arrangements. All my dealings with China are neatly handled by PayPal, and I have their online monthly reports to fall back on when I can’t figure out how much things cost.
On A Slow Boat From China
Shipping time can be very problematic. The fastest turnaround I’ve seen is ten days, and six weeks is about the longest. DHL is the preferred shipper for faster (= more $$) transport. I sure do wish my supply line terminated here in the US, but for the moment, I’m making do.
A-typical online laser parts company (better than most):
Mike Gould is coherent most of the time, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.