A man famous to all of us around him for his razor-sharp wit, my father often uses his humor as a vehicle for imparting business knowledge.
“Any idiot can make plan” he said “it’s the good managers that know what to do when things don’t go according to plan”
It was good advice that has since driven a lot of the work that I’ve done throughout my career.
I grew up in an Italian-American family, surrounded by people that were the first or second generation of their families born in the United States. My parents, themselves the first generation in our family, always felt a strong connection to the community of Italians in New York City and I have fond memories of big dinners and after dinner walks around Little Italy and Arthur Ave. But I never felt a connection to the community the way that my parents, aunts, and uncles did.
It wasn’t until a recent hike with a good friend of mine that I gained some insight into why I’ve felt this way: I like being the outsider in a group. My friend highlighted that despite my lack of affinity for the Italian-American community, I do enjoy being the Italian guy in a group, cooking for my friends and telling my favorite Italian jokes and stories. Which reminds me: I need to get outside more.
Thinking about it further I realized that I’ve always been drawn to situations where I have an opportunity to cross cultural and language barriers, whether the significant amount of time that I’ve spent traveling recreationally, the time I’ve spent living as an expat overseas or just the fact that I’ve worked three-quarters of my career for foreign firms.
There is much written about “Third Culture Kids”, that is, kids raised in a country other than their nationality. I always resisted that label for myself, mostly because my parts were citizens at the time that I was born. But maybe all we really need is a new definition. Passports aside, the third culture comes about when living your life requires that you be a boundary-spanner on a regular basis. Maybe growing up in that mixed-cultural environment fostered this sense of desire to be the outsider, maybe growing up in New York City had something to do with it, maybe I’m just wired differently; Probably all of the above.
I remember my first day of grad school at Thunderbird vividly. One of the most exciting moments came when the class took turns introducing themselves; for the first time in my life I was in a room filled with third-culture people, people just like me. Since then I’ve lived, work, and traveled all over the world, and met more people like myself. Mostly in bars. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in new country (besides sample all of the street foods) is to look for a pub and spend time meeting the local expats.
There’s a great video on TED about fostering the natural inclinations of children, where Sir Ken Robinson talks about the career path that Gillian Lynne took when her parents finally enrolled her in dance school. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.
So what have we learned today? It’s ok to stand out in the crowd, it makes you an ambassador for your culture (for better or worse). Also, I need to take more hikes in the woods.
A side effect of being in the manufacturing industry is that we spend our time thinking about seasons and holidays far earlier than most people. In the retail world, July through October mark the busiest days of the Christmas season; Spring fashion occupies most of our January, and by May we are getting serious about back-to-school shopping.
It’s probably because of this date shift that the past few weeks have felt decidedly un-Christmasy; We loaded the last of the holiday-season shipping containers in Shanghai more than a month ago, so surely the holidays have come and gone by now?
You’ve worked hard to bring your vision for a “smart” device to life, working through development, prototypes, and one too many late-night calls with China. But now your devices are part of the worlds largest sleeper cell, lying in wait to take down the internet on the whim of whatever rogue operator has the most money to pay.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that a few days ago, a calculated attack, orchestrated using compromised thermostats, surveillance cameras, and dvd players took down thousands of websites for a few hours.
On your hundred-and-eighty-third day in China during any calendar year, you cross the line from “business traveler” to “part year tax resident’. If you have a resident permit, receive salary payments in Chinese Renminbi, or if you happen to have an ownership stake in the parent company of a China subsidiary, you most likely become a tax payer in China the moment you set foot on the mainland. Like any tax situation, you may get away with violating the law for a short period of time but heed this advice: Don’t do it! The only things are are assured of are death and taxes, and on death I’m actually not one hundred percent sure.
Of the countless things on my to-do list (Wunderlist, in case you were wondering), writing a book to pull together my decade of China manufacturing experience is high on that list. When the urge hits, most times on a long train ride or in the back of a minivan somewhere in China, i pull out my phone and make notes (Evernote), sometimes short sometimes long, and then later I come back to the random pile of notes and start organizing.
Lately in my editing I’ve been pulling out chapters here and there and thinking that they would make a good article on their own. The article below is in that category, the start of a series of chapters on the considerations and practical implications of moving to China to live as an expat.
China manufacturing offers a world of possibility that is unmatched, still, anywhere else in the world. In China, almost everything is built to order, which means that there are near endless opportunities to tweak the product before it is made. In order to leverage this amazing capability that China brings to the table, it is critical to change your mentality about how you design and build your products.
I picked up my briefcase (or is it an attache? I’ve never sure where that line is drawn) the other day and I was so surprised at how light it felt that I was convinced I had left my computer or power supply somewhere at the supplier I was visiting. After a few panicked seconds of looking over all of the contents and realized everything was where it should be, I was struck by the thought that over the past twenty years of business traveling, I’ve really refined the items that I take with me on trips. I figured I would post a bit about the things I bring (and leave behind).
It wasn’t until their IPO last year that Alibaba really started to become a household name in the US, but for those of us working in China, Alibaba has been a key component of our toolbox for much, much longer. As one of the oldest and largest directories of products and manufacturers, Alibaba is my go-to search tool when I need to find a specialty supplier in China. Like any tool, the more you know about how to search, the more effective your searches will be.
It still shocks and amazes me when I meet people that source product from China, sometimes for many years, yet they have never actually traveled to China or visited their suppliers. It’s really not as daunting as it seems; yes there is some paperwork involved and the flight can be long-ish, but as always, there is no substitute for being on the ground to meet suppliers and manage production. I always tell my team to listen to that little voice that tells you that you should get on a plane and go check-in with a supplier. With cheap round trip tickets available from many US cities, and reasonably priced, decent hotels available in most cities in China, these trips are cheap insurance for your production.
As always, the earlier you catch issues the cheaper it is to rectify them.