Ti Chang on Manufacturing in China as an American Designer

Ti Chang

Ti Chang, photo by Crave

For better or worse, I was raised in the South; Georgia to be exact… I love my biscuits and gravy with a large helping of grits, and it is that Southern grit that first brought me overseas when I started my previous company, Incoqnito, and went to China alone to get my products prototyped and produced. The journey of finding factories and managing vendor relationships is a long process of hustling, fist-pounding, nail-biting, friendly drinking, karaoke-ing, and most of all, testing the limits of one’s adaptability. In addition to the language barrier, the work ethic, culture, and customs can be mind-boggling and maddening, even for someone like myself who is fluent in Mandarin.

I lived and worked in China for a year until I sold Incoqnito to Crave in 2010 and now return several times a year as I design and develop new products at Crave. Living and working in China can be difficult, especially when you’re an outsider. The air, the pace, the food, the customs… I remember an English friend of mine who was not used to eating “family style” all the time. One day he snapped “I just want a plate of my OWN food! Is that too much to ask?!?!”

For a lone female entrepreneur, the journey is as frustrating as it is rewarding. Running a sex toy startup as a woman automatically makes me an anomaly. Nevermind the sex toy part—just having started my own company, as a woman, is rare. Luckily, it’s not so rare that women can’t find success. According to Wealth-X, the U.S. has the highest number of self-made female billionaires, followed by China and Italy in a distant third. China’s work ethic promotes equality through earned merit, and unsurprisingly, there are many Chinese female entrepreneurs who are leading the charge.

Despite that, yes, I have met sexism and prejudice along the way—but in China, I learned that ultimately I am judged by my character, work ethic, and the business I create, so that initial judgement is only temporary. When I visit a factory for the first time, the people greeting me often ask, “When is the customer coming?” assuming that I am a translator. I smile and inform them that I am actually the customer and it is MY company. They are taken aback, but they generally get over it quickly. Ultimately, they care about making money: as long as you pay on time, they are happy to do business with you. In my years of visiting factories I never once encountered one whose owners turned me away because they were uncomfortable dealing with a woman. They have turned me away for legitimate reasons—as volume, a mismatch between my products and the  factory capability, or an inability to meet my quality assurance standards—but not because of my sex.

Chinese business customs often include taking customers out for elaborate evening entertainment and/or debauchery that provide more opportunities for both misunderstanding and clarification between the vendors and me. I’ve lost count of how many times people mistakenly assumed I was an administrative assistant or sales rep—or a prostitute. For the former I correct them and laugh it off, and they often apologize profusely. For the latter, well, I’m usually not so kind. Here’s a tip: when dining, drinking, and singing is necessary, only accept the invitations of vendors you really want to work with. It is perfectly okay to politely decline an invitation if you are not interested in working with them. If you must go to these socials, bring a friend you trust. Chinese vendors will not find it rude and  would be honored and delighted to have the additional company. That way you have someone who has your back should the “bai jiu”—China’s alcohol of choice—get out of hand.

I have been asked if it was scary being out there by myself. No, not at all. I have never felt unsafe in China. The closest I come to danger is crossing the streets. I joke, but it is true. (My tip for crossing the street is to just go: if you hesitate too much, you will never get to the other side. I know that seems counterintuitive and brash, but trust me—once you start moving forward, the traffic will go around you. Chinese drivers are actually vigilant about looking out for people, carts, scooters, and dogs to swerve around.)

When you’re manufacturing in China things will go wrong—not because it is China, but because manufacturing is hard. Hardware is HARD. I have worked with domestic factories who still screw up parts, even though we speak and write the same language. Good product documentation and over-communication are your friends. Constant check-ins with your factory are necessary, not rude. Especially with new factory relationships, you will need to micro-manage them until they prove to you they are competent. In my experience, Chinese vendors appreciate my attention to detail and respect me more as someone who is dependable and hardworking.

It is through this type of communication, day in and day out, and even in the middle of the night, that the people I work with come to respect my serious work ethic and we build rapport and trust. This careful relationship-building is how I convinced my first factory to produce my first small batch of products without any down payment.

China is not a scary place. It is many things, but scary is not one of them. If you are interested in doing business in China, just go. You will figure it out. Like entrepreneurship—and maneuvering through Chinese street traffic—it is a lot scarier to contemplate than to do. Once you try, you will be just fine.


❔ Whois

Ti is an industrial designer / entrepreneur passionate about designing products for women. She is the co-founder and VP of Design of CRAVE, a San Francisco-based company specializing in discreet and luxury sex toys. Prior to Crave, Ti founded INCOQNITO, a line of intimate accessories that double as fashionable jewelry which was acquired by CRAVE in 2011. Since then, Ti has continued to lead the concept and design for the company’s full line of products which has won numerous awards, including Red Dot, IDEA and Good Design. She is best known for the design of Vesper, a vibrator necklace, one of the most celebrated and innovative sex toys disrupting the adult toy industry and changing the conversation around sex. She has been featured in numerous publications including Fortune, Forbes, HuffPo, and New York Times and is a former POPTECH! Speaker. She co-chairs the Women in Design section of the Industrial Designers Society of America, where she organizes events to support the community of women in industrial design. Ti holds a MA in Design Products from Royal College of Art in London and a BS in Industrial Design from Georgia Institute of Technology. Ti grew up in Atlanta, GA and now enjoys life and work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Published by Ti Chang

I wanted to be a truck driver at some point in my life, but luckily industrial design worked out for me and now I design modern sex toys while enjoying the manic startup life in SF.

22 Comments

  1. Hi there Ti Chang! This is a nice read! Being a starter in a small business where target market is mostly men, I always have some challenges too. Your blog inspires and empowers me. Thank you for writing this. It feels like you’re a friend tapping me on my back telling me that I too can do it, just like you.
    More power and I wish you more and more success. ❤

    Reply

    1. You CAN DO IT!

  2. Awesome story and advice on starting a business!

    Reply

  3. This is an interesting concept for a blog post, and essentially an entire blog. Conceptualizing social stereotypes as a body of basically… one dimensional minds, when it comes to thinking outside the box. I like that she states the way she thought of China prior to working there and then during the time to compare the two. This is a great article.

    Reply

    1. I am going back in a month, so perhaps there may be some more posts on the topic

  4. I actually used to work for someone who manufactured his products in China and sell them in the US. He is very successful, and I want to do the same. Problem is I dont speak Chinese. Lol

    Reply

  5. A lot of our products come from China. Great for the consumer. Sounds like it’s also good for the trader. But, although I can’t back it up, I’ve heard that products invented elsewhere are often produced illegally in China. Is that true, do you know?

    Reply

    1. Oh for sure, Chinese factories are known for ruthlessly knocking off successful products. What it comes down to is your vendor relationship and how successful your product is. They only want to knock off products that they know will sell. If you are an entrepreneur with an unproven idea, it is unlikely to be a target at the beginning.

  6. Awesome story, I hope i can go to china one day!

    Reply

  7. Loved your story very encouraging even as a man. I love to here stories like yours it gives me hope for my daughter’s and thier future. The world is changing but I think overall it’s good but we still have a ways to go for equality of sexes. Thank you for taking the time to share your story I appreciate it. 😊

    Reply

  8. I actually am a assistant manager at a sex store its so great what you are doing. Im trying to do the same thing any tips

    Reply

    1. Keep going🙂 I salute people like you at the front line in stores helping to educate and change perceptions. Thank you for doing what you do.

  9. Well, as a postgrad student, I’ve been living in China for about 1 year and I can relate to what you have posted, to some extent. Good blog.

    Reply

  10. Hey Ti, that was a really interesting post about getting manufacturing done in China. I must admit I was surprised to hear you go alone, but then thinking about it – man or woman, who cares, if you have dreams and want to get them done, you have no one else but yourself. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  11. Great read, I’ve just moved to China and have had a lovely experience so far. Thinking about a start-up but was apprehensive because of the great unknown, this post has awakened some confidence!

    Reply

  12. So refreshing to see this point of view. I live in HK and my parents often beat me down in my career dreams – dramatherapy isn’t very well known among art therapy which in itself isn’t very common to begin with. To hear about your courage and success is truly a huge pillar of support for aspiring femalr entrepreneurs like myself.

    Reply

    1. Tiny, I believe if you have found a niche it can be a fantastic opportunity if you own it. Granted it may not be a billion dollar business, but a what’s wrong with a quality of life business ( a company that is just you a perhaps a few others and keeping small)? I wish YOU the best of luck. Don’t give up!

  13. As BFA Media Arts, music industry grad to film and TV production, I left LA in ’81, done. Found interest in bonds, sales marketing analyst for a few years and bored out. Returning to the South, found my home at thirty, elevating a local Southern Italian family food packaging biz to 40 city distribution. I designed each of 38 products: my stove, ingredient profiles, FDA regs, engineering flow of raw ingredients to packaging finished product, logistics, material needs sourcing and equipment sourcing and design.
    There was no mid-managers to distract me. Alone to create always having time, the products took off from Gourmet Food shows and Southern Living Women’s Shows. It was then I discovered contract packaging. You outline in the article the managing shift required when the product is literally out of hand. (Here is when I wish I had met you.)
    You are an inspiration to any entrepreneur without qualification. Cutting edge as we used to say in the dark ages. I want a dozen of whatever it is you make to gift to my friends. [ roham8.wordpress.com ]

    Reply

    1. Thank you for your kind words, I admire what you have done. Building and growing a business is no easy task!

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