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.
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.