An epic journey set in China


This is the epic tale of one intrepid entrepreneur and her trusty cartoonist sidekick in an epic quest for a reliable t-shirt factory.  Yea verily, this is truly the stuff of legends.

don quixote

We are very confident in the ability of our designs to perform well on the Chinese market, but what had concerned us most was how to produce them as t-shirts.  As a start-up with lots of experience making cartoons, but little experience making t-shirts we need to have a practice run.  That required us to go find a reliable factory to print a small order, print it well, and at low-cost. We also needed it to be in Beijing so we had the convenience of visiting it without spending too much.   Our research revealed a few factories that warranted a visit.  The drawback was that most of them were located in hard to reach areas that are seldom braved by even the most daring foreigners.  And so, with our +3 Smartphone of Direction-Finding in hand, we embarked on our epic journey.

hipster detectot

The +4 model wouldn’t be out for a couple months yet, besides the only difference is the bigger screen and that it glows blue in the presence of hipsters


–          The first factory we visited was located far beyond the reach of the subway, where few dare to tread.  It took us ages to find it.  We took  a subway, tuk-tuk, and then set out on foot.  We stopped to ask many locals how to find the factory, and after enduring many hazards, finally reached our destination.  Our victory celebration turned to shock when in the first five minutes, the boss didn’t seem really interested in selling anything.  He literally greeted us with complaints, and a pack of madly barking dogs.

angry dog

The dogs were nicer

“Oh you guys want to print Tshirts, well we use to do this for Coca Cola and other big brands, but now there is no profit anymore.”  He gave us the impression that somebody else was coming to take care of our order, but in the end that person didn’t show up.  Just before we left, he said , “but it doesn’t matter, we can do a sample for you if you like, no problem, and will express mail it to you in 2 days.”

We were flummoxed; it seemed that his selling method was different from the traditional one – his was trying to sell by scaring customers away.

We went through the same process for the second factory: baidu search, google maps, researching how to get there, asking many people on the way how to get there, numerous phone calls, and endless frustration.  Finally we found the factory.  The first impression was pleasant, there was a nice lady who was interested to talk to us, and even showed us around the factory.  I learned how screen printing was done.  We took them seriously so we visited them twice, and soon after that we went to their office to order our first sample.  National holiday was coming, and since the design itself was a custom design for our friend’s coffee shop, who said he was going to promote us in the media immediately after the holiday, we had to hurry up. They said we would get the sample in 3 days.  Not only did it not come in three days, they completely forgot about it.  Despite our anger we needed that sample, we had to push.  When we finally did get it nothing as we expected: colors, material, printing…it was all wrong!  We were stupefied when we saw the sample.  It was right after the holiday that our first Chinese partner left us.  Boy, this was just getting more fun!


With a little experience under our belts, it wasn’t such a big trouble to find the third factory, we had gotten used to the hassle.  This time the sample was great, and we placed a small order for about hundred shirts.  This time the shock came when we went to pick up the order.  90% of the order had to be rejected.  There is little in the way of quality control in China.  If the boss is not around, the employees won’t bother to use their heads.  When the work is done, the boss won’t bother to check quality.  They just hope the client is not picky enough so they can get away with it.  In the event they are wrong, they will think of some way to get out of it when the time comes, or will offer to treat you dinner.  Why plan in advance?!  The material was right though; and they seemed like good people, so after arguing for a bit they agreed to compensate for the damage.  I insisted to be on site the 2nd time.  For the second printing I sat in the boss’s office and we had pleasant conversation over tea and lunch.   Over the course of the day I noticed that the print quality was improving as my relationship with the boss was improving, but now the material was not the quality we ordered!  There was no end to the frustrations!  This was my lesson in Guanxi.  We decided to do it their way, we Invited them over for dinner in order to maintain the relationship in hopes that they will get our Spring order right.  We are still thinking to find a back up vendor, but I’ve heard that factories operate similar to artists: if you try to replace them, the next one won’t be much different.  Quality control is something you need to do by yourself, it is not in the factories’ portfolio of services.  It’s hard, but patience goes a long way in dealing with Chinese factories.  Our quest continues…


Helpful tips to aid you in your quest for a factory in China.

  1. Don’t expect to find the factory easily.
  2. Don’t expect that they will get anything right the first time.
  3. DO expect delays.
  4. Don’t lose your cool.  They can smell fear and will exploit it.
  5. Don’t expect quality control in China.
  6. Don’t expect them to display responsibility.
  7. Don’t expect they will deliver everything they say.
  8. Do be prepared to sit and get drunk before they agree to do their job.
  9. Contracts and any other written and verbal agreements don’t mean anything in China; mostly because they’re hard to enforce.
  10. Do be pushy. Pushing is the only way to get things done.
  11. Hone your “social skills”, e.g.-small talk, drinking and eating skills,etc.
  12. Do learn the Chinese style of doing things: you talk, smile, drink, eat, and the thing will get done, you don’t need to discuss the problem so much. That’s not the point. It’s the guanxi that counts.
  13. Chinese people can often come across as lazy by western standards, even if the contract says they are obligated to do something, like “quality control”, they won’t do it if they are not familiar with you, or if they don’t like you.  You must make the effort to wine & dine with them, maintain that guanxi, and the task will get done by itself.  That’s why most of the executives here spend 80% of their evenings in dinners with customers.  Once the circle has finished though you need to start again…
  14. Chinese people don’t tell things straight.  You have to guess what they really mean because they are afraid to say no.


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