Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Filling the pipe

I have short term, medium term, and long term plans for the things I want to achieve in China. I am sure that no-one is doing the things we have planned for the medium and long term. The hope of seeing those dreams come to life is what drives me. Meanwhile back in Australia I have a hungry mortgage and family to feed, and the medium and long term plans will take time and money to develop. That's why we have to get the short term things going, in order to get some cash flow going.

My short term plans fall in two areas. The first is to provide quality assurance services to western companies who want to source electronics in Shenzhen, or want things manufactured in Shenzhen. By having me look over things, I can weed out the bad eggs and find and fix problems before time and money is wasted.

The second plan is to set up an online retail operation. I'm certainly not claiming to be the first to do that! I doubt we will make any money from doing it, and it's not my purpose to try. The purpose is to start getting our name out there, and to start engaging with the customers (hackers) who will be interested in what we develop in the medium and long term.

For the past two years I have been admiring the product range of a particular company in Beijing. They are nicely made products that will appeal to every hacker. But this company only sells inside of China. So there's an opportunity for us to take these fine products and make them available outside of China. I have just come back from a visit on the weekend to that company in Beijing, and I can report that an agreement which will allow us to sell these outside of China is imminent.

Ok, so with access to a range of cool products, it should just be a simple matter of loading them up into an e-store and raking in the millions. Well, not quite. When someone makes an order, we still have to get the items and ship them out. That's something we don't really want to do, as we don't know much about that area of business, it's something others can do far better and cheaper than us, and we can spend the time we save doing other things. So for that reason, yesterday I visited a gentleman here in Shenzhen who runs a successful online store shipping to outside of China. We talked for many hours about what he does, and what our plans are, and how we could help each other. Similarly, we are close to having an agreement to use him to do fulfilment for us. That, plus the money handling side of things, and the website, will pretty much have us covered for the retail side of things.

So far, I've been here in China for four weeks, and I'd have to say I am very happy with the progress we're making. I have told many people about our vision for the future, and have received universally positive feedback. That's very heartening.

For our next step, I'm about to go to Hong Kong to investigate starting a company there. Hong Kong's corporate tax rate is very low (10%), and having a company there will let us accept payment for both internet sales, and the quality assurance consulting work. I'm learning heaps and doing what I love, and I can't ask for more than that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A hackerspace in Shenzhen

Hello folks,

Well, I've now been in Shenzhen China for nearly three weeks. It's been very hot and humid here, especially during the first week, when the weather web page would typically report "35C, feels like 45C". A little better since then, but there's no escaping that it's summer.

I have been to the electronics markets and they are even more riotous than I had imagined. I think if you laid out all the stalls flat in a plane, the combined area of the stalls would be about half the size of Melbourne's "Hoddle Grid" CBD. Yes, really that big. And most of the roughly 8'x12' stalls are just the iceberg tip for some manufacturing company off somewhere else in the surrounding area. And all the office space for several blocks around the walk-through markets is devoted to the electronics supply chain. The problem here is the sheer embarrassment of choice!

Yesterday I got the go-ahead from an Australian company to do some consulting work here. The money is good, and it will give me a lot of time to work on developing my business, and helping hackers.

Speaking of which, there are some amazing things happening here. I went to a meeting of the Shenzhen Linux User's Group about a week ago (was it really that long?) and found a really cool bunch of very capable hackers. Walking into the room for the first time was quite an experience, as the back half of the room was empty and I had a lot of floor distance to cover. There were literally thirty pairs of eyes watching me, thinking "Oh no, there's a lost foreigner here, what are we going to do?". Well, a few sentences in Chinese later, and we were off and running. I enjoyed the meeting very much, although I didn't understand half of what was said. They've asked me to speak at next month's meeting, and I will do a talk on makefiles.

Some of the hackers have their own group called SZDIY. After the meeting I went to dinner with a bunch of these hackers, and we talked about all things hackerspacey. Had a wonderful time. Here's me and those guys at the subway station:

So, a few days after that meeting there was an SZDIY meeting. We had a lovely dinner together, and afterwards I got to see and play with some of the cool hardware projects they've worked on.

The guys in SZDIY have wanted their own hackerspace for quite some time, but have been unsure of what to do next. In particular, whether they could have a hackerspace without a space. I have encouraged them to "start light, make it interesting, maintain momentum, recruit hard, and according to Linus' Law, eventually someone will come along for whom it is easy to provide a space". That's the theory anyway. I think the most important thing, and what I found most surprising, was that in my opinion, I think these guys already have all the ingredients to be successful: Talented technical people, talented "people" people, a good knowledge of hacker lore, and an existing sense of community and purpose. I think that with this as a base, everything else will fall into place.

Although the SZDIY guys have met and worked together before, I feel that this might be the first meeting where the SZDIY guys felt they could call themselves a hackerspace. I certainly feel it had all the necessary ingredients of a hackerspace meeting.

So a week later, I'm champing at the bit to have another SZDIY meeting. I suggested that if we had it at the same time as Xinchejian (the hackerspace in Shanghai), we could have a cool video link-up over Skype. In particular, Xinchejian were having "show and tell night", so I thought this was a chance for people in each hackerspace to show and tell to each other. In talking with the Shanghai guys to arrange this, someone CC:ed Eric Pan, who is the founder of SeeedStudio.

Most of you will know SeeedStudio. They have a fine range of products that are very popular with hackers, and also offer a few services such as affordable PCB manufacture. Curiously enough, SeeedStudio is right here in Shenzhen! And when Eric replied to the CC:, his response was more or less "OMG I have visited hackerspaces in the USA but hadn't thought of getting one started right here!". He is very excited by the idea of Shenzhen having its own hackerspace, and he invited us to have last night's meeting at the SeeedStudio headquarters. So that's how I came to be sitting in the offices of SeeedStudio on a Wednesday night. Things move fast here in China!

The Skype connection quality was pretty ordinary, so we didn't get any real to-and-fro communication going, but we at least were able to talk with them and put ourselves on their mental map. Maybe it's something we can try again in the future if we can get a better connection.

So as well as the video connection, here's a list of the things we did:

  • Eric showed us the cool photos he took at Maker Faire.

  • I demonstrated my USB touchscreen tablet for practising Chinese characters.

  • Mr. Atommann demonstrated the AVR-powered phone he made for his blind grandma, which is basically a large 4x4 speed-dial keyboard. No dialing needed, just push the button for the friend you want to call.

    He also demonstrated many other cool projects he's made. He's one of those fine people who are obsessed by the GNU ideals, and if he's not wearing a GNU or FSF t-shirt, he's wishing he was! :-)
  • There was a discussion about the projects that SZDIY has done over the past two years, for example, TV-B-Gone, and work with IR transmission and reception.

  • An exclusive no-holds-barred access-all-areas tour of the SeeedStudio office, where we got to play with everything and talk with Eric and his R&D manager, Steve. That was sooo cool.

  • A look at my blog for projects I've worked on, like the Playpause button, USB Doodad, at-home PCB making, and home SMD soldering.
In short, we had a fantastic evening! I think SZDIY is ready to take it to the next level, and I am so buzzed to be part of it!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hello from Shenzhen

This post is coming to you live from Shenzhen China!

So far, things are pretty much how I expected. Getting my residence paperwork sorted out was a pain, needing several trips to the police station and apartment management office. At least everything's sorted now.

Shenzhen is pretty cool. Well actually rather hot and humid. Fortunately I don't mind humidity. But I know my wife would hate it if she lived here.

I am staying with a gentleman named Dave, who I am looking to do the business with. I'm all set up in my own comfy room. Today was the first day I walked down the street and it didn't feel entirely alien. I'm starting to develop my mental map of where stuff is, and I now have some brain capacity to start really looking at which of the local shops sell what.

The city of Shenzhen has a population of 3.3 million, with an average population density of more than 8,000 people per square kilometre. There is an extensive bus and train network, but it still takes about an hour to get to the downtown area.

The electronics markets are awesome. Can you imagine, a whole building dedicated to the selling of LEDs? I just have to figure out the minor detail of how to have a successful and hugely profitable business, while changing the world :-)

So this is day four of my ninety-five day trip to check things out. At the end, I'll head back home to my family. But if things look good, I'll come back again to run the business.