Notes from Canton Fair 2018
Canton Fair is one of the biggest manufacturing trade shows in the world, and the biggest in China. It was started in 1957 by the Ministry of Commerce of PRC and the People’s Government of Guangdong Province. It is organized by the China Foreign Trade Centre. During its tenure, Canton Fair has produced an export volume of $1.3 trillion.
The number of exhibitors totaled over 25,000, and its attendees and buyers from more than 210 countries came to more than 200,000. With such capacity, it’s understandable why industries from food packaging and air-conditioners to clothing and outdoor gear were present. It’s also very likely why the fair runs for three weeks.
I chose to go during the 3rd Session, which included textiles and garments, sports and casual wear, footwear, and most importantly, outdoor and recreation equipment. I saw just about every outdoor product you can think of: water shoes, travel towels, camping stoves, tents, hammocks, and cots.
The first day was incredibly overwhelming. First, I went to the overseas buyer registration area to get my ID badge, which cost only $35 if you're a foreigner. This helps prevent Chinese locals from flooding the event, and stops interference of China’s accessibility to foreign trade.
Day 1: Always a Zoo
Day 1 is always a zoo. Everyone is getting badges, and taking time to learn the exhibition layout. Picture three convention centers all in one complex. Lots of space.
I did the same, got my badge, picked up a map of the complex, and set out to find where I’d be spending my time that week. It’s fortunate Canton Fair runs so long, otherwise, I don’t know how I’d be able to cover the entire fair.
The first day is the longest physical and mental haul. As I took in all the action and identified who I was going to talk to during the week, I also took mental notes of physical surroundings, body language, and booth presentation, keeping an eye open for any detail that could potentially make the biggest world impact. After the week was over, I still felt the need for at least another week to soak it all in.
Five hours, nine miles, and 200 photos later, I was finally able to map out and plan the rest of my week. I then retreated back to Guangzhou to order food and get some much-needed rest.
Wednesday, I woke up refreshed and ready for Day 2.
Day 2: Three Trains of Adrenaline to Canton Fair
After a breakfast of skewered chicken and a fruity yogurt milk from the gas station, I made it to the subway station for the first of three trains on my way to Canton Fair. If you’ve never been in a Chinese subway station, I'd put it on your bucket list because it's one of the most chaotic and adrenaline-filled experiences I’ve ever had. You'll understand what I'm talking about if you’ve ever felt alone in a crowded room.
Being the only english-speaking person in a crowd of millions can be a little discouraging. As I transfered to the second train, and finally to the third, I begin to hear languages from all over the world. Hindi, Farsi, Italian, French, Spanish, Korean... Canton Fair definitely ranks at the top for its amalgamation of different languages.
Finally arriving at the convention center, I made my way to Hall B, where the outdoor product factories were located. As we finalize designs for the Tammock, we’ve also started to think about the future of LIT Outdoors, asking ourselves, “What’s next?”
As a company, LIT Outdoors is searching for ways to enhance people’s outdoor experience by creating one unlike any other. With that in mind, I broke down my daily schedule to see products I wanted to explore.
On Day 2 of Canton Fair, I focused on water bottles, stoves, and camping chairs. Water bottles are an essential part of outdoor life. When our ancestors first discovered a way to portably store water in the outdoors, humankind changed forever. It gave people more time to think about the world around them, rather than about finding the next source of water.
There are millions of people who still don’t have access to potable water in 2018, which is why we think water bottles are an essential product for LIT Outdoors. By selling insulated water bottles, we’ll be in a position to donate hundreds, maybe even thousands of water bottles to those in need of water storage.
I met water bottle suppliers and reviewed many great samples. We talked about lead times, factory capacities, and company histories. Many factory-owners seemed surprised to see how young I am, and others a little shocked by my interest in visiting their factory.
This made me wonder how invested such companies are in their product sources and supply chains, which is one of the most important qualities of the companies we work with. It's also why we spend quality time with our suppliers whenever it's needed.
Maintaining the highest quality in everything from the quality of our factories and their workers, to the gear we create to improve the outdoor experience for others; this is what makes LIT Outdoors unique.
After another 5 hours, and another 6 miles of walking, I combed the entire outdoor equipment hall for every water bottle factory booth at Canton Fair. I then head back to Airbnb via the train and settle into my room.
Because physical fitness and outdoor recreation have only recently emerged in Chinese markets, I resort to exercise and calisthenics in my room. After getting the exercise I needed, I venture out for some delicious Chinese food before returning for a good night’s rest in preparation for Day 3.
Day 3: Camping Stoves, Chairs, and New Product Opportunity
Day 3, I decided to focus on camping stoves and chairs.
Camping stoves and chairs fit perfectly into our Mission, which is providing solutions for outdoor living. One of the most important and satisfying parts of the outdoor experience is, without doubt, finding yourself well-fed with enough energy to explore new limits. Or simply finding your own backyard in the outdoors for as long as you want to be there.
When shopping for suppliers, it’s important to identify the difference between trading companies and factories. A trading company acts as an intermediary between factories and retailers, which sometimes complicates the supply chain.
The resulting disconnect between the supplier and retailer can lower quality, reduce the ability to manage quality control, but above all, such a breakdown in communication can also create additional and unnecessary risk for customers.
Factories, on the other hand, are the true product suppliers our customers use. Working directly with factory-suppliers, LIT Outdoors maintains more control over R&D and quality control. This close relationship allows us to better understand factory interests and culture, creating a much stronger relationship than you’d find with a trading company, whose only interest is earning a margin on each unit sold.
Another full day of walking and talking led to a few more potential new product development leads. One thing I noticed about factories (not trading companies) is they’re very welcoming when it comes to visits. They take a lot of pride in the businesses they develop, which makes it no surprise they’d jump at a chance to show off.
Creating strong relationships with factories throughout China builds a level of trust for all parties. The factory perspective sees serious interest in a long-term business relationship with LIT Outdoors. From our end, we get to see the factory’s capacity, work culture, organizational skills, and process quality.
It’s very important to LIT Outdoors that factory workers are paid fairly, not overworked, have access to accommodations, and we tolerate absolutely no unfair child labor.
With Day 3 now on the books, and a full list of factory visits scheduled over the next month, another good night’s sleep is in order.
Day 4: Giving Back Massively
One of the least compact, but often overlooked pieces of equipment is a simple towel. But a towel can come in handy in the rain, when it’s hot and sweaty outdoors, at the beach, lake or river, while traveling for business, or when you’re lounging by the pool.
LIT Outdoors sees towels as a product not only outdoor people can benefit from; towels are needed by people from all walks of life, and from around the world.
Whether you’re CEO of a Fortune 100 company, or a Varanasi kid from the next village, I think everybody could use a towel in one form or another. One great thing about towels is, they’re generally affordable anywhere you travel, and they cost little to produce.
This is another reason we think microfiber towels are another perfect product fit for LIT Outdoors. We could donate towels wherever they’re needed. At high elevations, where the climate can be cold, and heating homes isn’t an option, a dry towel after a shower is a luxury.
One of the greatest things about having a company is the massive ability and potential to give back to our community, near and far. Giving back is an integral part of who we are as a company, and we never want to forget that.
Toward that end, we also want to partner with local organizations aiding victims of natural disasters by donating supplies to those who need them. Simple, but necessary items such as a towel, potable water, a chair or stove could provide great relief to those who’ve survived a monsoon, mudslide, or flood.
Day 5: Making an Impact on the Lives of Others
I spent the last day of Canton Fair exploring opportunities to work with a superior garment and textile factory. The capacity of some of these factories is truly remarkable, which made me think of the equally staggering amount of clothing consumed in today’s world, and the correspondingly absurd amount of clothing we throw away. Everyday; everywhere.
China is but one among many nations with a huge capacity to produce clothing products. Hundreds of factories in China produce 250,000 or 500,000 pieces of clothing every month.
This is why I choose to focus on partnerships with suppliers using recycled materials such as polyester, nylon, and cotton. By working collaboratively to reduce the tragic amounts of waste going into our landfills, we can protect the environment that’s given us life.
On the final day of Canton Fair, I start to reflect on the week I’d had, the people I’d met, and the journey ahead. I’ve always looked at life as an adventure, never as a goal, or final destination.
Adversity any day of the week gives me opportunity not only for personal growth and learning, but also potential to one day teach others.
I grew up in a very fortunate family in Los Angeles. When I was a kid, Dad took me to Skid Row in downtown LA to remind me of how fortunate I was, and to also help me remember how unfortunate others were. These lessons helped me become the person I am today.
Looking back on those memories, and re-feeling those feelings inspires me to build LIT Outdoors into a company that helps others who are less fortunate.
The Outdoors is a great escape from the daily grind, and also great for recentering yourself by reconnecting with the larger world. But not everyone has this luxury.
That’s why our company Mission is, to design innovative gear that provides solutions for people in the Outdoors, to build a community around love for the environment, that cultivates a stronger human connection to nature.
LIT Outdoor products are designed to create and enhance opportunities for people striving to reach the level of self-actualization others have found in the Great Outdoors.