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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of our clients, Robert. His company sells designer lighting in South Africa.

Robert’s company was the sole agent for an international lighting brand. They sold it successfully for over 10 years until the principal suddenly decided to drop them.

This left Robert in a predicament. A large part of his business was now gone and they had to make some changes fast.

After a mutual friend introduced us and we had a long chat about his options, Robert decided to take a trip to China.

Nearly 2 years after that first “expedition” to China, I sat down with Robert to talk about his journey into sourcing from China, what his experience was like, and his plans for the future of his brand.

In this podcast, you’ll discover:

  • The power of building a brand in China
  • The challenges you’ll face sourcing products and customizing them with Chinese manufacturers
  • The recipe for success: what it takes from you that many business owners ignore
  • The reality of the journey vs. your expectations
  • And much more!

If you’re short on time or can’t listen to the interview, I’ve had it transcribed for you. Scroll down to read our entire conversation.

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Interview Transcript

David

[00:49] Robert, you’re in South Africa, you’ve got a lighting business. I know you’ve been in the lighting business for 20 to 30 years. And I really love your story because you’ve been selling – and I’m just giving some background for those who don’t know you – you’ve been selling lighting for 20 to 30 years, mostly European brands. And your story of coming to source from China kind of started from a tragedy. And I really, I’d love for you to share that story with everybody and give them a little background and how you started getting to China products and what happened.

Robert

[01:25] Okay, David. So, basically, we with the South African agents for a brand from Spain. We, in fact, opened up a store and had their name for South Africa and we ran it pretty successfully for close to 10 years. After all the hard work was done, they decided, “thank you very much.” They decided to come into the country. Which really left us hanging there with a very big part of our business now suddenly taken away from us. So, that’s when we decided we need to get off our butts, basically, and look at some other options of getting some new lighting ranges in. And you must understand that for many, many years we’ve represented the top European brands. So our knowledge in European brand lighting was very high. We attend all the overseas shows, Milan, Frankfurt, Meson in Paris, obviously the Hong Kong show.

Robert

[02:29] So we had a very good understanding of what people liked. And then I think it was around about the beginning of December 2017, when we were introduced to you, we had this idea of forming up our own brand. And being absolutely novices in it we needed some guidance and thankfully, Josh introduced us to you and we had a sit-down meeting and that’s how we basically started our venture into China.

David

I remember the meeting well, a few warnings I gave you.

Robert

Needless to say, we were totally green. I mean I’ve been to China before but I’ve never really sourced directly myself. So, as you can imagine, our first trip was a couple of days after meeting you and there we landed in the lighting capital of China. My partners and I, and one of the guys from your company as well came with us, and…Wow! What an eye-opener.

Robert

[03:38] So then we arrive at a place called Guzhen town, which is part of the, just outside Zhongshan. And we drive into this town and I was amazed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Wherever I looked, every direction, it was just lighting stores. It was like being a little kid in a candy store. I didn’t know where to go first. So now, being greenhorns, we thought, well, this is it. This is how you do business in China. We’d get out of the car and we’re walking up and down and, honestly, I mean just, literally thousands of lighting stores. We didn’t even know, We didn’t even know where to go first. And we started walking and we got an understanding of what we’re looking for and we started to understand pretty quickly the pros and cons of being in China and not really knowing what’s around the corner. Anyway.

Robert

[04:33] I think it was about the second or third day, I don’t know how we found it, I still to this day don’t remember, but suddenly someone said to us, hold on a second, you need to go to these big shopping centers. There’s a place just for lights. That’s where all the big brands are. So, the next morning we rock up to this beautiful 15-story shopping center and we were absolutely blown away. I’ve never seen so many beautiful lighting showrooms in my life. Each one was almost bigger than the next. And now you’ve got these youngsters – well, these South African guys – now we were running amuck boy. We didn’t know where to go. I think after the first two hours I said to the guys, “you know what guys, this is actually a bit too much. Let’s just sit down and let’s just try and focus on what we want and how we are going to get it.”

Robert

[05:37] Because can you imagine? You’re like thrown into the deep end there. Anyway, so yeah, we spent a whole day at the shopping, at this center, going from one store to the other and you learn quickly. You learn which of the guys that, well, first of all, we noticed that you know, one or two of the stores just weren’t our type of lights. So you start, like, bypassing those and going to the guys that you liked. And they, that’s basically how we started, you know, got going on it. And one thing led to the other and yeah, we started making one or two connections over there. We started understanding the process. The biggest thing you’ve got to understand is, straight away, when you’re dealing in China, the first thing – you guys already know – is what are the minimum order quantities. Because you’re starting with a new brand, you can’t afford to bring in a container of each piece.

David

[06:37] Was that a big change for you? Because you, I mean, your business with the brand and stuff, you were used to being able to buy smaller quantities, right? And now you have to kind of move to bigger quantities.

Robert

[06:46] Yeah, correct. I mean the European brands that we bring in, we would bring in per customer’s quote on a job. If a guy wanted one, we would bring in one. We couldn’t afford to keep stock of anything. Yeah. It’s very scary, especially on the European side, how expensive the stuff is, you bring it in and you can sit with a product for, for a year before someone comes to buy it.

David

[07:16] Robert, it’s a year, year-and-a-half down the line and you’ve got a couple of key suppliers, a couple of key factories. I know you’re visiting them all the time, I see you all the time. How did, what did you expect China’s sourcing was going to be like compared to what it actually is? I mean, did you kind of have an expectation and then like a kind of realization? Were they very different?

Robert

[07:43] Well, I think the most important thing is you’ve got to understand that, I think you’d put it so well the other day when we met, you’ve got to do your homework. At the moment we’re, most probably, dealing with about 12 different factories, which in itself is great but it also becomes a bit of a problem. Yeah, now you’ve spread yourself thin. And ideally, the best thing is to try and narrow down the number of factories that you’re working with. And I think that only comes with time and experience. You’ve got to go through all the hassles and everything.

David

[08:21] And I think without working with them you don’t know how to filter them down. So yeah, that’s what I always say. The homework is everything because at the end of it, you kind of got smarter and wiser and there’s just no substitute for that experience.

Robert

[08:34] Correct. And this is it: it’s time on your feet and going and visiting. And it doesn’t mean that you go to a lighting showroom that is beautiful and everything, that that is the correct factory for you. So generally what I like to do, for me, the important thing is to actually go to the factory and see. Because 9 out of 10 times we’re looking for something that’s a little bit different. We’re not looking for run-of-the-mill stuff. So when we go to the factorie, we find, lying on the floor, pieces of glass and steel and everything. And we try and become a little bit more unique by trying to design our own lighting as well.

David

[09:17] Yeah, the changes And differences make a whole new product.

Robert

[09:25] 100 percent. So, you know, we’ll find something we like. We’ll go to the factory. We’ll sit down with the buyers. We tell them we want 4 meters of cable. We don’t like this in black, we want it in brass, or whatever it is. We want the lamp poles to be different. We want, you know, bits and pieces. So we almost try and fine-tune it to our own likes and dislikes. Using our knowledge from European brands.

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David

[09:47] Do you think this whole launch of your own brand and your own range in China has been successful? I mean, how do you view it? Was it a blessing in disguise?

Robert

[09:59] You know, yeah, it was. Definitely, without a doubt, it was a blessing. I wish I would’ve done this 10 years ago. Yeah, lets put it that way. It’s a long process. It’s a very difficult process. I’m not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. You’ve got to put in hard work. But definitely, I think that we’re forming a brand that is unique. That people love because it’s a little bit different. I mean the brand name is [redacted].

David

[10:29] I was just going to say, I’m going to bleep that out because I don’t want you to repeat the brand name yet. Because I know we’re in the process of trademarking it et cetera, et cetera. So, for everyone listening, I’m going to bleep it out. Let’s keep a low profile for now.
Robert Kalish

[10:46] So yeah, so it’s taking time. People are very excited about it. I think that it’s got legs, definitely. I’m now looking at expanding and looking at the rest of Africa. We’re looking at other ideas, where to bring our brand into. But it’s exciting because, you know, it’s your own. And you, you’re not beholden to anyone else but yourself.

David

[11:10] Correct. And then it’s your hard work that creates it and makes it happen. And I always say to people and, I’d love to hear your view on it, is that there are just certain things you can’t outsource and there are some things you can, but it’s very much a collaborative process to build a brand and a range. I mean, would you not agree with that?

Robert

[11:32] Absolutely. 100 percent. And yeah. I mean, you’ve got to go there and you’ve got to look and you’ve got to feel and you’ve got to see, and you’ve got to make the mistakes. Because please believe me, they will be mistakes made. And the most important thing for me is to make sure that if you choose something before you order it, is to get a sample made up, and then you inspect the sample and you check it out. And 9 out of 10 times there’s something wrong with the sample. And it’s up and down and up and down until you feel that that is good enough for you.

David

[12:06] Robert, what’s the next step for you here? I mean I, and I don’t mind sharing with people that, you know, we’ve even started discussions of looking at expanding it as an international range into other markets because you’ve done such a good job on that product development. And, you know, I think just once you start something, it can expand into anything. What do you see the future as?

Robert Kalish

[12:31] Well, you know, the South African market fits the brand beautifully, and well, is to expand to other countries. That’s definitely my focus now, is to look at that and just to see that, you know, as with anything, starting up a brand and trying to do it yourself is not easy. It takes a lot of effort and money. And the money part of it is a huge aspect of it. Yeah. So, putting all this money into building a brand. It’s trademarks. It’s having them tested by laboratories. It’s all the marketing material. It’s bringing in samples. It’s bringing in containers of lighting that you just hope is going to move. So you’re putting all this money into something all the time, and it’s going to take time, obviously, for it to start, you know?

David

[13:30] And I think what’s interesting as you were saying to me the other day, you know, some of the lines weren’t selling and then they just suddenly started selling and sold out. And it’s just hard to predict what those patterns are going to be, especially with designer products. It’s incredible.

Robert

[13:44] Yeah. In just under 2 years or a year-and-a-half. We’ve managed to put together a catalog of about, well the catalog’s nearly a hundred pages, about 88 or 89 pages, but we’ve got about 30 products in there. Some in different sizes, same range and what have you. And yeah, I mean, you know, the thing is you bring in stock, you sit with it, and it doesn’t move. And it can take 3 or 4 months and then suddenly in a week you sold 50 of it. So it’s very difficult to predict how to go forward. Up until now, there’s been really, none of our ranges have NOT moved. Some quicker than others. But I think that the more we’re out there and the more we wholesale to other lighting companies and get the brand out there, I think is there are legs on everything.

David

[14:49] Yeah. I, I agree. I Robert, thanks for sharing that all. I’m hoping that guys listening to this get some value and some insight out of it because everybody kind of starts their own journey in their own way. What I really love about the whole story is that you were, like, out of a disaster you’re forced to come to China. And I remember the first day we met and we had that whole long conversation about what lays ahead. And, I mean, looking now, like a year-and-a-half, 2 years down the line, it’s been an incredible success story. It’s a great relationship we have, we certainly enjoy it, looking at all the partnerships we are looking at now. So little things become big things, you know, It’s exciting.

Robert

[15:31] Yeah, no, absolutely. And as I say, this is something that’s given me a definitely a spring in my step. I’m enjoying that tremendously. I really am. I’m very creative or that side. And I love that challenge of finding new stuff.

David

[15:49] You’ve got a great eye for it. Robert. Thanks for that. And I’m going to end the recording now and we’ll carry on chatting.

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