In November 2015 we had just placed a $100,000 production order for Smart Bedding. We wanted to oversee production and make sure there were absolutely no issues. Luckily, all of the factories for our other companies were also around the same area. It was a good excuse to go to China and visit them all.
We’ve worked closely with factories in Asia for a several years now, but none of us had ever actually traveled there. All communication up to this point had been over email and Skype.
There’s little information available about what it’s actually like visiting factories in Asia. Below is the detailed story of our 15 day trip — including all scares, language barrier troubles, and bizarre encounters.
We bought 3 roundtrip tickets going from Saint Louis to Hong Kong. The tickets cost $1,371 per person, for a total of $4,113.
To visit China, you need a visa. With just 2 weeks to go before our trip, we completely forgot about this and had to frantically find a company that offered an “express” service. We nervously overnighted our 3 passports and crossed our fingers. In total it cost $730 for our 3 visas.
With 3 days to go, our passports were mailed back to us with visas attached. We (Marshall, Jon, and David) were going to China!
Flight & Hong Kong Day 1
Our plan was to fly into Hong Kong, spend a few days getting accustomed to the new timezone, then drive across the border into China. The drive from Hong Kong to where we were staying in Shenzhen would take around 1.5 hours.
The flight was brutal. We flew St. Louis > Dallas > Hong Kong. 18 hours of total flying time, and 22hrs of total travel time including the layover.
We were extremely prepared for the long flight; stocking up on things to keep us entertained for the brutal 16 hours in the air. Our hard drives were filled with podcasts, movies, and audiobooks.
The 3 of us bought Nintendo 3DS’s so we could play a few games together. One of the games was a co-op game where one of the key gameplay mechanics is using bombs to solve puzzles. After shouting ‘BOMB!’ at each other a few times, we remembered we were on an international flight and decided we should probably play something else…
While playing games, Marshall pointed out that if you told him as a kid that he’d be a businessman, flying to China when he was 25 — what you’d probably imagine was pretty far from how the 3 of us actually looked — sitting next to each other playing gameboys.
When we finally landed in Hong Kong, the first thing we wanted to do was get local SIM card so our phones would work. After walking around the airport for a few minutes, we found a little kiosk that “SIM Cards” and we ventured over.
We tried to buy 3, and we were told they were free. All we had to do was download an app and click on some mysterious Chinese advertisements to top up our data. We ended up spending the next 16 days clicking ads during down time to keep our data topped up. All in all, it was worth it.
After buying our SIM cards we got a taxi to our hotel. It was around 9pm local time. Our hotel was across the city, so we got our first look at the beautiful Hong Kong skyline.
Our hotel rooms cost around $100 per night. Almost everything (mini bar, snacks in the lobby, laundry, pool, breakfast) were all included. We were all exhausted by this point, so after getting a drink at the hotel bar, we crashed.
Hong Kong Day 2 — Exploring
Due to jet lag, we all woke up SUPER early. Before 5am rolled around we were texting each other, eager to start the day. We asked the hotel concierge what they’d suggest doing and they explained that everything will be closed for hours (it WAS 5am, after all).
They recommended we get a taxi to a place around 20 minutes away called Victoria Peak. It’s an elevated part of the city that’s a great scenic spot to see the skyline in all its glory. It sounded perfect so we jumped in a taxi.
On the way to Victoria Peak we saw a man waving on the side of the street. We asked our taxi driver why he was waving and if we should wave back. He explained (in very broken English) that he’s running for local government and he’s on the corner waving to everyone in the hopes that people will vote for him. He was just by himself on a narrow mountain road. It wasn’t even a street corner.
Our driver also explained that Hong Kong is a very expensive place to live. On the way to the peak, he pointed out several houses that cost well over $100 million USD.
At Victoria Peak we walked around for a while and enjoyed the nature. The view was incredible.
There’s a short “loop” that you can walk on that takes you around the whole peak and gives you some stunning views of the city. There’s a very densely populated urban city on one side and luscious jungle on the other.
After completing the loop around the top of the mountain, we headed back to where we could catch the tram down into the city. At this point, it was quite busy. Once back, we notice there are hundreds of school children and a lot of them are looking at us. A bunch of them waved at us.
We got on the tram and headed down into the city. The track the tram follows down the mountain is STEEP!
Where the tram lands in downtown Hong Kong is a really bustling place with lots of people running around. We’re finally into the city. It was now a normal hour, with people running around and places opening.
By this point we were all starving so we grabbed a taxi to a highly rated dim sum place. EVERYTHING on the menu was in Chinese. No photos or anything. Luckily we were prepared for this and used the Google translate app to make sense of everything.
After eating, we stumbled upon a small local market where we saw all kinds of interesting things. Some highlights included t-shirts with seemingly arbitrary things printed on them, lots of shirtless men, and produce the likes of which we had never seen before.
Later that night we went to the “worlds tallest bar”. The view was amazing but we were all still very tired and very jet lagged, so we headed back to the hotel pretty early and crashed.
Hong Kong Day 3 — Mean Taxi Drivers
Still jet-lagged, Jon and David woke up very early. There was a really nice football pitch right next to the hotel, so we decided to go on a mission to try and find a football (soccer ball) for sale. This turned out to be a SURPRISINGLY hard task.
First, Jon pulled up a picture of a football on his phone and showed it to a taxi driver. We tried to explain that we wanted him to take us somewhere to buy one. He looked at the picture, looked at Jon, then shouted “I don’t like you!” and sped away.
After hours of aimlessly wandering around, we eventually found one.
After thoroughly wearing ourselves out, we headed back to the hotel lobby to catch up with Marshall. With a business still to run, we got caught up on work in the lobby for the rest of the afternoon. The wifi was solid.
In the evening we got the chance to meet up with one of our investors that lives in Hong Kong. He told us he pays $6,000 USD a month for a 600 sqft studio. If it wasn’t obvious before, Hong Kong is insanely expensive to live in.
Hong Kong Day 4 — Malls, Beaches, and Getting Stranded
The day started off pretty relaxed. We all woke up early and continued to get caught up on emails. After working for a few hours we decided to venture into downtown to explore more.
While wandering, we find a MASSIVE mall. It was completely packed with people. None of us had ever seen a mall this size. There were 12 floors completely packed with stores and people.
The mall was packed with niche stores as well — like one that sells nothing but model trains.
Craving some western food, we stopped at a McDonalds in the mall. There are lots of strange things on the menu, but it was nice to eat something familiar.
While exploring, we notice that in place of traditional metal scaffolding, all of Hong Kong’s scaffolding is made 100% of bamboo that’s tied together.
That night Marshall and David decided to check out a local beach while Jon stayed back. With limited daylight left, we grabbed a taxi to Shek O. The view was incredible.
Getting to the beach was easy, but getting back proved to be much, much harder. We simply couldn’t find a taxi! We were worried we’d have to spend the night there. Luckily at the last second we managed to hail a cab and make it back to the hotel. Phew!
Day 5 — Entering China & Visiting The Factory
Our plan was to take a taxi from our hotel to the Hong Kong / China border crossing, then meet our factory contacts there. After talking to our hotel concierge, we learned it isn’t as simple as grabbing a taxi.
He explained that taxi’s aren’t allowed to drive to the China border — it’s a much more involved process. Luckily he knew a driver that had a special license that lets him drive between China and Hong Kong. The only catch? It will cost ~$200. Probably too much, but we were ok with the convenience.
In the van, we asked the driver how long it will take to get to the border, to which he replied in Chinese. We showed him the address on a map. There was still noticeable confusion.
He eventually called someone on his phone and then handed it to us.
The guy on the other end spoke VERY broken English. We tried to give him the address of where we needed to go but he just said “no”. We started to get really worried.
Eventually we worked out that the driver called this guy to translate for us! We asked him how long it will take to arrive. He translates for the driver and we figure out it takes around an hour. We also clarified that he indeed does know where he’s taking us. Phew!
There’s a long bridge just before the border. We noticed thousands of floating pallets in the sea below. It was quite a sight.
As we got closer to the border, we all started to get nervous. We had heard horror stories of people’s computers and cellphones getting searched. Suddenly, driving up to the China border and seeing all of the armored guards, we felt a bit under-prepared. What if something goes wrong?
Once pulled up to the checkpoint, our driver gestured to us that we needed to hand over our passports and visas. Holding our passports, the lady behind the counter stared at each of us for a few seconds, very intensely.
After what seemed like a very long time, she handed back 2 of 3 passports. Ruh roh! She kept hold of David’s and gestured that we need to drive off to the side and wait. We’ve seen every other car drive straight through in front of us — something was wrong.
After waiting a few long minutes, she eventually came over to the car, holding David’s passport. She pointed at David and said several stern words in Chinese. We were all a little scared and confused. Eventually one of us guessed she wanted David to take off his glasses. In that moment she yelled “aha”. Apparently she didn’t recognize him with his glasses on, since he’s wearing contacts in his passport photo. She figured out that it actually is David and let us through to the next section. It was a classic Clark Kent / Superman moment. Apparently glasses are enough of a disguise.
It wasn’t over yet, though; that was just the first stage. The second stage is filled with armed guards searching cars. We expected the same thing to happen to us.
As we pulled through, a guard gestured for us to drive straight through. We had made it. We were in China!
Instantly we realized how different China is to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, most people speak a little bit of English. Most of the signs were written in Chinese and English; it was pretty easy to get around. China, by contrast, is very different. Our phones with Hong Kong SIM cards weren’t working.
Our factory contact, Connie, was meant to meet us at the border. Our exact instructions, verbatim were:
“I’ll pick you up at the border. I’ll be in the Ford.”
Now that we had arrived, we realize how terrible those instructions were. It felt like our instructions were as precise as “I’ll meet you in China. See ya later!”.
After trying to find a Ford vehicle, we had the idea to try and walk very close to the Hong Kong / China border and hope that we were close enough to pick up Hong Kong cell service. Luckily it worked.
Marshall called Connie and we eventually found each other. She walked us to the the Ford where we met Winston, who’s the owner of the factory. We hopped in and Winston, in a stroke of classic Chinese hospitality, wanted to make sure we weren’t hungry. He took us straight to McDonalds!
We discovered McDonalds in China is pretty different from McDonalds in Hong Kong. There were many more items we didn’t recognize.
From there we headed to our hotel to check-in and drop off our bags. Our rooms were ~$70 USD per night.
Finally, it was time to head to the Smart Bedding factory!
This is what the whole trip was about. It felt great to arrive and meet everyone. It was a real place, with real people working. We weren’t being scammed. We were so relieved to see the factory matched the pictures we were sent. There was tons of natural light and high ceilings — it was quite nice.
Getting to see something we created actually being made was amazing!
They quickly made a production sample based on our tech drawings. We jumped right into things and started reviewing.
Immediately, we noticed a few issues with the product — things that would have been hard to catch if we weren’t there in person. Had we not been there, it would have taken a few weeks to catch them. The process normally is to wait for the sample to be shipped to our office in Saint Louis. This alone made it worthwhile for us to fly out there. The entire trip was all worth it just to catch this one mistake.
That evening, Winston took us to a very fancy dinner at a nearby restaurant. We were escorted into a private “VIP room” with dedicated waiters. We ate at a very large circular table, where all food was served from a Lazy Susan in the middle. It was a great meal, but felt very foreign.
After a long dinner, we headed back to the hotel and crashed after the long day.
China Day 6 — More Factories + Surprise Vacation!
In the morning, a driver picked us up from our hotel to be taken to the factory. The plan was to hang around the factory all day, take photos, and make sure there were no issues with production.
Upon arriving, we went into Winston’s office to sit down and drop off our bags. Winston proceeded to pull out a world map and put it on the floor in front of us.
We were a little confused.
He tried to start telling us something but we had trouble understanding. It sounded like he was going to be leaving for a few days and was showing us where he was be going, or so we thought.
Eventually Connie, who spoke much better English, came over and helped explain what was happening. We figure out that it wasn’t Winston that will be leaving… it was US! Winston wanted to send us away to a Chinese island called Hainan for a few days during the slow part of production. He wanted to pay for our flights, our hotel, and even send Connie and another employee named Catherine from the factory with us. Awesome!
We found out later from Connie that this definitely wasn’t normal. Winston was trying to thank us for our business! We were very grateful! We also found out that this was Connie’s first time flying!
After we all calmed down from the excitement, Winston took us to another factory location where the “stone washing” process of our linen happens. This is exactly what it sounds like. After being sewn, our linen bedding is washed with stones to create a softer, “stone washed” texture.
When we got back to the factory there was someone waiting to meet us. It turned out that Carol, who takes care of billing and shipping for the factory, went to college with someone who now works at a cellphone accessory factory nearby. After hearing that we also have an iPhone accessory company, she wanted to give us a tour.
As always, there was a slight language barrier. We were under the impressed that this factory was a short drive away. It took TWO HOURS to get there.
By the time we got to the factory, it was dark and everyone had gone home for the day. The boss was there to meet with us though. We all sat down and started talking (through a translator) about ways we could work together.
At one point, the boss got up to call his factory manager to ask him a question for us. While on the phone he nonchalantly hopped on a hoverboard that was in the corner of his office. We all looked at each other and smiled. Doing business in China is very different.
After we were done, we drove for two more hours back to our hotel.
China Day 7 — Visiting Our Peel Factories
This is the day we got to visit the Peel factory — a day we had all been looking forward to.
Connie had arranged for a driver to pick us up from our hotel and drive us to the Peel factory. It’s about an hour drive away. Our driver didn’t speak a word of English but we became quite fond of him.
Our contact was waiting for us outside of the Peel factory. We headed up to his office to drop off our bags then we started the tour of the factory which was quite interesting. We thought we had a pretty solid understanding of what went into manufacturing our Peel cases, but we learned so much just on our short tour.
The part that surprised us the most is that 70% of the manufacturing process is done by hand. The basic shape of the case is injection molded — that’s the easy part.
The next step is for any excess plastic to be painstakingly cut off the edge of the case shell by hand.
Once all the excess has been cut off, the holes for the audio jack, charging port, and volume buttons are stamped into the edges. One by one.
After that there’s a quick quality control check. One case out of every small batch is checked to make sure it fits perfectly and there are no defects.
After the tour, we sat down with the factory boss to try and negotiate better terms for our next order. Negotiating with someone is much easier when you’re in the same room with them. After talking for a few minutes we’d managed to negotiate around $3,000 off of our next order. If you include subsequent orders, this was almost enough to cover the cost of the whole China trip.
The next stop was our factory that manufactures Peel Juice Bags. At the time, this was a relatively new product for us and we hadn’t been working with this factory very long.
We first drove to the office to meet the contact we’d been talking to, Jasmine. We met her outside, and she takes us up to meet the rest of the team. As soon as we get up there, they immediately took us to a restaurant that’s inside their building.
Chinese business meetings happen over food or tea.
We learn that one of the guys LOVES Dwyane Wade and American basketball. He explained that he stays up super late to watch every game that Dwyane Wade plays — it’s his dream to fly to the US to see him.
This was a really fun lunch. They were just as fascinated by us as we were by their Chinese customs and culture.
After lunch, Jasmine jumped in our car and escorted us to the factory for a tour.
She explains that the owner of her factory used to be a taxi driver. He saved up enough money to start his first factory when he was only 27. Now he owns multiple factories. We’re all excited to meet him.
We arrived at the factory and were taken upstairs to the boss’ office. We shook his hand and then he prompted us to sit down around his traditional Chinese tea table. He started making tea and offered us all a cigarette. Not wanting to offend him we all agreed (none of us smoke!).
If you watch the video, you’ll notice on the table there is a really grotesque looking frog. We noticed a similar looking frog on the table of the factory boss a few days prior. We figured it must have some kind of significance so we asked about it.
Apparently it symbolizes “wealth and prosperity”. They noticed that we were fascinated by this weird frog so they offered to buy us one! We now have a weird looking frog of our very own in the Need/Want conference room.
After saying our goodbyes we headed to tour the cable factory.
This was probably the biggest factory we’ve seen so far. There were multiple floors, each with rows and rows of people working on making cables. It was very cool to see our cables being made.
After the tour, we headed back to our hotel and relaxed after the busy day.
It wasn’t long before we started to get hungry. This was the first night we were on our own for food. We decided we’d try and venture out by ourselves to grab food. How hard could that be?
We left our hotel and started walking down the busy street, trying to find a restaurant that looked acceptable. We quickly stumbled upon a “hot pot” place not far from our hotel. We headed inside and grabbed a table.
Ordering was a challenge. Our waiter didn’t speak any English so we used the Google translate app and hand gestures to communicate. We were all very hungry, so we wanted to play it safe and make sure we ordered something that we’d all like. We ordered two chicken dishes from the menu. One was deep fried popcorn style chicken and one was simply called “coconut chicken”. “Awesome!” we thought. Both meals sounded delicious.
Soon after we ordered, our waiter came back with a coconut. He poured the contents into the cooking bowl on our table. He then dumped in a big bowl of raw chicken meat, handed us a timer counting down, then left.
After the chicken had cooked for 5 minutes, we opened the pot to check how it was all coming together. We started poking through the different lumps of chicken meat to see how it was looking.
Everything in the pot cooking was either a chicken foot, a chicken head, a chicken neck, or some other mysterious part of a chicken that we weren’t sure about. To us, nothing looked edible.
The next dish then came out which looked much more appetizing. It just looked like deep fried chicken nuggets. Perfect! We all grabbed some.
Unfortunately these weren’t much better. Instead of being deep fried chicken, it was actually deep fried chicken cartilage. It felt like we were eating bone. We all picked at both meals a little bit until the waiter came back. Through gestures, he asked us how we were enjoying everything.
Not wanting to offered, we all enthusiastically smiled, nodded and rubbed our stomachs to show how much we enjoyed the food. We all said “mmm!”. We promptly paid and went out to find a second restaurant we went to a few days before where we knew they had food we could eat!
The takeaway here is that surviving in China without a guide or a translator is very tricky. Something as simple as grabbing dinner can be a real challenge.
Day 8 — Flying To Hainan Island
This was the day we’d leave for our little impromptu vacation the owner of the Smart Bedding factory arranged. We had heard from a few people that the island we were flying to was known as the “Hawaii of China” due to the similar climate.
We arrived at the Shenzhen airport and were blown away. Marshall used the word “frivolous” to describe it. The enormous roof wouldn’t look out of place in an art exhibit. The design was better than any US airport we had ever been to.
Our hotel on the island was interesting. It must have been an off-season because there were very few people there, with lots of construction.
There were lots of little natural hot springs around our hotel grounds, each with a different “flavor”. It was very strange.
One of the little pools was filled with fish that would nibble the dead skin on your feet when you submerged them. It’s apparently meant to be “relaxing”. They have something similar in American nail salons. However, the fish here were much, much larger. We assume they’re better “fed”.
One thing we found fascinating was the hotel room + floor numbering system. In China, 8 is a lucky number. Having a room on a floor that starts with the number 8 is so desirable that they just decided to add 8 before every number. Genius!
Day 9 — Island Tour
We woke up and found out Connie had booked a day trip for us to a nearby island. We didn’t really know what to expect. All we knew was it’s a big tourist destination, and there’s lots of actives to do.
We got on a bus with 40 or so other tourists and started driving to the port where we’d catch a boat to the island. The tour guide stood up and started telling everyone what we assumed were lots of interesting facts about the island and what to expect. Unfortunately for us it was all in Chinese.
The island ended up being quite beautiful.
Unfortunately after queuing up and buying our tickets, we only had a few hours on the island before we had to catch a boat back to our hotel. There was a whole list of activities that you could do, including scuba diving, jet skiing, parasailing, etc.
We decided, against our better judgement that we’d try Chinese scuba diving — something none of us had ever tried before. It was a little scary because everyone got training before they were sent under water, but of course, the instructions were in Chinese. Luckily, Connie and Catherine helped translate as best they could. It was still quite terrifying though. We all felt very unprepared.
Scuba diving was an interesting experience. We were given these special scuba helmets that are just placed over your head. There’s nothing stopping water coming in the bottom of the helmet apart from the air pressure that’s trapped in the helmet. If you tilted your head too far back or too far forward, it would instantly fill with water and you wouldn’t be able to breath.
As scary as this was, we were all glad that we did it. There we’re lots of beautiful fish swimming around and you got to see some of the coral that surrounded the island up close.
After our scuba diving experience, we explored the island for a bit longer. We took a car tour that took us around the edge of the island. After that, our time was up and we headed back to the boat.
China Day 10 — “This is where we get food poisoning”
Most of the day was spent relaxing. There was one highlight though. In the afternoon, Connie and Catherine took Marshall and David to a local seafood restaurant.
To get there, we had to catch two Chinese motorcycle taxis. The two of us got into a side car attached to a tiny motorbike. Connie and Catherine caught a separate motorbike taxi. It felt entirely unsafe.
Driving laws in China feel like suggestions, rather than laws.
People drive on the wrong side of the road, cut each other off , etc. It’s madness. Once we got to the the restaurant, we learned we got to pick out our live fish before they’re cooked. We didn’t recognize most of the fish. We chose the safest looking options — oysters, clams, lobsters, and shrimp.
If we were going to get food poisoning during this trip, it was going to be from here. Luckily we were fine.
However, it was all incredibly hard to eat. We didn’t get any special tools to pick apart the crab — just normal chop sticks. It was all very messy. Additionally, the shrimp heads were left on, so you had to rip off the head with the eyeballs and everything. We were told to just put the scraps on the table.
China Day 11 — Crazy Chinese Electronics Malls
Our time on the island was up. We needed to head back to Shenzhen to check on production.
That evening, we had a bit of time to kill after getting back to Shenzhen. It just so happened that our friend, Paul (co-founder of Lockitron) had just arrived in downtown Shenzhen. He wanted to show us around.
Technically where we were staying was still considered Shenzhen, but it was far from downtown. It felt more like a small village than a city. Downtown Shenzhen felt like a different world. There were many more food options, more people seemed to speak bits of English, and getting around wasn’t so hard. We decided that next time we came back we’d stay in downtown Shenzhen and drive the 40 minutes to the factory each day.
Paul took us to an “electronics mall”. It’s a kind of mall that’s packed floor to ceiling with any tech component you could ever want. There was a store that sold thousands of different types of glue, all with very subtly different formulas. There was a store that had an amazing selection of different buttons and knobs. There was a store that just sold iPhone 6S boxes — not the phones, just the empty box. It was quite fun walking around and taking everything in. You could literally source anything from there.
One of the malls we went to was packed with knockoff electronics. We saw what looked like a perfect rip off of an Apple Watch, running some kind of weird OS for ~$30. You could buy knock off iPhones, knock of headphones, knockoff anything really.
Jon bought a Mini toy car that’s also a working phone for $20. Marshall bought 10 Apple earbuds for $4. We could have spent days in this place.
The malls spanned 8 city blocks deep, 4 wide, and each block was about 6 stories tall. It was unbelievable.
Paul took us to a really amazing 5 star restaurant downtown. We all ate like kings which was great after eating strange island food for the past few days. The 4 of us ate and drank for a total of~$40 USD.
China Day 12 & 13 — Overseeing Production
These were our two final days. We woke up early and headed to the Smart Bedding factory both days to check on final production items. Once we signed off on them, the full production would be complete about 3 days after we left. Everything looked great this time.
Most of our time at the factory was spent waiting. We can’t stress enough how important this part is though.
The 5 minutes you spend reviewing samples in that full day of waiting is where you catch important mistakes. You’ll save yourself weeks, if not months of product development pains.
We used these two days as an opportunity to take some final pictures of the factory and the team. We’d become quite close to everyone there — we considered them friends.
The factory arranged a driver to pick us up and take us all the way through the border, back to our hotel in Hong Kong. This cost ~$120 USD.
It felt great to be back in Hong Kong. It was amazing how “normal” and “westernized” Hong Kong felt after spending the last week in China.
We all went to bed early to get ready for our flight back to Saint Louis the following morning. Our journey was coming to an end.
Day 14/15 consisted purely of travel. Once we were back in St. Louis, it took us all about 1–2 weeks to fully recover from the jet lag.
Total: $9,363 or $3,121 per person.