One hazard for a design is that once it’s released to the world, somebody, especially in Shenzhen is going to try to copy it.
Yekutiel Sherman couldn’t believe his eyes.
The Israeli entrepreneur had spent one year designing the product that would make him rich—a smartphone case that unfolds into a selfie stick. He had drawn up prototypes, secured some minimal funds from his family, and launched a crowdfunding campaign. He even shot a professional promo video, showing a couple taking the perfect selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower.
But one week after his product hit Kickstarter in December 2015, Sherman was shocked to see it for sale on AliExpress—Alibaba’s English-language wholesale site. Vendors across China were selling identical smartphone case selfie-sticks, using the same design Sherman came up with himself. Some of them were selling for as low as $10 a piece, well below Sherman’s expected retail price of £39 ($47.41). Amazingly, some of these vendors stole the name of Sherman’s product—Stikbox:
Sherman had become a victim of China’s lightning-fast copycats. Before he had even found a factory to make his new product, manufacturers in China had spied his idea online, and beaten him to the punch. When his Kickstarter backers caught on, they were furious. “You are charging double the price for what the copycats are charging, yet I seriously doubt the final product will be any better than the copycats,” one person commented.
Years ago, experts in the hardware industry would have had more sympathy for Sherman. Now, no one does—not even Sherman himself. While discussions of intellectual property in China’s manufacturing centers once focused on how brands and investors could protect their designs from China’s rapacious copycats, things have changed. Startups and foreign manufacturers are embracing a new reality—someone in China is going to make a knockoff of your unique invention, almost immediately. All any company or entrepreneur can do is prepare for it.
The origins of copycat culture
China’s knockoffs come in many different forms, and can affect businesses large and small.
In some cases, factories will make products that physically resemble ones made by prominent brands. Quality may vary—an Android phone with rounded edges and a stamped-on Apple logo will never come close to replicating the feel of an iPhone. But a counterfeit Gucci bag might easily pass for the real thing.
Sometimes, as was the case with Stikbox and the hoverboard, a factory or design team will spot a fledgling new product on the internet, figure out how it’s made, and start churning out near-identical products. Other times, a Chinese partner factory will produce extra units of a product they agreed to make for another company, and sell the surplus items themselves online or to other vendors.
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, drew criticism when he told investors in June (paywall) that fake goods “are of better quality and of better price than the real names” and come from “exactly the same factories” as authentic goods. But there’s some truth to his comments.
Now what could he have done to avoid this? I don’t know. The best thing that I can think of is to take advantage of the inside track every way possible. One way is to keep as much close to home as possible. Especially for the first 1000 units or so. This thing is essentially three or four machined or extruded parts and an injection molded part. Use a moldmaker as close to you as possible and have the initial pops also done locally. With CNC machining costs aren’t going to be that different. Also it looks to me as if just a little too much was revealed in the kickstarter.
Those sketches and the photos with dimensions on them are a big no no.
The important thing for something like this is to be as ready as possible before the kickstarter goes up so that once the launch goes all you have to do is press the button. Have the vendors selected and ready to go with all tooling done, so that once the button is pressed things go as fast as possible.
Also go for hidden quality that may not be obvious to a copy cat. make the point, for instance that you are using aircraft grade aluminum and hard steel ball bearings for the sliders. That your articulated joint is a high quality part. Make the point that you are using local vendors and maintaining a higher commitment to a quality product. The main advantage you have is that you can control your processes and don’t have to push things as low as they go. The better you make YOUR product the worse it is for the copycats in the long run when their product breaks. Maybe you can’t be faster, but it’s always possible to be better.