Friday, 29 October 2010

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing... Ed Cheney

People decide to become expats for a variety of reasons. It could be to search for a job with better prospects, to move with a spouse or partner or simply move abroad for a lifestyle or culture change.

In this week’s Guest Blogger Series, we look at a particular breed of expats- Expat Entrepreneurs.

Living and working abroad has its own set of challenges, but starting your own business in a foreign country can bring about an entirely different set of difficulties one has to overcome. Here, Ed Cheney talks about his inspiration for his business- Mabboo, the barriers he encountered and how he overcame the cultural differences in setting up in China.

Into the dragon’s den

My entrepreneurial expat journey began in 2008 while studying Mandarin in China. I was living on the coast in Qingdao and stumbled upon an article about a new eco-fabric- bamboo. Not believing that you could make clothes from bamboo, I did some digging and discovered that not only can you make bamboo fibre; it is also incredibly sustainable and superior to cotton. Bold claims I know, but here are the facts:

• Bamboo is the world’s fastest growing plant (reaching the height of a double decker bus in a week).
• It grows 100% organically without the need for pesticides, fertilisers or additional irrigation.
• It is super-soft, hypo-allergenic, thermo-regulating AND entirely biodegradable.

In short, bamboo is a PHENOMENAL material!

Living in China, you quickly realise bamboo really has a cult status and not just because pandas love it. Bamboo is incredibly versatile, with daily use in Chinese food, all the way through to scaffolding for skyscrapers.

I was convinced that bamboo will be a fashion industry game changer and was compelled to create a brand which could draw on the Chinese heritage of bamboo while being very contemporary in design.

I started messing around with the word bamboo and my first anagram attempt “Oomabb” was a non- starter! It took a few more hours after that before I finally came up with “Mabboo” and thought there was something there. The name just stuck and it seemed almost too perfect. The Chinese character for bamboo is graphically similar to the letter ‘M’ and this gave me the basis of my logo and my bamboo clothing brand!

Now the real work (and the difficulties!) began, as I started to hunt for a bamboo fabric supplier. With China being the bamboo capital of the world I had numerous suppliers on my doorstep. Many claimed to be high quality, experienced and start-up friendly, but in reality most failed completely to deliver anything of worth. One supplier even decided to rebrand “Mabboo” as “Bamboo” saying that they preferred their name over mine! Add to this a six month delay to get my trademark granted, and you have a far from ideal start. Several times throughout the journey I contemplated packing it all in, but my ego wouldn’t let me. Not at least until I had produced and attempted to sell my first batch.

After a slight hiccup during the early days, eventually I was able to find a decent supplier. When it comes down to starting up your own business, it is important to tap into your trusted networks and to speak to people who are well-connected. This is especially true in China when everything is down to guanxi. Through finding out about testimonials from other start-ups, I was able to track down this new supplier who had genuine experience and the capabilities to produce our t-shirts. So far our working relationship has been great.

For me, finding the right supplier was one of the greatest challenges, especially for a start-up and a huge barrier to getting a business started, particularly in retail where stock control is critical.

The Mabboo team has now expanded to include two designers. Our UK designer Matt C Stokes, who has designed for fashion heavyweights such as Boxfresh and Fenchurch, works closely with our Chinese designer Liu Hai Yan.


Throughout my journey I’ve learnt a great deal about doing business in China. Two key phrases that other would be entrepreneurs should bear in mind are “shu mianzi” and “guanxi”. Shu mianzi translates as “lose face”. The Chinese will do whatever they can to avoid looking bad in public or in business, and that often manifests itself in an unwillingness to openly admit to any wrongdoing.

Guanxi is essentially networking which is mutually beneficial for both parties and is very important for business in China. It’s quite similar to the ‘old boy networks’ you get in the UK. However there are plenty of occasions when individuals have plenty of bad guanxi, so try not to make people shu mianzi when bypassing an opportunity.

About the author

Ed Cheney’s new company Mabboo has began trading at Show support for Mabboo by following them @mabboobamboo, ‘Liking’ their Facebook page, reading their blog and leaving your comments below.

Currently Mabboo is also offering 15% off to all Expat Explorer readers. Just add the code “pandaparty” on their checkout pages.

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