Editor: Accidental Designer and his wife have gone all in, and run into a major production roadblock just weeks before filling some major orders. Find out how it all ends here in the exciting final chapter of their story!
When my wife and looked inside the shipping container and found it full of cracked cutting boards, we thought Holy shit, we are bankrupt. This container was supposed to contain the product we'd use to fill the major orders we'd scored, and now we were screwed.
But something didn't add up here. I could understand if some or even most of the load had been damaged in transit. But this container was entirely filled with broken product, every last one, and some of them in suspiciously consistent ways. Why would the factory ship this to me? They had no incentive to screw me, and in fact, their fortunes were tied with mine—they'd floated me several months of credit. This didn't make sense. At the time I didn't know much about factories, but I knew that they weren't in the business of playing expensive and career-ending practical jokes.
I got on the phone with the go-between in China, I'll call him Mister X. When he found out what happened he sounded as panicked as I felt, and he immediately flew out to see us and inspect the container. I mean this guy hung up the phone and headed straight to the airport.
After he landed and checked things out, Mister X figured out what had happened. When the factory was producing the first batch of product, it was trial-and-error, and there were a lot of hiccups before they got the manufacturing down pat. This shipping container was filled with all of the rejects and defects. Mister X knew that somewhere out there was a shipping container filled with all of the correctly-executed product, he swore he'd seen it with his own eyes. Somehow these two containers had gotten swapped out.
I didn't sleep for almost a week. But somehow, Mister X found the right container and got it to us—just before some major purchase orders were going to be canceled! We made it, but I think I lost a few years of my life in stress.
I became good friends with Mister X and this factory, and with good reason—from that point on, business doubled and then tripled each year. I paid off what I owed them and now we were all making money.
At that point in time, no one in the world made bamboo cutting boards. But three years after we got started, no less than 20 companies had knocked me off. I'm talking the exact same designs, some of them right down to the packaging! There was one "competitor" in particular who started turning into a real problem, offering virtually identical product and lowering their prices by 10 or 15 percent every year to price me out.
Remember that chair design that I'd "borrowed" in an earlier entry? Well, here was the karmic payback.
I knew our company wasn't going to survive going head-to-head with the rip-off artists, and I knew I couldn't just keep doing the same thing. I had to innovate. I thought about what we could do differently, and I looked at the factory's production process.
The Chinese factories used a formaldehyde-based glue that sets up virtually instantly. My wife and I had spoken about this a couple of times; the fact that there was formaldehyde in the very cutting boards that we ourselves ate off of kind of grossed us out, but in the U.S. it was legal, accepted, and deemed safe.
Still, I thought I saw an opportunity. At this point I was flying out to the factory on a regular basis, and I asked them if they could find a different type of glue, something food-safe. They didn't want to do it, as no one wants to mess with a smoothly-running production line, but I convinced them that if we didn't innovate, in a year or so there wouldn't be any need for a production line.
After some research they found a food-safe glue manufactured in Japan. The stuff was expensive, took forever to set up, and it was hard on the machines. Mister X explained that it took 20 minutes to make one of our existing formaldehyde-glued boards; but with the Japanese stuff, the same board took 1.5 hours and put serious wear-and-tear on the machines.
Eventually I convinced him that we had to do it. Once they saw the light, they re-engineered the factory to use the new glue, getting the production time back down in a way that I couldn't with that chair. Soon we had formaldehyde-free boards and started promoting the heck out of them. Our buyers loved them, people wanted them, and sales increased.
So that was a good move—but quickly followed by a bad one. I had neglected to license it. Mistake! When my competition caught wind, all of them switched to the food-safe glue practically overnight.
So I had to keep innovating. As more time went by, our total amount of competitors went from 20 to 42. What were they missing, what could we do better? I continued pushing the envelope, and after our success with the food-safe glue, the factory was willing to experiment. I wanted to make a high-quality, epicurean cutting board made from compressed wood that was dishwasher-safe. This was not easy, and it took the factory and I three years to get it right! But we finally developed it. Three plys of 3/8" thick pieces glued up in a dishwasher-safe way. And once again there was strong demand for this product and it reinvigorated our sales.
And then, of course, our competition started knocking that off.
It never ends, but because we are the ones who started the craze, I am determined that we remain ahead of the pack. I always joke that I design my competition's product lines for next year.
Oh yeah, and remember that bamboo chair that gave me such a headache? I eventually brought it to the factory, to see what they could do with it. And they then figured out how to produce it affordably. We now sell about 25 of them a week.
You might be asking "Who's 'we?'" Well, hi, my name is Tom Sullivan, and together with my wife Joanne Chen, we run Totally Bamboo out here in California. We've got 30 in-house employees, over 100 reps and we sell to six different countries. We've designed over 100 products out of bamboo and have expanded into much more than cutting boards: We make bowls, plates, platters, trays, trivets, chopsticks, coasters, dish racks, kitchen utensils, storage items, sinks, backsplashes, countertops, you name it. Oh yeah, and we've got a few chair models as well.
Funny to think of how I was that kerf-clueless kid whose first woodworking project was screwing up a checkerboard that then became a cutting board.
But if you buy one of ours, I can assure you the kerf has been accounted for.
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