A Relentless Breeding Ground of Innovation: Shanzhai (山寨)

Imagine the original founders of companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, or Cisco back when they were bright-eyed tinkerers and fledgling entrepreneurs working out of their home garages. Now multiply this by a thousand. Then you would have the Shanzhai hacker-entrepreneurs operating in Shenzhen, PRC.

From bunnie : studios, Tech Trend: Shanzhai.

The contemporary shanzhai are rebellious, individualistic, underground, and self-empowered innovators. They are rebellious in the sense that the shanzhai are celebrated for their copycat products; they are the producers of the notorious knock-offs of the iPhone and so forth. They individualistic in the sense that they have a visceral dislike for the large companies; many of the shanzhai themselves used to be employees of large companies (both US and Asian) who departed because they were frustrated at the inefficiency of their former employers. They are underground in the sense that once a shanzhai “goes legit” and starts doing business through traditional retail channels, they are no longer considered to be in the fraternity of the shanzai. They are self-empowered in the sense that they are universally tiny operations, bootstrapped on minimal capital, and they run with the attitude of “if you can do it, then I can as well”.

In a sense, I feel like the shanzhai are brethren of the classic western notion of hacker-entrepreneurs, but with a distinctly Chinese twist to them. My personal favorite shanzhai story is of the chap who owns a house that I’m extraordinarily envious of. His house has three floors: on the top, is his bedroom; on the middle floor is a complete SMT manufacturing line; on the bottom floor is a retail outlet, selling the products produced a floor above and designed two floors above. How cool would it be to have your very own SMT line right in your home! It would certainly be a disruptive change to the way I innovate to own infrastructure like that — not only would I save on production costs, reduce my prototyping time, and turn inventory aggressively (thereby reducing inventory capital requirements), I would be able to cut out the 20-50% minimum retail margin typically required by US retailers, assuming my retail store is in a high-traffic urban location.

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