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Shenzhen for Noobs: Quick Tips for the China-Bound Maker

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Shenzhen for Noobs: Quick Tips for the China-Bound Maker

Shenzhen has become one of the most important destinations for makers looking to get their inventions produced. But don’t go without a guide. Here are just a few tips to get you started.

  • Shenzhen is in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province (the old Canton region), just north of Hong Kong across the Sham Chun River (aka the Shenzhen River).
Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a little fishing village and border town with some 300,000 people. Today, it has an ever-growing population of 15 million.
  • Shenzhen is mainland China’s southern financial center, and is home to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
  • Because Shenzhen is a Special Economic Zone, it has been granted provincial-level economic administration status and is allowed to practice market capitalism with a relaxing of the rules and regulations that exist outside the zone.
    There are a total of 17 ports, the most of any city in mainland China. The turnover rate of containers in Shenzhen’s ports is the fourth highest in the world.
  • Shenzhen is a multilingual city. Cantonese is the original language of the area, but Mandarin (the lingua franca of China) has become dominant over the last 30 years. There are also a number of local indigenous languages that are still spoken, mainly by senior citizens.
  • Shenzhen’s climate is humid, subtropical with mild winters. Frost is rare.
    Shenzhen is an industrial town. People come from all over China to work there, and bring their regional cuisines with them, so the city is an amazing opportunity to sample the country’s diverse foods.
  • Postal code: 518000
  • Area code: 755
  • Time zone: China Standard (UTC +8)
  • The currency is the yuan renminbi (abbrev: RMB), called the “people’s money.”
  • When opening a bank account, don’t say “open” — the concept is meaningless. Say “new” account.

6 things i learned

TIP: Trust, relationship, and communication are everything in China. Find suppliers, manufacturers, and support services that you like and stick with them. Once trust is built, these business associates will work with you, be flexible on pricing, give you samples, and more.

TIP: Smile. A lot. And be kind and respectful. It will carry you far in China.
—Bunnie Huang

TIP: Don’t buy and prep your own food. It’s easier and cheaper to just eat out.
—Lisa Fetterman

TIP: Quality, schedule, price: pick two.
—Liam Casey, CEO of PCH

TIP: Since Huaqiangbei is right there, you don’t have to rely on your manufacturer for parts; go to the market and see for yourself if you can get better prices.

TIP: Create a chart with your bill of materials, listing each component with the price from Digi-Key (or another U.S. supplier), the manufacturer-direct price, and the upper limit of what you expect to pay in the market. Frequently, in Huaqiangbei, you’ll only end up paying a tenth of your limit.
—Bunnie Huang

TIP: Negotiate in the marketplace using a calculator. You can use it to convert RMB to dollars (divide by 8), but also to communicate price or desired quantities.

TIP: To climb over the Great Firewall of China, get a subscription to a VPN (virtual private network).
—Lisa Fetterman

TIP: Fapiao are like Chinese receipts on steroids. Part contract, invoice, tax receipt, and even scratch-off lotto card, they are important to Chinese citizens. Sometimes offering to give your fapiao back will get you a discount (dazhe) on food and other goods.

TIP: Don’t stay at Western hotels. Look for apartment hotels. They are cheap, convenient, and cleaner than a hostel.
—Lisa Fetterman

TIP: Read Gareth Branwyn’s “Innovated in China: A Maker’s Guide to Shenzhen.”

More Resources for the Shenzhen-Bound

There are many services, programs, and resources available to makers who want to gain a foothold in Shenzhen. Here are a few key examples:


Our friends at Haxlr8r run a 111-day accelerator program for startups looking to take their hardware projects to market. Some fine companies have come through this program, including Blinkinlabs, Nomiku, Spark, and Makeblock.

Hacker Camp Shenzhen

The open-source hardware company Dangerous Prototypes runs 3- to 5-day boot camps in Shenzhen to get maker pros quickly up to speed. The next camp will be June 16–18, leading up to Maker Faire Shenzhen. To view one of these camps in action, search “Hacker Camp Shenzhen” on YouTube.

Seeed Studio

Seeed is a service provider assisting makers in bringing products to market. They provide prototyping and in-house engineering services, maker-friendly supply chain, and a marketplace for maker-made goods. They also have an excellent Shenzhen Map for Makers that you can download here.

Factory for All

An engineering service bureau in Shenzhen, Factory for All provides part sourcing, PCB manufacturing and assembly, kit assembly, laser cutting, and engineering services.

1 thought on “Shenzhen for Noobs: Quick Tips for the China-Bound Maker

  1. openbeamusa says:

    Here’s our experience working with Factory For All. I want to leave it here to show you how badly things can go wrong:

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn
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