In 2006, as an upcoming Chinese business specialist, I was invited by Bocconi University in Milan to give a guest lecture about China’s technology licensing, and to share my experience working with tech firms in the UK.
Among the many keen students, a quiet but attentive man caught my eye. He seemed older than the rest of the crowd. After the lecture he came to introduce himself as Alessio and in his very limited English, he explained that he had invented a toothbrush with a distinctive curved shape, clinically proven to be more effective in oral hygiene.
He had big plans for his intellectual property, and he had such faith in his invention that he had spent all his savings from his own dental practice filing for European patents.
He asked me whether I could help source quality toothbrush production from China at affordable prices. I was touched by this dedication and agreed to help. In the following months, with a very limited budget, my team managed to find a few good manufacturers near Shanghai; we arranged for Alessio to visit them. He was accompanied by a contact of ours who had just started a junior position in Shanghai and was happy to take a day off work to help with translation and logistics for a small sum.
The Toothmoon toothbrushes arrived in Italy a few months later and they were excellent quality. (They look very modest but were really good to use. My husband actually said these were the best he’d ever used — courtesy of a free supply from Alessio, of course). Alessio then went on to invent some electric models too.
Fast forward to April 2019. I met with Alessio again for tea off the buzzy Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, where he still works at his dental practice during the day, while pursuing his toothbrush business at night. I was on holiday but thought I would catch up with an old client. He was full of beans as he updated me on the deal he had just finalised with one of the largest personal care companies in Italy, which was to begin producing and distributing toothbrushes under licence from his company.
I could not believe it — as Alessio’s deal discussion had actually started soon after we sourced the initial production in China, more than 10 years ago! But he had finally made it happen. The fact that he could go well beyond just a patent and actually produce quality products from China helped him to illustrate his ability to be a reliable business partner, despite being a one-man band, dealing with a huge and bureaucratic conglomerate. Still, what amazing dedication, drive and persistence! Believe in what you do, and never give up. That’s what makes an entrepreneur.
Alessio was one of the SME clients who gave me the inspiration for Crayfish. Most of the time a small company cannot afford a normal rate for an experienced consultant, but nevertheless needs assistance to make their China endeavours successful, no matter what stage their business is at. However, there are many individuals out there who have the language and business skills needed to provide these unsophisticated services at a more affordable cost.
The key is to not only match the demand and supply accurately and in a timely manner, but also to provide a mechanism to enable them to communicate and transact. That is what prompted me to set up a new online business to do just that – Crayfish Marketplace was born, with a vision to provide the ultimate solution to help SMEs trade with China.
I talked to Alessio when testing the business case of our online Crayfish.io platform. He was all for it, and soon after our platform was launched he used the Crayfish Marketplace to source a Chinese freelancer for a new research project. The research was to be done to find manufacturers in China, with possible travel to an exhibition show in Germany. It seemed challenging to find someone who could do both at reasonable cost. But with the power of our internet platform, Alessio was able to secure the timely service of a Europe- based Chinese sourcing professional who has a local support team in China. With that in place, he then went to visit Hong Kong to negotiate a licensing deal, this time assisted by someone with an extensive network in the Greater Bay Area, who is also a senior freelance professional at Crayfish.
There are many other entrepreneurs who have inspirational stories. Some come from tech sectors and others from traditional industries like education. What they all have in common is that they realise China is an important market for them and that they cannot do it on their own. They need access to affordable services from the right Chinese speaking resources.