TMBA 265: Visiting China - Why Entrepreneurs Travel to the Canton Fair

TMBA265: Visiting China – Why Entrepreneurs Travel to the Canton Fair post image

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The Canton Fair is taking place this October, so I was really happy to run into my old friend Matt Kowolak from Matt has been living as an entrepreneur in China for ten years, and he is the person I go to whenever I have a question about the country. We chat it up about the history of the fair, what it feels like to attend such a historic trade show and what kind of opportunities exist there. He also shares a broad overview of what living in China as an expatriate is like and how to take advantage of their entrepreneurial culture.

Listen to this week’s show and learn:

  • The history of the Canton fair and how it became the world’s biggest trade show.
  • Why some entrepreneurs treat the Canton fair like an annual pilgrimage.
  • Trips for beginners who are traveling to the fair.
  • Why having a successful show might mean that you have to stay for a month.
  • What to look out for when starting a relationship with a Chinese factory supplier.
  • How to build legitimate trusted relationships with suppliers.

People on this episode:

Mentioned in the episode:

Matt’s 12 Point Supplier Checklist (questions to ask):

  1. Factory address and website
  2. Trading Company vs Mfg
  3. Number of years in business
  4. Main products lines
  5. Main export markets
  6. Top 3 clients
  7. Factory audit experience
  8. Product Safety testing experience
  9. Number of workers per department
  10. Type and number of machines
  11. Production capacity and current utilization
  12. Order MOQs and Production leadtimes

Listening options:


Thanks for listening to our show! We’ll be back next Thursday morning 8AM EST.


Dan & Ian

Published on 10.09.14
  • Will Tjernlund

    Loved the podcast today! A lot of great advice for a newbie to the Canton Fair and China like myself. Can’t wait to put all this actionable advice to the test!

  • Matt Kowalak

    Great to hear that you found it useful Will! We love answering questions about sourcing from China, feel free to hit me up.

  • Doug Miller

    The best piece of advice I received before my first visit to the Canton Fair? Wear the most comfortable shoes you own. It doesn’t matter if they are stylish. You can tell first time visitors, they are the ones limping from blisters after the first day.

  • Very good point indeed. Also bring rolling luggage, suppliers love to hand out head catalogs and literature, be sure you’re not carrying around a 70 lb back pack at the end of the day

  • This page for sale

  • Chris Zhuhai

    Hi Guy’s, Great Podcast, really enjoy everyone current working my way throughout the first 200 :), I’ve got a question for Matt, I’m currently living in Zhuhai, I want to go to Canton Fair this year, taking my Chinese girlfriend as a translator, do you know anyway to avoid the 300RMB charge for her?

  • nuts and bolts!

  • Best of luck at the fair Will !

  • The best way to avoid the fees is to register in advance through the Canton Fair’s website; If you have any friends with Chinese companies, you can get them to issue a letter of invite and that will usually get the fee waived as well. Usually if you have business cards printed up and hers and yours match, you can get in with the same registration ID. Best idea would be to have her get on phone and see what options you have, don’t let them know you’re living in China, they want Overseas buyers!

  • JR

    …And I just spent an hour down the clickhole that is the Canton Fair. Very interesting podcast. What happened to Ian? Is he still doing the podcast? My theory is that he moved back to SD and settled down…

  • Brandon

    Excellent interview guys, thanks. I remember once asking Matt if I should start a business in China. His answer, “It’s harder than you think. But it’s better than you think too.” Several years later, I can now verify that to be the case :)

  • BrunooArruda

    Great Podcast… really nice advises for both going out for a supplier on China but also on how to build a relationship with them, which is very important and often underrated …

    I got a question for you @Matt, by living in China for ten years now you must have met a lot of westerns, what is your point of view of the learning curve required to learn the language at point of going to a event like this one alone (of course I wouldn’t, just to put a parameter)

    Do you think the six months approach advocated by some folks really work, or would require X years to learn the basics(I´m talking about learning outside China)?

    I am really curious to see an entrepreneur´s point of view on that matter…

    Of course other people with experience on that matter are welcomed(and required :) to join the discussion…

    Thanks everyone for the excellent conversation.

  • no we’ve just been slammed lately so I’ve been doing the podcast with friends who are in town, he’s in BKK this week and Tokyo for the next few weeks so he should be on the show plenty during those times

  • :D smart guy!

  • Hi Brunoo,

    I think it depends on what you’re trying to do in China. 6 months intensive study is a good time for building a foundation. I’m not the smartest fella, so it took me a while to grasp the basics. I think that it is difficult to learn to speak Chinese outside of China. Most universities in China offer a Chinese language program and it is usually very inexpensive. I did 2 full semesters at Shenzhen University and it was well worth it if you have the time. 20 hours a week of class time!

  • BrunooArruda

    Thanks very much for the tips!

  • JR

    Glad to hear him back on the podcast this week and that you didn’t lose him to the beaches in SD.

  • :D We are in Tokyo this week pulling together some episode notes! :)

  • Matt gives some great advice, some comments I would make:

    1) Everyone always obsesses with working with a factory directly. If you have a single SKU (and often proprietary) this is good advice. However, if you’re importing a number of “off the shelf” goods, a trading company can offer a lot of value. They can often source multiple products for you from different factories, ensure reasonable quality, offer better communication, deal with lower MOQ, and often get lower prices than you could even with the factory.

    2) Relationship building is critical and it can take years to build. Outside of better prices (which as discussed, aren’t always the biggest by-product or a strong relationship) your supplier will be more willing to deal with quality problems, prioritize your order, give favorable payment terms, etc.

  • NixonMag

    Hi Matt, we would like to include a link to you in our magazine which is designed to help you get to and around China. Dan & Ian’s followers may like to look too. John

  • Hi John,

    Sounds great! Our site is, still under some development. Going through the first Boot Camps now and getting great feedback. Matt K.

  • Completely agree with you Dave. One thing that we have been really stressing in the Boot Camp is to understand that the closer they get to a supplier, the more responsibility they have to undertake. It’s similar to the retail side of things, the close your get to the end customer, the more responsibility you have. Using an agent or someone with connections you don’t have can really speed things up or get you MOQs or pricing you probably couldn’t get on your own.

  • I attended Canton Fair in 2013 and had business cards printed up with both English and Chinese. Of course, the first vendor I talked to started laughing when we exchanged cards. “What’s so funny?” I asked. He replied: “You look at lot different on TV, Mr. Obama.”

    As it turned out, the “president” title on my business card was written in Chinese as the “American chief of state.” The lesson? Get a good translator.

  • haha classic !

  • IKA

    hi guys i just discovered , Missing the Canton Fair is not a big issue once you know about, which is its official B2B website. Each supplier inside the platform have a profile page where they show their products with pictures, have full company information and allows you to make an inquiry or contact the him for more questions.

    Check it out >

  • For those who are unware, the Canton Fair is a biannual event which has
    started in 1957. It is one of the longest running events in China’s
    history. A fleet of China’s best foreign trade companies will take part in the fair as well as many overseas companies.

  • Factory address and website

    Can you explain detail for me

  • Trần Hồng Sơn

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