By Manuel Becvar
A lot of people are concerned when they produce their own design in China that the supplier will copy it and sell to other sellers.
First I would like to point out that in my nearly 12 years in China I have had almost only good experiences with suppliers even with my own designs and exclusivity agreements.
Today we are looking at your options and what it actually means to have NDA’s or Exclusivity Agreements in China and how likely it is to enforce it or hold up in a court.
Lets look at the terminology first and what they mean:
Whats an NDA and when do you use it?
An NDA or Non-Disclosure Agreement is used when you have your own product design and want that developed by a factory in China. You basically agree with the factory that they are not allowed to disclose, share or produce your design (or even ideas) with any other customer or supplier. Neither local or overseas. In most cases if you have your own design a tooling is likely need to be made. The first step you take before you send any designs to a factory is to ask them to sign the NDA.
To produce your design it is very likely that the factory needs to make a mould or tooling for you. With this tooling – parts of your product will be manufactured and eventually assembled into the final product.
(Categories like Textile or Food do not need tooling). Toolings are often included in the price quoted to you when you hand over your design. However you can also opt to pay for the tooling if you want to own the tooling as well.
Toolings can go anywhere from 1,000-30,000+USD depending on the size of the product. Yes, things can get pretty expensive.
Can I move my own tooling to a secure location?
Toolings are usually very large and heavy as they are made out of die-cast in most cases. Moving them requires quite some logistics.
So if you are unsure that your supplier is going to use them for other customers you should move them to a secure location (e.g. a rented warehouse). This can easily cost a few hundred US$.
And every time you would place an order this tooling needs to be moved to the factory and after production back to the warehouse. An expensive enterprise.
So having said all that if you feel you need to have your tooling secure somewhere else you should not work with this factory in the first place.
So whats the best way to go about having your own designs & tooling?
1. You are just starting out and have no factory contacts whatsoever.
My tip is to work with a sourcing agent that can help you find reliable and trustworthy factories.
Don’t go onto a B2B site and randomly look for factories that could make your product. You don’t know them, they don’t know you and are unlikely to help you anyway.
Even if they tell you: “no problem, we can make it for you” they are likely to copy your product or sell the idea to other sellers the minute you place an order.
Just the other day a reader of mine told me he found a trading company on Alibaba for his design and placed an order of 300 pieces.
When he got contacted by the actual factory about labels and other things they needed from him he found out that the trading company placed a total of 500 pieces with that factory.
They ordered an additional 200 pieces (without the knowledge of the client & even with the clients logo) for themselves probably to sell it on Aliexpress or even Amazon themselves.
2. You’ve been placing orders in China for a while.
Work with the factory of your trust. Even if the product you are now looking to manufacture doesn’t fit into their assortment. Factories have a large network and contacts with other factories.
Ask them to help you source a factory that can make your product whom they trust. I’d he happy to pay a few cents more for this type of help if it means I get connected to someone trustworthy.
Ideally your existing factory can help you manufacture your new design.
Mutual Exclusivity Agreement
Let say you find a product on Alibaba or at the shows and you want to buy this product exclusively to sell on Amazon. Suppliers are likely not to give you a Exclusivity Agreement if you don’t purchase high quantities from them or if you haven’t had any previous business with them. FBA sellers are in general very small customers for factories. The 1000 pieces (if even) you & I are going to want to place as a trial order cause more trouble to the factory than you could imagine. Setting up production and purchasing raw material for only a 1000 pieces is an expensive endeavour for factories. Most raw material suppliers have MOQ’s of 5000 pieces (per raw material) and up. So getting the material for 1000 pieces can be quite expensive.
While some factories may have stock left of material or might agree to purchase the larger quantity from the raw material supplier in order to produce your order it is unlikely to happen in reality. Having said that you could approach things a little different to get your exclusivity:
You could ask the supplier to sign exclusivity agreements for 6 months. Meaning you could agree on a quantity that you will place within those 6 months and if you don’t reach the quantity the contract will be voided.
Which will give you the time to figure out if the product is selling and the supplier on the other hand isn’t forced to sign a deal for a long time.
After this period of 6 months the contract/agreement can be reviewed and extended for a longer period. Even if the supplier does not agree to an extension you have at least a head start of 6 months on other sellers.
Validity of agreements & contracts:
In the FB groups I often see question like: “How are those agreements going to hold up and what are your chances of winning an NDA dispute in China if you find out your supplier has betrayed you?”
Well to be honest the chances are slim. Does it help to have an agreement in Chinese? No. Even if you hire an expensive lawyer in China and win the case by the time you resolve the issue your expenses will have ballooned into thousands of $.
So unless you have a patent it isn’t even worth it pursuing a law suit.
You will also have difficulties finding out if your supplier actually used your tooling for another client. An un-trustworthy supplier will find many ways to wiggle himself out of the situation.
For example he could claim a disgruntled engineer of the company left the factory and took the designs to the next factory he started to work for. You won’t be able to proof him differently.
So what’s the point of having an agreement at all and whats best approach?
To ask a supplier to sign an agreement or NDA shows that you mean serious business and they will take you and your project more seriously. If he doesn’t agree to it in the first place move on to the next supplier.
Work with a supplier whom you trust and have worked with for many months/years already. You will still need to have agreements in place with that supplier but the understanding is entirely different.
If you work with a supplier and you let him know he can grow his business with you over the years he will honour your agreement. The contract is more or less a formality.
Either place orders with a factory for ODM (products off the rack) in the beginning and eventually propose your ideas and designs after you worked with them for a while or hire a Sourcing Agent who can help you get you in touch with trustworthy factories.
For example in my case study I actually got exclusivity for my product (for an initial 1000 pieces order).
And the supplier honoured it. How do I know that? As you know my case study is public and people who join the course can see contacts of my supplier within the course.
After I launched my product and case study only a few days went by and my supplier contacted me to tell me that he had received quotation requests from 2 different US sellers already. Those 2 people wanted to copy my process (they even used my email templates and quotation forms that I offer in my course). The supplier refused to offer my product to those 2 guys. Thats not to say that they can’t go anywhere else but at least I know I have a reliable and trustworthy supplier.
So its all about finding the right supplier and develop a relationship with him. You will want to have agreements in place even after a long relationship but again, thats just really formality and if you found a trustworthy supplier they will honour agreements and in 95% of the cases help you if you have to claim money for example (defect or returned goods).
It also has to do with your professionalism and how you or your sourcing agent approaches the factory.
Imagine you are a factory based in China and someone with a Gmail address contacts you like this:
“Hi, we are looking to get products manufactured with you. Please see attached drawing and design. Please give us a price”.
The above is an actual email I received from a “potential” client in the US. I simply ignored it. But some suppliers will take this opportunity and steal your design or show it to their customers.
It’s entirely different if I would have received an email with an introduction, detailed business proposal and more background information from the buyer.
The point I want to get across to you today is not to worry too much about getting copied in China if you approach things professionally.
Getting copied will happen eventually because either:
• Another factory copies/modifies the designs because they have seen it on Amazon.
• Your competitor copies your product or modifies it.
• Your approach was unprofessional.
Take the head-start that you have with your product and move on. Thats how this business is.
• Let someone help you professionally with sourcing and negotiating deals in China – or deal with factories that you trust and have business relationships with.
And remember the above goes only for your own designs. It is a different story if you are buying products off the rack maybe with small modifications from a supplier that you found on Alibaba for example. In these cases it doesn’t make much sense to have NDA’s or Exclusivity Agreements because it is not your design in the first place. It belongs to the supplier. However if you make significant modifications and are able to place larger orders it makes sense to have agreements.
Update Case Study:
A lot of people have asked me about my case study project and asked me about an update.
As you know I’ve posted about being out of stock end of May: http://importdojo.com/7-weeks-case-study-update-i-am-out-of-stock/
My second small reorder of 208 pieces came into stock around 6th of June. However my BSR had dropped significantly to nearly 100,000 by that time.
In the last 4 weeks if seen a couple of sales a day but not much (hovering around 1-2 pieces) sometimes even none. The reason is mainly because I didn’t do anything in terms of promotions, PPC or give aways. But that doesn’t really bother me, the listing and the reviews are there anyway and I sold close to a 100 pieces within this month (doing nothing for it).
I didn’t want to run out of stock again before Prime Day (today) before my large shipment of 2500 pieces arrives around 15th of July. As of today my BSR is at around 20,000 and inventory is around 100 pieces and I’ve just lowered the price and started with PPC again to get back in the ranks. I should have enough stock to last me trough Prime Day until this second large shipment arrives. Then i will again go full steam on PPC, some give aways and promotions to get my ranking back to where it was. Stay tuned for more updates.
Manuel Becvar is the founder of "Mandarin-Gear Ltd Hong Kong" a sourcing company based in Hong Kong. Previous to founding his own company Manuel had been working with large retailers as a buyer in Hong Kong for over 10 years. Apart from Mandarin-Gear, Manuel runs a blog: www.importdojo.com that focuses on helping buyers to import from China; especially for Amazon FBA buyers. He has also written 4 best sellers books about importing from China that are available on Amazon as well as in his online course on www.importdojo.com.