Luggage-free sourcing? I had to see for myself. I recently attended Alibaba.com’s first Open Sesame Event in Oakland, California, a week or so ago. I know Alibaba.com well, but I had no idea what to expect, who would attend, and what would take place. For those new to this website with a strange name, Alibaba.com describes itself as "the world’s largest online import-export marketplace", and boasts of 3.1 million members in over 200 countries. It’s an impressive website.
Our company, Global Sourcing Specialists, will use Alibaba.com to occasionally track down a factory or two if we don’t have one in our network that will suit the needs of a project. On other blogs and in conversation, I’ve always praised Alibaba as a tremendous catalyst for connecting buyers and sellers. But, I’ve also noted that many companies and people using the website were generally remiss when it came to taking all the appropriate due diligence and business steps that remain necessary after one has established contact. I don’t think Alibaba can be held responsible for making the sourcing process seem deceptively easy (although the term "luggage-free" is a stretch), but it’s quite obvious that users are in serious need of education when it comes to sourcing and Alibaba. When it comes to doing business in China, or Asia in general, and the notion of quality, it can be hard to wrap one’s mind around just how different the approach and perspective on quality is. See this post by Chinalawblog for some great anecdotes depicting the sobering reality. Dan Harris speaks the truth when he says:
If you are going to source product from China, you must recognize and
account for the differences from sourcing product in the United States
or in Western Europe.
My hunches on the lack of education in the Alibaba community were confirmed when I attended the Open Sesame event. I was surprised to find that the preponderance of the audience did not consist of CEOs and purchasing managers of mid to small-size companies, and service providers like myself, doing business overseas. Instead, I would guess that 95% of the audience were complete newcomers to sourcing, offshore manufacturing, and the import-export industry. I met many who were considering a new career as a "trader" or "sourcing agent" in addition to their daytime jobs. Many of these folks often had family or connections in a given country and hoped to capitalize on this. And, although the event focused on creating a community of Alibaba’s users offline (I think this is a good move on their part), and demonstrating the capabilities of the site, it became evident that people wanted to know how to verify business partners’ legitimacy, inspect factories, inspect quality, ship goods, and about all the other major issues involved with sourcing products offshore. But, these questions and issues were largely outside of Alibaba’s realm.
The most fruitful and interesting event of the evening was an icebreaker game, during which the audience competed to exchange the most business cards in a one minute period. I got 7 cards. The winner collected 13. Much like the service and value offered through the website, it was a brief exchange of general business information from one person or company to another, with the chance to learn more and possibly do business. But just because Mr. Y gave me his business card in person, doesn’t mean I’m going to trust everything he says and am ready to send $US 50,000 to his company in Asia to commence tooling for a product. Just read these stories at Complaintsboard.com, or here at Alibaba-scam.info, by scammed users, and you can quickly get a feel for those that followed this approach.
Alibaba.com and matchmaker/trading websites like it are here to stay. They are part of the technology that is helping to break down barriers to a more free Global Economy and intertwine our economies and lives. But their user community is in serious need of education and services beyond a connection through email–services that require people on the ground. When I first entered this business, I previously worried that Global Sourcing Specialists’ services would be eclipsed by the internet. In fact, several consultants who were very senior in age to me, bluntly told me that the internet was all that was needed now–and I should look elsewhere in business. Now, I realize the opposite is occurring. If anything, because of the internet, there are more companies and people out there than ever, that need education and help with doing business, manufacturing, and trading overseas. "Luggage-Free Sourcing"? Only if it’s my luggage in the place of your’s.