Manufacturing is changing with us

Back in 2004 I wrote Bill Gates a letter telling him how to compete with the iPod. I said to design it in public view with everyone’s help. I was called a massive idiot back then.

It has totally shocked me that more companies haven’t taken my advice. This weekend shows that things are changing and that my advice in 2004 is now being heeded.

1. Bug Labs is working with famous design firm IDEO and is designing its UI in public eye. VC Fred Wilson reported that on his blog this weekend.

2. TechCrunch is designing a Tablet PC for less than $300. Mike Arrington gave a report on that this morning.

This is huge and is only going to get bigger. Thanks to companies like PCH in Shenzhen, China, and Twitter and friendfeed (where you can have conversations with thousands of people in live time) we’re going to see new companies spring up and design products and build brands.

Is Techcrunch a blog anymore? Or did it just become a consumer electronics brand?

Or, even better, if you read my comment over on TechCrunch maybe TechCrunch isn’t a brand at all. Maybe they’ll charge you to put YOUR brand on the Tablet PC.

After all, you can already get camcorders with your own image on them (Jeremy Toeman showed me his and it’s very cool) so why not get your own brand on everything?

Why I love the US auto industry

I’ve been watching a lot of the talk about the US Auto Industry lately and I don’t see many people sticking up for it. That’s partially because the execs in that industry are horribly clueless and are flying around private jets. Come on, you missed the chance to really pull some PR magic out of the air. If I were an exec there I would drive an American car down from Detroit. But, let’s leave the PR cluelessness aside.

When I was in China over the past few weeks I saw that the Chinese market LOVES American brands. You really need to go there to understand just how significant this is. On nearly every corner you saw an American brand. The world’s biggest bookstore there? It has a 7-11 on the first floor. And a KFC. And a Starbucks.

Everywhere I looked I saw Buicks and Chevy’s (both American car brands).

I saw Nike and Patagonia and many other American clothing brands. And lots of American technology brands were used at the BloggerCon there. Dell. Apple. Etc.

So, back to why I love the US auto industry and why I’m going to stick up for it.

I own a GM car. My producer owns a GM car and a Ford car. My wife owns a BMW, German. My dad owns a Toyota. My brother owns a GM truck. My other brother owns a Honda.

Funny thing, they are all great cars. The last two cars I’ve owned are American (I had a Ford Focus, now have a Saturn Aura).

So, why are American cars getting such horrible press? Well, they haven’t done two things:

1. They haven’t protected their brand from mediocrity. Apple, for instance, doesn’t put its brand on crappy things. At least not in the past nine years since Steve Jobs came back. But Ford and GM puts its brands on all sorts of second-rate crappy cars that are sold to taxi drivers and rental car industry. Every time I rent a car it’s usually a crappy car. It really bums me out. If I were at GM or Ford or Chrysler I would stop making these crappy cars.

2. They haven’t innovated. Three weeks ago Ford gave me a Flex SUV to borrow for a week. I put more than 500 miles on it, and it is a great SUV. It is a state-of-the-art SUV. Has Microsoft’s Sync technology in it so you can talk with it. The lift gate has a motor in it to lift the tailgate up for you, which I really appreciated when we had some heavy rains and it kept me from getting my hands wet. The SUV itself had a great ride, handling, and was a lot nicer to ride in than my BMW is (my producer Rocky, says so). But, really, these are minor innovations. They aren’t any that you’ll get credit for as an auto maker because other brands have similar things (aside from the Microsoft Sync, which isn’t that satisfying, truth be told — it often didn’t understand when I wanted to switch the radio from, say, CNBC, to NPR). The kind of innovation that American car companies WOULD get credit for? Going all electric all the time. Even GM here, with its Chevy Volt, is coming too late to the marketplace to get all that much credit.

Actually, I think it comes down to the executives PR gaffe. Why are they flying private jets around? They need to demonstrate that they are car enthusiasts and that the American industry is worth saving. Bob Lutz has gotten close when he drives around the Volt and shows it off, but it’s too far away still. We don’t understand why it takes so long for American industry to come up with a new idea and a new car.

When the executives come back to Congress they should demonstrate that American industry CAN come back and CAN do something innovative.

Here’s how.

1. GM should shut down many of its lines and many of its brands. Do a real house cleaning. Why do we need Saturn, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Chevy? We don’t. Pick two, get rid of the rest. Work on the brand. Make sure that the American brand remains one that’s viable in places like China and India. If we screw up our brands, or, worse, let them go out of business, then we’ll see America drop in influence very quickly around the world. Right now Chinese young people think that being like an American is “cool.” What if they figure out that it’s not? Yeah, there goes any chance of interacting with a billion-person market.

2. Ford and Chrysler should shut down all lines that make substandard, crappy cars. Yes, this will put hundreds of thousands of people out of work and move tons of market share over to Korea, Singapore, and China. But, sorry, this needs to be done if you want Americans to be in the car business at all in a decade. If you don’t, then the people who can build quality low-cost cars will eat our lunch and will take away our oxygen anyway (and, they are coming).

3. GM or Ford should make a strategic deal with Tesla to turn 20% of its best dealerships into Tesla dealerships and should help Tesla get access to the American market. The same company should make Tesla a premier American brand.

4. GM or Ford should figure out why rock star Neil Young could turn his big-ass-American car into an electric car that regenerates its electricity with a liquid fuel generator that uses natural gas, not the stuff that comes from Alaska or Saudi Arabia. Why can a freaking rock star out innovate big old American car companies? GM and Ford should be ashamed. We should take away all executive perks until GM and Ford demonstrate they can innovate again.

5. GM or Ford should make Shai Agassi’s car, Better Place. Why, again, is an executive from Silicon Valley out innovating the old-school US car industry? Give Shai one of those jet planes and let him get to work.

6. The congress should increase gas taxes to make all this happen. Obama should call for a “moon shot” for the US industry. One of replacing 50% of cars with electric cars by 2020. Can’t happen? Well, if you think that, then get ready for the Chinese. They are building their own car industry. Their citizens are getting tired of the pollution there. They are getting wealthy (I saw tons of Audis, BMWs, Ferraris, mixed in with those Chevys and Buicks) and they are building their own brand names too, that they will bring world-wide. We only have a couple of years of market window before someone else slams it shut.

These moves will not be easy. There is not a whole lot of love for the American car industry in the United States right now. Getting Congress to do ANYTHING for this industry will prove remarkably difficult (and will be impossible if American Car execs remain arrogant and out of touch and don’t sell all their jet planes and start riding in coach like the rest of us).

I’m hopeful, because I love my American car and I hope I can buy another one soon.

My experience with the Ford Flex demonstrates that we can build awesome cars here. The fact that the VW Beattle (and Tesla and many other great cars) were designed in Los Angeles demonstrates we still have the best car designers on our shores and that they build products that people want around the world.

What do you think? Am I off my rocker? Is there any hope? Or should we just shut down the whole industry and let the Chinese take over?

Oh, one other little data point. I met a former executive from Mercedes Benz (Daimler Chrysler). He said they built a car in Germany and built the same one in China and the one in China had fewer defects. Do NOT assume that the Chinese won’t take over the entire world in car production in the next 15 years. You will be proven horribly wrong if you assume that.

Disruptive Factories

Just a few minutes ago I was standing in the middle of a sea of cardboard boxes. They include power supplies for your XXXXXXX. Or new laptops made by XXXXXXXX. Or other consumer electronics goodies from brands you know and love. Sorry, the owner of the supply chain (Liam Casey founder of PCH) forced me to never tell what brands I saw being shipped from his warehouse in Shenzhen, China because he’d lose tons of business if he pissed off the companies who were paying him to build stuff for you.

The brands don’t matter, though, they would distract you from the real disruption that’s happening here.

In just the last year or so there is a total revolution in manufacturing here and it’s so significant that I spent three days getting a detailed look at PCH (Liam was named Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year back in 2007 and the Atlantic Monthly wrote a great article about Liam a few years ago). I have never spent three days studying a single company since leaving Microsoft. Thanks to Phil Baker, who was a product manager at Polaroid and also on Apple’s Newton and just wrote an excellent book on how to get products built introduced us (my friend Buzz Bruggeman introduced me to Phil). Later Tim O’Reilly himself Twittered that I had to meet Liam when I went to China. His reputation is so large that people call him “Mr. China.” That’s funny because he was born in Cork, Ireland, but you can read about his background in the Atlantic article so I won’t waste time about that here. Thanks to everyone who got me to meet Liam, it was an incredible trip.

Here’s a photo of Liam and Phil hanging out in Shenzhen yesterday:

Liam Casey and Phil Baker

This is Liam, on the phone making yet another deal:

Gadget Builder, aka "Mr. China."

The changes that are happening here have deep impacts on all the computer companies you know and love, but also what we are seeing is the obliteration of the middle-man and distributor. Let’s go back to when I used to sell consumer electronics in the mid-1980s. A product back then would be made in a Chinese factory (or, more likely, a Japanese one). Get shipped over in a pallet to a distributor, who would have to keep huge inventories. Then they would ship out to retail stores using their own shipping companies. Very slow, expensive, and as a retailer I had no visibility into where my order was, or how long it would take to get there.

Go foward to two years ago. You’d buy something from a retailer and they would order it from a supply chain manager and it would be shipped to the retailer, like Amazon, and shipped out to you. You had some visibility into how long that would take, but often not much.

Today? A product goes from factory directly to your front door via FedEx through Liam’s supply chain. How long does that take? Four to five days. All trackable via FedEx and other methods.

What’s different today? The Chinese are now cutting out Amazon and are building Websites that you can buy products from directly and they’ll ship right to your door.

Next? We used Twitter to discuss a new product with people around the world, get feedback on what they want, and the designers, who no longer will be in Europe or America, can work with the customers to build something highly customized and that serves their needs exactly. Then a factory gets fired up and the product gets shipped out — all within days of the Twitter storm.


Yes, you heard me right. You can now Twitter with Liam Casey. He doesn’t quite understand yet how to build a new brand with Twitter, but he’s a quick study and he saw how I was able to talk with people around the world within minutes to come up with a new idea.

Yesterday he showed me a new gadget that will get on blogs like Engadget, Gizmodo, Obsessable, GearLive, Gdgt, CrunchGear. It is mind blowing. The engineering is done all in China. The factories are all in China. The website will be hosted in China, or maybe over on one of the new clouds that Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Rackspace are now opening up. The brand name will be done in China, via Twitter and FriendFeed. The PR is done in China via Twitter and FriendFeed, or maybe via a blogger tour in San Francisco and New York because that’s where most of the gadget bloggers live (last night CNN’s Rick Sanchez Twittered me, which demonstrates that Twitter has a powerful reach now into mainstream media).

This is total ownership of everything. Total disruption of everyone who used to make money along the supply chain. Retailers? Disrupted. Traders and middlemen and distributors? Disrupted. Web designers and developers? Disrupted.

Are you scared yet?

You should be if you are being disrupted.

Now, get over your fears, because there are tons of new jobs in this new world, too, you just need to see how this changes everything and then take advantage of the new opportunities. Where are the high value bits in this whole process?

Not the manufacturing.

The real value and profit is in two places: R&D and coming up with new businesses and new ideas. Take, for instance, the Chumby which was designed at a Tim O’Reilly Foocamp and who’s company still has less than a handful of people. Chumby is the new post disruptive business model. Want a job? This is how to do it. Hang out at Foocamp. Come up with an interesting business. Get funding. Go see PCH. Profit! Well, yes, there are a few details involved there.

Other jobs that’ll open up? Anything involved in building brands. Marketing, PR, blogging/Twittering/FriendFeeding, building web experiences, videos, going to conferences to show off new products to audiences, etc.

That’s it. That’s where our new economy is going to be. And this process will happen to EVERYTHING. The American car industry? Well, they figured out how to sell Buick’s and Chevy’s to the Chinese, so if I were working at GM right now I’d be trying to figure out how to take advantage of this new manufacturing capability and ability to ship custom cars right to your house.

Bigger than life

So, to wrap it up, what did I learn?

1. The Chinese no longer are just manufacturers.
2. Those who can build new products and market them will do just fine, but they will face new competition from the Chinese who are doing a ton of R&D now, so are going to come up with their own products and they will figure out how to talk to world-wide markets and will figure out how to build brands (Twitter, blogs, FriendFeed, etc will play into that in a huge way).
3. The days of when Chinese were seen as only copiers/cloners are OVER. I’ve seen some mind blowing stuff developed by the Chinese and we’re just seeing their economic engine sputter to life in the past couple of years.
4. Americans are being fed only the negative stories about China and that is lulling them into complacency. The largest book store in the world is in Shenzhen. The largest city hall I’ve ever seen is here. The largest library I’ve ever been in is here. This is an increasingly educated workforce that’s just starting to get going. Americans need to come to China and see what’s going on because it is absolutely stunning in its scale.
5. The Chinese, over the next 10 years, will turn from the worst polluters (there was a show on 60 Minutes just on Sunday about the ewaste and horrific environmental problems here) to being the leading producer of environmentally-friendly factories, infrastructure, and products. Already Liam’s database of 800 factories includes tons of environmental data and products built by his supply chain will be tracked for amount of energy and carbon dioxide that they used in the manufacture of them.
6. The speed at which things get built here is stunning. 12 years ago I was in the TV tower in Shanghai. It was the only building on that side of the river. Now there’s an entire set of skyscrapers that put New York to shame.

We’re working on a video of Liam’s company that should be up in about two weeks on where we’ll go much more in depth about some of the changes. More to come as we move tomorrow to Guangzhou to meet with Chinese bloggers from around the country (China now has the most Internet users of any country and is growing so fast that the stats are difficult to understand).

I’ve been putting photos up on Flickr. We’ve had several videos up on And everything we’re doing is getting wrapped up on my FriendFeed account where I’ve been interacting a lot with tons of people. Hope you’re enjoying what we’re seeing.

Also in China right now are a group of bloggers who are on a separate tour than the one we’ve been on. You can follow them on Twitter at China 2.0. It’s interesting how they are discovering the same things about China while being thousands of miles away in the north. This weekend I’ll join the China 2.0 bloggers and hopefully we’ll be able to do some live video where we share what we learned with you.