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Internal conflict

jason

I'm a little conflicted these days because I need to be focused on sales and promotion, but I also need to get the online shopping solution for my website up and running. It's kind of difficult to do both; in spite of my relatively technical background, I never particularly had much talent for writing code, so it takes me longer than it should.

Also, I discovered sort of fatal flaws with the shopping cart system offered by my web presence provider that make me not want to use it... problems with the shipping calculations, inability to distinguish between taxable and non-taxable goods (which affects my in-state customers when I sell food products), and some other problems like how to connect to a payment gateway. I think I will either need to pick some other system or roll my own sooner than I had hoped.

This morning I met with a furniture designer to discuss a retail display rack, or point-of-presence, for the dragon beard candy. He works with bamboo wood products, so it's a good fit for displaying products from the dragon beard candy company, whose brand name is Bamboo Garden. I think the racks will be a little bit expensive, but should be helpful for merchandising the products in many retail locations.

I made a dent in some of my web code, but I have a number of long nights ahead of me to make it functional. I hope it doesn't distract me from the work that's more important. I learned when I started thinking about making business cards and similar types of materials that it was much more cost-effective to hire a designer for that than to do it all myself, even though I once did a lot of graphic design and layout work. Changing my mindset, acquiring all the software, and tweaking and so on costs money, and keeps me from doing things that are probably more important. The same applies in this case, it just hits closer to home because I've been doing more closely related work more recently and I already have the tools I need... Still, I might have to decide whether to hire out the sales work or hire out the software work...

My life is a barcode

jason

Thursday I ran over to Staples to hunt for some laser printer-friendly adhesive labels that would be suitable for bar codes that I can stick on the single tubes of my dragon beard candy so that retailers, like Uwajimaya, can scan them. The gift boxes all have pre-printed bar codes, so that wasn't an issue, but, alas, there are almost 1200 small tubes for individual retail sale that lack these essentials. So this weekend, in the sweltering heat of my apartment, I printed out appropriate bar codes and stuck them on to about 364 packages, which made it possible for me to deliver the single tubes to Uwajimaya Beaverton and Seattle.

On Friday I got agreement from two other stores to carry the candy. I will most likely be doing sampling at Viet Wah next weekend, and I have sampling plans for the next few weeks at Uwajimaya Bellevue, Seattle, and Beaverton.

I made a little delivery at the Beaverton Uwajimaya and met with the new grocery manager and his assistant. Not entirely surprisingly, since I knew this was a vendor sampling day, I ran into Eugene Levy, who was showing off his green tea, today in the form of iced genmaicha. I chatted with him a bit before meeting with the Uwajimaya staff and we had a simple dinner at the little Japanese restaurant bordering the store. It was probably around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I ate hiya-yakko (cold tofu).

I needed something of a weekend, so I didn't do any work today until afternoon, when I made a delivery of the now-barcoded impulse-buy tubes to Uwajimaya. Tomorrow I need to make another trip to Chinatown to meet up with another store there.

Things are kind of picking up... I still have to do a lot of sales work this week, so I hope I can take care of everything else that comes up.

Making deliveries and a few pitches

jason

Today I made the first delivery of dragon beard candy to Uwajimaya Seattle, and I expect things will be visible in the next day or so. I have to go back and provide some mockups (empty boxes) for the shelf displays since the Seattle store is worried about careless customers damaging  the product by picking it up and shaking, tossing, around, flipping upside down, etc. I'm not sure this risk is substantially worse than, for example, with fancy Yoku Moku cookies or even many kinds of chocolates, but I'll work with that for now. I might have overemphasized the fragility when we first spoke a while back... the main problem is with excessive vibration and with vertical display.

Yesterday I got agreement from the Bellevue store to carry the product, so I need to supply them soon. I made a date to demo the product there in early August. This weekend, assuming all goes well on the Seattle side, I need to make a trip to the Beaverton, Oregon store to meet the new grocery manager there. The grocery manager who agreed to carry our product had to go back to Japan to care for a family member, so I just have to follow up with the new grocery manager about how to display the product and when we should do in-store sampling.

Also yesterday afternoon, I made a couple of stops at small Taiwanese tea shops in Bellevue and did some guerrilla sampling with store staff after buying something to drink. I made some conversation and I'll go back to show the full product line and information shortly.

I went to a local bamboo supplier to talk to them about materials for merchandising racks. It sounds like the kind of materials that would work best will be more expensive than some possibilities that were hinted at by one of my customers... so I'll have to find out what the best option will be. Maybe it's worth the commercial presence of the more expensive option... but I don't want my subsidy of store displays to be terribly expensive. Anyway, the bamboo importer referred me to a designer who may have some ideas. Coincidentally, they had some interest in the candy for their retail store, which is planning to have a little tea bar shortly... Since the brand identity references bamboo, it might be a good match.

As usual, my stuff didn't arrive on time

jason

The good news is that I finally have the remaining portion of my candy shipment. The bad news is that it wasn't delivered in the morning as was last indicated. I had to wait at home most of the afternoon, and then I did my best to get the cartons out of the way of my neighbors. The weather was hot and all the lifting and hurrying made me very sweaty.

Maggie had asked me to arrange to get a box to her for some Vancouver visitors, and I originally planned to run over to the Eastside for another reason and was going to just bring it to her. With the delayed arrival, I couldn't proceed with my original plan, but I did go and meet her just before she was heading off to another evening job. She even ordered a take-out meal for me from the restaurant they had been visiting just beforehand, so I drove down to the Kirkland waterfront and ate a bit as the sun was setting on the shore of Lake Washington.

In spite of a relative lack of productivity this week, I tend to feel pretty exhasted at the end of the day. If I'm awake later than 11 pm tonight, I'll be surprised. I wonder how much energy the petty frustrations of logistics will sap from me...

OK, you can have your candy now...

jason

The FDA provided notification that they inspected my shipment sometime yesterday, and my cargo was released back to Maersk for forwarding. I was supposed to get it this afternoon, but delivery has been delayed until tomorrow morning due to delays recovering the cargo.

I suppose it's too generous to call this a “learning experience.” But I know how long it can take to clear a shipment in the event something doesn't go quite as planned... I guess it means I should always keep two weeks of inventory handy. So much for a zero-inventory distribution model...

These days I'm getting interesting phone calls and email messages related to the candy launch, so I think the publicity and advertising is starting to work its magic... I need to be a little more aggressive getting the product into stores though. Fortunately, I'll finally have the product to sell...

Failure to inspect

jason

Apparently the FDA has provided no notice of the inspection results, nor even evidence that they have completed the inspection. Supposedly, they have a legal obligation to inspect the cargo within three business days of filing notice of sampling, and they filed that notice on Friday. By the end of the day today, there was no new information, so I'm not sure what kind of recourse might be available.

In any event, the net effect is that I still don't have my shipment, and I'm paying about $30/day for storage as a side effect of the FDA failing to complete their obligation.

I'm hoping to have some news tomorrow, but I'm in a position of no particular power over the situation.

On the bright side, I met with a company that inquired about my candy for wholesale purchases and the meeting went pretty well. Yesterday Eugene dropped by with some tea samples, so I  also brought this company some samples of the tea to try.

In true spy movie style, I met my graphic designer just before 11am at her dentist's office in Fremont, where she passed me some CDs containing the new, post-summer-festival advertisements for the dragon beard candy. After my other little meeting I ran the CDs to two of the newspapers that are running the ads.

In the evening, Jennifer, Amelia and I met to join in at the Cascade Cycle Club's Tour de France event at Magnusson Park. It was a quintessentially American experience... on a nice, sunny evening,  come to a lovely park with a thousand other people, and watch TV. We were too lazy to wait in the long line for the food there, so we ran off to the nearby Pagliacci and waited at an alternate venue, apparently for a shorter duration than we would have otherwise, and then came back with a large verde. We watched a few taped-delayed crashes but mostly spent the time chatting... after a brief visit to the overly warm auditorium where we saw another, slightly overlapped tape delay, I got tired early and came home.

A modest success

jason

It really would have helped to have the rest of my shipment, because the first day I sacrificed a lot of full-priced candy in sampling. Word got around, so this got very expensive. Our rule of thumb for the first day was to give a sample to people with sample coupons, or to those that appeared engaged and interested in the story of the product. Due to the power of word of mouth, this got a little out of control, but we did sell more than we gave away.

On the second day, we changed the rule of thumb to accepting the coupons, or taking $1 for a sample to defray a portion of our costs. Those that actually bought full boxes received a credit toward their purchase. By the end of the day today, we were selling slightly better than Saturday, but with a much lower cost of sales.

The JACL, Japanese-American Citizens League, had a booth next to us, and Sharon Tomiko Santos, the Democratic Whip of Washington's state house of representatives, was helping the JACL booth out. She bought a nice quantity of our product.

The attention that Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post helped bring to our booth was apparently quite high, as many people remembered reading the article or seeing our ad. Even Yuuyake Shinbun of Portland and, to a limited extent, Soy Source helped attract a few customers.

Maggie, my Cantonese-speaking assistant at the festival, helped explain and convert a lot of Chinese visitors into customers. Erin, who speaks Korean, helped draw in a lot of people who had by approaching them and telling them the story of the product, and Kazue was good at explaining the product to people who approached the booth. Maggie also facilitated making connections with people who have retail stores or other networking value. She was operating on very little sleep, because she was also busy doing night club promotions Friday and Saturday nights.

All-in-all, we did reasonably well on sales and very well on the promotion side of things. It would have really helped to have the impulse-buy size (single tube with three pieces of candy) and the big box, because we received a lot of requests for lower-commitment options and also for the bigger boxes. One gift set sample with 4 kinds of tea and 4 tubes of candy appealed to a several customers who wanted to buy it outright, but, alas, it was my only production sample and isn't yet being produced in quantity, so we were unable to sell it.

It's been a pretty rough weekend. I was up late on Friday preparing, up early on Saturday packing everything into my car, and really exhausted at the end of the day each day. On Saturday, Amelia, Erin and I went to Tutta Bella in South Seattle, which is a pizza place run by some people who apparently studied in Naples. It was pretty nice pizza: wood fired, thinner than typical American internpretations, but a little pillowy in texture; relatively simple, relatively sparing use of toppings. They also served a caeser salad, which was too big for one person; we shared one between three of us.

A disaster, but thankfully not an embarrassment

jason

Customs cleared a smaller shipment this afternoon, which contains only the small gift boxes of my dragon beard candy. These gift boxes contain 9 pieces of candy each, and the 18-piece boxes are still held up by the FDA.

It would have taken a miraculous feat of bureaucratic achievement for me to get my larger shipment, which contains sampling tubes, larger gift boxes, individual packages, the paper gift wrapping, the pretty shopping bags, or similar, until Monday or so.

My Hong Kong supplier just called me to find out if I got the shipment, and of course it hasn't quite cleared... She called FedEx to see if they could work another kind of miracle, but, alas, it wasn't possible.

Anyway, I have something to sell, so I won't have to go to the event empty-handed. I'll take requests for delivery by mail to anyone who wants bigger boxes... hopefully that will allow us to capture anyone who wants more...

I went through telephone training on how to use the phone authorization system for accepting credit cards. Now I'm all set... though a little lighter on inventory than I had hoped.

It's a disaster, but fortunately, I don't have to be completely embarrassed... Had nothing cleared by today, I would have walked into the show with pretty banners and no products. Now I can comfortably go to the festival without feeling stupid.

I've got the FDA Inspection, not sure when I'll get my candy blues

jason

I've just been informed that the FDA will inspect my candy shipment; I'm not yet sure when they'll schedule the sampling. I have no worries about the shipment passing sampling inspections, since the FDA did this before on a small FedEx shipment I received a couple of months ago. What I'm worried about is when my cargo will be released. Since the FDA is under no obligation to accommodate my schedule, and since the new anti-terror legislation makes the inspectors especially busy, I may be in for a long wait.

As a contingency plan for the festival, I'll still display the tiny number of samples I've got and offer to take orders and offer free or cheap shipping, but then shift most of the booth layout to focus on the ceramics maybe Eugene Levy's tea. It's also possible the second shipment, due to arrive in the morning, will clear earlier, and then I'll just be missing the bigger gift boxes and the sampling tubes.

Customs is one thing, but the FDA!

jason

I'm now jittery and nervous because the FDA is holding onto my shipment. I'm hoping they will clear it in time for the summer festival, but there's no way to predict what will happen. In fact, there's a good likelihood that, if they request inspection, that it won't happen until Monday, which would be a disaster for me.

Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do to expedite the release or even any kind of inspection. Customs has released the cargo, but FDA regulations mean that I can't even open a box until they've decided what they'll do.

So I'm sitting in limbo...

Almost ready for the fair

jason

Today I received a copy of Yuuyake Shimbun, which covered my trip to Portland and printed an article that also looks similar to my press release. The full-color ad looks pretty good in newsprint; I was a little nervous about that since I know newsprint is a little absorbent and tends to have pretty poor dynamic range. The adjustments my designer made for that factor seem to be just about right.

I also sent Maersk a bunch of money to cover customs duties and freight forwarding fees for the first shipment, which Maersk is trying to clear today. Alas, the FDA is reviewing the shipment documents and will either review the documents and release it, or they may take samples, which will cost me more money. I'm just glad I didn't let Yamato route this through Los Angeles or this would be very messy.

There's another shipment due to arrive in Seattle tomorrow which may or may not be cleared in time for the fair.

July 4 I made something of a galette with ricotta, parmesan, rosemary, roasted patty pan squashes, caramelized onions, and spanish almonds. It turned out ok; the patty pan squashes didn't seem as fresh as I had hoped. Anyway, I brought it over to a party in Wallingford right on Lake Union to which Amelia arranged invitations. I saw my graphic designer Jennifer there, and Denise, a dot-com veteran who now works for Microsoft, whose home had been the paddling-off point for the Independence Day party last year. I brought Kazue along also. It turns out that the host works for Expeditors International, so his company may also be useful to arrange air transport for me.

After the fireworks, we spend some time chatting with those who didn't leave straightaway, and then a few of us walked over to another party a few blocks away hosted by a friend of a friend. I was already sleepy, maybe because of the lingering effects of my late night adventure with Yamato. Someone was convinced I was drunk because I was slumped in a chair and relatively unanimated... in fact, I had only consumed one glass of wine the whole evening and it was a couple of hours prior. Christopher, A musician or audio sculptor I've met at previous Amelia-connected events, was there; I've not seen him in quite a while, though I was perhaps too sleepy to appreciate being there. Anyway, we departed around 3am or so, and I finally arrived home after dropping folks off sometime around 3:30 am.

July 5 was a slow day, too. Thanks to two late nights in less than a week, I really didn't wake up at a healthy time of day. I also slept earlier than usual, unwittingly falling asleep on my smaller sofa around 10pm. I'm guessing I'll be overwhelmingly busy over the next couple of days.

Yesterday and today I received the necessary equipment and documentation for processing credit cards, so I should be ready to handle non-cash transactions at the summer festival. I am supposed to get telephone training on how to use a telephone-based card entry system this Friday. I also received the materials for setting up my booth display at the summer festival. They look good, though I'm wondering how the backdrop banner will hold up if we have any wind.

Problems solved

jason

Friday morning I got an account established with Maersk Logistics and I filed the necessary paperwork to allow them to clear my shipment at customs. I was impressed at how on top of things their staff seems to be. They advised me of some corrections needed in the shipping invoice to reduce the risk of being held up at customs, and kept me informed about the status of FDA notification, the anticipated schedule fo transport, and so on. By 6:45 pm I got a confirmation email that the shipment was on its way and they provided an ETA.

Yesterday afternoon in the mail I received a copy of the Chinese newspaper which is carrying my ad. They seem to have given me complimentary spot color... they just decided on areas that they thought should be highlighted. I hope the ad reaches the right audience.

In the afternoon I met with Patrick at the Queen Mary tea shop and restaurant a short stretch from University Village. We tried what turned out to be a green tea from an all-organic Taiwanese farm I met with in Japan, and a moderately fragrant oolong recently added to Queen Mary's collection. I think I wasn't expecting a green tea, since my poor Japanese ability led me to believe all of the products the Taiwanese farm sells are oolongs. Since I haven't consumed a lot of Chinese-style green tea, and since the two teas were so different from each other, I found it hard to compare the two. The tea, called “four seasons-spring,“ was much different in character than any Japanese green teas that I drink.

The actual oolong from Queen Mary's was nice, but a little tannic for my taste and, although much better than average oolong, not quite as fragrant as the one I tried at FoodEx. I'll have to break out the two teas actually labeled oolong to find out if I can reproduce the quality of the ones I tasted when I was at the trade show.

In the evening I met with a Korean woman who is interested in helping me out with the summer festival event, and seems like she'd be a good addition. Long term, she may also be helpful in doing some web design and web marketing for Yuzu Trading Co, as that's close to what her day job is. It turns out she also knows some people that I am connected with, including two people at Azuma Gallery and also Eugene, the MyGreenTea guy. I'm starting to think that Eugene knows everybody...

I was incredibly tired last night because of my relative lack of sleep, and found myself driving back from Bellevue to Seattle in pretty bad shape. I still stayed up a little bit later, which was probably not very smart, but somehow driving that short stretch made me a little wired. Today I'm doing very little work, and I am not doing anything actively leisure-like... just decompressing.

So that's what "logistics nightmare" means

jason

The last three days I've been struggling with my air freight service, Yamato Transport, as they've managed to royally mess up the shipment of my dragon beard candy. They failed to arrange service on June 30 because of China Airlines had some reluctance to handle food shipments to the U.S., and they didn't arrange a backup in time to ship that day, and didn't inform my supplier of the problem until the air cargo offices were closed for the day. July 1, of course, happened to be a public holiday in Hong Kong, and so I heard zero news from Yamato yesterday until evening, when my supplier and I started beating up the Yamato Hong Kong office by telephone and email. By 11 pm here, or about 3 pm Hong Kong time, Yamato had finally gotten some sort of arrangement, but they had been so slow to inform us about what was going on that we didn't trust them to complete the shipment successfully anymore.

Yamato, once they got arrangements confirmed, also neglected to follow my instructions to get the product here as directly as possible, instead trying to route the cargo through Los Angeles and truck it up to Seattle. Since Monday, July 5 is a public holiday in the United States, customs clearance would be unlikely to be complete until at least Wednesday. That means, if all went smoothly, the product would be in my hands on Friday, which is one day before the street fair where I'm debuting the product.

So last night, Dragon Rich, the dragon beard candy maker in Hong Kong, contacted their usual freight forwarder, Maersk, to seek another freight arrangement option in parallel, and by 3 AM Seattle time had made arrangements to transport to Vancouver, BC by air, most likely on Saturday morning Hong Kong time. It should only take four hours or so for the surface transport from Vancouver, so customs clearance on Monday or Tuesday should be the end point of the critical path instead of another two days of surface transport. My supplier's diligence about arranging an alternative was truly impressive and they took some financial risks on my behalf, which I really appreciate.

I dozed off a couple of times between 1 am and 3 am, but around 3:30 or so I was finally able to sleep after the marketing manager in Singapore had clarified the most important details. I got about 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, but at least I have some confidence that my shipment will get here in time.

All of the advertisements were ready to go on Tuesday and some publicity was arranged. On Wednesday, the Northwest Asian Weekly asked me to bring them some other photos for a story they were running, so I went down there and took some product shots. The newspaper came out Thursday morning. It turns out the story is very similar to my press release, so it was kind of a funny experience reading it.