By Ed Cheney

29 January 2014 - 10:58

One of our English language assistants in China went on to built a bamboo clothing and accessories brand. Photo (c) cheryl flava, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
One of our language assistants went on to build a bamboo clothing and accessories brand. Photo ©

cheryl flava, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The idea to create Mabboo, a sustainable bamboo clothing and accessories brand, came to Ed Cheney in February 2008, during his time as a British Council English language assistant in China. He explains what made his business flourish.

In a break between my classes as a teaching assistant in China, I read an article about bamboo and how it was beginning to be used to create clothing. The fabric was, the article said, exceptionally soft and, because bamboo grows 100% organically, it was much more sustainable than using cotton or poly fibres. I was intrigued, did some research and discovered that bamboo was grown and manufactured in China. I decided I'd need to create a bamboo brand if I was going to consider this as a realistic business proposition.

I started writing anagrams of 'bamboo'. 'Oobmab' was my first attempt - not really a goer. However, my next attempt, 'mabboo', was the simplest anagram of 'bamboo' I could make, and it instantly excited me. I then looked up the character in my Chinese dictionary for bamboo: 竹. I loved how simple also the character was and figured I could make a silhouette of an M inside the character. There I had it – my bamboo brand was born in my room underneath the library of No. 9 middle school, Qingdao! That was the easy part.

Making connections through sport

Sport for me personally was one of the best ways to meet and interact with local people. Early on in my time in China, my language skills were pretty rusty, but sport helped me. I played on my school football team every weekend, which consisted of a handful of teachers and local policemen. The policemen had the best guanxi with the pitch owners to book a pitch to play on (loosely, guanxi means 'connection' or 'trusted relationship', but has several cultural connotations attached to it).

In my first week in China, I attempted to find a bar to watch a Liverpool game, I met a fellow English expat also attempting to watch the game. He happened to be living with a Chinese family but was leaving Qingdao the following week. He insisted on introducing me and two other English language assistants to the family before he left. From that point on, we had a Chinese family in Qingdao who regularly invited us to dinner at their flat to share some incredible food and bags of beer, 'a Qingdao speciality'. They went out of their way to be friendly, and the cultural insights I learnt from them were and are still invaluable to me.

I also made my best business friend while watching Liverpool. He was a huge fan himself. I then discovered he was a textiles agent for several leading UK brands. Mike always encouraged me to approach business sensibly and not get too ahead of myself. His mantra in approaching business is 一步一步 – 'step by step'. Mike still conducts all my quality control in China and we're in regular contact.

What you learn as a teacher

Having the opportunity to live in China to improve my Chinese and make contacts in the local business community helped the business in the long term.

You learn a lot of diplomacy in the classroom. Students make you aware of the limits of what they'll talk to you about. Sensitive topics include Taiwan and Tibet, for example, and learning these sensitivities in the classroom has helped me avoid slipping up and offending my business partners.

Finally, teaching in front of up to 60 kids and singing a Chinese song in front of 2,000 students is more daunting than any business situation I've ever been in, but it prepared me for the business world by teaching me confidence.

How to build a successful business with Chinese partners

I employ two people full-time and five part-time, two of which are based in China. The rest of my team is UK-based. All my manufacturing is done in collaboration with several factories in China. Mabboo’s first order of T-shirts arrived in the UK in October 2010. Initially, we sold through Christmas markets and local retailers as well as online through mabboo.com. We traded at some of the UK’s largest music festivals, won the UWE BizIdea award in June 2011 and were runner-up on the Sky 1 business show ‘The Angel’ in July 2012, competing for £100,000 investment funds. Our first shop opened in November 2012 and three further stores have opened since then.

My advice is to learn about local business customs, as well as cultural customs. This can be very helpful at business functions and at building ‘guanxi’. Talk to as many professionals as you can about their pitfalls of doing business in, or with China.

Each market is very different. You cannot presume a product that does well in the UK will automatically do well in China and vice versa. Much care and attention has to be taken dealing with factories. You have to be meticulous and must never presume that the obvious is also obvious to your supplier.

Eco-consumerism and awareness of sustainable products is not high in Chinese consumers’ consciousness. However, our suppliers are very aware of the ethical practices that must be in place at their factories and how all elements of the supply chain must be as sustainable as possible due to our criteria. Hopefully, as the Chinese economy grows further we’ll see the growth in demand for eco-friendly products.

Choosing local manufacturing partners involved a lot of research initially on the internet. The Chinese website alibaba.com is a fabulous resource for this. I then made a shortlist of suppliers, asked them to prepare samples and met all of them individually. You have to trust your judgement and build a relationship over time with your chosen supplier.

What next for Mabboo

My ambition is to make Mabboo a global brand. Ultimately, I'd love to sell 'coals to Newcastle' or 'tea to China' as it were, and have a retail presence in China. I still feel very attached to the Chinese heritage of the brand. I feel I have a responsibility to alter people's perception of what they wear. The pollution problems and rapid development there have brought the environment to the forefront of policy. China is now investing in some of the most progressive green energies, technology, and products, so hopefully Mabboo can be a part of this.

Applications for the 2017-18 British Council English Language Assistants programme are now open and will close on 28 February 2017. Follow #LanguageAssistant on Twitter for more information.

Hear what current language assistants around the world think of the experience, by watching this series of short films.

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