In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.

Managing director, KDK Technology Ltd.


KDK Technology provides a wide range of clients with supply chain management services including project management, design and manufacturing coordination, and logistics services designed to help control or trim production costs. KDK has offices in suburban St. Louis and China. In addition to his role at KDK, Kellmann is the co-author of “White Ghost in China,” a novel inspired by some of his experiences doing business in Asia.

The Mistake:

Not respecting the business process and culture of China.

In my 20s, I had small businesses where I created and sold products. I thought of myself as a prolific inventor. I kept trying to create products, but I didn’t really find a pain point in the consumer’s mind. So I kept failing forward until I created a novelty product, wearable LED lights, with a partner, and they just took off. People were throwing money and orders at us. But I sold that company, moved to China in 2004, and lost most of what I’d made while learning how to deal with other cultures and people.

I was an overconfident American, like many Americans are when they go overseas. The Chinese taught me a lot of lessons about dealing with other cultures and respecting the value of people.

As Americans, we’re always busy and want to go in and get something done right away. Here’s a perfect example: At one point, I had this product I was developing and I went to this medium-sized factory. The people in charge wanted to sit down and have tea. I didn’t respect that and respect the process of how they did business. Instead, I went in there and said, “I need this. How much will it cost? I’ll give you money and be on my way.” I wasn’t wise enough to say to myself, “Sit down. Have tea. Get to know the people a little bit better.” We might sit there for an hour or two and maybe not even talk about what business I wanted to do, but just get to know each other.

I was an overconfident American, like many Americans are when they go overseas.

The Lesson:

I learned I needed to take the time to follow the process. When I didn’t respect the process, I really lost money with a factory because they didn’t care about my product. It took forever to finish a project and there were always a lot of mistakes along the way. They didn’t care about me because I didn’t show I cared about them and their culture. There were many instances where I did this before I realized I needed to slow down, stop being an impatient American and follow their process. There are a lot of factories that are more Westernized now. But, in 2004, the factories I worked with were very traditional. You had to show respect or you wouldn’t get it in return.

Today, when I’m over in China and starting a new project or building a new relationship with a supplier, I take the time to have tea or take them to lunch. You show that a relationship is important through actions, not just money. It makes a world of difference.

Even here in the U.S., and this gets people’s attention, when I hand people a business card, I hand it to them respectfully, with two hands – like you value the information you’re presenting or that you’re being presented. In China, you grab the bottom corners of your business card with two hands and respectfully hand it to someone. Then they take the time to look at it and analyze the information because you are presenting who you are.

I also try to take more time here to get to know people. It really helps me with investments, too. Taking time, being patient, learning about a person and how they work. That’s what it takes to learn what people are good at and what they love in order to put them in a position to succeed – including myself.

That is the biggest lesson that I learned. Once I did, I started to grow my company dramatically and now have enough cash to invest in other startups.

Gary Kellmann is on Twitter at @whiteghost.

Photo courtesy of Gary Kellmann.

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